Between Belief and Unbelief

When Faith FailsIf you’ve spent any time in the church, you may have grown uncomfortable with certain things that you see there. Aside from certain social issues that have emerged to the forefront in the recent past, there are other things that have irked people who find themselves struggling to make sense of what they know of God, what they read in the Bible, and what they experience in their daily lives. The juxtaposition of those three things is rarely as well-fitting as puzzle pieces but might rather feel more like the jagged edges of glass or pottery that were shattered and are now trying to be mended and put back together again.

Dominic Done steps into a difficult and sometimes controversial topic in his book “When Faith Fails.” He addresses doubt, a subject which has been avoided in some camps and embraced in others. Rather than taking the approach that it is bad, wrong, or sinful, Done instead recognizes it for what it is, “an opportunity for authentic and vibrant faith.”

Done divides the book into three sections: Far From Home, Exploring the Terrain, and Coming Home. Far From Home addresses how we got here to this point of doubt, wrestling with our faith. Exploring the Terrain seeks to find hope in life’s hardest questions. Coming Home deals with moving through doubt in pursuit of deep faith.

In the Far From Home section, Done is quick to correct those who may want to live or expect to live with complete and total certainty. He says that in seeking total certainty, we lose the beauty of mystery. As he puts it, “If all we value is explanation, we lose the joy of exploration.” He spends the section vying for a healthy doubt and trying to promote is as normal and an everyday part of life.

Doubt, as Done sees it, is living in the world in between belief and unbelief. It is a moment of tension, living somewhere in between. It is the place that stands in stark contrast to the Lego gospel which says that everything is awesome, because life is hard, tragic, and people sometimes suffer. It is the place you come to when everything you thought was supporting you and holding you up disintegrates.

As “When Faith Fails” unfolds in these pages, Done shares insights and wisdom, but he does it with care, compassion, and sensitivity. There are plenty of helpful phrases that he shares, none of which felt contrived or cliche to me. For instance, “God doesn’t demand that we understand him, but he does ask that we trust him.” And, “You can believe without doubting, but you can’t doubt without believing.”

The Exploring the Terrain section contains an apologetic for the Bible. Can we trust it? As he walks through this section, he helpfully tells the reader that we might need to change our approach and view of the Bible. Rather than looking at it through modern or postmodern eyes, Done suggests we see it for what it is, “an eccentric, weird, difficult, challenging, inspiring, inviting, paradigm-disrupting book that, page by page, story by story, culminates in the person of Jesus.”

Done also asks in this section whether science is the enemy of faith. As he sees it, faith and science are not enemies, but different sides to the same picture. He writes, “Science only tells us part of the story. It reveals and enriches our perception of reality; opening our eyes to the complexity and splendor of the world. But it cannot tell us why it takes our breath away.”

While many in the world of religion see science as the enemy and many in the field of science see religion as incompatible with science, there are others who live in the tension of both, scientists who are theologians and who embrace both sides.

Theodicy, the problem of pain and suffering, and the silence of God are also addressed by Done. He doesn’t throw trite answers at any of the questions he poses. He also doesn’t give packaged responses that fail to address what is at the heart of these questions and issues. If I could describe the approach in one way, it would be embracing the tension of the in between. So, if you are seeking a beautiful resolution like a thirty minute sitcom, you should probably go somewhere else.

As Done moves into the third and final section, one of the most memorable recommendations that he makes to the reader is to, “do the hard work to put yourself in a place where the truth can find you.” He recommends seeking out community because it is in community that we are shaped, formed, and that we learn. Rather than seeing community as a provider of resources to be consumed, we should see it as a family to invest in. Even as we look at Scripture, Done says, we should see it as active participation in the unfolding of a story that tells us we are all in this together. The community of the church is the place where broken people should discover that they are not alone.

Done does a great job of encouraging his readers to embrace doubt with purpose and intent. While some doubt dogmatically challenging anyone to prove those doubts false, Done recommends an approach that seeks to learn and understand, not completely, but adequately.

I have encountered a number of people within the church over the years who have been so adamantly against doubt that you would think they were afraid of the outcome had they embraced it. I wish that I had encountered a book like “When Faith Fails” a long time ago, I would have felt less awkward and much more affirmed when I found myself in that in between world.

The approach that Done recommends with doubt is very much the approach that is modeled by David in the Psalms. He started with his honest doubts, questions, and concerns, but he always came back to God, who he was, what he had done, and what he had promised to do in the future.

If you have wrestled with doubts and questions, this book won’t give you quick and easy answers, but it will help you to know that you are not alone nor is there something wrong with you. Instead, Done brings encouragement to his readers to embrace the tension and continue on the journey with expectation, anticipation, and mystery. If you can live with the tension, then “When Faith Fails” may just be the book to help encourage you through it.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Irresistible Faith – A Book Review

irresistible faithMany people are familiar with the quote attributed to Gandhi that, “I like your Jesus but I don’t like your Christians.” For centuries, it seems that one of the greatest apologetics against Christianity has been the body of Christ, who have misrepresented him and, “created a public relationship nightmare for the movement that he began through his death, burial, and resurrection.”

Into this, Scott Sauls brings his latest book, “Irresistible Faith.” Sauls is calling the body of Christ to be a better representation of who we are called to be in this world. If we begin to live in such a way that our faith is irresistible, perhaps the apologetic might turn around and instead of dissuading people from Christianity, they might see something in us so compelling that it will be irresistible.

Sauls splits the book into three parts: abiding in the Irresistible Christ, belonging to an irresistible community, and becoming an irresistible Christian. He calls Christians to seek out ways to distinguish themselves from the world in which we live. His call isn’t to completely sequester ourselves or hole ourselves up and practicing avoidance at all costs. Sauls points us to a place of savoring Christ rather than the things that the world has to offer.

He isn’t condemning the things of the world, he is simply condemning the loving and savoring them over Christ. He writes, “Possessing what the world has to offer only become problematic when possessing what the world has to offer starts to possess us.” Saul uses the example of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings books, a creature who had once been a simple Hobbit but who had been overcome with a lust for his “precious” that turned him into something like Hobbit-like.

Sauls also calls his readers to belong to an irresistible community. This has been a problem for many people as their experience of the church, the body of Christ, has been less than desirable. Rather than experiencing a place of welcome, warmth, and love, they have experienced a place of judgment, backbiting, and abandonment.

But we were created for community, Sauls writes, “not for isolation; for interdependence, not for autonomy; for relational warmth and receptivity, not for relational coldness and distance.” When God created Adam, he knew that it was not good for him to be alone. We also see that the community that existed from eternity past within the three persons of the Trinity has been extended outwards to those whom God has created in his own image.

There is acknowledgment of the imperfections of the church, but Sauls casts vision of what the church could be. “If all our Christian communities and churches were sold out to this one simple practice – to only speak words that make souls stronger – I wonder how many spiritually disengaged people would start wanting to engage. I wonder how many religious skeptics would want to start investigating Christianity instead of keeping their distance from its claims and its followers.” That kind of community would be compelling and irresistible to those who can encounter the opposite over and over again within the world.

Being in community means opening ourselves up to accountability and confrontation. Those things need to be done with loving intentions and humility. We are all imperfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from calling each other out with the right intentions. We should treat each others, “as fellow sinners who are on a journey right alongside us. We move together toward perfection, being animated by God who is faithful to complete the work that he began in us.”

Lesslie Newbigin once wrote that movements towards the new creation that God is seeking to create can only happe, “when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” This is the beginning of Saul’s third section of the book, how we become irresistible Christians.

We move towards becoming irresistible Christians as we treasure the poor, as we embrace our work, and as we leave things better than we have found them. Sauls is calling his readers to the work of biblical justice, being about the things that God is about. He doesn’t mince words, telling Christians that if the only faith people see is a doctrinal skeleton without the flesh and muscle that carry that doctrine out, then we have a malnourished faith which is sick or dead.

Sauls encourages a work ethic that makes no sacred and secular distinction. He is not promoting an ideology that only those who find themselves employed full-time in some kind of ministry position or organization are the only legitimate ministers. Instead, he calls Christians to the words of the Apostle Paul who said that we should do everything, no matter what it is, as if we are doing it unto the Lord.

Finally, rather than embracing a twisted and distorted theology that “it’s all gonna burn up anyway,” Sauls encourages Christians to leave things better than they have found them. While many have claimed that we can attain perfection and create a better world apart from Christ, Sauls says that the only way that we can achieve this is through the power of God. He casts a vision for what could be if Christians were to live differently.

“Irresistible Faith” is a call to action. Sauls is not simply suggesting that right theology will get us to a place where we are on track to better represent Christ. He is calling Christians to let their theology be evident in what they do, what they say, and how they act in this world. He is really calling Christians to step up to be who we are supposed to be rather than who we have become.

If you want to be challenged and called to action, then you will appreciate Saul’s work here. If you want to continue to live a life that seems no different than those around you who have no faith to speak of, then this book is probably one to avoid. If we heed the call that Sauls puts out here, I think we could see a real “turning of the ship” when it comes to how the world sees and perceives the body of Christ who is supposed to be representing him in this world.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Faith Among the Faithless – A Book Review

faith among the faithlessOne of the most difficult things that I have found when reading the Bible is remembering to look at the contents based on context of both writers and readers (or hearers). I often find myself jumping right to how what I read applies to me today rather than processing just how the original readers received it. When I do this, I miss some significant pieces of the story and, frankly, it’s a fairly self-consumed and overall selfish reading without gaining the benefits of exploring context.

Mike Cosper’s book “Faith Along the Faithless” takes the ancient story of Esther and connects it to the world we now live in. He retells the story and fills in some of the details that might be missed on a perfunctory reading. In looking at this ancient story, Cosper sees many lessons that modern day Christians can learn and apply to their own lives.

Cosper tells the reader that this modern, secular age has had a profound impact on the church. As he moves through the story, he reminds the reader that this story is much less like Veggie Tales or the flannelgraph Sunday school versions of Esther that we may have heard and is much more like Game of Thrones. Deception. Betrayal. Conspiracy. Murder.

Esther was not the squeaky clean poster child that Sunday school teachers have sometimes portrayed. Esther and Mordecai were Jews living in Babylon. They’ve been assimilated and it’s become hard to tell the difference between Jews and Babylonians, very similar to our current situation.

Cosper intertwines his retelling of this story amidst his own thoughts and commentary. He makes references to the portions of the Book of Esther to which he is referring. This is a helpful reference for the reader who wants to be more thorough in looking at the biblical account while reading Cosper’s retelling.

My interest in this book was more about Cosper’s digging deeper into the story than it was seeing the comparisons to modern day. His overall connection to the exilic story of the Bible was good, I didn’t feel like he was trying to take the story and overlay the lessons that he was hoping or trying to teach. He gave the lessons in context and then made the leap to apply them today.

I appreciate good storytellers who are able to accentuate with added detail when they tell stories. Cosper does that well here with the story of Esther. I appreciated this book and even think that I may go back and refer to it in any future dealings with Esther or even reread it as a reminder. It’s a worthwhile read and the lessons that Cosper takes from the story of Esther and applies to today are definitely worth considering.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Love Thy Body – A Book Review

Love-thy-Body-Nancy-PearceyIn the introduction to “Love Thy Body,” Nancy Pearcey writes about her exposure to Francis Schaeffer’s books and the metaphor he used in them regarding truth. Schaeffer used the metaphor of the two stories of a building to compare our culture’s approach towards truth. Schaeffer’s metaphor went something like this, “In the lower story is empirical science, which is held to be objectively true and testable…The upper story is the realm of morality and theology, which are treated as private, subjective, and relative.” This two story approach is the framework for the rest of Pearcey’s book as she makes constant reference to it in the chapters that follow.

Tackling issues such as abortion, euthanasia, identity, and sexuality, Pearcey applies Schaeffer’s metaphor to show just how this approach towards truth and morality has influenced the worldview of everyone, including Christians. Pearcey claims that this body/person dichotomy denigrates the body and, “is the unspoken assumption driving secular views on euthanasia, sexuality, homosexuality, transgenderism, and a host of related ethical issues.”

Pearcey carries this dichotomy out to its logical ends to paint a fairly frightening picture of where we are going as a culture and society. When we change the definition of a person, we move towards removing the rights of people who still deserve rights, regardless of whether or not they can mentally make decisions for themselves. We also take away things that should be stable and make them flimsy social constructs.

The personhood theory that Pearcey outlines in “Love Thy Body” is a theory and philosophy that claims that people can disassociate their emotions from their bodies. This claim and theory influences a person’s viewpoint of themselves and allows them to disassociate feelings from body, the two story approach that Schaeffer put forth in his writings. Pearcey claims that this kind of disassociation leads to an embrace of many things such as same-sex identity and transgenderism. Pearcey writes, “The person who adopts a same-sex identity must disassociate their sexual feelings from their biological identity as male or female – implicitly accepting a two-story dualism that demeans the human body. Thus is has a fragmenting, self-alienating effect on the human personality.”

The two story approach divorces feelings from biological reality. Regarding transgenderism, Pearcey writes that transgender advocates, “deny that gender identity is rooted in biology. Their argument is that gender is completely independent of the body.” When we embrace this approach, we disconnect identity from the body.

The disconnection of mind from body leads to an embrace of the thinking of philosophers like Nietzsche who said, “There are no eternal facts as there are no absolute truths” and “Facts do not exist, only interpretations.” The irony of statements like these are that they contradict themselves as they themselves are absolutes and facts, based on what Nietzsche puts forth.

This two story approach also impacts sex. When we disconnect mind from body, we reduce sex to a physical urge to be fulfilled rather than a connection between two people representing a deeper spiritual and theological significance. Sex is about more than biological drives and needs, but also about the communion between persons.

While most people may not claim that they embrace this ideology, Pearcey writes that the, “most powerful worldviews are the ones we absorb without knowing it. They are the ideas nobody talks about – the assumptions we pick up almost by osmosis.” Unintentionally, we may be embracing these ideologies and allowing them to impact and influence our worldview. Pearcey goes on to say that a, “person’s morality is always derivative. It stems from his or her worldview. To be effective, we have to engage the underlying worldview.”

This division of mind and body, the two story approach as Schaeffer suggests, leads to biological facts being abandoned and disregarded as social constructs. Postmodernism leads to the disconnection of morality from nature, it grounds gender and other biological realities in our minds and feelings rather than in science.

With the condemnation of this type of thinking, Pearcey is quick to remind her readers that the church still has a tall responsibility. “Even as churches clearly communicate the moral truths of Scripture,” she writes, “they must also become places of refuge for victims of the sexual revolution who have been hurt by its lies.” Christians cannot simply judge and criticize without offering support for people who are struggling to make sense of this mind/body dualism. If grace is not offered throughout this wrestling, then the church is doing something wrong.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Pearcey, “Love Thy Body” is an important read. Her careful analysis of science is much more grounded than other writings that have tended towards an emphasis on unstable feelings rather than biological realities. Pearcey’s voice is a breath of fresh air in tumultuous times. She never comes across as chastising or condemning, but genuinely offers concrete information to deconstructing the dualistic postmodern approach to truth and morality.

This book is rich in information. It’s not a book to read through quickly. The content needs to be ingested, wrestled with, and unpacked to get a deeper understanding of what Pearcey is saying but also to really begin to see some of the absurdity of where these theories end when they are brought to their natural conclusions and even how scary those conclusions are for everyone as those conclusions will most certainly lead to impacting everyone.

Christian or not, I believe this is an important book to be read with an open mind.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Why I Didn’t Rebel – A Book Review

why i didn't rebelA good percentage of Christian parents wonder what will happen once their children grow up and leave the house. Some of them worry that regardless of how well they have done in raising their children, there is the inevitability of rebellion of some kind or another. Is it as inevitable as some parents think? Is this kind of defeatist mentality destined to become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Can rebellion be avoided?

Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach addresses these questions and more in her book, “Why I Didn’t Rebel.” As a young adult who has managed to avoid rebellion, she writes from her own experience and shares not only that experience but the experiences of others, both good and bad. Lindenbach mixes her experiences, the experiences of others, and the insights of some professionals as well as she tries to disprove that rebellion is as inevitable as many have made it out to be.

From the start, Lindenbach defines rebellion as not necessarily rebellion against parents or earthly authority but against God. She says that questioning authority is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s where that questioning leads people that’s important. In her own experience, that questioning led her to come to her own conclusions in a healthy and constructive manner.

Much of what Lindenbach shares in “Why I Didn’t Rebel” is about contrasts. She shares some extreme cases that have resulted in wayward children. When rules are embraced over reasons, children have rebelled. Reasons encourage growth and personal responsibility versus rules simply mandating behavior. This kind of behavior management is about performance rather than heart.

Lindenbach shares that communication is essential as well. Opening lines of communication between parents and children is essential. The intention of that communication needs to be about getting to know your children rather than simply getting information from them. When parents create space for their kids to share openly without fear of repercussion, the likelihood of rebellion was diminished.

Healthy and reasonable expectation setting was also important to Lindenbach and many of those whose experiences she shares. A willingness of parents to admit not only their own faults and imperfections but also the faults and imperfections of their children was important to avoid rebellion. Parents who had unreasonable expectations for their children would often raise children whose own self-awareness was so skewed that rebellion seemed inevitable as well.

It’s hard to refute the logical way that Lindenbach shares her information. Multiple times while reading “Why I Didn’t Rebel” I felt as if she was oversimplifying things. After all, Lindenbach is writing from her own experience of being raised as a child, not from raising children of her own. It’s easy to retrospectively look back and speculate on the reasons and rationale for why a child turned out the way that they did. It’s a completely different thing to speak from the experience of having raised children who didn’t rebel.

It would have added a different perspective to this book had Lindenbach’s own parents offered some insights along the way. Although her mom is an author and blogger herself, she shares no insights in the book. While Lindenbach may have avoided adding her mom’s voice in order to establish herself, I think her mom’s voice may have added validity to the opinions and views that she shares throughout this book.

That’s not to say that “Why I Didn’t Rebel” isn’t worth the read. I thought it was worth the read. Lindenbach’s voice is not the only one shared here, as mentioned before. She offers insights from others who have and who have not rebelled. She also offers the insights from psychologists and others who had a professional perspective.

A lot of what Lindenbach shares in “Why I Didn’t Rebel” aligns with the research done by the Fuller Youth Institute that led to the Sticky Faith movement. That bodes well for “Why I Didn’t Rebel.” In some ways, “Why I Didn’t Rebel” felt like a more organic version of “Sticky Faith.”

For anyone seeking to steer around the rebellion that may seem inevitable for their children, “Why I Didn’t Rebel” is worth the read. Lindenbach does adequate research and presents enough practical experience of her own and her peers to prove that rebellion may be much more avoidable than they have believed.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

A Book Review of “One” by Deidra Riggs

one deidra riggsThe back cover of “One” reads, “Our world needs fewer walls and more bridges. Be a bridge builder.”

It seems that’s exactly what Deidra Riggs is promoting in her book. she makes a case for Christians not necessarily having missed the boat on the gospel as much as we have missed the boat on our understanding of love in the kingdom of God. We are divided within the church and our example and witness hardly seems consistent when we talk about a God who accomplishes the impossible.

Riggs writes, “As members of the body of Christ, our language and cultural differences and our music and sermon length preferences seem like weak and empty reasons for separating ourselves from one another and thinking it’s okay to do so.” We have separated and segregated ourselves, sequestering ourselves in homogenous communities, churches, and other places. Riggs indicts Christians as having chosen, “churches and faith communities that envelop us in the comfort of people who look like us, think like us, vote like us, and dream like us.”

We’ve chosen to divide ourselves by our issues rather than looking past them to our commonalities. Our differences seem to be the one thing that our God can’t seem to conquer, at least in our own minds. We don’t work to move past these things because of the potential mess and discomfort that would be involved. Instead of looking to understand differences in ideas, opinions, and viewpoints, we choose instead to turn them into lines in the sand. Riggs writes, “…distilling a moment in a person’s journey to categories – pro-life or pro-choice, criminal or upstanding citizen, sinner or saint – limits out ability to let God be God in the life of that person.” She adds later, “When the people on the other side of our argument become our enemies, and we identify them as such, we have let our argument become our idol.”

“A faith that uses Jesus to justify any type of division, prejudice, injustice, or superiority needs to be examined and brought back into alignment with the truth of Christ’s message of good news.” We can’t remove our call to love our neighbors from the message of Jesus Christ. While that may feel uncomfortable, justifying our division, as Riggs says, needs to be evaluated in light of that message.

Riggs is incredibly honest about her own part in this. She admits her struggle and candidly shares of her own story. She is not perfect and never comes across as such. She admits, “When I mistake my position on an issue as being critical to my identity, I’ve let these differences stand between me and others in the body of Christ.”

We often struggle when we don’t fully understand from where someone is coming. Our lack of understanding, or ignorance, should be no excuse for downplaying how someone experiences something that is completely foreign to us. Instead, we need to lean into the relationship to try our best to understand where the other person is coming from. We cannot dictate how a person should or should not respond to a situation, especially when they’re coming to it from a completely different perspective or viewpoint than us.

When it comes to racial divides, It’s inappropriate for white people to be telling black people to “get over it” or “move on from the past” when the past continues to rear its ugly head and prove that it’s not as far back in the past as we’ve made it seem. Love and understanding need to be our primary goal when we encounter these situations that divide us. In fact, downplaying and diminishing the experiences of others in the midst of this will actually increase the divisions that already exist.

So much of what Riggs shares speaks to my heart. I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the past months exploring the issue of division and race. There is a tension that I feel though as I read “One” and I keep trying to put my finger on just what it is. Is it my own discomfort in having to change my ways or is it a discomfort in something that just feels wrong or different?

Riggs writes, “If we let our convictions take the place of Jesus in our lives, we could very well be standing in the way of the same Holy Spirit with whom we profess to be filled.” As I read this, I’m trying to understand just what Riggs wants us to do with our convictions. Isn’t it the Holy Spirit who gives us those convictions? How can the convictions that we have received from the Holy Spirit stand in the way of the Holy Spirit himself?

Of course, we can easily be reminded of the story of Peter in Acts having a vision of animals that had been called “unclean” to him coming down from heaven while he heard a voice telling him to eat. His own convictions ended up being wrong because God had expanded the menu. As Riggs writes, hiding behind spiritual convictions to justify our own prejudices is unacceptable.

I read Riggs’ arguments as being specifically pertaining to the racial divide that we see within the church, but there are times when I wonder if she’s moving past that to other areas that are seemingly dividers within the church. While she never explicitly mentions it, it’s hard not to think about the current state of the church in America and some of the other divisions that we see over convictions and the interpretation of those convictions. While I don’t condone unloving or ungodly prejudices, there is a tension that we will feel as followers of Christ when we hold to conviction of sin while still loving our neighbors, regardless of where they stand.

I may be reading too deeply into what Riggs has written and my own bias may be expanding her arguments past what her intentions were. Despite my discomfort with my interpretation of what Riggs is saying, I applaud her for speaking into this topic of division and race with such conviction and raw honesty. What she offers in “One” is an opportunity to engage a difficult subject by someone who has been far more impacted by it than I have and whose understanding can help me with my own.

“One” is an opportunity to begin to understand, especially if you are like me and are coming at the issue of racial division within the church from one who is not the minority. I would encourage you to hear what Deidra Riggs has to say. Let it challenge you, but more importantly, let it move you.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Unparalleled – A Book Review

unparalleledWe live in a world where anything goes when it comes to beliefs. It’s okay for you to believe in what you believe as long as it works for you and doesn’t negatively impact me. The problem when we embrace this is that we can quickly devolve into people who lack any real conviction, who aren’t quite sure what they believe, and who don’t legitimately think for ourselves when it comes to our beliefs.

In the area of beliefs and faith, Christians have always spoken about the uniqueness of their faith. When confronted with the idea that all paths lead to God, Christians will swiftly respond by saying that Christianity is unique as it stands in the lineup alongside all of the other major world religions. Jared Wilson takes this idea a step further in his book “Unparalleled” by saying that the uniqueness of Christianity is also the thing that makes it so compelling.

Out of the gate, Wilson writes that, “Christianity has never made converts primarily by winning arguments but rather by capturing hearts.” Although this book falls into the category of apologetics, Wilson isn’t out to win arguments, he is convinced that the truths of Christianity will be as compelling for others as they have been for him. He writes with a style that doesn’t beat down, but gently leads along.

Throughout “Unparalleled” Wilson hits on some of the main, unique tenets of Christianity. He writes about the Trinity, the three persons of God, speaking to their uniqueness and how the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit give us a better understanding of our own human need for connection and intimacy.

Wilson writes of the uniqueness of Jesus, asking the question as to whether the God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is the same God. He arrives at the conclusion that, “…to worship God at the exclusion of Jesus is to worship another god altogether.” For those who are seeking to be more inclusive, this conclusion will not be very appealing. Wilson goes on to write, “If one does not affirm that Jesus is God, one does not worship the same God as Christians.” It is through the uniqueness of Christ that we understand the essence of Christianity and the salvation that is offered.

We are all created in the image of God, and that, Wilson says, should impact the way that we look at others. Not only should it impact the way that we look at others, but is should also impact how we treat others as well. He writes, “Human life is sacred because God created it in his own image.” But Wilson is quick to point out, acknowledge, and confess that, “There have been too many prominent examples of professing Christians treating others as less-than-human.” In other words, while this is how we should act and view others, we certainly don’t always get it right. I appreciated this admission and the humility behind it.

Wilson covers the idea of grace, salvation, and the end of all things. He speaks to the impact of sin in this fallen world and the fact that salvation within Christian theology is something that comes from outside of ourselves. This external salvation is a unique concept compared to most other major religions who teach of a salvation through the efforts of the individual.

At one point, as Wilson writes about the brokenness of humanity, he writes, “The worst storms I have faced in my life have not occurred outside of me but rather have been found inside of me.” While I think I understand what Wilson is getting at, I’m not sure that I can completely agree with his statement. Yes, I can attest to the fact that, oftentimes, I am my own worst enemy, but in my own life, there have been significant storms that I have encountered that have occurred outside of me. These storms are a result of living in a fallen and broken world, there was no individual cause for some of them, and I would argue that they didn’t happen inside of me.

There is nothing in “Unparalleled” that is groundbreaking or new to me. Wilson has an engaging writing style and he gets his points across with clarity. While I was reading the book, I kept wondering to whom the book was written. Was it written for believers in Christ, those who are already convinced? Was it written to those who need to be convinced? It seems that it could be beneficial for those who are searching, not yet having come to the conclusion that Christianity is both convincing and compelling.

To those who believe in Christ and accept the claims of Christianity, Jesus is unparalleled, as is the salvation that he offers. If you are in a place of searching, needing to be convinced of Christianity’s claims, this might give you an overview or a snapshot of these claims. There are far deeper and more exhaustive books on the claims of Christianity that may serve you better, but for a basic overview, this might work. It’s not a must read, in my opinion, and anyone who is seeking something more academic may best be served elsewhere.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Mormonism 101 – A Book Review

mormonism 101In the past, Mormonism has been labeled a cult and its teachings have been criticized for being contrary to the Bible, a book which Mormons claim to believe. There seemed hardly a doubt that there was a distinction between Christianity and Mormonism.

In recent days, there have been some who have tried to blur the lines between Christianity and Mormonism. One of the most well-known is Glenn Beck, talk show host, author, and political activist. Beck considers himself a born again Christian. In fact, Beck recently gave the commencement address at Liberty University, an evangelical institution whose founder, Jerry Falwell, was the impetus for the Moral Majority movement in the United States.

So, are Mormons Christians? Are the variations in the theologies of these two groups drastic enough to say that there is a wide gap between them? Are those theological variations among what some would consider to be non-essentials or do they redefine some of the key theological ideologies within one group or the other?

Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson have sought to offer answers for those inquiring. With a revised and expanded edition of their book “Mormonism 101,” originally published back in 2000, they painstakingly examine the beliefs of the Mormon Church, the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS). They outline the theologies and ideas embraced by the Mormon Church alongside those embraced by evangelical Christians.

The book is set up well, similar to a systematic theology book. This setup allows for its easy use as a reference tool so that the reader need not read it from front to back but instead can simply peruse the chapters and sections that are most pertinent to their needs at the moment.

McKeever and Johnson offer an exhaustive analysis of Mormonism. They reference the publications of the LDS with footnotes allowing the reader to do their own research should they desire to do so. In the reference to the LDS publications, the authors also offer biblical references to allow the reader to see the contradictions that exist between the claims of Mormonism and Christianity.

This book is a hard read to go from cover to cover. It is mostly academic in nature and I would not consider it “light reading.” That being said, as a reference, this is a great resource to thumb through when seeking answers to the differences between Mormonism and Christianity. If you are looking for a comprehensive analysis of the beliefs of LDS through a Christian lens, this book is an excellent resource.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

An Unlikely Read

Unlikely DiscipleI’m not sure when I first heard the name Jerry Falwell. Growing up in a very conservative pastor’s home during the heyday of the Moral Majority, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to figure that his name may have been up there with Peter, James, John, and some of the other well-known biblical figures of the New Testament.

While my parents never idolized Falwell, I heard his name enough during my childhood for it to have stuck. Christian radio, magazines, music, conferences, and so much more were enough to expose me to the bubble that Mr. Falwell may have actually been responsible for helping to create.

A few years ago, a friend was driving to Lynchburg for work and asked me if I wanted to go along. It was not too long after my mom had died and my dad’s health was moving downward quickly. So, time in the car with a friend for a few hours seemed like a good distraction from everything that was swirling around me. He told me that he had a presentation and meeting but I could take his car and drive around Lynchburg once we got there.

Although I hadn’t planned on going to see the “school that Jerry built,” I found myself driving down the highway where I glanced a sign that said “Liberty University” for the next exit. I thought to myself, “Why not?” I mean, even though I’m in the same state, I didn’t know how often I might find myself out this way again, and besides, I was by myself, I had the perfect opportunity to spend as much (or as little) time as I could want exploring.

I followed signs to the campus and found a parking spot by the bookstore. I made my way over to DeMoss Hall where the visitors center was located. As I walked in, friendly, smiling faces greeted me and wasted no time giving me information about the school. I even received a free copy of Jerry Falwell’s autobiography (I still haven’t read it, but after my recent experiences and readings, it might have moved up my reading pile….a little). They invited me to visit the Jerry Falwell Museum across the hall.

I spent some time in there and talked to the older gentleman who was volunteering at the museum that day. He was friendly, and because I can still be lacking in my own self-confidence, I threw out the fact that I was raised and ordained Baptist…..I did, however, leave out the part that I had transferred my ordination to the Presbyterian church.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, so after I had looked around at the museum for a while, I walked around the campus a little bit more. I walked past the little prayer chapel and eventually made my way over to the place where Jerry Falwell is buried.Liberty-FalwellsGrave

I have to say, it was a little much for my taste. With a huge stone cross and an eternal flame, it had the hint that they had been trying too hard to emulate JFK’s grave in Arlington and yet make it abundantly clear that Falwell’s focus was a little different than Kennedy’s had been and that he had lived his life very differently than Kennedy had.

I couldn’t help but look around from that vantage point at the sprawling campus, the huge “LU” symbol on the side of the mountain, and this slightly overdone memorial/grave and wonder about focus. I knew what Falwell has said that he stood for, but I wondered whether that message was somehow lost in translation. It seemed that I was looking at a kingdom built to a man, honoring and memorializing him, almost to the point of idolatry.

Overall, I left the campus with a sense that I needed to process everything that I had seen. It was a little bit of an overload for my senses and I felt like there was more reading and studying upon Falwell that needed to be done. I had seen a glimpse at this man that I knew little about save for the occasional outcries within the media over some statement or other that he had made.

A while after the visit, the experience had kind of fallen back into the recesses of my mind. There was nothing that would really make it stand out to me. About a year after my initial visit, however, I was back on the campus again for a large Christian men’s gathering. As I soaked in that experience, it did nothing but solidify the thoughts that I had the first time that I had been on campus regarding focus. While it was an impressive campus, I kept wondering what it was all for.

It was some time after both of my visits that I stumbled upon a book while browsing the shelves at Goodwill. I think that I vaguely remembered having heard something about the book, but it didn’t strike my attention in that initial hearing. For whatever reason, when I saw “The Unlikely Disciple” by Kevin Roose at Goodwill, it struck my attention and I decided to pick it up.

Kevin Roose was a sophomore at Brown University when he decided to get some firsthand experience at discovering the decidedly vast gap between the secular and sacred. He transferred to Falwell’s Liberty University for a semester and went incognito to gather information for the book. He disguised himself as a student and a Christian and went to work figuring out what this evangelical Christianity was all about.

The book sat on my shelf for months before I finally cracked it open and began reading it. Once I started though, I couldn’t put it down. It felt almost like a bad accident on the side of the road, the kind that when everyone drives by but cranes their neck to see what happened. It was a painful read for me who has spent the better part of my life within the bubble of the Christian sub-culture. Roose’s insights and observations were spot on, he hit the nail on the head of so much that has come to symbolize fundamentalism in America.

I think that the thing that was so painful about it was the ability of Roose to peel away the layers and find a way to disguise himself within those layers without anyone really knowing the difference. I say that not because I feel as if he were an intruder but because it’s sad to me that the most distinguishing thing about Christians is cosmetic, outward, and seemingly superficial rather than being something that is internal and personal, that translates to something deeper than simply sin management.

Some of Roose’s impressions and observations felt fairly indicting for me. In some ways it felt like someone had infiltrated my family and told everyone secrets that were supposed to be kept within the family. You know, the whole “What happens in Vegas” thing except in regards to family. Roose observed the difference between the beliefs of many of his fellow students and their actual lifestyle and actions. While he saw many of them as kind and loving in some areas, he also saw some major discrepancies which led him to scratch his proverbial head.

As I continued to read, I thought to myself, “What is this saying about this sub-culture if he sees this stuff in a brief period of time?” I mean, one of the things that I have always tried to do is be honest about who I am and what I believe. Apart from that, one of the biggest things that my parents taught me was to be consistent, something that they modeled incredibly well. If people see inconsistencies in Christians, that’s our fault, not theirs, right? Shouldn’t our lives and actions match what we believe and the things that we say?

But it seems that Roose saw something in these Liberty students that was different, He said, “It’s hard to watch Liberty students singing along to worship songs during convocation, raising their hands and smiling beatifically, and not wonder whether they’ve tapped into something that makes their lives happier, more meaningful, more consistently optimistic than mine.” The overused mantra of “Preach the gospel and use words if necessary” seems to resound from this observation. Although he saw this difference and wondered about what was there that he was missing, it wasn’t convincing enough for him to embrace it himself.

But the kind and complimentary statements may end there. Roose saw the discrepancies in the belief system of his fellow students. He saw that there were more similarities between them and his friends who he considered “secular,” maybe even more similarities than differences. It’s just that the differences were pretty glaring.

Roose observed many of the things that have gotten lots of press within the evangelical church. He talked about the fact that there was “Frustration with a religious system that gives issues of personal sexuality higher spiritual priority than helping the poor of living a life of service.” He saw Sunday mornings as being about entertainment that resulted in what he called “Church Lite.” He talked about the general closed mindedness of many educators, particularly at Liberty and how there were no chances taken for exploration because of the culture that had been created, a culture “where academic rigor is sacrificed on the altar of uninterrupted piety, where the skills of exploration, deconstruction, and doubt – all of which should be present at an institution that bills itself as a liberal arts college – are systematically silenced in favor of presenting a clear, unambiguous political and spiritual agenda.”

I sat there reading the book and wondered how I was doing in all of these areas. I don’t think that he was plugging for people to change their beliefs but to at least take a deep look at them and understand them better. Simply saying “That’s what I was taught” or “That’s what my church believes” doesn’t really cut it when talking to people who are diametrically opposed in ideology and worldview.

This book is almost a necessary read for those Christians who can’t quite understand why the world looks at the Church with such disdain. While some might be offended at some of Roose’s language and attitude, I think it’s kind of important to understand how Christians end up coming across to people with whom they don’t agree. I wonder how willing Christians would be to do the same thing that Roose did, to go “cross-culturally” into a secular environment in an attempt to better understand people with whom they disagree or don’t see eye to eye.

Roose did a good job of documenting his own changes as well. While his journey and experience did not necessarily bring him to become a Christian, he was able to see some real value in the experience and I think he came to the realization that there was something different about the people at Liberty, people with whom he had originally thought that there existed a wider gap between him and them.

The danger in any observations about anything is that you are always only getting a small picture window into a world and a perspective. The spectrum is rarely as narrow as one observation shows you. While Roose got a good picture of Liberty’s version of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and Christianity, it was still just that, Liberty’s version. Roose got a window into some people with whom he connected better, with whom he actually became friends based on commonalities rather than differences. He glimpsed some people who seemed to stand out more than others simply because they had chosen to buck the system, to swim upstream and against the tide that was so predominant and prevalent at Liberty.

Like him or hate him, the one thing that can be said of Falwell is that he was consistent, something that can’t be said of a lot of Bible thumping bigwigs who tout one thing while living something else. Falwell may have been incredibly vocal in his beliefs and disagreements, but he seemed to have lived what he believed, and honestly, that’s one of the most important things.

This whole read was another reminder to me that how I think I am coming across to others and how I really am coming across are not always the same thing. It’s important to do self-assessments to see what’s getting lost in translation and how I am presenting myself. Truth is truth, sure, I believe that, but it’s certainly possible that that truth comes across as anything but when it lacks a presentation of love and concern.

Same Sex- Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage – A Book Review

same sex marriageSean McDowell and John Stonestreet tackle a difficult subject in their book, “Same Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage.” McDowell, the son of famed Christian apologist, pastor, speaker, and writer, Josh McDowell, is a professor at Biola University. Stonestreet is cohost with Eric Metaxas of the radio program Breakpoint. Their experience has led them to write this book which is targeted at Christians who are seeking a different approach towards responding to same-sex marriage and the continuing battle that rages between culture and the Church. The authors state that the unfortunate fact about Christians is that, “we are far better known for being against gays than being for people.”

McDowell and Stonestreet state that both sides of the raging debate over same-sex marriage continue to use proof-texting to prove their points. The authors instead believe that we need to go back to creation, “the way God made the world in the first place.” They point out that, “Because sexual intercourse is the only biological process that leads to procreation, this implies that marriage requires gender diversity.” Out of all of the biological processes, it is the only one that can’t be accomplished individually but which requires the opposite gender.

The authors also point out that marriage is more than simply being happy. It is rather a covenant between two people and God. They believe that, “Marriage was designed by God to thoroughly join two image bearers in a permanent commitment, enabling them to fulfill their purpose of filling and forming God’s world.” In fact, since they make the connection between procreation and marriage, they believe that, “including same-sex unions as being a type of marriage would change the definition of marriage for everyone.” While there are certain exceptions of procreation being fulfilled within marriage (e.g., those who are infertile), the authors see this as one of the primary purposes God attached to marriage.

McDowell and Stonestreet state that their argument against legalizing same-sex marriage does not mean that they believe that same-sex romantic relationships should be criminalized. In fact, they say, it doesn’t even mean that committed relationships should have no legal protection when it comes to property, inheritance, and care of partners. The argument on which they stand as that by redefining marriage, we take away the purposes for which it was created by God.

So, how should Christians who do not support same-sex marriage approach the issue? McDowell and Overstreet say that as Christians, “…we must spend more energy getting our own houses in order than we do trying to correct those outside the Church. Those in Christ are continually to call each other back to His authority in all areas.” They state that, “There is too great of a difference in the morality that is being demanded by the Church and the morality that is seen in the Church.” Peter writes in one of his epistles that judgment begins with the house of God and if we do not deal with the sin in our own lives than we have no business trying to address that sin in the lives of others. Until Christians begin to take seriously the moral standards to which they hold others, they will never gain a voice in a world that sees them as judgmental hate-mongers.

The authors include some helpful resources such as a to-do list of things that can be done to build inroads into the LGBT community and show them the love that has been so notably absent from Christians in the past. They also provide suggestions for the long haul, reinforcing the need for Christians to take strong stands against sin in general rather than singling out a specific sin that seems more egregious to them. The example given is divorce, a sin that has been largely overlooked within the church and yet which still stands as a sin. They also include guidance for everyday questions, similar to an FAQ with some helpful hints of how to respond to questions or circumstances which readers may confront or be faced with on a regular basis.

I wasn’t sure what to think when I picked up this book. Based on the backgrounds of both authors, I was unsure that this would be as different of an approach as advertised. I was pleasantly surprised that the book lived up to the promises that it made. It was written for Christians but I could see some disagreeing with some of the stances of the authors, but those same people may just be the ones who have been responsible for the wide chasm that lies divides the evangelical church and the LGBT community. The authors do a good job of confessing the shortcomings of Christians in the past, holding fast to the convictions which they hold based upon the Bible, and laying out a more loving approach to an issue that has been not only causing dissension between the Church and the culture but causing divisions within the Church itself.

McDowell and Stonestreet take a loving and gentle approach without compromising their convictions. I would recommend this book to those Christians who have been struggling with their own response to this ongoing debate. Even if you disagree with the approach laid out by the authors, their approach, in my opinion, can’t be labeled as hateful, judgmental, or bigoted. They seek to go back to a more loving and Christ-like approach towards conflict in hopes of regaining a voice within culture and, more importantly, showing those with whom Christians disagree that the love of Christ can rule the day, even when we still disagree in the end.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)