Confronting Old Testament Controversies – A Book Review

Confronting OT ControversiesFor anyone who considers themself to be a Christian, they have most likely encountered a verse, a passage, a story, or even a book of the Bible that has had them scratching their head, wondering whether or not it’s true or just how they should be interpreting it. For centuries, people have come to these passages from a variety of different viewpoints.

How do we approach the Bible? What do we do with the sections that seem fairly controversial to us? What happens when parts of it seem to be out of date or irrelevant? What happens when the dominant culture pulls away from what had become the societal norms conveyed in the pages of Scripture?

With his latest book, “Confronting Old Testament Controversies – Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence,” Tremper Longman addresses some of the questions most frequently asked about the Bible and all that is found within its pages.

To start, Longman states in his introduction that, “this book is written for the church and not the broader culture.” This is a helpful statement knowing that he would be writing with a very different approach had his book been targeted at those who did not necessarily subscribe to the Bible’s teachings.

Longman tells his readers what he will be addressing within the book. Creation and evolution. Historicity. Divine Violence. Sexuality.

Longman spends some necessary time addressing the notion of inerrancy.  He writes of interpretation and intended meaning of authors. Basically, he gives a high level overview of hermeneutics. He does a good job of giving this overview as he also addresses context and seeing Scripture through the eyes of those for whom it was originally intended.

God speaks, Longman writes, through nature and through the Bible. While those things are inerrant, our interpretations of both of those may not always be true.

From here, Longman goes on to dig into Genesis. He addresses various teachings that have occurred over the years on the first chapters of the Bible. How should we be interpreting it based upon other writings similar in style to it? Is there figurative language used that is trying to be read more literally than it was intended?

As he lays this all out, Longman writes that Genesis 1 is not giving the reader, “a blow-by-blow account of how God created everything but is using the standard workweek…as a literary device…” He reminds the reader that genre triggers reading strategy. So, we are in error to be reading poetry or analogy as history.

He compares the creation account found in the Bible to other creation accounts found in the ancient near East. He concludes the section saying that there is no reason, in his scholarly opinion, to think that what is found in the pages of Genesis gives a factual report of the specific process of creation. Considering evolution or other secondary causes, Longman suggests, does not undermine God’s role as the divine Creator. He goes on to address the fall of humanity, Adam and Eve, and other ramifications that his interpretation may reveal.

After creation and evolution, Longman addresses the historicity of various sections of the Bible. Did they really happen? If they didn’t happen, does that undermine the validity of Scripture? What do we do when Scripture makes reference to these elsewhere or when Jesus himself makes reference to them?

In this section, Longman, who considers himself a part of the evangelical camp, is critical of evangelicals saying that, “evangelicals have a tendency to treat the Bible as if it were all one genre.” While he addresses a story like Job and says that it did not actually happen historically, he also addresses the exodus and says that the historicity of that story is crucial to establishing a track record for the God of Israel.

Longman gets fairly technical, addressing some of the historic finds that have brought into question the validity and historicity of the Bible. His bottom line is that not all of the sections of the Bible need to be interpreted as having literally and historically taken place in order for the message that is conveyed to be true and important.

He then moves to the section on divine violence. As he enters into this section, he gives his reader the bottom line thesis saying that both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible give a consistent, coherent, and unified picture of God. He addresses the concern that many have had in trying to reconcile the wrath of God shown in the Old Testament with the love of God identified within the New Testament.

He does a good job of conveying his viewpoint as well as contrary viewpoints. He gives reasons for his difference and supports his argument. As he speaks of death, pain, suffering, and violence, Longman reminds his reader that death and suffering were not the purpose or goal of Jesus’ mission but instead that his mission was accomplished through death and suffering.

While there are certainly uncomfortable sections and events in the pages of the Bible which describe the wrath and violence of God, Longman says that we need to interpret God based on his revelation of himself in those pages rather than trying to soften the sections that make us uncomfortable or with which we disagree.

The final section of Longman’s book may very well be the most anticipated and controversial. It seems that the traditional Christian stance on sexuality has become outdated and flies in sharp contrast and opposition to where culture and society are today.

Longman addresses the controversy and argument that many have made regarding the publicness of sex. He writes, “Sex and marriage are public, social acts, not private acts, even if the sexual acts are done behind closed doors.” He also addresses gender and sexuality dysfunction, saying that everyone is sexually dysfunctional at some level.

While Longman addresses the standard laws that have been used in the argument against homosexuality, he also brings focus back to creation and speaks of God’s original intent for things. He reminds them that creation, as we are experiencing it, is not as God originally intended it to be. Therefore, we need to be cautious about not considering that as we look at everything.

He addresses the standard argument of the three types of laws found within the Old Testament: ceremonial, moral, and civil laws. He makes his case that ceremonial and even some civil laws may have been fulfilled but that there is no indication in the Bible that the moral laws that were originally given to the people of God were ever made null and void anywhere in Scripture.

He hits on arguments and questions that have been made by some who support an affirming lifestyle. He writes, “Our problem is that we, as modern Westerners, believe that love should allow us all as individuals to find our own personal happiness in the here and now. But personal happiness is not the greatest good in the Bible.” Ultimately, Longman lands on the traditional side of this argument.

Longman addresses each of these topics in its own chapter, making the chapters fairly long. Each chapter has discussion questions for use by the reader to spend time mulling over these various sections. Some sections get a little heady and he may lose some of his readers in these technical sections. Of course, I could imagine him simply suggesting that readers skip to the sections of which they are most interested.

I was so curious coming to this book as to where he would stand on these four important topics. As I read through the first section on creation and evolution, I was somewhat surprised at where he came down with his conclusion. Then, after reading the first three sections of the book, I was rather surprised to come to Longman’s section on sexuality and read his stance. I had expected, based on what I had encountered in those first three sections, that Longman would be vying for a non-traditional approach towards sexuality and marriage.

Longman treated these topics with academic care, as would be suggested by someone of his educational and professional background. While there were times when he seemed to be belabor the point (in my opinion), I think he did a sufficient job of covering his bases, laying out arguments for and against his case, and clearly giving his final analysis on these topics.

Readers may not hang on for all the depth that Longman gives them in this book. While he comes from the academic world and, at times, he dives fully into that in his writing and explanations, he does a good job not getting too overly academic and is still understandable by the average person.

Longman did not seem to have treated all four of these topics consistently. While there were some sections where he would bring in viewpoints of others, he did not always do that. While I would not say that this impacted his treatment of any of these topics, it would have been nice to have been given some names and viewpoints together rather than going through the bibliography and looking up books and authors individually.

“Confronting Old Testament Controversies” is worth the read. While it may not be for everyone, those who do read through it from front to back, regardless of whether they agree or not, should find themselves walking away having learned something along the way.

(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.)

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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.)

The “Why” and Not Just the “What”

As my children get older, the issues that they are dealing with become weightier and the questions that they ask become more poignant, requiring so much more than a simple “yes” or “no.” When they were much younger, it was not unusual for them to ask “why” in response to a command or an answer that they were given. But giving them the “why” of the answer was not always appropriate because of their lack of understanding and their maturity level.

Now, I find myself analyzing the questions that they ask and the instructions that I give them and realizing that simple commands of “do this” or “don’t do that” don’t suffice. If I’m honest, I know that they were never sufficient for me when I was their age and as I grew older. Prohibition without rationale seems to simply be given for the sake of controlling rather than because we want to see a change in behavior and heart. If we give commands to our children and scatter in prohibitions about what they should or should not do, the majority of children will push for something more, trite answers will not shut down the conversation. Giving the answer “because I said so” or “because I’m the parent” may have worked when the kids were toddlers, but those days are long gone.

Beyond parenting, I’ve thought about this in the church, with children, youth, and adults. Too often, the church has been quick to talk about prohibitions, the “what,” without giving sufficient reasons for them, the “why.” Then when people respond less than favorably, we get surprised or even angry at the response, as if answers that would never suffice for us should somehow be acceptable to those to whom we are giving those answers. But those answers we give are rarely sufficient.

We can all most likely think of some of the controversial topics that the church has dealt with for which clear boundaries have been given. Sexual relationships. Marriage. Abortion. Euthanasia. And many others. Even the Bible verses that we give when defending our position on some of these topics only address the “what” rather than the “why.” We want to give people a compelling reason to embrace the teachings or positions of Christianity and yet we can so often give restrictions without reasons or rationale.

It’s made me think an awful lot as I’ve dealt with my own children but also as I’ve had conversations with the various generations represented within my church. If you’re younger than fifty, chances are that you’re not going to take the “what” answer to a question about restrictions and run with it. You’re going to want something more. You’re going to want to know the “why” of something.

If the church is to remain relevant, she won’t become relevant by dressing up with various accoutrements that make her look like our culture. Instead, the church needs to engage the various topics that come to the forefront by providing rationale and reasons for the worldview we embrace. If we simply hold to clichés like “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me” then we will find many abandoning the church.

But if we choose to dig deep and understand for ourselves and teach to others why we’ve come to the conclusions that we have come to and what has shaped and formed our worldview, I believe that more people will see that we’re not simply trying to put restrictions on life for the sake of restriction but rather that those restrictions are given in order that we may have life more abundantly. We may find that we begin to live into the image in which we were created. While not everyone will agree, it’s an approach that seems far more valid to me.

Too often, it seems, the church points backwards in history to places where rules and regulations were given, but we don’t point back far enough. Most of what we point to is just outward rules. We need to point deeper into the heart and soul, into who we are at creation. We need to connect things to the overarching themes of Scripture that point to God’s intent in creation. We need to point at the image in which we were created, the imago dei.

Considering our culture, this becomes problematic as our culture continues to try to divorce and separate our hearts and souls from our bodies. We’ve become a neo-Gnostic culture that embraces the inward and emotional, while abandoning its connection with the physical. We see Francis Schaeffer’s two story imagery playing out every day within our culture and our world.

We are emotional, spiritual beings, but we are also physical, sexual beings, and those things cannot be easily separated, certainly not as easily as our culture wants us to believe. But saying that we cannot separate them is not an answer that will suffice, it’s the “what” rather than the “why.” We are emotional, spiritual, physical, and sexual beings because that’s how we were created by God, in his image, for his purpose. Those aspects of our being did not come about after sin entered the world. They were there before, sin just skewed our perspective of them all.

The gap between the church and the culture seems to be growing larger. That gap seems insurmountable from a human perspective, but the church will not do herself any favors until we begin to have conversations that begin to address the “why” of our beliefs and worldview rather than simply regurgitating the “what” and expecting that everyone will just come along for the ride.

 

Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted

hope for the ssaOne of the most compelling aspects of Ron Citlau’s book “Hope for the Same-Sex Attracted” is that he writes from his own personal experience. CItlau is someone who has struggled with same-sex attraction and allows that to be the lens through which he sees things.

Citlau divides his book into three parts: obstacles, gifts, and final thoughts.

In the obstacles section of the book, Citlau looks at same-sex identity, claiming that for Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction, this can’t be a viable option. He says that embracing that identity does not leave room for the possibility of transformation that can be done through Jesus Christ.

Another obstacle that Citlau identifies is the obstacle of gay marriage. One of his main points in this section is that coming together in marriage is based on differences rather than sameness. One of the main purposes of marriage, Citlau claims, is procreation and creating a family through children. He also claims that gay marriage tells a fundamentally different story and creates a different narrative than traditional marriage.

His final chapter in the obstacles section is on the spiritual friendship movement. There has been a push among those who struggle with same-sex attraction to push this movement forward. Citlau claims that the men and women who are behind this movement are people who have been suspicious of evangelical methods of dealing with same-sex desires. But Citlau is critical of this approach of finding spiritual friendships because it seems like a compromise of the biblical principle of dying to one’s self rather than embracing your struggles. While Citlau applauds those who are pushing this movement forward for some things, his tone indicates a concern for the dismissal of the possibility of transformation.

In the second part of the book, Citlau moves to a more productive focus by looking at things that can act as gifts to those who are struggling with same-sex attraction. Within this section, he looks at the gift of the church, the gift of healing communities and Christian therapy, the gift of singleness, the gift of marriage, and the gift of prayerful lament. Citlau points towards positive things that can be beneficial and helpful to those who find themselves struggling with same-sex attraction and who still see it as contrary to the teachings of the Bible.

Relationships are key and Citlau suggests that it is within the church and the community there that relationships can be formed. Citlau puts major responsibilities on the church to function as the type of community that loves, supports, and encourages those who are struggling with their attractions and desires. He has strong words for the church, challenging the church to be a place where testimonies of transformation are constantly told. If testimonies are not shared, it will not be a place where hope will be found. He is critical of the lack of depth in relationships formed in general, not just the church. In order for deep change and transformation to occur in all of us, we need to be willing to move past the superficial and allow ourselves to know others and be known by them.

Citlau pulls no punches when it comes to same-sex attraction, writing that it “is caused by sin and finds its roots in a fractured sexual identity.” He points to healing communities and Christian therapy as a means to become whole in our sexual identity as males and females. He explains what healing communities are and gives examples of some that may be helpful for those who are struggling. While healing may not be the end of the struggles, he points towards it as a means to achieve wholeness.

The next sections under the gifts section have to do with singleness and marriage. Citlau quotes from the Bible and points to the fact that singleness is a calling, either temporary or long-term. He lays out the advantages of it and gives multiple examples of some who have found benefit in this gift. Citlau also talks about marriage and how he himself has experienced the benefit of heterosexual marriage despite his struggle with same-sex attraction. He is quick to say that marriage will not “fix a person’s same-sex attraction.” He is not calling it a fix all solution but says that it may be an option for some who struggle with same-sex attraction.

The gifts section of the book concludes on prayerful lament. Citlau points to the Psalms as a means for raw honesty with God. God promises to be with his children and to hear them and the Psalms are a shining example of how we can share our struggles with God while still acknowledging that he is Lord over all. Citlau does not make light of the struggle nor does he try to explain or pray it away, but he does say that admission of the struggle to God can go a long way in moving towards wholeness.

In the final section, Citlau challenges church leaders in the midst of the culture in which she finds herself. There were two things that stood out to me in this section. First of all, Citlau reminds leaders to stand “what is right and true” while at the same time not couching hatred and disgust in religious terms. Second of all, he challenges the church to constantly remember that the God that we serve is a God of the extraordinary who changes and transforms his people. Citlau holds to his convictions while at the same time challenging the church to move forward in a different way than they have in the past.

It is evident throughout this book that Citlau is passionate about that which he writes. His own struggle with same-sex attraction makes a compelling case for his writing. While his convictions are strong and he is honest and true in what he says, he never comes across as condescending or simplistic. He admits the struggle over and over again and never diminishes that at all. At the same time, he has pointed out what he sees as errors in judgment of the church, bending to the ways of the culture or running from them to hide and surrounding herself with sameness and couching hateful language in biblical rhetoric.

Transformation and wholeness are common themes within this book. Ron Citlau seems to allow for the struggle while at the same time seeking to allow for the transformative work of God to take place. He never claims that it is easy, but he offers hope for those who continue to see their own same-sex attraction and the following out of their desires as contrary to the Bible and following Christ. As with many books, there are things to take and things to leave. It’s unlikely that someone who has not faith in Jesus Christ would find this book helpful, not because of Citlau’s tone or even his convictions but simply because of a difference of ideologies and beliefs.

While not necessarily a convincing read for those who hold no spiritual convictions, I think that Citlau shares some insights in this book that are at least worth a glance for those who struggle with same-sex attraction and who find themselves wondering how to still follow after Jesus Christ.

(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.)

What Is Reformed Theology? – A Book Review

what-is-reformed-theologyR.C. Sproul has become such a staple in the world of reformed theology that it’s hard to even think about the modern world of reformed theology without uttering his name. The seminary professor, pastor, and founder of Ligonier Ministries has written more than ninety books and can be heard regularly on the radio program Renewing Your Mind.

“What Is Reformed Theology?” is a primer on reformed theology. Whether you are new to reformed theology and want to have your questions answered or you are a veteran who simply wants to be sharpened and give yourself a refresher, this book is a valuable resource. While there are times that Sproul’s language and explanations may lose the casual reader, he doesn’t spend an awful lot of time lost in academic language. The subtitle of the book is “Understanding the Basics” and that’s what Sproul seeks to do, show the reader the basics of reformed theology.

The book is divided into two parts: The Foundations of Reformed Theology and Five Points of Reformed Theology. Both parts of the book are also divided into five parts. The first part points to the essentials and foundation of reformed theology, as Sproul describes them, the foundation stones on which reformed theology was built.

Sproul leads the reader through chapters on the God-centered aspect of reformed theology, on the centrality of Scripture, on the centrality of faith and justification to our salvation, to the supremacy of Jesus Christ as prophet, priest, and king, and the three covenants that are also central to reformed theology (giving it its nickname of covenant theology).

The second half walks through the five points of Calvinism. Sproul is quick to point out that these five points were not developed by Calvin himself but by his followers in response to the followers of Arminius. While Sproul shares the acronym TULIP for these five points, he also adds language which he finds more helpful, accurate, and reliable, again pointing out that the TULIP acronym was created reactively.

This second half of the book certainly labors along at times. It feels a little more exhaustive than the first. At times seeming as if Sproul is reiterating his point to a fault rather than simply moving on. Having met peers and colleagues who consider themselves three or four point Calvinists, I could see how this section of the book could give the reader more difficulties. But Sproul’s thorough explanations make for a good apologetic of the validity of reformed theology.

Overall, this is a very helpful book. Sproul has a way of explaining things in a more pedestrian way rather than being overly academic. This will be a helpful resource on my shelf when I need my own refresher on some of the specific explanations of reformed theology and the reformed tradition. While I am not sure that this will convince any skeptics to the validity of reformed theology, Sproul’s explanations will certainly help to reinforce those who have already embraced reformed theology as a way of seeing God and the world he created.

(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.)

Rescuing the Gospel – A Book Review

Rescuing the GospelWhat relevance is the Reformation today? Are the issues that were in question hundreds of years ago still in question within the church today? How about the growing unity between Protestants and Roman Catholics? Are there differences in theology that prevent a true unity within the church? In his book “Rescuing the Gospel,” Erwin Lutzer seeks to give an overview of the events and the people of the Reformation and to bring some clarity and, possibly, answers to these questions.

Lutzer writes, “The better we understand yesterday, the better we will understand today.” His purpose in writing the book is to remind the reader of the issues that caused the Reformation to happen in the first place. In analyzing these issues and becoming more familiar with them, we can look more objectively and intelligently at the things that are taking place within the church today.

The majority of the book is spent on Martin Luther, fitting considering that he is known as the Father of the Reformation for most people. Lutzer opens his narrative by talking about some of the abuses within the church. Lutzer reminds the reader that, “He (Martin Luther) had no intention of breaking from the church; the idea that his actions would eventually change the map of Europe didn’t even enter his mind.” Martin Luther’s intention was to correct the errors that he saw and move forward together, he didn’t expect the results that would eventually come, some of which he saw in his lifetime, others which he did not.

What were the main reasons that Luther hung his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg? Abuses within the papacy caused Luther concern but there were also theological differences that he saw that he believed needed to be remedied. He believed that the Bible should be put into the hands of the people and that the mass should be done in the language of the people as well. He also saw that there were issues which centered around salvation, works, and justification which needed to conform more to what he believed could be read and interpreted in Scripture.

Protestants and Catholics, Lutzer writes, disagree over the idea of justification. Does salvation come through grace perfected in the work of Jesus Christ or is something more necessary? Was Christ’s work sufficient or do we need to add something to his work? The Catholic view of salvation can be described as a “works based salvation,” signifying that Christ’s work was not enough for our salvation. This was the conclusion that Luther came to as he dug deeper into Scripture and it is the same belief that is held within the Evangelical Protestant church today, according to Lutzer. As he puts it, “…no matter how many changes the Catholic Church makes, it will not – indeed cannot – endorse and evangelical view of salvation.”

Lutzer doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Luther and the other Reformers. He is honest about some of their missteps, their faults, and their sins. About Luther and his last days, Lutzer writes, “when the irritability of age and disease took over, he said many things that would have been best left unsaid.” Zwingli watched and added sarcastic commentary as his former friend, Felix Manz, was drowned within a river for his view on baptism. Calvin was responsible for the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus. While all of these men contributed significant writings and thought to the Reformation, Lutzer makes it clear that they were not to be worshipped and that they were just as fallible as you and I.

Throughout Lutzer’s book are illustrations and pictures of various people, places, and things associated with the Reformation. For those who are not world travelers or who may have a limited exposure to the Reformation and its key figures, these are helpful to bring some context to them. Lutzer’s writing is engaging and he does a good job condensing such an expansive subject within the pages of this book.

This book is not intended for the scholar who has devoted significant amount of time to the study of the Reformation, although it may serve as a good overview to remind those already familiar with the Reformation of key events and figures. It may invoke, for some, a desire to do further study and research for one’s self. “Rescuing the Gospel” is well-written and an easy read. Whether the information is new to you or if you simply want a refresher, it’s a worthwhile read.

(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.)

Core Christianity – A Book Review

core christianityWords matter. So does what you believe. When you can express in words what you believe, you’re doing very well. Beliefs that help you connect your story to the bigger story are important as well. Michael Horton believes that this is essential and the key element to living our lives. He writes, “The plot with Christ as the central character ties it all together. Every story in the Bible points not to us and how we can have our best life now, but first to Christ and how everything God orchestrates leads to redemption in him.”

 

Horton’s “Core Christianity” is a primer of sorts on theology and the basics of the Christian faith. He brings the reader through some key and essential beliefs and teachings in Christianity. He covers Jesus, who he is and how he fits into the bigger God picture of the Trinity. He talks of God’s goodness and greatness and the problem with evil. He addresses God’s Word, both the written word and the incarnation, the Son in flesh and blood. Horton also writes of sin, death, and everything after.

 

Horton addresses these topics with a conversational approach that adequately gets his point across without getting bogged down in hefty language. When there are topics or terms that he feels may need a more focused approach, he sets them off to the side in the column to specifically address certain terms and topics. It’s a helpful approach that leaves the reader feeling more informed and better able to continue on through the book.

 

The lens through which Horton is addressing these topics is important to understand for the reader. Horton has a Reformed and covenantal approach towards the theological topics which he addresses. That’s not to say that he does it poorly, he does not, but those who may approach these theological topics from a different camp would be best served understanding this at the outset.

 

Ultimately, Horton addresses these topics with the reader in order that the reader can best approach their life. In fact, Horton writes, “What I mean is that, ironically, it is only when we know how to die properly that we finally have some inkling about how to truly live here and now.” In order for us to truly live, we need to have a better understanding of how to die. It’s a topic which may seem a bit out of place amidst the subject matter until one realizes that Horton’s goal is to connect the reader to a story that exists outside of themselves.

 

As Horton wraps up the material in the book, he address the topic of God’s will in our lives. It seems that Christians have become very good at obsessing on this subject. Horton speaks of the “calling” which is a common term among Christians. Many may seek to find God’s explicit will for their lives, wanting the details of just what it is that they are called to do with their lives. Horton writes, “Don’t worry about the other callings – especially those that may lie in the future. Just be who God has called you to be right where you are, with the people he has called you to serve.” Glory to God becomes the primary calling that Horton emphasizes.

 

I’ve read other books my Michael Horton and have appreciated them. This book does not share anything earth shattering or new, but Horton does condense some hefty material into one hundred and seventy pages. This isn’t a book which needs an advanced degree or seminary degree to appreciate and understand. Horton has a way of approaching these topics with sensitivity, class, and intelligence without losing the reader along the way. As I read the book, I thought about people who I could possibly share this with to give some explanation of these topics.

 

As I said, the information that Horton shares in this book is not new, but he shares it in such a way that it can easily be understood by the average person seeking to dig deeper in their understanding of Christianity. Loftier and thicker works may exist which cover these same topics, but Horton’s book is a simple and easy way to give someone an overview. It may serve as an appetizer for some and a main course for others, either way, Horton does his job well and “Core Christianity” is a worthwhile resource for anyone who wants simple and easily explained methods of talking about theology.

 

(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.)

Watching As Spiritual Discipline

amelieMovies have always been important to me. I’m not sure when they became so important to me or how it happened, but as I have gotten older, I realize that they can be used for so many different things. We’ve watched movies together as a family for a family movie night, I’ve watched movies to unwind and distract me, I’ve watched movies to help me to laugh, and I’ve watched movies to provoke my mind and help me to think deeper thoughts.

It’s the last way that I’ve watched movies that has actually been a larger focus of mine over the years. When my wife and I were living in Connecticut, we were newly married and had a number of single friends. We would host movie discussion nights at our small little house. We had some fun times and great discussions as we worked our way through some interesting films.

Film is story. I know that there are people who don’t see much redemptive qualities about films, but I firmly believe that any medium that can be used to tell honest and profound stories is worthwhile. The stories aren’t always nice and neat, they are sometimes raw and unrefined, maybe even offensive, but isn’t that the way that life really is to us if we’re honest about it?

While I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to take a movie theology class. A lot of my friends scratched their heads at that one, but I explained it was about finding the God stories in movies. The class for me was a confirmation of things that I had thought all along, that people are searching for God, they don’t always find him or come to the right conclusion in their search, but there are lessons learned along the way.

To me, watching films can be a spiritual discipline. Yes, I read God’s Word as the primary source of knowledge and understanding of who he is, but movies are helpful, especially to understand perspectives that are not my own. I know the questions that I have, the things that dwell deep within me, but how about the questions and stirrings in others. In film, we feel those stirrings, we hear those questions, we see the struggles that are real in other people.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think that this is the case with all films. It’s kind of hard to find the deeper meaning of life and the searching for God in “Dumb and Dumber” and other films whose sole purpose is to entertain. But many movies are so much more than just entertainment, they are stories of struggles that are not specific to the fictional characters within their frames, but allegorical depictions of real-life struggles that have been felt by writers, directors, producers, and others.

I still watch films for the entertainment value and to laugh, but I feel the need to watch films that stir my mind, that help me to contemplate who I am, who God is, and who I am as I am in relationship with him. When I look at films from that perspective, the act of watching becomes a spiritual discipline, something that helps me think deeper about myself, others, and God.

It might seem far off to some, and I get that, it’s not for everyone, but I think that it’s like so many things that we see in our culture, a tool. Tools are meant to be used and I’ve seen people use average and ordinary tools to do extraordinary things. Maybe average and ordinary films can be used to think extraordinary thoughts and to help us reflect deeper than we might without them.

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.)

Changing Perspective

I love to read. At any given time, I’ve always got a stack of books that are on my “To Read” list. Heck, I’ve been tracking the books that I’ve read for the last few years and created a reading plan so that I can be more intentional with what I’m reading since that list is so long.

When I look at my Amazon wishlist, I’m not always sure how I discovered some of the books that are on there. A lot of times it’s from reading something else that makes reference to a book. Other times, it’s because of the recommendation of a friend. Still other times, it’s because I was browsing around and stumbled upon something that looked interesting to me.

I also frequent Goodwill a lot. My oldest son is a big reader and I am constantly trying to find age appropriate and yet challenging reads for him. On occasion, I will find something that piques my curiosity there as well.

While there’s generally a story behind every book that I have, I can’t always look at the bookshelf and pull up in my brain just what the story was for that particular book. Other times, it’s not hard remembering at all.

One of my commitments to myself over the past few months was to challenge myself in reading things that are out of my stream. I’m not a big political guy, but Ronald Reagan made an impact on me and made a difference during my lifetime, so I picked up a biography about him. I haven’t quite gotten through it yet, but I’m trying.

The bigger challenge for me is from a theological and ideological standpoint. It’s pretty easy for me to find my theological stream and simply read books by authors with whom I mostly agree. Chances are slim that there will be 100% agreement, but I would say the agreement is in the 75-80% range on most occasions. The challenge is to read books where my agreement with the author lies somewhere between the 20-25% range.

It’s easy to read stuff with which you agree, it’s a whole different ballgame to be stretched to read things with which you don’t agree.

My friend base is fairly diverse (not extremely, but fairly). I look at the various streams and chapters of my life: Childhood, high school, college, work, Connecticut, North Carolina, Virginia, and so on. I can find myself beginning to ask a lot of questions when faced with the difference between me and some of my friends. Somewhere, there was enough commonality for these people and me to become friends, but there is also enough diversity there that we might engage in some riveting and loud conversation should we venture into certain topics.

I think it’s important to change your perspective once in a while. It needs to be done within reason, but I think that there is so much value in seeing things from a different viewpoint. It seems almost inevitable that when we change our viewpoints and perspectives, we will see things that we did not see before.

I felt the need to change my perspective while I was in seminary. I had begun questioning some of the things that I had been taught growing up, and I thought, “What better way to do it than in seminary?” I wanted to wrestle through some issues on my own, without feeling that someone was right behind me whispering, “It’s that one, you know that one is the right way!”

Now, when some people begin to question, they take major leaps away from where they are. I never quite got there. Of course, major leaps for some may be child’s play for others. My leaps have never been incredibly far, but they’ve been leaps nonetheless.

I’ve read a few books this year that were a challenge to my own thinking. They were books that had been recommended by someone with whom I did not necessarily agree but with whom I have a good relationship. That seemed to be key, I love and trust these people, even though we don’t necessarily agree, and so I gave credence to their recommendations.

I hope to be sharing my thoughts on some of these books on here in the future. I hope that the things that I have learned can be beneficial to others as well.