The Mind of God – A Book Review

mind of godHow do Christ followers make an impact on the world? Do we isolate ourselves by creating a false sense of security in a sequestered bubble in hopes that our influence might be felt from far away through the various means that we have? How do we exercise the wisdom that God has given us to make a difference in the world and culture around us?

Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, looks at Solomon and his wisdom in his latest book, “The Mind of God.” Johnson introduces the reader to the seven mountains or spheres of influence: family, religion, economy, education, government, arts and media, and science and technology. He shares about how we can influence the world around us, our culture, by having an impact in these areas.

The church is not a building, we’ve probably heard it said at least once in our lifetime. Do those words resound in who we are and do they actually mean something when it comes to our actions as the church of Jesus Christ? Do we influence people so that they will come be part of our church or so that they can become part of the kingdom of God? Johnson shares his own church’s experience with meeting people where they are and influencing them for Jesus Christ. He writes, “Our job as believers is to excel as servants in realms of wisdom, that they world around us might benefit and see the kindness of the Lord drawing them to repentance and relationship with him.”

We are called to serve without agenda, as Johnson writes, the more we serve the city for the sake of the city, “the more the city opens up to the message we carry.” When we have ulterior motives or some hidden agenda, it won’t remain as hidden as we might like. Instead, we need to love people as Jesus loves them in order that our message might be compelling, not seen as a slogan or sale pitch, but rather as a true motivation that moves us and propels us with the love of Christ.

It is evident throughout this book that Johnson comes from a more Charismatic background. That’s not a pejorative statement, simply an observation. Anyone familiar with Bethel Church most likely knows the controversy swirling around it because of what some consider to be questionable theology. Reading this book, there was nothing that indicated to me that the divergence in theology was in any essential areas that would make me stand up and cry, “Heresy!” A few head scratching moments that made me wonder, but not enough for me to think that all of the criticism that has been heaped at Bethel is justified.

I read a lot of books and this book was tough to get through. I’m not quite sure why that is though. I don’t know whether it was the season in which I found myself when I read it. The subject matter was of interest to me, but Johnson struggled to hold my attention for long periods of time.

Johnson had some really good things to say about how the church can and should influence the culture in which it finds itself and the wisdom it takes to accomplish that. While there were great nuggets throughout the entire book, the overall book didn’t “Wow” me in such a way that I would highly recommend it to people. It’s a worthy read, but not an essential read. The nuggets that I did find and highlighted felt significant, just not as frequently found as I would have liked.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge by Baker Books. 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 For This Moment – A Book Review

faith for this momentThe subtitle for Rick McKinley’s book “Faith For This Moment” is, “Navigating a polarized world as the people of God.” That sums up this book in less than ten words and McKinley spends the entire book not only explaining this but also giving five practical ways for Christians to live as the people of God in this polarized world.

Living and pastoring in a place like Portland, Oregon gives McKinley a great perspective of our culture. Regardless of what the statistics show about evangelical Christians in the 2016 election, I think that there are far more who can relate to McKinley when he writes, “Where does someone go who doesn’t fit into the given political and social boxes? What do you do if you are serious about your faith in Jesus but feel more and more that the speech and actions being used by certain Christians don’t accurately reflect what you believe?”

McKinley starts the book off describing his own experience of hearing about the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. He asks himself and his readers just how the people who follow Jesus respond in moments like this. Then he lays out a different way than what most of us have seen, a way of conviction and love.

A lot of McKinley’s focus in this book is on the people of God as exiles. It’s not a new concept, but a concept that many followers of Christ seem to have forgotten. The Church either seems to assimilate to the culture or avoid it like the plague. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that there are many who are trying to engage the culture. It’s awkward, hard, and is ripe with conflict, so why take that hard way when the easy way of assimilation or avoidance could be so much easier?

Being exiles is hard, but we in the 21st century are not the first Christ followers to have been exiled. The people of God have always been a people who have been exiled. Egypt. The wilderness. Babylon. As McKinley writes, “exile is an important way for Christians to understand what it means to be the people of God now.”

Readers are taken through a brief history lesson where McKinley outlines how Christendom was formed when Constantine was converted and Christianity became the national religion. Rather than faith being shaped by Jesus, faith was shaped by an empire, and we have seen our misplaced trust in manmade regimes lead to dismay, disappointment, and just plain disobedience.

So, how do we maintain our faithfulness to God while living in exile? McKinley urges his readers to develop the disciplines of repentance and discernment. He points to Daniel in the Bible as an example of an exile who flourished while not assimilating or completely avoiding the culture. Then McKinley walks his readers through five spiritual practices to help as we journey through exile: centering practice, hospitality, generosity, sabbath, and vocation. Throughout the five chapters outlining these spiritual practices, McKinley gives great, practical resources to live in exile without straying too far to the right or left.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to appreciate this book when I first started it. While I was familiar with Rick McKinley, I was not sure how aligned I would be with his approach. I’ve learned that I rarely find myself in 100% alignment with the views of the authors I read, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But as I read “Faith For This Moment,” I found myself echoing “Amen” over and over again. I felt a camaraderie with McKinley I breathed a deep sigh of relief in knowing that there are other fellow sojourners out there who have grown tired of the current trend within the church, who have strong convictions that have been informed by the Bible, and yet who want to live in “Babylon” without setting up some kind of Christian ghetto and praying for Jesus’ speedy return.

If you have found yourself struggling with walking the line between assimilation and avoidance in the current culture, this is a book that you might want to read. McKinley writes in a humble and loving manner, never coming across as a know it all and never becoming too preachy either. I could see myself reading this book again in six months to a year just to remind myself what living in “Babylon” looks like and just how to continue to do so without falling to one side or the other.

(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.)

Let’s Talk

It being Election Day in this continually polarizing political season, I find myself struggling once again to understand just for whom I was to cast my ballot. In my effort to better understand just who I might align with regarding important issues, my wife sent me one of those online quizzes that is supposed to “help” you figure out which candidate best fits.

So, I filled it out, only to find that I was mostly split down the middle between the two primary candidates. In my attempt to express this frustration of wondering what to do for so many of us who find ourselves in a similar situation, I went to social media. First mistake.

But my mistake led to a better understanding of just why we find ourselves where we are as a country. People will continue to point blame at certain things, but I think I’ve discovered three major things based on this experience.

1. We don’t read well.

I can’t even begin to express how many times that I have put something out on social media and it’s gone south, not because I was insensitive or unthinking, but because people failed to read. We are saturated with information. It comes at us a thousand miles a minute and we don’t know how best to try to process it all. In our effort to do so, we simply scan things and do cursory readings rather than taking the time to really read things.

I am 100% guilty of this. I do it with news. I do it with emails. I do it with mail. I do it with pretty much everything, and I can tell you that I have been burned by it before. I am learning to get better, but in order to get better, I need to understand my own limitations. What am I capable of processing well.

It’s a lesson that most of us probably learned at one time or another when we were in grade school, middle school, or high school. Make sure to read the complete question on your test so as not to misunderstand. Somehow, what we learned back then did not stick.

2. We talk past each other.

Maybe you have found yourself in a situation with a person where no matter how hard you try to reason with them, they continue to say the same things over and over again. While I haven’t witnessed this in a physical conversation, I have been witness to plenty of it online. People have their issues to defend and instead of entering into dialogue and trying to hear and understand the other’s perspective, they simply wait for the other person to take a breath so that they can get in their shots.

We don’t read well and we don’t listen well. If we enter into a conversation and we feel that while the other person is speaking we are simply thinking of the next thing to say, we probably aren’t dialoguing well. While it’s cheesy and cliche, there is something to be said about the old adage that we have been given two ears and one mouth so we should therefore listen twice as much as we talk.

3. The church should show the way.

Over the past few years, I have been a part of conversations with others who follow Christ as to whether or not the word “evangelical” should be excised from our vocabulary. It has been abused and misused and I think the original meaning has been lost on those who have idolized positions, issues, candidates, and a political system that is flawed.

God made it clear to the Israelites early on in their history that a king would not be the answer they were looking for. He told them just what a king would do and how a king would lead them. They were supposed to be a nation that was led by God. Instead, they chose to be like all the other nations around them and have a king. The rest is history, and we can see the result as we read through the Old Testament and see king after king disappoint, fail, and abuse their own people.

While Jesus was political, he was not a politician. He also understood that politics is a system in which we need to operate, not a system of salvation. Too many within the church have looked at the current system of government as a means of salvation from all the “bad people” in the world.

The church should not be led by anxiety and worry. Instead, we should show that our hope is in Christ. We should be leading the way to show that we do not believe that a political party will somehow save us but that we have only one savior, one who did not fit well into the systems of man either.

I don’t know what the outcome of today’s election will be. I can’t say that I have a specific outcome that I am hoping for either. But I do know that it is my responsibility as a follower of Christ, to be focused on a kingdom that is not of this world. That does not mean that I don’t care about what happens here, because I do. It simply means that when things look bleak, when they don’t go the way that I want them to, when I feel hopeless, I need to refocus my hope on the only one who can hold that hope. It is not a political party, system, or candidate, it is the one king who will not falter or fail.


Reclaiming Hope – A Book Review

reclaiming hopeIn the introduction of “Reclaiming Hope,” Michael Wear writes, “If we are to reclaim hope, we must understand our nation’s political life and our role in it. Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met. Politics does a poor job of meeting inner needs, but politicians will suggest they can do so if it will get them votes. The state of our politics is a reflection of the state of our souls.” So begins his chronicling of his journey with President Obama and his administration as part of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Reclaiming Hope” reads more like a memoir as Wear recalls his experience in the midst of the Obama administration. Along the way, he paints a compelling picture of President Obama. Multiple times, I stopped reading to soak in just what this young millennial was saying about the now former President of the United States. His youthful idealism seemed to have gotten the better of him on more than one occasion. Wear seems to maintain a significant amount of hope and faith in his fellow man, even if that fellow man is a politician.

Wear explains his unease with a party (the Democratic party) that at times seems to buck up against the very foundation of evangelical Christianity. As he explains his own viewpoint, he was honest about the choice that politics gives the individual between “imperfect options.” At the same time, his own coming to Christianity in his formative years led him to identify with so many people who saw the Republican party as unswervingly connected to evangelical Christianity and, therefore, something of which to be suspicious.

Obama’s own faith is presented by Wear as a faith that seeks to “express itself in deeds.” Through President Obama’s words, both in his books as well as interviews and speeches, Wear adamantly defends the former president’s Christian faith. His apologetic for the president can sometimes come across as the wide-eyed wonder and youthful idealism rather than sincere and objective critique, but Wear is honest in his admiration for Obama as well as his criticism of him.

Wear clearly criticizes the former president and his administration when he writes, – “…it should be clear that President Obama and his administration made concrete policy and political decisions that directly fueled partisanship, polarization, and the culture wars.” In his criticism, Wear is explicit as well, not simply lobbing bombs but bringing clear and specific instances when he thought that the former president either missed an opportunity or assuaged to the majority of his supporters.

Even in the midst of talking about the same-sex marriage debate which resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the country, Wear’s point has weight when he writes, “What is the value of a legal or political victory to affirm what marriage is if the culture does not embrace that definition? What good is a law on such an issue if it does not reflect Americans’ convictions? You can legislate morality – every law has moral grounds – but what does it mean if that law does not represent a moral consensus?” Whether or not you agree with the legislation or Wear’s take, it’s hard to not take pause to contemplate these words.

Wear’s total experience throughout both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns also gives him a valuable perspective. Specifically as it relates to diversity, Wear writes, “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel dissent.” Despite his youthfulness and, at times, idealism, Wear is honest and blunt in his true assessment of the political landscape, even in his own party.

The dividing line in our country seems more pronounced than ever, but Wear warns Christians that withdrawal from politics or from political parties is not the answer. He reminds Christians that there have always been those in the Bible who found themselves at odds with prevailing ideological and political systems of their day. That did not give them cause to run and hide but instead to represent and stand above the crowds as an example. Inconsistent protestations don’t do anything but hurt Christians and the Christian witness in the world.

Wear reminds his reader that putting hope in political figures will lead to disappointment. He points the reader to the hope that we find in Jesus Christ. He reminds us that God is at work in all things and that Christian hope can be advanced even through non-Christian sources. He challenges Christians to be involved and work towards those Christian hopes and for the good of all people rather than simply circling up the wagons and waiting for Jesus to return. Isolation and separation from society and politics will not do anything to advance the Kingdom of God.

I was constantly surprised while reading “Reclaiming Hope” that Michael Wear is as young as he is. His insights and challenges were full of wisdom gained in a lifetime of experience accumulated in a short period of time. He is honest and fair and never comes across as pompous or knowing it all. In reading this book, I find myself with a different perspective, having had my eyes (and possibly my heart) opened a little bit more to see political parties and ideology as less “black and white” than I’ve been used to seeing them.

While I’m not sure that this will make an Obama fan of the most furious opponent of the former president, reading this book with an open mind may give a different perspective on a president who was often vilified by those on the political and ideological right. “Reclaiming Hope” was not what I had expected that it would be, but I think that’s a good thing. It was an important read for me and I think it is for anyone who legitimately wants to ask questions about the future of our country, especially those who are evangelical Christians.

(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.)

America at the Crossroads – A Book Review

america-at-the-crossroadsA look at the headlines and the polls will be a clear indicator that all is not well with the United States. We are living in a volatile time where divisions seem to be growing wider and wider as ideologies grow further and further apart. Conservatives attack liberals, liberals attach conservatives. Moderates do their best to pretend that they want no part in any of it while trying to offer a third way. We are living in the moment, but as we live in the moment, we often take our sights off of where we’ve been and where we are going. George Barna offers an alternative with his book “America at the Crossroads.”

As he writes in the introduction, “America has become a culture that seems more interested in being “in the moment” than one that focuses on understanding the connections between past, present, and future, and how people’s choices can and should influence the future.” As the founder of the Barna Group, a leading research group that specializes in faith-related surveys, Barna offers recent data and organizes it throughout the book to lay out the current landscape of America. Barna does not hesitate to be candid and transparent in revealing that his is a Christian standpoint, but he is quick to offer his own apologetic for objectivity by saying, “I am not arguing for a theocracy or for Christianity to be instituted as the state-sanctioned religion of the land. I am, however, suggesting that when people embrace God’s principles and hold themselves accountable to them, everyone is better off.”

Barna shares his data on topics such as faith and spirituality, government and politics, and lifestyle and perspectives. He digs deep into the spiritual state of America as he reveals what people think about God, the Bible, church, and other matters of spirituality. He reveals that whereas Christians once stood in contrast to their worldly counterparts regarding behavior and morality, the dividing line is less pronounced and much more difficult to distinguish. Churches have begun to look at factors to quantify growth that only give superficial pictures of the reality that lies beneath the surface.

Barna shares data about the distrust that people have in financial institutions, churches, the government, and even the police. He also shares about the move towards political correctness in our society, a move that has vastly diverged from the initial values on which the country was founded. He says, ““In contemporary America, truth is whatever we say it is. We have adopted the mind-set that everyone must determine their own truth, and nobody can legitimately question the veracity of that perspective for that individual. The notion of embracing absolutes is anathema to most Americans.” Gone are the days of absolutes as we enter into a relativistic society where anything goes and beliefs become so personal that the only time you can attack them is when they conflict with the majority.

As he continues in “America at the Crossroads,” Barna describes an America that is shifting far away from absolutes and Christian values, an America that is not necessarily taking steps towards betterment like they may be thinking, but is instead heading down a path that will not lead to positive growth but towards demise. With this move away from absolutes and an absolute truth and a move towards political correctness and an “anything goes” ideology, we are heading into dangerous territory. He writes, “When Americans are no longer free – or no longer feel free – to hold or express opinions that conflict with the perspectives promoted by certain vocal or activist sectors of society, we are headed down a dangerous path.”

While the data that Barna shares is sobering, especially for those who espouse a similar Christian worldview and ideology, he isn’t simply a doomsday prophet speaking doom and gloom upon the world. Why offer problem without solutions? Barna asks the reader to, “imagine what would happen to the United States if all the people who are truly devoted to knowing, loving, and serving God…were to consistently live like Jesus.” He may be revealing the flaws of the country overall, but his call to action is to those who espouse Christianity, those whom he thinks can make a significant difference should they begin to live in such a way as to distinguish themselves and live and act as Jesus did.

“America at the Crossroads” is an honest and sobering book, describing an America that lies beneath the headlines, one that is not destined for the greatness that many think. It could be easy for Barna to get caught up in his data, but he shares it succinctly, connecting it in context to reveal its relevance for the matters at hand. His chapters are well-organized, sharing the data, summarizing the results, and then offering his own interpretation of the findings. While he is not without bias, it does not seem that he is doctoring the data to only reveal what he wants it to reveal.

Regardless of your worldview or ideology, “America at the Crossroads” is a good read, worthwhile and challenging. While you may not agree with Barna’s worldview, there is no denying that all is not well in America and a change is necessary. What kind of change is the point of divergence, but Barna offers a logical, practical, and viable approach for those who call themselves Christians.

(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.)

War Room and the Faith Based Genre

war roomI’ve spent the majority of my life in the church. Growing up, I didn’t really realize that there was a different language that was spoken within the church versus outside the church. Although I had been told of the wide gap between the world and the church, it wasn’t until I set foot firmly into a world that was less than hospitable to Christians that I began to see the chasm that existed between the two. That chasm, as it seems, was fed and increased by both the church and the world.

Over the past few years, I’ve struggled to close the gap in conversations that I have had with friends who have not grown up in the church, some who don’t even believe that God exists. I found that, like in so many other areas, when there is a language barrier that exists, you have a choice between ignoring it or breaking it. I felt that since I’ve been called to love my neighbor that it made sense for me to try to break down that language barrier as much as I could.

One of my frustrations over the years has been in the arts. I grew up in the 70s and 80s when films that were being produced within the church and for the church were fairly cheesy. As the years went by, I didn’t notice any improvements in what was being offered from the church, in film or in music. While the Jesus movement took shape and form within the 70s, giving way to what would eventually be deemed contemporary Christian music, most of what was being offered in the area of film served as B-movie (or worse) efforts that fell short of any high standards with acting and storyline that was low-rate.

Fast forward to the turn of the century. In the area of music, there have been major leaps and bounds (a post in and of itself). In the area of film, enter the Kendrick Brothers, two Georgia-based brothers and pastors whose heart for film led them to begin producing films starting with 2003’s “Flywheel.” Since “Flywheel,” the brothers Kendrick have released 4 additional films, each garnering both greater earnings and greater influence. Following “Flywheel” came the football “Facing the Giants” followed by “Fireproof,” “Courageous,” and 2015’s “War Room,” the brothers’ current film.

Produced with a $3 million budget, “War Room” surprised many (except maybe hardcore fans of the Kendrick brothers) by holding the top box office spot over the Labor Day weekend with total weekend revenues of over $12 million, beating out “Straight Outta Compton” at the box office.

If you run in church circles at all, “War Room” is probably not unfamiliar to you. If you don’t run in those circles, then it’s probably just a blip on the movie radar that could easily be passed over but for its numbers during its opening few weekends.

Last week, I read an unfavorable review of the film at which disturbed me. I was tired of feeling like Christians were constantly offering low-rate art, all the while expecting to be taken seriously. But my strong opinions and thoughts were based solely on the experience of others, I hadn’t seen the film, an error that I remedied one afternoon last week when I went to see the film.

The Kendrick brothers have done what most professionals do, they’ve learned from their experience. So, each of their successive films has improved in quality. I haven’t seen “Flywheel,” but I have seen “Facing the Giants” and “Fireproof.” The overall quality of the films has improved with every new offering. It seems that they have continued to work hard to make their films as believable as possible and to make sure that the level of technicality in their films (the score, the cinematography, the production, et. Al.) gets better every time out.

It’s important to understand what “War Room” is and what “War Room” is not. The film is an inspirational piece intent upon inspiring its viewers. In my opinion, the film is not geared towards or even appropriate for those who aren’t somewhat familiar with the church and the language that is spoken within the church. “War Room” is about prayer, communication with God, something that is deeply personal and something that is not easily understood by those who haven’t been steeped in the culture of the church. Walking into this film with no understanding and background on prayer would probably be confusing for whoever attempted to do so.

The story follows Tony and Elizabeth Jordan, a pharmaceutical rep and real estate agent, respectively, who are struggling in their marriage. They are sleeping in separate rooms and arguing in front of their daughter whenever they are around each other. Their busy lives have pulled them further from each other and Tony is on the brink of completely abandoning his marriage.

While meeting a client to list her house, Elizabeth engages in a conversation with the client, an elderly woman named Clara. During their conversation, Clara begins nosing around and asking some deeply personal questions of Elizabeth. Instead of shutting down the questioning from Clara, Elizabeth decides to just go with it. She allows Clara into her life to see a glimpse of what’s going on between her and Tony. In short, her marriage is broken and it doesn’t take a marriage counselor to figure that out.

Meanwhile, Tony works, travels, and flirts like a champ. He plays with fire in risking an emotional affair with a woman he meets at the office of one of his clients, eventually having dinner with her. Elizabeth, meanwhile, regularly meets with Clara and learns of Clara’s prayer strategy, which she has developed in her favorite room in the house, her “war room,” an empty closet with prayers and Bible verses taped to the wall.

As the film progresses, we see the change within Elizabeth and Tony, chronicling the improved relationship with each other as well as their daughter. Both Tony and Elizabeth take a stronger and more active role in their daughter’s life, a more healthy role and response to each other, and the things that once drove them in their lives take a back seat when they realize the error of their ways.

The Kendricks attempt to do a lot in “War Room,” repair a marriage, mentor a person on prayer, restore a parent/child relationship, refocus professional lives, and present a biblical message, all within 120 minutes. In so doing, their focus seems somewhat disjointed. In showing that Tony is playing with fire in his flirtatious relationship with Veronica Drake, the young, attractive woman from a client’s office, there isn’t enough character development to make you care about what happens. After her dinner with Tony, she makes an appearance in the film after he’s begun to mend his ways and it feels more like an afterthought than an actual plot point, almost as if the Kendricks thought it was necessary for some kind of closure. The viewer may wonder whether the plot point of Tony’s impending unfaithfulness may have been laid out in a shorter and more concise depiction which would have been more effective.

When Tony faces a major dilemma later in the film, the viewer is left wondering how believable the situation would be as he and Elizabeth walk through it together. After facing uncertain circumstances and emerging mostly unscathed, the film ends with a fairly “feel good” moment. The marriage is restored, the parents are more involved with their daughter, and Elizabeth is charged with teaching what she’s learned about prayer to someone else of her choosing.

The last moments of the film end with a prayer/monologue by Clara which reminded me of a Rob Mathes song called “My Mother’s Prayer” (which was based on August Wilson’s play “Seven Guitars”). It’s inspiring and seemed an appropriate way to end the film, much the way it started with the focus on the older mentor. I was waiting for the audience in the theater to rise to their feet, cheer and shout “Hoo Rah!” The message of the film, in case its sounding had been missed throughout, is clearly stated as Clara calls Christians to pray in order to remedy the problems within our country.

For anyone steeped in the language of Christianity, it would be hard not to emerge from the dark theater with a newfound enthusiasm and “go-get-‘em” attitude towards prayer. It tugged on my emotional heart strings and there was more than once that I had to look around to see if anyone was looking as I nonchalantly wiped my eyes.

“War Room” is full of clichés and Christian language that would be foreign and indecipherable to anyone looking in from outside of the Christian subculture, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a film to which to invite unbelievers or seekers. While there were numerous moments of humor, I found myself laughing as one would laugh at an inside joke. No one would ever accuse the Kendrick brothers of subtlety, their message comes across clearly, which is not necessarily a bad thing. While they may have learned lessons along the way with their previous four efforts, things still fit nicely and neatly together, sometimes with extraneous developments unnecessary to the progression of the story. It does seem that the efforts of the Kendricks seem less forced and more natural this time out than in some of their previous efforts.

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. I went in with a dubious attitude, expecting that I wouldn’t be wow-ed by the film at all. Having read some bad reviews coming from outside the church, my expectations were low. Taking this film for what it was, a two hour inspirational sermon for lukewarm churchgoers and an encouragement for those who already believe in the power of prayer, I think it achieved its purpose. The Kendrick brothers have said in interviews that their desire is that their films bring about life change in viewers, and if the viewers are Christians, I can easily see that happening with this film.

“War Room” won’t win any Academy Awards for acting, script, art direction, score, or any other categories, but it also can’t be accused of sub-par performances in these areas. While it might not be a “cup of tea” for those unfamiliar with the language that it speaks, like so many other things, I think it’s important to ask about authorial intent to discern just who the Kendrick brothers expected to reach with this film. I’d be surprised if they expected to reach those who were not already immersed in church culture.

It’s clear that the faith based genre of film is here to stay. While I don’t see it as a means for reaching the unconvinced, those who wouldn’t consider themselves to be Christians, the support of this genre by those within the church is making a clear statement to Hollywood that there are those who are clamoring for films that present positive messages with little to no offensive or suggestive material, which is not the worst message to be conveyed. Based on some of the biblical epics that have released over the past few years, the genre and support thereof has made its mark.

While I was pleasantly surprised with “War Room,” it’s not a film which I would repeatedly view. I think I get its message and to whom it was targeted, yet I continue to remain hopeful that success can be found within Hollywood by those who consider themselves Christians. However, I think the way to achieve that will fall outside the faith based genre. There have been and continue to be those within Hollywood who consider themselves Christians and present thoughtful and provocative films which fall outside of this genre. In fact, if Christians want a voice to show that there is validity to their artistry, I think they will have to venture outside of this genre. If they simply want to make a statement that there is support for a Christian voice out there, then they can continue to do what’s already been done and achieve the same results.

No Fear In Love – A Book Review

no fear in loveAndy Braner grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist church and it seems that his adult journey has been spent trying to overcome its effect on him. He realized that he had spent a lot of time getting to know about God rather than actually trying to know God and let him influence the way that he lived. As he unpacked his own experiences and why he was taught to respond to certain things in certain ways, he realized that much of the response that he had been taught was governed and fueled by fear.

Braner writes, “We are far too concerned with the outward appearances of daily life without really addressing the core fears brewing deep inside ourselves.” Instead of questioning and spending time in relationship with those with whom we disagree, he says, we attack. We don’t build relationships but build walls instead. He asks his reader to ponder what might happen if Christians began to look at people as people and relationships rather than battles to be won or arguments in which to triumph.

Somewhere along the way, Braner claims, Christians excelled in becoming defenders of the Gospel and of God rather than becoming examples of Christ to the world. In these efforts to protect God and the Gospel, we have actually created places where sin is prohibited and managed to such an extent that people can’t be open and honest with their struggle and where they can’t confess to one another because of the fear that’s driving them. God is not a sales pitch, Braner adds.

In embracing a culture of protection, we have feared the “other,” anyone who is different than us. We have failed to engage them and find common places of thought as starting points. Instead, we have created walls, building them up instead of building the relationships that are so important in which God could work. Braner suggests that we enter into relationships free of agendas and with a simple desire to know the other person and where they are coming from, regardless of the differences in opinions, beliefs, and ideologies.

Throughout this book, Braner shares personal stories about how he has found success in confronting his own fears and found ways to engage the “other” in his life. He shares of praying in a mosque, of engaging a whole group of Jehovah’s Witnesses and inviting them to dinner, of boldly mixing Christian and Muslim teenagers for a week of summer camp, and other stories. He says that, “The most compelling adventures are those that happen when we recognize fear, address it, and move to a place of reliance on what God is doing in the hearts and minds of others.”

Braner questions where Christians are known more by what they are against or by what they are for. In our media-saturated culture, he sees that we have lost the art of healthy dialogue, instead tending to trade it for brief shouting matches between experts in which the winner is the one who yelled the loudest. He adds that, “This practice has done nothing to help us reach out and discuss things in a civilized disagreement. It promotes anger, yelling, and extremism.”

Overall, I didn’t walk away from this book feeling as if Braner had shared anything groundbreaking with the reader. In some ways, he dwelt heavily in generalizations to the point that he made it seem as if there are no Christians out there who are making in-roads in building relationships with those with whom they don’t see eye to eye. In fact, there were times that I felt his stories were shared more for their shock value than because the readers could actually benefit from them. If the average Christian falls into most of the generalizations which Braner lays out, chances are that they wouldn’t be impressed with his stories as much as they might be shocked and turned away.

I appreciate Braner’s heart shining throughout this book. The reader can tell that he is passionate about which he writes. He is passionate about building relationships with those with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye. If you have sought a third way, a way to engage the “other” without offending, turning off, or defeating, Braner offers his own stories as possible suggestions. If you fit into the generalizations of Christians that Braner shares, you might be better served looking elsewhere for a safer and more comfortable read. Braner doesn’t pull any punches and he does so with a purpose. While this book didn’t “wow” me, I don’t feel that it was a waste of time either.

(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.)

Follow Me

confession boothA few weeks ago, I had more traffic than usual on my blog as I dove headfirst into the Brittany Maynard story. I am always fascinated by the stories that attract people’s attention, especially when there’s more to the story than a simple cursory glance. Stories that you have to pick up and roll through your fingers, glancing at every side as you try to determine just what it’s made of, those are the stories that attract me.

In the midst of my writing, a friend from high school reached out and gave me some insight on his impression of what I had written. I was intrigued at how he was reading it because it wasn’t exactly how I saw it, so I engaged him in a conversation. In the midst of the conversation, I learned more and more about myself and about my friend. I did my best to respond in a way that told him that I was sincerely seeking answers and not trying to proselytize or convert anyone to my own way of thinking. While there may be times to do that, a first conversation or post hardly seems the time for that.

As we dialogued back and forth, he complimented me in my reaction and approach towards the conversation. To say that I was relieved would probably be an understatement. As I shared my own convictions with him, I was saddened to hear about another conversation in social media that was taking place on the wall of a friend of his. There was lots of judgment, lots of insult hurling, lots of people stating opinions without entering into dialogue or seeking to understand another’s perspective.

Why do we do this over and over again? Why do we approach conversations as competitions that need to be “won” rather than experiences in which we can learn?

Honestly, I think that Christians are the worst at this. We somehow think that every conversation needs to end with everyone on the floor, praying the Sinner’s Prayer, and then singing Kum Ba Yah until Jesus returns. In our efforts to speak the truth we forget the “in love” part of it. In our efforts to show our convictions, we feel the need to always be right.

I’m not saying that we don’t hold to strong convictions, that seems to be a dying art in our “everything goes” culture. With relativism pressing in on every side, speaking in absolutes is unpopular, but I believe, necessary. But there’s a better way to do it, and hurling digital hand grenades is not the way to do it.

In talking to my friend, I realized what I had so many times before, people judge Jesus by how those who follow him act. It seems unfair, but it’s a fact of life. When we don’t hold to his teachings, we not only make ourselves look bad, but we make him look bad as well. When we tout our strong convictions and then consistently fail to live by them, we make it look like Jesus is the one who is wrong.

One thing that I love about the Apostle Paul is that he lived what he believed. He knew that it wasn’t popular, he knew that it was counter-cultural, but it didn’t stop him. The Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. God has made the lofty things of this world to be low and made the low things to be lofty. Paul was confident enough in his convictions and how he lived them out that he was not afraid or ashamed to say, “Follow me.”

I was reminded of Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz” when Miller talks about how he and some of his friends set up a confession booth in the middle of a hedonistic weekend celebration at a Portland college. His friend, Tony, says, “Here’s the catch…We are not actually going to accept confessions…We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”

I’m not perfect. I’ve done my fair share of misrepresenting Jesus to those who desperately need to know that he loves them. But I see that, I admit it, I’m making steps towards recovering, towards redemption, towards restoration.

As many times as I’ve read the Gospels, I don’t recall any story where someone got themselves all “cleaned up” and then went to meet Jesus. In fact, Jesus usually met them, doing what they were doing, wherever they were. They probably felt unprepared, insignificant, inadequate, but that’s how we should all feel in the presence of holiness and perfection. Jesus met them there, found them where they were, but didn’t leave them there.

When we meet people, they will judge Jesus by how we live. Most people aren’t opposed to convictions, they’re opposed to inconsistency. How are we doing in representing Jesus to the world? Is it time for us to set up confession booths in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our homes? Is it time for people to take our confessions of where we have fallen short, where we have failed to live up to the name by which we all must be saved?

We can’t live up to that name…..EVER, but that doesn’t mean we just give up trying. We try not because we think we can earn something, but because we are grateful for that amazing thing called grace that reaches out to us in our dirt, filth, pride, and aloneness and calls us “beloved” and calls us to live different, to be different. We are driven by gratitude, not guilt or obligation.

How about we confess that?


The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw – A Book Review

atheists fatal flawThe debate between Christians and Atheists has been ramped up in recent years with the emergence of some of the more vocal atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. In some ways, they have take to an evangelism approach towards the promotion of atheism. Despite their zeal for promoting the life of “unfaith,” Norman Geisler and Daniel McCoy have found what they consider to be a chink in the armor of their arguments, their thinking, and their ideology. In their book, “The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw,” Geisler and McCoy address the apparent discrepancies.

The authors introduce terms and ideas in the introduction, making sure that everyone is on the same page moving forward through the book. This is helpful as they continue to point back towards certain terms and ideas throughout the book, this provides a clear path forward to understand their arguments and rationale.

One of the terms that Geisler and McCoy use, borrowed from C.S. Lewis, is God-in-the-dock, the family of arguments used by atheists that put God on trial for defying or contradicting his own nature. Atheists have come to find God immoral for his lack of intervention and for his creation of less than perfect creatures.

As you move through this book, the Geisler and McCoy use arguments from the atheists themselves to build their case. Other than Hitchens and Dawkins, other known atheists from history past and present are used such as Carl Sagan, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, among others. It’s helpful to see these arguments from those who oppose the idea of a Divine Creator in order to know how best to combat them. Geisler and McCoy do a sufficient job of providing these arguments from the other side and then they proceed to refute them.

The big case that Geisler and McCoy make against the atheists is that atheists seem to blame God for not intervening in the moral evils prevalent within the world yet they would be critical of any Divine Being who would come in and take away our autonomy. In many ways, the authors paint the picture of atheists that they are anti-authoritarian and refuse to give up their freedoms and autonomy. Geisler and McCoy also say that atheists have no problem with the intervention of humanity to solve the evils and woes of the world, which seems inconsistent considering that these same interventions would be immoral if used by God.

It seems that atheists want God to be made in their image (something that Christians can easily be accused of as well), being tolerant of all of the things that they are tolerant of, yet when they are in need, they want to be able to simply rub the magic lamp and have a “god” at their disposal, ready to fight for them. Over and over, based on the arguments that the authors present, it seems that the atheists in question are more averse to what God stands for rather than the idea of God at all.

Geisler and McCoy provide a good approach towards rebutting the arguments of the atheists using their own words. The book was a little slow to get into because of the need to set up the rest of it, but once I got into it, it moved along fairly quickly. Geisler and McCoy present their case in a fairly easily understood format, enabling even the novice thinkers to follow along. While all of the arguments seemed to be well laid out and thought through, I would have liked the conclusion of the book to have felt less abrupt than it was. In some ways, it felt as if they ran out of thoughts and ideas and just ended it, providing for more of a sudden stop rather than a gradual and summarizing conclusion.

Overall, it was a worthwhile read, especially for those who are new to the discussion with some of the more current atheists. Geisler and McCoy didn’t attempt to argue by simply lobbing Scripture at the arguments but by using the actual arguments presented by the atheists to begin with, a much more effective way to approach the argument.

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