My brother in law was in town for Thanksgiving, and he had a copy of Unbroken with him. As soon as I saw the book cover, I wondered to myself why I had not yet read it. I had heard great things about the book. I knew that it was a story about WWII and was based in the Pacific. I knew that the author was praised for the book. That was where my knowledge of the book ended. At one point in time, it was on my must read list, but for whatever reason, I had never picked it up.
I asked my wife pick up the book for me at the library You see, we’re a homeschool family… she’s there ALL the time I started reading it, and found it very difficult to put down.
Takeaway: The Christian world outside the US is much more important than what we usually acknowledge
Christian biography and autobiography is an important part of any spiritual growth. Whether you are a reader or not, you need to hear about what others have lived before you. This does not need to be in book form; movies, radio interviews, podcasts, conversations all can be part of the way that we hear from other Christians about their own spiritual lives.
Christian autobiography from non-western Christians is desperately needed to round out a vision of the church that is concerned with more than small bits of theological difference or differences in cultural engagement. Christians around the world right now are being imprisoned for their faith.
I first heard about Brother Yun (as I have about so many good books) fromJohnArmstrong’sblog and I wentbackandreadthem as I finished up this book. It has been nearly 4 years since I first heard about the book, but I just recently got round to reading it. I should have read it much earlier.
This is a biography unlike I have read. It is reminiscent of the autobiography of Brother Andrew (the bible smuggler) I first read as a comic book as pre-teen. Brother Yun, starting when he first became a Christian at 16, was fervent in prayer. He prayed and fasted for 100 days to receive a bible (illegal and very rare in the early 1970s in China) and after 100 days a man brought him a bible. He did not just read it, he memorized large passages of scripture. Within months of receiving the bible he was asked to come preach to a nearby village. He went, but did not know what to say, so he just recited the whole book of Matthew and then the parts of Acts that he had started memorizing.
His story proceeds to tell of how he became a preacher in the underground church movement of China and how he was repeatedly imprisoned, tortured and eventually escaped out of China. Brother Yun now lives in Germany with his family and works to support the church in China.
I am not a fan of apologetics. In general I do not read it and I think primarily the purpose it serves is to help Christians feel comfortable in their faith. I know that over simplifies things, but if even I, who am a long term Christian with a very good theology background see all kinds of logical holes in most apologetics books I do not think it is really going to move a large segment of people to faith. My pastor has said several times, that people rarely have theological issues with God, they have emotional issues with God that they may hide behind theological issues. But when you push, usually the theological questions fall away and the emotional issues come back. So I have been hoping someone would write this book.
Wilkinson starts by asserting that Christianity is nonsense. By that he means that is really is beyond our ability to understand completely through our senses and therefore literally “nonsense” (above the senses). Much of the first half of the book is biographical to help the reader understand the limitations of reason and different ways to talk about Christianity. My favorite part of this section is a discussion about what science and logic can determine. Wilkinson says science and logic are good at understanding the “What” questions. If we ask “Why” questions, “Why is that flower there?”, science is limited in its ability to respond. Science can talk about how it evolved to have those colors or how it fits into the biosphere around it but science and logic cannot really give an answer to Why that does not become circular.
Takeaway: There are no quick fixes for spiritual growth. Growth happens as a result of interaction with the church. That is how God set it up. This is a book that should be read by every seminary student. I have not read a better book on why the church is important to spiritual growth.
Eugene Peterson is as much mentor to me as any other author I have read. I love many authors. But no others really have offered me the deep wisdom and theological meat that Peterson has. I have read many of his books. I think eight in the last two years if my count is right. This recent series of practical theology is something that should be required for all seminary students and none more than this book. I think it is helpful for many Christians, but seminary students in particular would benefit from the long form narrative discussions about what living life as a Christian really is about. Each of the books are about different parts of the Christian life. Eat This Book is about reading scripture. Tell It Slant is about the use of prayer and stories to fully understand how to communicate the gospel. The Jesus Way is about the concept of exclusivity in Christianity. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is about what practical theology is all about.
Practice Resurrection, the most recent in the series, is about developing maturity as a Christian. It is not about spiritual disciplines (he touched on those in Eat This Book) but about what it takes to focus on and really grow as a Christian. This is an area that I think too many books try to talk about and fail. The root problem is that growth as a Christian is not simple, it is not easily talked about and it is not the same for one person as another.
Peterson starts with (and spends a long time discussing) the church. And he is clear, as messy and uncomfortable a place as the church is (not can be, is), growth as a Christian cannot happen away from the church. He follows that thought through from a variety of angles. Essentially almost a full half of the book talks about how the church is the root of growth in Christ. I think this emphasis is important particularly for those that work in the church world and for those that would like to leave the church world (and even more for those that are in both groups.)
The essence of the book is wrapped up in a short section on works. Peterson says, “Fundamentally, works are not what we do. We are the work that God does. We are God’s workmanship.” This leads to a very good section on work (our daily regular 40 hour a week type of work). Peterson is very concerned that we do not spiritualize our work or romanticize our work. This section is very good for those in the church world. It speaks strongly about the fact that work is hard, it is not always rewarding, it is not always fulfilling, but it is incarnational. I think this balances an improper teaching in the church that says “if you are in the work God has for you it will be easy.”
As always, Peterson is eminently biblical. No book of his that I have read is not at heart a theological explication of a particular passage. For Practice Resurrection, that passage is the book of Ephesians. And he spends a lot of time working through the scripture of Ephesians. If you want to learn how to think about learning from scripture and applying it, there are few pastors that I have heard that come anywhere close to the skill of interacting with and applying scripture as does Peterson.
To me Peterson is one of the saints that is along the road ahead of us. When we follow them, it is not about raising up Peterson, but about Peterson pointing to Christ. Read this book.
This is a book that I think almost everyone with a kindle should pick up. It is short, most people will read it in less than 2 hours. It is a quick read with lots of quotable ideas (somewhat similar in feel to Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier).
The basic idea is that as Christians one way that we change the world, or really just act like Christians, is to give grace to everyone around us.
There are a couple reasons for this, one is because of the grace that we have been shown by Christ. But most of the rest of the reasons are really pragmatic. Reasons like, we are imperfect so we need grace from others, it makes good business sense, it is a great way to diffuse tense situations. If anything it is too pragmatic. I get that there really are good pragmatic reasons for giving grace. But another chapter of theological reasons would have made sense to me. As Christians we can do things for pragmatic reasons, but if we have theological reasons for doing the same thing, then I think our theological reasons should take precedence. Not out of theological intellectualism, but out of an attempt at living Christianly. I think too often we live life without the help of God. In giving grace, we cannot live without God’s help. We are sinful, we will not give grace without the help of God. I think in his sections on how to give grace, Foster acknowledges the role of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in our movement toward grace, I just wish there was a bit more in the why grace section.
Another weakness is that there is really not a great definition of grace. It is fairly clear that he is not talking about Salvific Grace when he is talking about the grace we give to others. But more incarcerational grace, the living out of Christ to others. This could be called kindness, humility or love, but I appreciated that he kept with the more theological term grace. But I do wish he was a bit more explicit about what he meant by the giving of grace.
In the end, in spite of the weaknesses, I think this is a needed message. Christians need to be known for their grace. Instead we are often known for our judgement (or honestly what is mostly just meanness.) Christ was harsh at times with those among the religious of his day. But he was full of grace for the downtrodden, the outcasts and those without power. I think we need to be more filled with humility (a pre-requisite of grace) if we are going to really reach out to those that still need Christ.
Originally this was $0.99 on kindle. I still recommend it. But it is not nearly the deal that it was at the previous price.
The next section of this book switches back to the rise of the western church as it separates from the East. A good section is devoted to the work and writings of Augustine. Much of what we in the west think of as traditional theology really was originated or strongly developed by Augustine. Augustine, like most theologians was a pastor first and was responding to the needs of those around him. A significant need was a theological understanding of how a good God could allow Rome to be sacked. After all, Rome was the head of a Christian empire and it was being defeated by pagans (or in some cases Arian Christians). Other areas where Augustine significantly influenced theology were in the concept of the Trinity (he had the first definitive western work), the relationship of the church and the world in his City of God, but probably most important was his concept of grace and election in the context of depravity of humanity. For Augustine, sin transfer (depravity) was the result of the sexual transmission and birth process. It is not too strong to suggest that for Augustine, sin was a sexually transmitted disease in our modern understanding of the term. Tying sex, birth and sin together has had long term consequences for the western church.
This book has made Wikipedia my friend. I am frequently listening as I doing data entry or some other intellectually light tasks. And while I have a decent grasp of historical theology, I have made use of Wikipedia a number of times to get brief backgrounds on different heresies or theological trends being discussed. I had a class in grad school called, “Introduction to Christian Thought, 500-1300 AD”. In general I liked the class, but it was oriented to the thought, not the history that gave rise to the thought. This book might be too much the other way. In his attempt to cover an enormous amount of ground very quickly, this book focuses on the history and occasionally gives too cursory a look at the background of the thought as it is speeding through the history.
I have to admit that I really did not know who RC Sproul was when I picked up this book. Honestly, I still have not looked into him more than just a brief wikipedia entry. I thought he was one of those classic Christian writers that was no longer with us. I obviously have not listened to his daily radio program and while he is 71, he is still a pastor in Florida. He is a bit younger than my grandparents.
This book is very readable. Sproul is not at all stuffy in his presentation of the Holiness of God. He compares the Holiness of God to the terror we feel at horror movies at one point. And while he clearly skirts around a while (it is not until the fourth chapter that he first attempts a definition of what he means by holiness), he is not meandering, instead he is trying to carefully build on his argument.
It is writing and presentations like this that make me want to pay more attention to Reformed Theology. I find myself agreeing when I am listening but disagreeing when I think about it later. Not everything by any means. The vast majority of this book I think is very good. But the section on mercy and justice is unsatisfying for me. He turns it into a discussion about why we are all deserving of justice, but some are given mercy, so we should rejoice. I get that, but does not help on why some receive mercy and some do not. We all complain when we see some (usually rich, famous or powerful) getting mercy in the justice system while others (usually poor, minority and not powerful) receive justice. We know that for justice to mean anything it has to be just. If only he had said, “some seem to receive mercy and some do not, and I do not know why.” I would be satisfied. I am OK with admitting we do not know something about God. My problem is when we claim to know something and that something is so unsatisfying that I get frustrated. I do agree with his end point there, that if it comes from God it cannot be injustice, it can only be mercy or justice.
In general I appreciate the book and I am learning from it. But there is just a slight offness to it that seems like it is almost right, but not quite. I know that will label me as not Reformed. I am not. But I do appreciate many of the contributions that Reformed theology has brought, especially lately to the church.
I am linking below to some of the discussion from Tim Challies’ blog:
I have been meaning to read Plan B for quite a while. I recieved a copy as part of my Catalyst Experience pack earlier this year and it was put into my To Be Read pile. I knew that when the book originally came out, instead of having time to promote the book Pastor Pete Wilson was dealing with an historic flood in his hometown of Nashville. During the week that the book came out 40 families in the church and hundreds of other families in the community had significant flood damage. Cross Point Church helped clean 400 homes and mobilize more than 2000 separate volunteers during the first week after the flood.
While I think it is unlikely that he would have chosen the flood as a publicity tool, the fact that he had scraped his plans for book promotion and worked on the flood, probably ended up with more promotion than he would have had originally.
I thought the book started a bit slow. It over and over showed how people do not get what they originally wanted for themselves. Intrinsically, we all know that. As much as we make plans, we know people that did everything right, made the plans, did the work and still had things go badly.
By chapter 10 there was a turning point for me. The book became more cross focused. Wilson used the example of his kids’ love of fruit snacks. We all know that fruit snacks are a treat, not a food group. God wants for us what is healthy, not just the snack. In Exodus, God offered Moses success leading the people. But during and exchange in Exodus 33, Moses resists success if it means that he does not have God. That for me is the turning point. If we are after our plan A instead of God, then we will never be satisfied.
Later in the book Wilson quotes Mark Batterson: “I tend to live the way I drive. I want to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time and by the easiest rout possible. But I’ve come to realize that getting where God wants me to go isn’t nearly as important as becoming who God wants me to be in the process. And God seems to be far less concerned with where I’m going than who I’m becoming.” This really is the point of the book. Wilson wants us to understand that we all feel hurt when things do not go according to plan. And we may not ever be able to explain why something happened the way it did, but God’s focus in on moving us through the process, not on the goals that we are focused on.
I am increasingly concerned that we as a Christian church are more interested in right belief than in transformation. The importance of this book is that Pete Wilson does not think that right belief will solve our problems. Only trusting in God and learning to depend on him in our weakness will really lead to transformation.
This is not a 5 steps to dealing with your problems book. Much like Anne Jackson’s Permission to Speak Freely (my review), it ends without a nice little bow. We will not always get what we want, that does not mean God does not love us. God loves us, so he will walk with us through the disappointment.
Here is the video trailer to get a good idea of the focus of the book.
(This is the first book I have reviewed that had a trailer.)
There are many books out there about sex, even a lot of books about sex oriented toward Christians. There are not many that are about how to have a healthy view of sex as a Christian. Sex, Lies and Religion will be uncomfortable for many to read. It is about sex, the lies that religion and culture tell us about sex and how God has created sex, not just for pleasure and procreation, but as a teaching tool to show us how God wants to be intimate with us and desired by us.
I have two clear teaching points about sex that I can think about. These are not the bird and bees discussions. I had those too, but instead these two discussions were about what to think about sex. When I was in early high school (sophomore?), Charlie Peacock released an album called Love Life. I remember talking with my Mom about the fact that a large Christian bookstore chain would not carry the album because it included the line “they were naked and unashamed” (the song was Kiss Me Like a Woman). Apparently the decisions makers did not get the biblical reference. Or Charlie Peacock’s point that we need to have more Christian expressions of positive sexuality, within marriage, to counteract the negative expressions of sexuality outside of marriage. My Mom though that the song was a beautiful expression of sexuality and disagreed with the decision. A second teaching point came as a pastoral intern during seminary, when my supervising pastor has a conversation with me about how uncomfortable some of the music we were singing in church made him. It used language that was too intimate and showed too much desire. He clearly thought there were sexual overtones to the music. I disagreed for pretty much the same reasons. I thought there were some sexual overtones to the music and thought that not only was it appropriate, but it illistrated the type of desire we should have for Christ and the church.
Randy Elrod’s book follows in that vein, celebrating the goodness of sex (God created it so it must be good), while dealing with the fact that many people are uncomfortable with sexuality. I think that this book should be discussed. Depending on the small group and their willingness to be open, it might be too intimate to discuss in small groups. But if there are any books that you should read together with your spouse, this is one of them. The book is divided into three sections: Sex, Lies (about sex) and Religion.
The opening section was what might make people most uncomfortable. There was a good discussion on masturbation and another on the purpose of sex. The second section, Lies, is probably organizationally the weakest of the three sections, although has great content. It deviated from the other two sections and was more scattered. The third section, Religion, was the most theologically oriented. The best parts were when he was trying to talk about why sex shows us to be intimate with God. I do wish he had relied a bit more on some of the theologians from the Middle Ages. Many of them were writing about similar themes and it would have grounded the teaching a bit more in historical theology.
Overall this was a good contribution to the Christian world I hope it sells well and it can help to counteract some bad teaching on sexuality.
Sex, Lies and Religion by Randy Elrod comes out on Feburary 14, 2010. You can pre-order here or if you have a kindle you can buy now.
Disclosure: I received this book free as a digital advanced copy (a PDF file that I converted to read on my kindle.)