Category Archives: Reviews

Recovering the Real Lost Gospel

Recovering the Real Lost Gospel: Reclaiming the Gospel as Good News by Darrell L. Bock (B&H, 2010).

Recovering the Real Lost Gospel is an outstanding resource for growing in your understanding of the gospel. In just 136 pages, Darrell Bock surveys a wide range of biblical texts, offering the reader a broader perspective on the gospel than we usually see. If you’re looking to dig deeper into the gospel, this is a great place to begin.

According to Bock, we’ve lost something of the gospel today. It’s not that we’ve lost the gospel entirely. But we have lost something important. As Bock explains:

[W]hen I hear some people preach the gospel today, I am not sure I hear its presentation as good news. Sometimes, I hear a therapeutic call – that God will make us feel better or proposer more. Other times, I hear so much about Jesus paying for sin that the gospel seems limited to a transaction – the removal of a debt. Or perhaps I hear it as a kind of spiritual root canal. Still other times, I hear a presentation that makes the gospel seem more about avoiding something from God versus experiencing something with Him. Other presentations make me think Jesus came to change politics in the world. (p. 2)

So Bocks’ main concern is that “the church has become cloudy on the purpose of the gospel” (p. 2). And that’s tragic.

His primary concern is that we’ve focused too much on one part of the story: the cross. And in the process, we’ve turned the gospel into a mere transaction, a ticket into heaven. Instead, he contends that we need to see the cross as the center of the gospel, but not the whole message. There’s more to the story.

So this book is really an attempt to survey how the Bible itself describes the gospel as a way of helping us all see that there’s more to it than we usually recognize.

What I Like

1. The Beginning. I love that Bock started his gospel study at the beginning of the story: Genesis. As I’ve argued before, I don’t think you can really understand the gospel unless you see how it connects to the overall story of what God has been up to from the very beginning. And Bock grounds the gospel in God’s creative purposes.

2. The Cross. And I completely agree that although the cross is absolutely central to the gospel, we make a mistake when we present the gospel as though it were only about saving individuals from their sins. That is good news. But there’s more good news that we need to hear. And Bock does a great job showing the the cross can be the hub of the story without losing sight of the rest of the story.

3. The Spirit. Bock also emphasizes the Spirit throughout the book. One of the greatest weaknesses of many gospel books is their neglect of the Spirit. But Bock is quick to point out that the gospel is only good news if you understand it as a story of God creating a new relationship with his people in and through the Spirit. Chapter 4 in particular is an outstanding discussion of grace as central to the Gospel, and the gift of the Spirit as central to a biblical view of grace. That chapter alone makes the book worth reading.

4. Repentance and Faith. Finally, Bock does a nice job discussing how we respond tot he gospel through repentance and faith. Bock points out that these are really two sides of the same coin – distinguishable, but inseparable. And, although I thought he could have made it a bit more clear, he does emphasize that repentance involves a radical change of mind about who God is followed by a significant transformation of one’s actual life. The order there is important. If we define repentance as the change itself, it’s easy to slip into viewing repentance as a work, something that we need to accomplish in order to be worthy of salvation. But that’s not how it happens. Personal transformation is absolutely a part of the story, but only as a consequence of the gospel, never its precursor.

What I Don’t Like

Overall, this is a great, little book. But let me offer a few comments on some weaknesses I see in the book.

1. OT Background. Although Bock did a great job grounding the gospel story in Genesis 1-2, I thought the OT background of the story was still a little weak in places. He pays almost no attention to the story of the Fall in Genesis 3, partly because he probably thinks this part of the story gets overemphasized in many gospel accounts, and he says next to nothing about the Mosaic covenant and the role of the Law in this story. These are all key elements of the story that he really needed to address in more detail.

2. Resurrection. Bock does deal with the resurrection, but he presents it merely as the “vindication” of Christ’s work. In other words, the resurrection is God’s declaration that he has accepted Jesus’s sacrifice and declared him to be the Messiah. But for the biblical authors, the resurrection seems much more significant that this. Paul connects the resurrection directly to our justification (Rom. 4:25), and he argues that without the resurrection, we have no hope (1 Cor. 15). Throughout the NT, the resurrection seems much more central to the gospel than its mere vindication.

3. Imputation. Interestingly, Bock says nothing about “The Great Exchange” – i.e. Christ taking our sins on himself and imputing his righteousness to us. Regardless of what you think about the doctrine of imputation, it’s startling that he doesn’t even address the idea and its key verses. Now, this is probably because he thinks that this kind of “transaction” approach to the gospel is overemphasized today. And he’s right. But that doesn’t mean that the solution is to ignore it entirely.

4. So What. Bock says almost nothing on the significance of the gospel for everyday life today. Like many, Bock focuses on the gospel as the story of how salvation begins. But, other than affirming that personal transformation is a necessary result of the gospel, he says very little about how the gospel should shape the rest of one’s life.

But, despite these reservations, this is outstanding book that I highly recommend. Bock has done an impressive job of packing a lot of great material into a very small package. And unlike some books about the gospel, this one manages to stay readable and accessible. If you’re looking for a good way of pressing further into the gospel, this is a great resource.

[Thanks to B&H for providing me with a review copy of Recovering the Lost Gospel. And this review was originally published over at Trans·formed.]

An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Biblical Scholar.

Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar by Ben Witherington (Zondervan, 2011)
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What does it take to be a biblical scholar, teacher, or serious student of the Bible? Ben Witherington addresses this question in his latest book, Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar. He answers the question by sharing part of his own story of how he became one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, publishing nearly 40 books to date. The reader is invited in, as Witherington opens his heart; even sharing his own poetic reflections to express the sounds of his soul. The book is a very easy read; even accessible to the budding bible student in high school.

He addresses a topic which one will undoubtedly face as a Christian. Is critical thinking at odds with biblical faith? Many Christians choose ignorance; however, he shows us that “critical thinking is not only not at odds with biblical faith, it is required.” Throughout the book the motto of Anselm resounds, “Faith seeking understanding.” Not that one understands in order to believe, but that one value reason to help understand what is believed.

For the M.Div. and Th.M. student there stands great practical advice: how to choose a school for your PhD; how to get a job; the importance of singular focus; counting the costs and not just financially; tidbits on the art of rhetoric; importance of reading classical literature; importance of Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, English, French, and German languages; why one should avoid ad hominem argumentation; the fact that only 10% of biblical scholars end up teaching in their dissertation area; and an amazing ego-shattering “illustrated guide to a PhD.”

One will find that there are certain aspects of this book which are perhaps dated, even though it was published in the year 2011. For instance, Witherington is opposed to Kindle usage, doesn’t allow students to use computers during lecture, still types with 2 fingers, and speaks about a typewriter ball, which most everyone under 30 years old has never have heard of. These dated aspects do not detract from the flow of the book; they are more humorous than anything.

The main disappointment I had in this book was the breadth of target audience. The title makes one think that it is intended for M.Div. and Th.M. students; however, the book is actually intended for lay persons, students, and biblical scholars, which is a very broad audience. Graduate students already pursuing biblical studies do not need entire chapters devoted to biblical context, the importance of original languages, OT/NT, Ancient Near East history, etc. Much of the book was an exhortation to study and read everything possible if it has anything to do with the Bible.

Because the book is an easy read I would recommend it to anyone who is considering a vocation in biblical scholarship. It will either scare away or encourage one into the world of biblical scholarship, as the mental, spiritual, physical, and economic costs associated can be quite intimidating. It will only take a few hours to read; don’t bother taking detailed notes as this book is not intended for study. Rather, it is simply the tale of a biblical scholar. And as said before, one must read this book simply to see the “illustrated guide to a PhD,” it is the sort of illustration which one will remember and use throughout the rest of one’s life.

[Many thanks to Zondervan for generously providing us with a review copy of Is there a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar.]

Church history from the rest of the world

Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom.

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I teach a church history survey class every year. It’s one of my favorite classes. But, every year I have the same frustration. There’s just not enough time to do much with the history of the church around the world. With just one semester to cover 2,000 years of church history, my goal is to make sure the students understand the narrative that leads to where they are today. And, that means telling a story of church history that is almost exclusively focused on the western church,  leaving out the rest of the world in the process.

To address this weakness, I require the students to do some reading/writing on the history of the church in the rest of the world. And, Clouds of Witnesses would be an outstanding book to use for this purpose. In a series of 17 short essays, the book introduces to key leaders in Africa, India, Korea, and China from the 1880s to the 1980s. The essays are well-written, interesting, and short enough that they don’t bury the casual reader under too many historical details.

I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about William Wade Harris and the influence that he still has on Christianity in West Africa. And, although I’d read more on the East African Revival, the two chapters are Simeon Nsibambi and Janani Luwum were still fascinating. Some other favorite chapters were the ones on Sundar Singh (India), Sun Chu Kil (Korea), and Yao-Tsung Wu (China), all people about whom I knew (and still know) too little.

Unquestionably, the greatest benefit from reading a book like this is the opportunity to see and be challenged by how different experiences in different parts of the world have shaped and colored Christianity. From a political activist in South Africa wrestling with the injustices of apartheid, to a Hindu convert striving to live faithfully in a hostile environment, and a Chinese Christian struggling to reconcile the Gospel and communism, they’re all struggling with what it means to be Christian in their cultural context. So, at every step, the thoughtful reader faces several important questions: (1) How I can learn and be mentored by what Christians have learned from different cultural contexts?, (2) How do you recognize when culture is having a negative impact on the Gospel? and (2) In what ways has my own cultural context shaped, positively and negatively, my experience of Christianity and the Gospel? The opportunity to reflect on those questions alone is worth the price of the book.

Clouds of Witnesses does have a few weaknesses, but they are ones that stem entirely from the nature of the book. First, to keep the book from getting too long, the authors had to restrict themselves to just a few key areas of global history. Sadly, then, there are no chapters on Christian leaders in South America, the middle east, eastern Europe, or the Pacific Islands, all of which lie outside the narrative that most western Christians know. Second, since the chapters are introductory and short, they never provide enough information and they feel somewhat “superficial” in places, just skimming over the relevant information. It’s hard to see how the authors could have done otherwise in a book like this, but it’s worth noting. And finally, the focus of the book is on providing the details of the various stories, not on discussing or evaluating them. So, although the book provides ample opportunity for serious reflection on the relationship between history, culture, and the Gospel, it does not try to provide any direction for that discussion. Again, that’s not the book’s purpose, so this isn’t really a fault. But, if you’re hoping to use the book for that purpose, you’ll need to do some work on your own.

Clouds of Witnesses is a fascinating book that is well-worth reading. Designed to be a companion volume to Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global FaithClouds of Witnesses can still be enjoyed on its own. And, although I think it could be used as a supplemental textbook in a church history class, those who have little or no background in church history will still be able to profit from this book. If you need more exposure to the story of Christianity around the world, particularly in the last couple of centuries with the explosive growth of Christianity worldwide, Clouds of Witnesses is a great resource.

[Many thinks to IVP for providing me with a review copy of Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia.]

Racial reconciliation and the Gospel

One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).

 

Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.

With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.

SUMMARY

With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).

STRENGTHS

The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.

But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.

Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.

Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.

WEAKNESSES

Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.

First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.

Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)

Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.

CONCLUSION

One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.

[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]

The Story of God, the Story of Us

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding (IVP, 2010).

★★★★☆ and  ★★☆☆☆

The Story of God seeks to retell the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, mission, and consummation in a new and engaging way. Rather than just summarizing the story, Gladding weaves his own narrative to help us see the story from two very different perspectives. In the process, he draws out some aspects of the story that we often overlook, and helps us see it in new and interesting ways. If you’re already familiar with the biblical narrative and are looking for a fresh take that will challenge you in new ways, this is well-worth considering. But, if you were hoping for a solid introduction to the biblical story and its key ideas, I suggest you look elsewhere. And, that’s why I’ve given the book two different scores.

Summary

Gladding divides the book into two halves. In the first half, he tells the story of a group of Jews living during the Babylonian exile who struggling to make sense of their status as God’s people and what has happened to them. An older teacher leads them in a re-telling of the story from Genesis through exile and, in the process, reminds them of who the story is really about, what God has been trying to do since the beginning, how they ended up where they are, and how they should continue to live in response to this story. The second half of the book jumps forward a few hundred years and picks up the story in the New Testament period. Here we find a non-Christian merchant coming into contact with an early Christian community, and we watch as he comes to understand both their lifestyle and their message, gradually becoming a part of the community himself. So, these two narratives serve as the lenses through which Gladding presents the biblical story.

Strengths

The book’s greatest strengths lie in its readability and creativity. Gladding writes well and offers several interesting characters that help the reader stay engaged. I particularly enjoyed the story-teller approach in the first half of the book. I was able to picture some of what it would have been like for Jews in the exile to struggle with the difficult questions of identity, purpose, and destiny that must have plagued them as they lived outside the promised land. And, Gladding doesn’t back away from engaging the difficult questions that people in a situation like that would have been asking.

I also appreciated that Gladding doesn’t try to offer simple answers to difficult questions. He often portrays his story-teller as struggling with a particularly tough question and openly acknowledging that he doesn’t have all the answers. Instead, he continually returns to the overall narrative as the proper context within which to struggle (continually) with the most difficult questions. Granted, this does feel on occasion like Gladding is just dodging the hard questions, but a book like this can’t do everything. So, Gladding primarily stays focused on the narrative even while raising and occasionally addressing some of the harder questions.

And, I really like the way that Gladding tied the story to identity and mission. For Gladding, we must know and remember the story if we’re going to understand ourselves as the people of God and remain faithful to our calling in the world. To some extent, the book serves as a warning of what happens when we forget the story and an appeal to re-tell that story to ourselves and our children on a regular basis.

Weaknesses

One of my bigger concerns about the book is that Gladding sometimes presents his particular interpretations of the story as though they were simply obvious elements of the story itself. The most obvious example of this is Gladding’s egalitarianism. For Gladding, egalitarianism is an obvious implication of the story from the very beginning, even though it gets clouded as the story degenerates into hierarchy and power struggle after the fall. Now, I’m sure that egalitarians will find this to be one of the book’s strengths. My problem is that Gladding offers this interpretation with no indication that there may be other ways of reading the story that many find equally compelling. (He does note a few minor characters who have obviously understood the story differently, but not in a very positive light.) My problem here isn’t so much that he presents the story from an egalitarian perspective, but that he does so without acknowledging that there’s a legitimate question at this point. He’s not afraid to raise, and even wrestle, with other difficult questions. So, by not doing so here, he really obscures the reality of the interpretive situation.

Another key concern is that Gladding doesn’t really do justice to the biblical story when it comes to issues of sin/wrath and guilt/shame. I appreciate that he presents the story consistently in terms of relationship and faithfulness (or its lack). That’s necessary to telling the story well. But, he places little emphasis on the themes of God’s holiness and wrathful response to sin, or the consequent guilt and shame that are so destructive for relationships on every level. Even if you think these elements are often overemphasized in traditional theology, the answer isn’t a corresponding neglect but a more helpful balance.

I also felt that the part of the story focused on the cross and resurrection was sadly lacking. He devotes an entire chapter to the cross and does a nice job identifying some of the amazing benefits that God pours out on his people through the cross. But, he completely dodges the issue of substitutionary atonement. It’s not even that he brings it up and rejects it. He doesn’t even deal with it. He simply points to some (not all) of the great benefits of the atonement and then says it’s a mystery how God in his love brings those about through the cross. Given how he bypassed other key themes earlier in the story, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t make substitutionary atonement part of his story, but I was surprised that he didn’t even raise the question.

Finally, although I like the emphasis on “story” and find it a helpful way of talking about identity, mission, and faithfulness, I thought it was overdone in places. For example, at one point the Jewish story-teller explains to his people that they’re in exile because they’ve forgotten the story (p. 85). Although that’s true in a sense, it would seem more faithful to the actual narrative to say that they’re in exile because of their rebelliousness and idolatry. Gladding would probably say that this is included in what he means by “forgetting” the story, but it’s hard to see how any modern reader who doesn’t already know the story would make that connection.

Conclusion

Gladding has done a fine job presenting a very readable and compelling overview of the biblical narrative with a strong sense of how that story should drive our own identity as God’s people and our sense of mission and faithfulness in the world. Unfortunately, I think that he doesn’t do justice to quite a number of key themes that are absolutely central to the story. So, I can’t recommend the book as a primary resource for understanding the biblical narrative. And, that’s the reason for the lower score. If the book was presented as a resource for people who already have a solid understanding of the story and are looking to be challenged with a very different perspective on that story, then this is an outstanding resource that I would highly recommend. It would still have some significant flaws, but would be very useful in that respect. Unfortunately, though, the book presents itself as an introduction to the biblical story designed for people who have not even read the Bible (as explained in the preface). If that’s the purpose, then the book’s failure to deal adequately with key themes is a real problem. So, I feel like I almost need to give the book two scores depending on who is reading it and why: four stars for the person looking for a fresh take on a familiar story, two stars for the person looking for a solid introduction to the biblical narrative and its core themes.

Francis Chan and Erasing Hell

Ok Ok!!  I know everyone is tired of hearing about hell.  I myself checked out about a month ago.  However, since it had been a while since I checked in I thought I would see if anyone had posted anything fresh on the issue.  I was optimistically hoping to find a response from Rob Bell clarifying his position.  To this point I have not, but I did find a promo video for Francis (I literally almost wrote Jackie) Chan’s new book, Erasing Hell.  Don’t worry he’s just asking some good thought provoking questions.  The book sounds like a respectful  and thoughtful response (IN WHICH I NOW MAKE A BIG DISCLAIMER THAT I HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK YET!  THUS I AM NOT ENDORSING NOR DEFAMING IT!!!).

A Place for Truth (a review)

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions edited by Dallas Willard  (IVP 2010).

★★★☆☆

A Place for Truth is an interesting collection of essays originally presented as a series of talks at various universities through the Veritas Forum. The goal of the series was to reintroduce the pursuit of the “big questions” into American universities so that they can again become “a place for truth.” Whether the forums themselves accomplished that broader purpose, the book certainly raises and explores a variety of interesting truth questions. Since the material was originally presented orally to a general, and largely undergraduate, audience, the chapters are relatively brief, introductory, and easy to follow. So, if you already have a background in any of the subjects covered by the various essays, you will likely find the material disappointing. But, if you’re looking for a readable introduction to a number of interesting questions, this would be an interesting place to start.

Summary

The book has been organized loosely around six main themes:

1. General questions related to truth itself (chapters 1-3)

2. The relationship between faith and science (chapters 4-6)

3. The adequacy of atheism (chapters 7-8)

4. The nature of humanity and the pursuit for meaning (9-11)

5. The Christian worldview (chapter 12)

6. Issues related to social justice (chapters 13-15)

This divisions, however, are fairly loose. It’s best to read each essay as a stand-alone piece on some aspect of “truth,” rather than as part of any intentional structure or organizing motif.

Strengths

Like any collection of essays, the strength of the book lies in its best essays. And, several essays really stand out. Without question, my favorite was Jeremie Begby’s piece on “The Sense of an Ending.” Begbie builds on the idea that the ending of a story is what “gives the whole story a unity, gathering the strands together, resolving the discord and dissonance into…a ‘grand temporal consonance'” (216). He then reflects on tension and resolution in music, before diving into postmodernism, metanarratives, and the importance of “living with a sense of God’s ending” (228). The essay serves as an argument for the power of an eschatological imagination for theology and life today.

Dallas Willards’ essay, “Nietzsche versus Jesus Christ” was also well worth reading. Willard begins by discussing Nietzsche in relation to constructionism, phenomenalism, modernism, and truth, showing how the Nietzschian vision has thoroughly shaped contemporary perspectives on these issues. He then argues that the heart of the debate between Jesus and Nietzsche is the issue of truth and “its relationship to human freedom, well-being, and fulfillment” (163). And, of course, he concludes by arguing that it is only in Jesus Christ that we find a valid and satisfying account of these issues.

Tim Keller’s essay on “Reason for God: The Exclusivity of Truth” offers a nice summary of strategies that people use to reject exclusivity and why those strategies don’t work. He also makes a helpful distinction between “propagandist” secularism (i.e. imposing a secular worldview on everyone) and “procedural secularism” (i.e. creating a neutral space for public discourse).

And, Paul Vitz gave a fascinating essay on “The Psychology of Atheism.” Basically, he uses the pscyhological arguments many people use to explain why people believe, and he turns them around to discuss the psychological reasons that have for not believing. I’m sure no atheist would find his arguments convincing, but believers don’t find pychologized accounts of their faith convincing either. Turnabout is fair play, as they say.

Weaknesses

Since the strength of the book rests in its best essays, it should come as no surprise that its weaknesses lie in the opposite direction. And, many of the essays in the book suffered from three general flaws that hindered their usefulness for me.

Os Guiness‘ lecture, “Time for Truth,” made the mistake of trying to cover too much ground in a relatively short essay. As a result, I felt that he just skimmed the surface, never touching down long enough to say anything really interesting or compelling.

Stemming from the originally oral nature of the presentations, several of the chapters involved a give-and-take between thinkers on opposite sides of an issue. While I like this approach in general, I didn’t think that the chapters afforded adequate space for either party to develop his/her ideas. Instead, the reader is left with some interesting thoughts that do little to advance her understanding of the issue. And, I was particularly disappointed by the essay on “Can robots become human?” That chapter title caught my eye right away, but the bulk of the chapter is devoted to a moderated dialog between the authors that I didn’t find terribly interesting.

Finally, two of the essays, Hugh Ros and Mary Poplin, took an entirely narratival approach to their argument. While some readers will probably find their personal stories compelling and engaging, I had a difficult time seeing that they contributed much to the issues at hand.

Having identified these three areas as weaknesses in the book, however, I’m sure that many others will find them to be strengths instead. There is a place for cursory overviews, give-and-take dialog, and personal narrative. For me, though, these chapters fell fairly flat.

Conclusion

Before concluding, I should comment on a few more of the essays. Several were difficult for me to classify as either strong or weak. That’s because these essays were just solid explanations of arguments that a particular author has been making for quite some time. In this category I’d put those essays by Richard Neuhaus, Francis Collins, N. T. Wright, Ron Snider, and John Montgomery. Since I was very familiar with these authors and their arguments, I found it difficult to get interested. But, if these are new ideas/authors for you, I’m sure you will see them differently.

In the end, A Place for Truth contains several outstanding essays that are definitely worth reading, several solid essays that provide excellent introductions to key arguments, and a few essays that I found less interesting/compelling, but that might impact a someone else quite differently. If you’re looking for good, short essays on contemporary truth issues, this one is worth considering.

Getting the Reformation Wrong

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of James R. Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong (IVP, 2010).

★★★★☆

James Payton Jr. has done an outstanding job identifying and correcting a number of common mistakes that people make when talking about the Reformation. I have to admit that my review of this book is biased by the fact that Payton routinely provides support for a number of things that I argue in my church history class. So, if he agrees with me, he must be right! Even without that, though, Payton has put together a very clear and readable book that should be helpful to anyone wanting to get a better handle on the Reformation.

Summary

The structure of the book is pretty easy to follow. Each of the twelve chapters identifies some mistake that people commonly make in understanding the Reformation and Payton’s suggestion for a better approach. Along the way, Payton argues that we need a much better understanding of: (1) the relationship between the Reformation and medieval calls for reform; (2) the influence of the Renaissance on the Reformation; (3) the progressive nature of Luther’s theological “breakthrough”; (4) the conflict and disagreement that took place among the various reformers; (5) the real meaning of sola fide; (6) the real meaning of sola scriptura; (7) the role of the Anabaptists; (8) contemporaneous Catholic reform movements; (9) the transition to Protestant Scholasticism; (10) whether the Reformation was a “success”; (11) whether the Reformation is a “norm” for today.

Strengths

Without a doubt, the greatest strengths of the book are in its clarity and readability. I wouldn’t hesitate to require a book like this in a seminary or even an undergraduate context.

And, as indicated above, I wholeheartedly agree with the corrections that Payton offers. He does a great job identifying a number of common mistakes that people make that are really out of joint with the scholarly consensus on the Reformation. There is certainly room for debate on many issues relative to the Reformation. But Payton focuses on those areas with widespread consensus in the scholarly community and significant misunderstanding at the popular level.

Weaknesses

The one real drawback to the book is that it does require the reader to have some knowledge of the Reformation. Of course, that’s pretty much required by the book’s title. It’s hard to get the Reformation wrong unless you know something about the Reformation in the first place. So, this isn’t the right book to begin your understanding of the Reformation, though it would make an excellent companion to a more generalized introduction to Reformation history and thought.

There were also a few places where I would not necessarily agree with Patyon’s understanding of certain aspects of the Reformation. For example, although “justification by faith” was unquestionably a fundamental doctrine for Luther, I would not necessarily agree that Luther used it like a scholastic theologian who identifies “basic postulate” and then rearticulates “all teaching to comport with that postulate” (p. 94). That seems to be over-reading Luther’s use of that doctrine and runs the risk of downplaying other doctrines that were also fundamentally important.

A similar example of oversimplification was Payton’s statement that Luther focused primarily “on the individual and his or her needs” while Zwingli and other reformers were more concerned about the “community” (p. 101). Although Payton doesn’t present this as an either/or, it still seems like an unfortunate way of characterizing Reformational thought since all of the Reformers had a strong emphasis on both. The fact that they expressed those interests differently, which they clearly did, does not mean that we should see any of them as neglecting or downplaying either.

Conclusion

Nonetheless, these are relatively small quibbles on particular points of interpretation that do little to impact the value of the work as a whole. Getting the Reformation Wrong is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to understand the Reformation better. If you don’t really know anything about the Reformation, don’t worry. At least you haven’t misunderstood anything yet. But, if you do know a few things about the Reformation, then this might be the perfect book for you to read and make sure you haven’t gotten something wrong.

Review: Worship and the Reality of God by John Jefferson Davis

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of John Jefferson Davis’s Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP, 2010).

★★☆☆☆

I had a difficult time assigning a final score to this book. On the one hand, I picked it up ready to be convinced by its basic argument: evangelical worship is often theologically shallow and driven by pragmatism and experientialism.  And, indeed, Davis offers much food for thought in this direction. But, on the other hand, I found many of Davis’s core arguments unconvincing and his criticisms of evangelical worship either unfair or insufficiently explained. So, although the book provided a useful occasion for thinking through what God’s “presence” in worship actually means and why evangelical worship is often frustrating and shallow, I’m not convinced that Davis offers the kind of meaningful engagement necessary to provide a helpful way forward.

Summary

Davis opens the book by laying out his fundamental concern: evangelical worship focuses more on “worshedutainment” (great word!) than on fostering “a vivid awareness of God’s presence as the central reality in worship” (9). This lack constitutes “the growing God-vacuum in modern American evangelical worship” (12).

And, this problem stems from our failure to understand (1) the importance and priority of worship; (2) the nature of worship; (3) the participants of worship; (4)  the elements of worship; (5)  the “ontologies” of modernity and postmodernity and how they undermine true worship; (6) the need to learn new behaviors and new ‘doxological skills’ for the enjoyment of true worship.” Thus, evangelical worship suffers from a terminal shallowness and captivity to non-Christian ways of thinking and acting in the world.

In response to those problems, Davis calls for us to develop churches that are deep, thick, and different:

that is, a deep church that is marked by the depth of its encounter with God in worship and the spiritual disciplines, rather than a church oriented toward numerical growth; a thick church characterized by thick relationships and commitments rather than thin personal relationships of consumerist and postmodern culture; and a different church of ‘resident aliens’ (Hauerwas) that is unashamedly distinct from the culture in its ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior. (32).

Such a church will be very different in its beliefs and practices from any group formed by one of the competing ideologies of the modern world: scientific materialism and digital virtualism. As Davis explains,

The real problem lies at the level of ontology—that is, at the level of a fundamental background theory of the real that is operating in the hearts and the minds of the people, the preacher and the praise band, even before they walk through the door of the church or onto the stage. (14)

So, any real solution to our problem requires that we ground ourselves in ways of thinking and being that orient us around the true ontology – Trinitarian theism.

Each of the four main chapters of the book focuses on helping us accomplish this very task. In chapter two, Davis explains three key problems in evangelical worship: Your ‘God’ is too ‘light’; your vision of the church is too low; your view of your self is too high, and consequently, your worship is too shallow” (38). Instead of being grounded in a robust theology, Davis contends that our worship is pragmatic and shallow:

The personal presence of God in the ecclesia, by virtue of his covenant promises, his Word, sacraments and Spirit, invests the ecclesia with an ontic weight that does not obtain with merely  human organizations and assemblies. In practice, it seems that ordinary evangelical Protestant concepts of the church reflect notions that are more sociological than theological, more functional and pragmatic than ‘mystical’ and ontological, more Pelagian that Pauline and pneumatic—that is, an eviscerated ecclesiology in which the church is viewed as a voluntary human organization gathered for certain activities. (63)

Chapter three focuses more particularly on the question of God’s presence in worship.

Christian churches need to constitute in their practices—especially in their practices of worship—alternative plausibility structures that can embody and experience the presence of the divine in a way that directly challenges the suffocating naturalism of the dominant culture. (83)

Davis argues that the revivalist background of modern evangelicalism often causes us to focus more on bringing the individual to a point of decision than on the centrality of God’s presence in worship, regardless of how Trinitarian or orthodox our theology might be.  So, in place of this individualistic revivalism, Davis calls for and understanding of worship that orients space and time around God and his Kingdom.

With the strong emphasis on God’s presence in worship, it is no surprise that chapter four focuses its attention on the nature of God’s presence in the Eucharist. Davis deals briefly with some of the major perspectives on real presence, but focuses on the reality of God’s special presence in the Eucharist (however it is understood) as the focus for most Christian traditions. So, Eucharist should be a key focus as we seek to retrieve a sense of God’s presence in worship today.

And, the final chapter focuses on identifying some practical applications for the theological and theoretical insights developed throughout the book. So, he focuses in this chapter on offering some specific thoughts for developing churches that recognize and manifest the real presence of God in worship by being deep, thick, and different.

Strengths

Probably my favorite part of the book was his emphasis on how the way that we view ourselves, our churches, and reality as a whole affects worship. To put it another way, ontology matters.

Davis also joined the growing chorus of voices criticizing the evangelical church for an unhealthy focusing on preaching as the almost exclusive focus of the service. Although I think he goes too far in his critique of preaching-centered services, he does do a nice job pointing out the danger of becoming unbalanced in this area. It does seem interesting that seminaries typically requires multiple preaching courses but few classes on worship (if any). Without a robust theology of worship, a “worship” service can easily lose its way and find its focus in some other purpose (e.g. instruction, entertainment, outreach).

I also liked his call for us to think through each aspect of our worship services and wrestle with what these practices really signify in the life of the congregation. I didn’t think his presentation was as theologically nuanced as that offered by James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, but he still presents some interesting ideas worth considering. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on understanding the formative nature of technology:

Such cultural artifacts are real and have ontic weight to the extent that they display internal structures and coherence, embody intentions, meanings and symbolic references, encode information, have stable existence over time, and have the power to shape and influence behaviors and institutions. (109)

I’ll make some more critical comments on this point in the next section, but we do need to realize that such technologies are value-laden.

Weaknesses

One of my greatest frustrations with the book was the fact that Davis repeatedly claimed that evangelical worship lacks an awareness of God’s “presence,” but he makes very little attempt to explain or justify this conclusion. For example, after attending one evangelical service, he comments: “A sense of the presence of the holy in the administration of holy Communion was  obvious that morning” (113). But he offers no justification for this conclusion. He routinely points to liturgical practices as offering a deeper sense of God’s presence and at one point compares American evangelicalism unfavorably to the more Pentecostal worship of the global south. But, in neither place does he explain why these different worship practices necessarily evidence God’s presence better than those he is criticizing. Indeed, he leaves himself open to the charge that it is merely his preference for liturgical worship that causes him to find other forms of worship unsatisfying. (I don’t think this is the case, but the shape of the argument makes it look like it.) So, at the end of the day, his central conclusion – “contemporary evangelical Christians have lost their awareness of the presence of the living and holy God as the central reality of all true worship” (100) – seems unjustified.

Additionally, he failed to provide any explanation for why liturgical acts are better suited for shaping Christian worship and identity. Like many proponents of liturgical worship, Davis claims that such practices shape time/space in particularly Christian ways and are, therefore, more conducive to truly Christian worship. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with this, his failure to provide any meaningful argument for this liturgical perspective seriously undermined the value of the book. If he is going to suggest that liturgical practice is a key part of the solution to the lack of God’s presence in modern worship, I would have liked to see a much stronger  defense of that conclusion.

I also didn’t like the fact that all six of his areas of deficiency were phrased in entirely cognitive ways. I teach for a living, so obviously I think understanding things is important. But, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that the weakness of contemporary worship is simply a failure to understand. I also found the emphasis on cognitive failure rather odd given his similar strong emphasis on liturgical practice as the solution.

His discussions of technology could also be more nuanced. While I appreciated some of his comments (see above), he consistently painted technology in a very negative light, often neglecting even to mention that there are other perspectives. For example, he commented at one point that technology is “altering the nature of human consciousness itself” (15). This is a highly contentious statement that should be defended rather than asserted. And, even if true, it fails to engage the fact that this would be true for all technological development – not just the recent ones. This may seem like a small matter, but since he made technology central to one of this three primary worldviews, digital virtualism, this actually became a real weakness.

As a result of all these weaknesses, his suggestions for practical application remained unconvincing. He concludes that we need to move toward an “ancient-modern blended worship” that highlights: (1) liturgy, tradition and ritual, (2) visual arts; (3) right use of electronic media; (4) promotion of spiritual gifts; (5) ancient-modern musical canon; (6) weekly Eucharist. I’m not against any of these things, but he did not succeed in convincing me that these come from theological conviction rather than personal preference. And, it’s hard to see how we can deepen our worship practices by moving from newer personal preferences to older ones.

Conclusion

Overall, Worship and the Reality of God gave me a lot to think about and some interesting ideas to chew on. But, in the end, I found its basic argument unsatisfying and insufficiently nuanced at key places. It is probably best suited for someone wanting to become more familiar with some of the ideas behind recent criticisms of evangelical worship.

Short Review: God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark

In God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (HarperOne, 2010), Rodney Stark offers an interesting, and different, take on the Crusades. According to Stark, we should not see the Crusades as expressions of European aggression, colonialism, or religious intolerance. This picture of the Crusades is largely, if not exclusively, the result of Enlightenment thinking and its strident criticisms of institutional Christianity. Instead, he contends that the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic wars of aggression, persecution of those on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the Turkish threat to Constantinople. In effect, he is pushing back against the idea that the Crusades were a time when brutal, ignorant Christians ravaged the peaceful, cultured Muslim lands.

There were several features of the book that I found most interesting. First, was Stark’s claim that the Crusades were not a prominent feature of Muslim rhetoric until the modern era:

Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East. And anti-crusader feelings did not become intense until after the founding of the state of Israel. (9)

I also appreciated Stark’s argument that we often overemphasize the cultural superiority of Muslim societies over those of the European “Dark Ages.” He specifically identified technological developments in transportation, agriculture, and warfare as evidence of significant cultural creativity and advancement by European societies.

And, Stark did a very nice job discussing the motivations of the Crusaders, arguing (convincingly, I think) that they were motivated more by their perceived need for penance and a desire to liberate the Holy Land than by a lust for power or wealth. (I didn’t realize that as few as 10-15% of Frankish knights ever went on Crusade, reinforcing the idea that the Crusades were not seen as a quick avenue to power and prestige.)

I did think that Stark’s argument stretched a little thin in places and that he could have done more to recognize the dark side of the Crusades. Nonetheless, his basic conclusion was compelling and interesting:

The thrust of the preceding chapters can be summarized very briefly. The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. They sincerely believed that they served in God’s battalions.