Charles Roesel, It's a God Thing
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It's a God Thing is not, strictly speaking, an apologetics book. But I want to highlight it because it mirrors an important point I've been making for a while. Before we begin, though, some disclosure.
Charles Roesel, the author, is the son of my local ministry partner, Carey Roesel. He is also pastor emeritus of First Baptist Leesburg (FL), a prominent church in the mostly rural county to my west. But I'd write this review as I do even if none of that were true. I've said a few times that if the church as a whole were doing its job, we wouldn't need things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. FBC-L under Pastor Roesel is one of the few churches I know of that is actually fulfilling its mission properly. It's a God Thing is a sort of manifesto for "ministry evangelism," which is the phrase Roesel uses to describe the mission.
How is that mission fulfilled? At FBC-L it is fulfilled with a wide variety of ministries associated with the church. You'll find everything there from a ministry for homeless men to counseling to a thrift store to services at nursing homes. The campus of FBC-L is filled with buildings dedicated to ministry. One of these is a local motel that was purchased to house the homeless.
In an age when so many of our churches are engaged in frivolous pursuits like building swimming pools, this is a refreshing difference. Roesel knows that the Gospel comes with responsibilities. Like me, and like Carey, Charles Roesel sees that the church is losing members, and he knows why: We're not doing our job. To answer the obvious question: Yes, he also thinks we need more in the way of apologetics as a ministry, too, though in the book this would be under the rubric of discipleship and education (as I agree it should be). He and I have talked in person, of course, so I know how he feels about it.
At about 84 pages, this book is an easy read which you can pick up to give you an idea how those responsibilities can be fulfilled. I wish there were more pastors like Charles Roesel around - even though if there were too many, I'd be out of a job!
Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air
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Very rarely do I think that there is a book that all Christians, no matter what their particular areas of interest are, need to read. This is one such book. Our world is seeped in such an amoral and immoral morass that is difficult for Christians to see the forest for the trees. Very often the church buys into the arguments for “tolerance” and “pluralism,” which when unpacked, are neither. The authors do a great job of simply and clearly dismantling the underpinnings of moral relativism showing it to be self-refuting, and thus impossible in practice without total anarchy. A story is related in this book about a student who inquired about how to combat the relativism being taught by his teacher. He is told (with tongue planted firmly in cheek), “Steal her stereo.”
And this comes to a good point. I believe that “relativists” or “the tolerant” know intuitively, if not purposefully, in their hearts that they are really neither. But it makes it so much easier to call other people backwards and wrong when you can cloak yourself in the appearance of being reasonable and tolerant. It is not a matter of whether or not one can “legislate morality.” It is whose morality will be enforced. All laws are inherently moral. For instance, here is a classic and somewhat entertaining excerpt from this book (which if is taken to memory will provide great ammunition in moral debates):
Bill was a friendly, tolerant sort, willing to talk with me about Christianity until the question of homosexuality came up. My apparent lack of tolerance made him uncomfortable, and he said so.
“That’s what bugs me about Christians,” he said. “You seem nice at first, but then you start getting judgmental.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I said. It was a leading question.
“It’s not right to judge other people.”
“If it’s wrong to judge people, Bill, then why are you judging me?”
This question stopped him in his tracks. He’d been impaled on his own principle, and he knew it.
“You’re right,” he admitted. “I was judging you. Kind of hard to avoid it.” He paused for a moment, scratched his head, and regrouped.
“How about this? It’s okay to judge people, as long as you don’t force your morality on them,” he said, thinking he was on safer ground. “That’s when you cross the line.”
“Okay Bill, can I ask you a question?”
“Is that your morality?”
“Then why are you pushing your morality on me?” Bill was getting stuck on Plantinga’s tar baby.
He tried a couple of more false starts but couldn’t extract himself. Finally in frustration he said, “This isn’t fair!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I can’t find a way to say it so it sounds right.” He thought I was playing a word trick on him.
“Bill, it doesn’t sound right because it isn’t right; it’s self-refuting.” I explained.
At this point in the conversation some people throw up their hands and say, “Now you’ve got me confused.”
In these cases I respond, “No, you were confused when you started. You just now realized it.”
I showed this a coworker with whom I have been debating morals and relativism over the past year. He promptly said, “That’s clever, but I don’t agree with it.” I asked him to specify where the flaw in reasoning is. He said that he just can’t buy into the fact that when one person denounces another as being judgmental, that the one doing the denouncing is doing the same thing. He said that he wants to be able to tell somebody that they are wrong without being labeled judgmental. Isn’t that all the Christian in this sample conversation wanted? In other words, my coworker friend wanted to have his cake and eat it too without having to share it with the opposition. He wanted different standards of what is and what is not judgmental depending upon one’s views on the moral spectrum.
He went on to say something else that was very interesting. He went on to say that he respects Christianity (he is Jewish) but says that when he is approached for evangelism on the street or in the airport that is going too far. In short, Christianity is fine, just don’t evangelize him. I told him that without meaning to, he has just made an extremely arrogant statement. He was basically saying that my religion is fine as long as I practice it by his rules. I explained that would be like me saying that I don’t mind at all when Jewish people keep kosher, as long as they eat pork. To his credit, he agreed that I definitely had a point there. As the book points out, you don’t tolerate people you agree with. Tolerance is only an issue when there is a disagreement, yet today we have redefined tolerance as meaning that you don’t disagree or you are labeled as judgmental, an endless circle.
Buy and read this book, your eyes will be opened.
-"Dee Dee Warren"
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz
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"Blue Like Jazz" is authentic. Now hold on, quit groaning. Yes, I know "authentic" has been a trendy buzzword in Christian circles for a while now (and so does Don Miller). Let me try that again: "Blue Like Jazz" is real, the way jazz is real. It's true in the way a good painting is true. But just like jazz or paintings, the book will only resonate with you if you can relate to it, otherwise it might leave you feeling unsettled and possibly angry.
Donald Miller, the bestselling author of "Blue Like Jazz", "Searching for God Knows What", and "Through Painted Deserts" (formerly known as "Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance") has elicited a firestorm of criticism for his "Emergent" views in some quarters, and has been ripped apart as a false teacher in other quarters, and I decided I'd read enough of that. Donald Miller's only real crimes, if any, would be that he has a postmodern writing style, his political views appear to be left of center, and he talks about real things that real humans do without being stuffy and judgmental about it. But make no mistake about it: Donald Miller holds to Mere Christianity, and that's good enough for me.
See, I've never really been one to care very much where people's political views are. I've never believed that God is either a Republican or a Democrat, and I tend to pity people who think that God is either/or. I'm a registered Independent myself, but I don't know whether Jesus would necessarily subscribe to all of my politics either. And as for postmodernist writing styles, I'll confess that I liked "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon, the granddaddy of postmodernist literature. Before I had gotten very far in Jazz I posted an entry in my journal about it which said "This book fits me. It fits me the way birds fit the sky, flitting about here and there, with honesty and faith and doubt mixed with birdsong... before I had gotten past more than a half dozen pages, I knew I had found a kindred spirit."
In a cover article for "Christianity Today", Donald Miller has been described thusly: "Miller is a bridge to an irreverent, Bohemian world. His work is framed with Bohemia--a road trip, a pint of beer, an occasional curse word--but filled with explicit longing for Jesus. He never takes on basic Christian tenets or Evangelical priorities such as biblical authority or spreading the gospel." And to a certain extent, I think this is true, but that doesn't mean that Miller is advocating a lifestyle of lawlessness--he just has a gift for writing to the people who have been around the Bohemian scene. But he does indeed spread the Gospel, and if you're paying attention, you'll hear the beautiful music of the Gospel of Grace.
And sometimes grace sounds kind of like Jazz.
While authenticity might be a buzzword, it is not mere trendiness to say that Miller has written an open and authentic book; and yes, I truly believe that the Church needs more openness and authenticity like this. For years, my favorite author has been CS Lewis, and what I love about CS Lewis is that not only was he a great apologist and a great writer, but he made me feel like he could be a favorite uncle, a lovable old chap puffing away at his pipe while he wrote about magical animals. In his apologetic books, he also wrote about his struggles with some of the seemingly insurmountable problems with Christianity, but by the time he was done explaining how he faced them, I felt closer than ever before to the core of "Mere Christianity." While Don Miller doesn't come across like a traditional apologist, I feel the same way about him as I did with "Jack" Lewis, like he could be a great person sit around puffing a pipe with by a fireside. And like CS Lewis, Donald Miller allows his human face to show like a photograph, rather than like the painting of some pious saint with a halo. I think that is why CS Lewis was such a great ambassador for the faith, and why I think Don Miller is as well.
Miller writes about living with hippies in the woods, and freely admits to preferring their company to clean-shaven "clone Christians." He writes about his struggles to perceive God as Father when his own father abandoned him as a child. He writes about his friends like Tony the Beat Poet, who wears "loose European shirts...that lace up the chest with shoestrings" or Nadine, a descendent of Scottish royalty who could talk about Jesus with unfeigned love without sounding like she was trying to sell Him, and Penny, who discovered that the Bible isn't a salad kind of book, but a chocolate kind of book. These things may seem trivial and unimportant if you don't care about the details of people's lives, but that doesn't mean that Jazz is superficial or shallow. It really isn't, because at the core of the book is a message about grace and Christian love that burns so brightly it nearly blinds.
Now if you're looking for a book that will tell you more about the social background of the Ancient Near East, Jazz isn't for you. If you're looking for the Case for Christ, go to someone like Lee Strobel or any of a dozen other good marching band apologists. But if you're looking for a book that is relevant to contemporary American society, that talks about building Christian relationships and community and social activism and the meaning of grace and true charity, then Jazz is for you.
The over-arching message of "Blue Like Jazz" is that Christianity is not a formula, but something lived. It's more like music than math. His message is that grace is available to all, and not just the privilege of the clean-shaven church clones. He retells the Good News in a way that can engage those who feel disenfranchised by TBN churchianity. Donald Miller is not "churchically correct", to coin a phrase, and judging from this book's success on the NYT Bestseller list, he has a refreshing message that many people are welcoming.
Don't get me wrong, this book is going to aggravate a lot of people, particularly uptight religiously and politically conservative types. I say "uptight" because I know some very strong conservatives who love this book. It doesn't disturb me that people will be politically opposed to Don Miller, because I don't exactly agree with all of his politics either. What disturbs me are the vicious attacks by people who claim that his teachings are dangerous and false, but I think that's only because they don't have an ear for Jazz, they're not hearing the music the man is playing the way I am. I think that "Blue Like Jazz" would be a fantastic gift for young college students; in fact, one source reports that Campus Crusade for Christ has purchased thousands of these books to distribute as "Freshmen Survival Kits." When I was in college, the big deal in Christian circles was Josh McDowell's "Evidence That Demands A Verdict". No offense intended to Mr. McDowell, but I think today's students will be far more likely to relate to the riffs of Jazz than to the drums of ETDAV.
Jazz is not a work of scholarship, nor is it exactly a work of apologetics, it is more of a work of art. It is a mistake to think that Donald Miller doesn't have an apologetic, though, because he does: The Argument From Beauty. Only he doesn't argue it with proofs or syllogisms, but with examples of beautiful moments of grace. Jazz is also work of evangelism, only not in the three-piece-suit televangelist sort of way, but in a quirky, artistic, Bohemian sort of way. If I had to take issue with anything about "Blue Like Jazz" it would be that he occasionally seems to care a little bit too much about what is cool, and about what "feels right" and not enough about what is objectively true, but that's precisely why I think his book will speak to many college students where many other Tekton books will not. Miller himself openly admits that he's less interested in an intellectual defense of the Gospel than he is with an experience of the soul, which (to him) is more like art or Jazz than a mathematical formula.
But love, like painting and poetry, is not like a mathematical formula either. I wrote the very first mail I've written to any Christian author to Don Miller, and I concluded with this: "The absolute best passage in Jazz for me was the chapter on how to love other people, on how love ought not to be bartered like a commodity, but given freely and unconditionally to any and all--even the ones who don't seem to deserve it--and perhaps that's because I know myself well enough to realize that to the eyes of perfect holiness, I don't always deserve unconditional love either." That's the message Miller is sending: don't withhold love from anyone, not even the ones who are (or who you think are) your enemies. It only fuels people's hatred for Christianity, and ruins your effectiveness as an ambassador for Christ. Plus, if you lived in the woods with them for a while, you might discover that you actually like them.
Keep on playing the music, Mr. Miller, and keep on keeping it real. I can relate.
Joe Dallas, A Strong Delusion
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It is amazing to me that I can still be surprised by the clever ways that we humans can devise to get around the plain teachings of God's Word in order to accommodate our in (and we all do!). So, of course, some time ago, when I first encountered the idea that one can be both a practicing homosexual and an evangelical Christian; I was surprised. (I think that may just have been preparing me for my next encounter which would be with the animal rights people who think that Jesus was vegetarian and Peter was a fisher of seaweed before he was a fisher of men, but that is another story!).
This book does a great service in outlining the history (in brief) of the gay rights movement, and the author gives some very personal insights into his own struggle with homosexuality and gay theology. Many of us, including myself, just want to get into the Biblical meat of the matter without really understanding the history of the people and movements that we are investigating; however, this tends to depersonalize the subject. The author does a good job of keeping the perspective that while we may disagree with the theology, the people who may hold these views may be our neighbors, our friends, and our family. But, while maintaining this view of the people, he does not hesitate to bring out the errors of a theology that not only denies that homosexuality is a sin, but claims that it is a gift from God to celebrate. Does "woe to you who call evil good and good evil" sound familiar? This is a serious issue as an even a casual reader of the Bible cannot help but notice that God takes particular issue with sexual sins.
The author goes on to provide his argument that places much of the blame for the growing success of this movement on the steps of the "orthodox" Church. He asks where are the church-based and sponsored homosexual support groups? Why is this particular sin so stigmatized over other sexual sins? Why do some many Christians resort to cheap arguments and stereotypes? And in asking these questions, he is right. Which of us sinners does not want acceptance and understanding in combating our sin? After presenting this point, he shows that the fruit of the Church's (and society's) acceptance of this aberrant theology will be a denial of Biblical authority; disobedience to God; sexual exploitation of children (not because of a supposed connection between pedophiles and homosexuality, but because of the pedophiles' inevitable exploitation of the strides gained by homosexuals); and the further denigration of the family unit.
He provides some interesting insights into the cultural arguments for the acceptance of homosexuality, and the studies which supposedly prove a biological homosexual predestination. Do's and don't for dealing with people involved in this theology are also discussed including an interesting "mock" conversation on the Biblical verses on homosexuality with a "gay Christian."
The one disappointment that I did have with the book is that it did not get into heavy detail in the Scriptural arguments, instead focusing much more on the things outlined above. However, after completing the book, I see that providing a minute Biblical analysis of the verses pertinent to homosexuality was not the author's goal as he recommends two other works which more than handle that area. While that may have been my initial disappointment, this book did cause me to examine those other areas which I may have skipped over before in my haste to get to the Biblical data; so for that, I have been blessed. Thus, this book is highly recommended for those just beginning to get acquainted with the "gay Christian" movement, providing the history and social arguments for and against homosexuality, and a basic foundation for the Biblical arguments. Unless you are really interested in delving very deep into this subject, this book will be sufficient to answers the questions and issues posed by this movement with compassion and respect.
-"Dee Dee Warren"
Hugh Hewitt, The Embarrassed Believer
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When I first saw this book, I thought that it might be one of those "overcome your fear of witnessing" deals, but was I ever wrong! What we actually have by Hewitt is in the tradition of Chuck Colson's multiple-essay books, a series of short, poignant, and sometimes pungent commentaries on Christian reaction to modern day persecution. We're not talking about the lions and the Roman arena --- we're talking about mostly hostile or incredulous stares at the water cooler.
Hewitt, like many modern Christian commentators, sees both the overabundance of anti-Christian bias in the media (he is a major player in the media business himself) and the increasingly downward trajectory of morals and faith, and draws the usually conclusions. There are really no surprises there, but the dagger-point of the book is much more aimed at the Christian heart, and asks, in light of this societal decay, whether we as Christians are truly recognizable by others as the adopted children of the Father that we are. The picture on the cover with the light under the bushel is the proverbial one worth a thousand words.
Our author recognizes that being the light of the world and the salt of the earth is no easy task. Nevertheless his warnings and thoughts need to be taken to heart. This book excels as an attention-getter.
Liz Curtis Higgs, Bad Girls of the Bible
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BAD GIRLS OF THE BIBLE: kind of grabs your attention, does it not? "Bad girls" and "Bible" aren't really words that belong together in the same sentence When we think of the women of the Bible, we tend to think of Sarah, Rebekah, Esther, Deborah, or Miriam. Who in their right mind thinks of Michal or Potiphar's wife?
As an outspoken teenager with a lot of ambition and attitude when this review was written, this book was quick to apprehend my regard. The cover features a woman wearing a veil and a lot of eye make-up with the title in bold, white letters. It's the kind of cover you want to laugh at, yet take very seriously, all at the same time.
Yes, you can judge a book by its cover. Bad Girls of the Bible by Liz Curtis Higgs is everything you would expect it to be: clever, funny, and uplifting. BGOTB focuses on ten of the women of the Bible who, well... screwed up big-time. Liz places each woman into a category: "Bad to the Bone" consisting of Potiphar's wife, Delilah, and Jezebel; "Bad for a Moment" consisting of Lot's wife, Sapphira, and Michal; and "Bad for a Season but Not Forever" consisting of the woman at the well, Rahab, and the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet. Eve, the mother of all bad girls, is placed in a category of her own.
Each chapter is kicked off with a modern-day, fictional re-telling of the bad girl's story. Liz's narratives are often quite creative and magnetic, though some of the women don't change very much. Rahab the prostitute from Jericho is now Rae the prostitute from the Bay Area. On the other hand, most of the narratives give the women big-time make-overs. Lot's wife, who became a pillar of salt in the Bible, is now Lottie from Spirit Lake next to Mount St. Helens. I think my personal favorite is the Well-Woman, who is now Crystal the bartender from "The Oasis." All of the narratives and the lessons you get from them are true to the essence of the biblical story. On the downside, some of them tend to drag a little bit, but for the most part, they get you into the story right away.
After the narrative, Liz goes into a verse-by-verse analysis of what the Bible tells us about each woman. This is the fun part, and I do mean fun! Liz's commentary is as much fun as a Five Iron Frenzy concert or an episode of Veggie Tales. Satire is one of the weapons here at Tekton, and in BGOTB, it's one of Liz's teaching tools. However, don't go thinking that this book is all nyuk-nyuk and no brains. It's a devotional, not an apologetic, but Liz has done her homework. She provides us with plenty of insight into the kind of cultures these women were dealing with, and it's all documented. Liz raises a lot of points that may open your mind. Did you ever think of just how abused and neglected Michal was? How David's "dancing for the Lord" was just a drop in the bucket for Michal compared to the rest of her life? I didn't either until I read this book. And while BGOTB isn't an apologetic, there are plenty of points Liz brings up that you may find useful apologetically. Did you know that the longest conversation found in the Scripture between Jesus and a person is His dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well? That she was, in all ways, a social reject, and Christ was going way out of His way to talk to her, to reach her? I don't know about you, but next time an atheist or feminist tries to tell me that my God is a misogynist one, I know what passage I plan to point out.
Drawing on her insightful commentary, Liz closes each chapter with some valuable lessons taken from the lives of these women and related scripture verses, and how we can apply them to our lives. Listen to what she has to say, because it just might make you fall in love with our God all over again. After all, He took a prostitute and made her one of the descendants in the lineage of His Son; what's He going to do for you?
"That's all nice, J.J., but I've never really done anything that bad. I'm no Rahab and I'm no Jezebel. Am I still gonna learn from this book?" Hey, I've never done anything "that bad" either. You don't have to knock off your next-door-neighbor to enjoy this book. Even if the worst thing you've ever done is earned a couple of overdue library book fines, you're still going to love learning about the Bad Girls of the Bible. And if you are a former bad girl, like Liz, struggling to find the strength to leave your past, Bad Girls of the Bible may just be the answer to your prayers.
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible
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We're always on the lookout for specialty books that do the job right, and Instone-Brewer's book on divorce in the NT world is one of these. Instone-Brewer tackles the issue from every which way but loose: from the Jewish perspective (from OT to rabbis) and the Greco-Roman perspective.
We have used this book to refute certain Skeptical arguments as well as to answer questions from concerned believers. We believe it would be helpful for people who want to know when, if at all, divorce is Biblically permissible.
Debbie Maken, Getting Serious About Getting Married
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I have to admit, when I first ordered this book for review I thought it would be DOA. I had read a brief Internet article by the author, and the table of contents. I thought it might have a few good things to say, but I was expecting some serious gender bias, as well as propose that we turn back the clock 50 years, back to a day when single people were considered suspect. Well, I did find some gender bias, and the author would actually like to turn the clock back 500 years if it were possible, but the few good comments turned out to be numerous, challenging me personally both as a single man and a singles class leader.
For the last 25 years or so, the church's teaching on singleness has gone something like this:
"Marriage is a gift from God, and so is singleness. Use the time while you are single to serve God and focus only on Him. Focusing on your lack of a spouse is idolatry, and you need to learn to be content with just Him, just in case He calls you to a lifetime of singleness. If it's God's will for you to marry, He will bring His perfect person for you in His perfect time. Searching for it on will lead to less than what He plans for you."
Hell hath no fury like an attractive, bright, and successful single woman told to stuff her desire for marriage, serve Jesus, and quit whining. Maken is here to challenge all this with an anger that takes you aback. At 28, she finally admitted to herself, that she felt sad, lonely, and depressed about being single. And in a moment of self disclosure that is extremely rare for Christians, and especially Christian women, she admits that she really, really wanted to have sex big time:
"Though I got married at thirty-one, I really could have used a husband at sixteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-three, twenty-five, twenty-seven, twenty-nine, thirty. Especially at twenty-five - a year of numerous cold showers...whoever said that age thirty-four is a woman's sexual peak needs to be shot." (p. 127)
Now married with two daughters, she dares to shout what has almost become a heresy: that she has found peace, joy, and contentment in her marriage that she was told could only be found in Christ alone.
But Maken goes beyond her own experiences to do something that no one else has done, and that is actually ask "Where has this gotten us?" On this, her arguments and data are simply devastating. Instead of God bringing together marriages that are supernaturally more wonderful than those of the past, we have people simply getting older and failing to realize the blessings of marrying in one's youth. Singles are more prone to depression, alcoholism, and suicide. Single women are twice as likely to be raped, and those who conceive their first child late or never are at greater risk breast cancer, besides enduring Hannah's grief of childlessness. Has this been God's will? Given that the greater number of Christian singles has instead led not to greater kingdom building, but at best the adoption of pet ministry projects that and are just as easily done by married people, it's time to wonder. Add to this the statistics on the failure of Christian singles to remain sexually pure, it is obvious that too many Christians who are single don't have the gift celibacy. We really shouldn't be surprised. This is what Paul said would happen.
Our generation is first in both Biblical and Church history to apply passages like Isaiah 40:31 ("Wait on the Lord") to marriage and expect God to drop someone in their lap. Cultures have had various ways of finding marriage partners for young people, and certainly God's lead was invoked, but all of them had intentional, proactive customs. Our tendency is to look at this as outdated and a failure to recognize Paul's endorsement of celibacy in 1 Cor. 7. But in the process we have compartmentalized marriage into something less than spiritual. But Maken astutely observes that since God's image is found in human beings, we learn more about God by closer relationships with people, and the relationships that singles have can only be so close. Thus, seeking marriage isn't in competition with God, but it is seeking God, as well as seeking sexual purity. Most disconcerting is Maken's reminder that forbidding marriage is listed in 1 Tim. 4:1-5 as a doctrine of demons. But could that be that we skirt close to this when we make people feel unspiritual for desiring marriage and discourage their search?
There are a few things that I think she takes too far. She favorably recounts the teachings of the historic church which viewed bachelors with suspicion and/or judgment. In Maken's view, people (especially men) need to be held accountable for not marrying, unless they are in a full-time ministry where having a family is simply impossible. She does make good points that in our culture, singles have to have full-time jobs and even in some cases do all the household chores on their own, so they really don't have more time than married people. But she believes that all of 1 Cor. 7 should be interpreted in light of the present crisis (v. 26), but this is doubtful. Many of the truths seem to be timeless. And while singles may not have more time, they often have more flexibility to serve, so that potential for greater service as a single person is still possible in our culture. Paul, as well as Jesus in Matthew 19:12, leave it up to individuals to decide if they can accept celibacy, and they do not say that they must be involved in a ministry where family life is impossible. True, all the singles actually mentioned in the Bible fit this description, but the actual command that it must always be this way is absent.
Maken also seems to blame just about every social condition different from the Middle Ages as contributing to protracted singleness, from the phenomenon of dating, to singles ministries themselves. In particular, she believes that men have the advantage. The fact that they have "more access" to a greater number of women allows them to be complacent and not pursue marriage. They can always hope for better options to come along, stringing out dating relationship for years, while they spend their time hangin' with the guys, acquiring toys, and goofing off all the while. Women, on the other hand, do not feel the same freedom to initiate a relationship and are forced to wait while their biological clocks tick away. She also can't believe that men don't find the right person until later in life, when in the past they found it by the age of 22.
At this point, I think Maken is relying too much on her own female-view impressions of how young Christian single men think, rather than from actual knowledge. She also doesn't distinguish between single men in the world/nominal church vs. those who are sincerely trying to follow Christ very well. In one singles ministry that I was involved in, for example, there were about 25 marriages that occurred, and this was probably about two-thirds to four-fifths of relationships that began. I also don't recall any that lasted longer than two years. Men didn't think that there was any future in just hangin' out with the guys forever, because their guy friends kept getting married off. I'm a guy, I was in guy's small groups. I know better.
What's more, Maken believes that it's just so easy for men to initiate a relationship, get married, and live happily ever after anytime they choose, because all of these women are just dying for the first halfway decent guy to ask them out. They'll even settle for someone well beneath them. Hey, it's just a slam-dunk! Men, of course, will either roll their eyes and/or snicker at such a naive notion. Pursuing is easy. Pursuing and winning, well, that can be rather difficult for the average guy. On the contrary, it's a good bet that the typical Christian women who hasn't been married by 30 has turned down several, or even more than several, suitors.
That leads me into two other reasons why men don't pursue that Maken doesn't (but really should have considered);
1) Fear of rejection - there are actually quite a few cool, solid guys who still struggle with this as much at 31 as they did at 13, for the reasons I just mentioned above. For all the talk about what men look for, who they actually choose to pursue has a lot to do with who they feel comfortable with and feel they can be themselves around. So, ladies, if that guy isn't approaching you, just try being friendly. Ask him a few questions about himself, smile warmly, and maintain eye contact. Don't give yourself away, just make him feel like he has a chance. Just because you don't ask for the date doesn't mean you aren't empowered to do some of the choosing.
2) If that doesn't work, he probably just isn't into you. Sorry. But after all, Maken encourages women not to get into or continue a relationship with a guy who is not their type or their equal in the areas required for a healthy relationship. Good advice. But it goes both ways. It's only fair.
I think that the truth is that the sense of connection that make for a healthy, life-giving romantic relationship (and here I mean romantic chemistry, shared interests, and comparatively equal levels of intelligence, vitality, spiritual and emotional health, among other things) just don't occur between two people very often, and finding that connection can take a while. It just isn't true that people all throughout history have rushed into marriage at such tender ages. In 1890, for example, the average age for a man's first marriage was 26, hardly different from today, when it's 27.
I don't really think that it's necessary to try to shame nearly every single in the church to get married. Let those who can accept celibacy, accept it. But let those who can't accept it make seeking a spouse a top priority without being made to feel spiritually inferior.
Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity
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Readers of Tekton might know me (Nick P.) as a frequent writer for JPH. I normally take on the task of answering a refutation or putting up a philosophical argument for the faith or I might write a review to deal with a book that has come out.
This writing is different.
I am your typical single guy who is still fairly young. (At the time of writing this, I am 26.) I am not single because I truly desire to be. I am single because I haven't found Miss Right yet. However, this does not mean that I do not spend much time thinking about sex and in so doing, decided that I would see if God has left any clues on how we are to live our lives in this, the most intimate relationship possible between two persons.
I recently bought a copy of Lauren Winner's book "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity." The title of that book screamed out at me the first time I saw it and I had read parts of it and was thrilled with how real she was on the topic. An MP3 of her speaking can be found here.
Thus, when I got around to reading this book, I devoured it wanting to hear more and more of what she had to say. I found the book so incredible that I wanted to write a positive review of it from the single guy's perspective whose hobbies include studying philosophy and theology, playing role-playing games, and watching Smallville. An evening with me will involve...oh wait. I'm supposed to be writing a review...
This is one book that I when I had my highlighter with me, I found myself noting so many times that she seemed to know exactly what I was feeling and was being pinpoint precise with the way she dealt with the church's response to sex. I told a number of people that I wanted to write the word "Amen" at the top of every page.
Lauren begins with her own story. Unfortunately, it's not a pure story. She did have sex before she was married. She was not raised a Christian and later came to find after study that she was convinced that Jesus is God. She became a Christian and yet, did not give up sex outside of marriage.
The point came when she was in a confession and talking to a priest. At one point, she mentioned her having sex outside of marriage and heard the priest say in response, "Well, Lauren, that's sin." It was only then that it hit home to her that it was a sin and she began the battle for purity.
After she started writing this book though, she did meet a man named Griff and they were married. He was a virgin at the time so she does admit that it is possible for a guy to be twenty-seven and a virgin. However, she is realistic in that this is a battle. As she says "Too often the church, rather than giving unmarried Christians useful tools and thick theologies to help us live chastely, instead tosses off a few bromides--- 'True Love Waits' is not that compelling when you're twenty-nine and have been waiting, and wonder what, really, you're waiting for." (p. 15)
How right she is! This is the kind of boat I tend to find myself in and I am sure that I am not alone from my conversations with fellow unmarried men. True Love Waits has been said enough and Lauren is blunt as she tells us that it really hasn't worked. Many kids do go on and have sex. It might be longer until they do, but they do. We need more. After all, "We need to know what lies behind the familiar euphemism, 'Chastity is something I struggle with.' "(p. 22)
Lauren tells of how she read many books in her studies of this topic. The one she recommends is one by Lewis Smedes called "Sex For Christians", but it was written the year she was born so there are some areas that it is a bit outdated on in relation to culture. However, most of the books from both sides left her cold and she wasn't persuaded. Lauren believes that the Scriptural message needs to be more than "Thou Shalt Not." Instead, it should be good news. If God says "Thou Shalt Not", he says it for a good reason. He says it not so we will be punished but so we will be blessed.
Her first major point is that our bodies are good things. God created us in bodies and a body is frequently the kind of terminology used to convey ideas about God. (We are the body of Christ for example.) Our bodies are sexual by nature and that is something that should be embraced whether or not we're having sex or have ever had sex. Thus, the view that our bodies are something dirty and shameful should be rejected. Of course, this doesn't mean that she thinks we should all be flaunting our bodies or not dressing appropriately, but we shouldn't be ashamed of the physical aspect of our being.
However, she does know that once we accept this truth, there comes the question of how to live based on it. In speaking of a friend named Kara who asks how far is too far with her boyfriend, she replies that when she's sitting on a sofa with her boyfriend in a dark den, random verses from Paul won't work, but if she's been taught a whole theology in that she is God's creature created for his purposes, she might think differently about sex and bodies and how they are to touch and be touched. (p. 41)
How true this definitely is. As a single guy, it doesn't do much to just hear "Thou shalt not". I find myself most persuaded when I see how my own sexuality fits into the whole of God's creation. This isn't to denigrate the Bible. This is to say that we need the verses grounded in a system of theology and not just isolated.
She then moves on to the topic of communal sex at which point I kept thinking that JPH ought to be reading this book. Why? Lauren Winner is one of the first writers I know of in this genre who has brought up the idea of the individual versus the community. She says that we have a belief today that sex is a private matter. It isn't though and this is a new concept. Contrary to popular belief, your neighbor does have all right to ask you about what's going on in your bedroom.
When we look at the world around us, everyone we see is here because of sex. When you see a couple at the store and one of them is obviously pregnant, you don't have to ask what they've been doing behind closed doors. We all know. When a couple goes on their honeymoon, no one has to ask what they're going to be doing their first night. We all know.
She suggests that we go back to a time when families did work together and realize that the bond husband and wife shared was to be passed onto the children. They were to see the unity of the relationship of the parents and to pass it on. Sexuality isn't just entertainment as is so often believed today, but a way of strengthening the bond of family. Marriages are not just pairs of people in love but institutions upon which culture and society are based.
How could we miss this? Don't we go to the government to get marriage licenses to enforce that we will be married? Greg Koukl of STR routinely points out that the courts don't ask you if you love each other. Instead, the concern is the raising of children. In the Christian setting, don't we marry before witnesses who will affirm our marriage and will help us through it.
Yes Lauren. We do need to realize that what's going on in our neighbor's bedroom does matter and if it's sin, we need to be there to deal with it.
Lauren then moves on to the lies that the culture tells about sex. The first is that sex can be wholly separated from procreation. Lauren agrees that this is possible technologically, but it isn't the best theologically. If a sexual relationship is open to children, then this changes everything. Sex is not just getting deeply interested in one another, but into welcoming in a relationship of love one who is not known, a baby. She does warn us to look at why we are using birth control if we are.
The second lie is that we shouldn't marry for sex. I considered it quite a relief to read something like this from a Christian author. She starts the section talking about a female friend of hers in love with a guy and thinking about getting married. Now a good question is, "Why do two people want to get married?"
Lauren's point seems to be that we have desire to be close to the person that we love. As she says, "Marriage is also about sex; it is about desire." (p. 70) She says that while it's understandable that people want to postpone marriage until they know themselves better, she warns us that there is no age where we will perfectly know ourselves or the person that we are dating. She says that no matter how things are in dating, marriage will be difficult and we will change throughout marriage, but it is God who brings us through it.
She concludes that section by saying that desire is important and it's important enough to turn your life around. Her advice to her friend was to go on and get married and she would toast them at the wedding.
The third lie is that how you dress doesn't matter. Lauren is not on a crusade to remove any showing of skin whatsoever. She states that she runs around a campus in a tank top and doesn't think twice about it. However, there are some points of decency.
Lauren points out that we can't lay the blame for everything at the door of women. Too often, women who have been raped have been told that they asked for it by how they dressed. This lets the man off the hook though by saying he is merely a beast who had to give in to his desires.
What's the main message? How you dress will convey how you feel. Does a workplace atmosphere change any when one comes in on casual Friday? Does how you dress speak about how you view yourself sexually? What kind of persons are you trying to attract by how you dress?
The fourth lie is that good sex can't happen in the humdrum routine of marriage. She brings in as an example an episode of Friends with the question of "Can we still be friends and have sex?" "Sure. It'll just be something we do together like racquetball." She points out this could be a tagline for our age. "Sex: It's just like racquetball." (p.78)
However, she believes sex is truly best in marriage. Sex is meant to be awkward and clumsy at times and to contain all the anxieties it can. It is meant to be common in that when it becomes common, it also transforms other common activities such as cooking, paying bills, doing laundry, etc. This commonplace activity between the man and the woman are meant to drive them together. Enough has been said about the culture though. It is time to move to the lies the church tells about sex.
The first lie is that pre-marital sex is guaranteed to make you feel lousy. Lauren suggests that we be honest and admit that it isn't. Many people who are Christians can have sex outside of marriage. Some will regret it then, but not everyone will.
This is obvious on the face of it. If this was not enjoyable, why would people keep doing it? Since when were our feelings on an activity a barometer of whether or not it was right to do so? What's the point in God giving us laws in Scripture if our feelings are enough? Now I realize there is some validity in the natural law, but I also place great emphasis on the prepositional truth that has been revealed in Scripture.
If we tell people they will feel terrible though and they don't, will they not doubt us in other areas? "Well, the pastor said I'd feel terrible and I feel great. I wonder what else he's been less than honest about." We need to realize that sin can bring pleasure. After all, if it didn't, we wouldn't do it.
She also chooses to speak about casual sex. She says that sex may seem casual in some cases, but it never is. It is a unity between two persons expressed in their bodies. Paul's warning in 1 Cor. 6 fully applies at this point in that when we unite with a prostitute, we become one with her.
The second lie goes to the women. This is the lie that women don't really want to have sex. She uses an example from a Christian marriage guide designed to illustrate this point. (Really. This is the corniest example you will ever read and it'd be worth getting the book just to see how silly it is. In the book, it's on pages 90-91. It's also read in the MP3 link above.)
The popular view today is that guys like myself are just purely hormonal creatures running around and all we want from the girl is sex. Meanwhile, the girl has no desire for sex. She is waiting for her Prince Charming to come by and needs to learn instead from her mother how to ward off the bundle of hormones knocking on her door.
Instead, she says that historically, women have been seen as the ones that want sex the most. She points out that she knows many girls who laugh at the idea that they don't want sex in that they have to seduce their boyfriends to get all the sex that they want. Girls are done no favors when they are not told that they might have a sexual desire one day and enjoy that desire and men are done no favors when they're shown simply to be bundles of hormones.
The third lie is that bodies and sex are gross, dirty, or just plain unimportant. She points out though that this is simply gnosticism. She says that it's a danger to deny that we have desires entirely. Those desires should be controlled, but we cannot look at them as wrong. It will be difficult for someone to go from thinking the desire is wrong to flipping a switch and having it be okay on the night of the honeymoon.
Too many couples go through this. They go through a point where they are growing and taught that it's wrong to desire the other person and to be sexual with them and then one day, the switch is flipped and it's okay. The average person cannot immediately change his view like that. The last sentence of this chapter sums up the way the church should handle sexual desire. "For the Christian approach is neither hedonism nor obliteration. It is discipline." (p. 100) Fittingly, the next chapter begins with a quote from Yancey that reiterates that. "Legalism fails miserably at the one thing it is supposed to do: encourage obedience." (p. 103)
In this chapter, she speaks about keeping sex sacred and hits on some core issues. She speaks about the danger of pornography. The danger here is that it teaches that real bodies are not good enough. She takes a statement from Naomi Wolf in that porn has replaced real women. It deadens the male libido in relation to real women. While throughout history, images of naked women have been made to celebrate women, the images of today have taken the place of real women. As she says, "Today, real naked women are just bad porn." (p. 113)
She then speaks about masturbation which teaches that sex happens outside of a relationship. An example she uses tells of men who get together for a Bible Study weekly in the morning and this is always a topic. Indeed, men need to be more open in their response to sexual temptation. As has been said, sex is not a private matter. As she says, "That a sexual act serves as a "substitute for reality" ought to give us pause. After all, we Christians are the people devoted to living the really real. (p. 117)
When she speaks about pre-marital sex, her goal is to bust the myth that sex is always thrilling. She states that the greatest distinction between pre-marital sex and marital sex is the instability. In pre-marital, the person might not be there in the morning. Sex though is meant to be common between the married persons and it won't always be thrilling, but it should always be uniting. There is nothing wrong with thrills, but this is not the point.
So how are we to live? We are to live chaste lives. This does not mean celibate lives. Chastity means we put sex in its proper place, in a marriage. Celibacy means we take a vow of lifelong abstinence. We need to teach love for single people and not treat them as if they were outcasts.
She concludes the book by taking the case of M. M is a man who converted after having sex and sees himself as damaged goods, so why not go on and have sex anyway. How is one to respond to such a person? The first thing she says is to teach him to repent. It can be washed away and bleached a sparkling white. With the help of the community and the Holy Spirit, one can recover from sexual wounds and unlearn false concepts about sex.
While there is something special about remaining a virgin until your wedding night and Lauren wishes she had and I pray that I do, she says "It is rather to say that the critical question for Christians is what are you doing now? Not have you sinned in the past, but if you sinned in the past? How are you dealing with it? How has Christ's blood redeemed you, and how are you obeying now?"
Again, I cannot recommend this book enough. In being a vociferous reader on the topic, this is hands-down, the best book that I have ever read. I pray that it's message is heeded and that for myself, when she does come along, that I'll be able to practice the lessons learned from this book.
Ronald Nash, When a Baby Dies
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There's no easy way to write on the subject of infant death, and thus that Ronald Nash has written on it at all, and written on it well, is a credit to his skills. Nash intersperses personal accounts with user-friendly exegesis to arrive at a conclusion about infant salvation that may be summed up as follows:
Infants are declared not to know good from evil (Deut. 1:39) and to be innocent, not understanding what is needed to perform good or evil. (This also applies to the mentally impaired.)
Judgment is made based on sins and whether what we do is "good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10). Deeds are recorded of "good and bad" in the Book of Life; but where this is concerned, an infant leaves a blank page.
Scripture is clear that the unborn (Jer. 1:5, Luke 1:15) and little children (Matt. 19:13-15) can be regenerate and have a "special relationship"  with God.
Thus, infants are spared judgment and are saved.
Nash makes an excellent and valuable case for this view, and it is one to which we may add that if atonement is understood in terms of honor and shame principles, Nash's thesis dovetails perfectly: An infant cannot experience shame, either.
That said, my reservations are as follows:
Nash includes informative chapters on alternatives that are not viable (infants do not sin; infant baptism saves) but some of these chapters could have been left out (universalism, Reformed views of the matter) as superfluous to the main need the book would address.
Nash may not have chosen the arrangement of the chapters, but I believe that the one with his solution ought to have been put first, before all of the "no, this isn't an answer" chapters.
Nash strangely does not deal with the important passages in Samuel in which David's child dies, and David indicates he will see the child again.
But these are technical shortcomings, and should not stop the reader from making use of this valuable contribution Nash makes to a very sensitive issue. Grieving parents and apologists alike will find this a useful volume, and at its low price, it's a bargain.
Thomas Reeves, The Empty Church
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Here is the steeple
Open the doors and
Hey, where the heck is everybody?
No one denies that America’s once-vaunted mainline churches are in great decline. By analyzing the societal factors that have shaped American Protestantism since the Enlightenment, Episcopalian Thomas C. Reeves looks at what has led to this sad state of affairs. The result is that the mainline churches’ leadership has become little more than an echo piece for the Far Left of the Democratic Party, to the neglect or outright denial of the Gospel. And since much else that they can offer society can be found in local community activities, they have become unnecessary.
Reeves believes that the mainline churches are worth saving. While some ex-mainliners have found that switching over to a mainstream evangelical church is an attractive option, many who have grown up with a more traditional and/or liturgical worship style have difficulty adapting to evangelicalism’s increasingly more contemporary style (which I happen to personally prefer, but that’s beside the point.) Many of these people simply drop out of church all together.
Although previous efforts to grasp denominational control away from liberals have failed, Reeves believes that it can be done if enough people (the vast majority of the peoples in the pews, he believes, are conservative) get involved and dig in for a tough fight. That, along with following the lead of their evangelical counterparts in creating robust youth and men’s ministries, as well as schools, can lead to a mainline renewal.
It pains me to have to issue one word of caution here. Reeves’ view of scripture has some modernist tendencies. At one point he says "We need not, for example, accept as fact the vindictive, bloodthirsty, and often contradictory behavior of Jehovah described by the early Hebrews." (p. 176). This is quite ironic; this type of making judgments on God’s behavior is often an avenue eventually leads back to the theology that Reeves decries. After all, how can the eternal hell of the NT be less bloodthirsty than the temporal judgments of the OT?
However, this is only spelled out on one page of the book, and the rest hits home time and time again.
Frank Snowden, Before Color Prejudice
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Regarding issues of interethnic, and specifically interracial relations, a commonly expressed opinion is that ‘people of different races have always hated each other.’ This view stems from projecting our current mindset into the past. Americans, with our disdain for history, are especially prone to assume that the current state of affairs has always existed.
Instead of taking interracial hostility as a given, scholar Frank Snowden examines artistic, folkloric, and textual evidence to ascertain the range of attitudes that ancient peoples held about each other in Before Color Prejudice. Specifically, Snowden’s book is an exploration of ancient Greek, Assyrian, Roman, Egyptian, and Jewish attitudes toward sub-Saharan African people. Like other scholars who have examined ancient evidence (such as St. Clair Drake), he notes that, “nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world.”
Snowden mentions that ancient authors, such as the poet Vergil, often wrote in detail about the physical characteristics of the people they encountered, Africans being among those they described, as contacts between Africans and Mediterranean peoples were more common than many might suppose.
Moreover, he wants to bring to our attention an often overlooked source of information: “The vast evidence of ancient art is an invaluable source of information concerning the black populations of antiquity.” To that end, he marshals an impressive collection of photographic plates of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Assyrian art to support his assertion. The vases, sculpture, and murals which he gathers to make his case make one wonder where all this paraphernalia was hidden (or was it under our noses all along, as many of the articles exist in Western museums). The photographs of the sphinxes and sculptures of the pharaoh Tiharka (mentioned in both Isaiah 37:9 and 2 Kings 19:9) are prime apologetic evidence. [Unwittingly, they serve the purpose that the explorer Livingstone had hoped, as he desired to explore the ancient history and culture of the peoples along the Nile, in part to prove the Bible true.]
Concerning standards of physical beauty, Snowden contends that there can be a difference between people holding to a somatic norm image and racism-the former being the narcissistic perceptions of beauty common to any culture, and the latter (and more modern) notion that only one group is beautiful (and that other people confirm that assessment). He thus summarizes ancient attitudes toward the different types of physical beauty:
Thus “white” was for many in the ancient world a basic element in the somatic norm image, as it has usually been in predominantly white societies. The number of implied or expressed preferences in classical literature for white beauty exceeds slightly those for black or dark beauty. About this there is nothing strange. But what is unusual was the number of those in the Greco-Roman world who rejected the norm of whiteness and openly stated their rejection. As far as the Greeks and Romans were concerned, it seems that the matter was basically one of individual preference.
Such attitudes are in striking contrast to those expressed in the not-too-distant past, in which open denigration of African physical features was endemic in American society-a crumbling cultural pillar from which we are still recovering. Notes Thomas F. Gossett in Race: The History of an Idea in America, “It is striking how often one finds among intelligent and sensitive people of the period-North as well as South-crude reflections of racism. One thinks of Henry Adams’ contemptuous references to “n[**]gers” and of John Fiske’s account of a visit in 1877 to Baltimore, where he saw “elegant n[**]gers” promenading on the streets. Rayford W. Logan has studied the files of eminent magazines of the last part of the nineteenth century and found in Harpers, Scribner’s, Century, and to a lesser degree the Atlantic a fairly constant barrage of epithets applied to Negroes…” An example of such denigration was mentioned by James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me, in which he mentions that when he tries to get people in all-white settings to sing a political song popular in 1864, they usually balk, replete as it is with petty negative references to body parts of black people (“ebony shins and bandy,” “blubber lips,” “bully feet to have the heels extended”).
Snowden raises the question of whether symbolism regarding the color black had any significant influence in shaping Greco-Roman attitudes toward Africans. He concludes that while there were negative references toward the color black in many societies (as well as in some extrabiblical Christian writings), ancient Mediterranean peoples did not extend negative references toward black in the abstract to black people. It took the Atlantic slave trade, many centuries later, to accomplish this dubious feat.
We are reminded by Snowden that initial encounters between Africans and other ethnic groups in ancient times were qualitatively different than those which occurred during the Renaissance era and the age of “Enlightenment,” which, ironically, was the period when the Atlantic trade was at its peak. Often, Africans were soldiers, even mercenaries, in various armies (as in part of Xerxes’ troops). Indeed, their fighting prowess was apparently well recognized; thus, they were often sought out for that ability. Such was apparently the case of Judah during the period of King Hezekiah (as also explained in the article in the August 1998 edition of Bible Review entitled “From the Land of the Bow”), which may be why Snowden declares, on page 45, “Kush appears conspicuously in the Old Testament as one of the great military nations of the time,” before mentioning the episodes in the Old Testament in which Kush and Kushites are mentioned (but does not provide verses in the body of the text).
In addition to the general social context, Snowden notices patterns of interaction and perception between various ethnic groups within various religious contexts. For instance, worship patterns of the goddess Isis were first mentioned, in which it was noted that the cult of Isis, though most prevalent among the Egyptians and Ethiopians, spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.
Interestingly, Snowden mentions that the “strong bond that united blacks and whites in the common worship of Isis was reinforced by Christianity. Like the Isaic cult, Christianity swept racial distinctions aside,” and draws the conclusion that “in the early church blacks found equality in both theory and practice.” What a contrast to the present! More important, such ancient equality is an indictment of the notion that forward motion in time necessarily brings about “progress” in terms of human relations. Professor Snowden has written an important book for people of all religious backgrounds (or none at all), one in which tired, intellectually lazy assumptions about Africans and relations between people of various ethnic groups are put to rest.
N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope
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Am I going to Heaven? This is a question many ask themselves at some point in their life. But according to N.T. Wright, the question itself is mistaken. In reality, the Christian hope is much different than simply escaping this world and going to some pleasant afterlife. It is in fact, more complex, and indeed more wonderful, than a hope for a pleasant afterlife. But before Wright gets to explaining the true Christian hope, he proceeds to outline and briefly examine many views about the afterlife, how some of them are often confused with Christian hope, and how they each impact how this life is lived by those who believe such things. It is after this where the meat starts to get thicker.
In Chapter 3, Wright starts talking about the Resurrection of Jesus since the early Christians used it as a frame of reference for understanding their future hope. It is here where he begins to use condensed versions of material he has presented in his other books (New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and Resurrection of the Son of God). First, he sets the context of what "resurrection" meant by examining how it was used and understood by pagans and Jews. This is basically a reiteration for frequent readers of this site, but it's nevertheless refreshing. But it gets even more interesting when Wright presents an argument similar to The Impossible Faith when he lays out seven modifications that were made to Jewish resurrection theology to make it into what we know as Christian resurrection theology. Just as JP says with his TIF argument, Wright says with this argument that these modifications cannot be explained properly unless there was a historical Resurrection. If this has piqued your curiosity, it gets better.
In Chapter 4, Wright defends the Resurrection accounts as not only early (as opposed to later inventions), but as historical. His defenses are interesting, but of course, only condensed versions of what he has offered in his book on the Resurrection referenced above. But, to me at least, what was most interesting about this chapter was Wright's discourse on epistemology in relation to the Resurrection. With this, Wright closes Part 1 of his book (which is mainly about the past) and begins Part 2 (which is about God's future plan).
He starts Part 2 with a critique of two popular views of the world's future. One is the idea of progress or "evolutionary optimism" (that the human project and the whole cosmic project would continue to grow and develop, eventually resulting in the paradise of utopia) and the other is the idea of despair (influenced ultimately by Plato, the idea is that the ultimate goal is to escape from this temporal world of illusion to reach the true reality). His critique of the latter is, I think, particularly interesting. It seems this is the idea that is most popular amongst Christians. However, they don't realize the disconnect this has to early Christian hope which found its context in the Resurrection of Jesus. The places like 1 Corinthians 15:54-57that speak of the defeat of death are rendered meaningless in the popular view. After all, death is not defeated, it is simply redefined. But when the eschatological Christian hope is seen as resurrection (and indeed, the "resurrection" of all creation), it's a whole different story.
Well, this whole time Wright's been critiquing other views and (in between) telling us about Jesus' Resurrection, but he only hinted at the Christian hope before, now he wishes to clarify and expound on the Christian hope in Chapters 6-10. I don't wish to offer any previews for these chapters save one. That is, Wright gives a good critique and deconstruction of modern rapture theology.
In Chapter 11, Wright addresses the question of where the dead are now and addresses the issues of Purgatory, Paradise, and Hell (somewhat briefly). In the conclusion of Part 2, Wright masterfully sets the stage for Part 3 with this:
If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question-to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world-may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century, the mistake that both Jesus and Paul addressed. Israel believed (so Paul tells us, and he should know) that the purposes of the creator God all came down to this question: how is God going to rescue Israel? What the gospel of Jesus revealed, however, was that the purposes of God were reaching out to a different question: how is God going to rescued the world through Israel and thereby rescue Israel itself as part of the process but not as the point of it all? Maybe what we are faced with in our own day is a similar challenge: to focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. If we could reread Romans and Revelation-and the rest of the New Testament of course-in the light of the reframing of the question, I think we would find much food for thought… (p. 185)
At this point, I'm sure you're thinking, "Well this is all fine, but what does matter outside of having proper doctrine?" In Part 3, Wright addresses this. He shows why this all matters and how it reshapes the way we see the mission of the church, salvation, the Kingdom, and how we live our life now. As I think this is the best and most important part, I won't give any previews for it. Sorry, you'll just have to get the book yourself to see. But rest assured, it will definitely not be a waste of the time and money you put into it.
N. T. Wright, Following Jesus
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Although frequent readers of this site are probably familiar with some of N.T. Wright's major works, they may not be aware his "Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship", a smaller book that is a nice introduction to one of the foremost biblical scholars of the time. It's comprised of twelve sermons, divided into two parts, that Wright gave in a variety of places a few years back.
Part 1 deals with some of the major themes found in Hebrews, Colossians, Matthew, Mark, John, and Revelation, taking an especially critical look at what the death and resurrection of Christ means for us. Wright puts these messages into the historical context of their day, making the reading of, e.g. the Book of Hebrews, a lot more understandable.
Building on the foundation of Part 1, Part 2 then takes six highly important themes from the NT -- resurrection, rebirth, temptation, hell, heaven, and new life -- and explains their relevance to modern follows of Christ.
I think that for anyone who's deeply involved in Christian apologetics and Bible study, most of what Wright says will probably be old hat, especially with regard to the first six sermons. That is not to say the book is useless for such people; anyone who enjoys Wright's work in general will almost assuredly discover the same feeling here. Plus, the insights found in the second part of the book are important for all of us, and Wright presents well-known ideas in new, instructive, and original ways.
That said, the book is probably of greater benefit to Christians who are just beginning their walk with Christ, or who haven't delved into Wright's work very much. It is indeed a useful introduction to how Wright approaches some of the major issues of the Christian faith. It is also, I think, an excellent supplement to the study of the NT; but again, anyone who's a committed Christian (and perhaps even some who are not) will profit from "Following Jesus".
N. T. Wright, Simply Christian
Buy This Book Now
Maybe I'm just getting spoiled, or maybe there's something about attempts to make Christianity "relevant" that turn my synapses inside out. Whatever the case, I'm inclined to say that Simply Christian is a pretty good effort -- and I'd say more to that effect if I could remember anything in it.
Wright's writing style becomes, to my mind, a burden here; whereas it makes things like Jewish messianic expectations an engaging topic, when it comes to this kind of work, it makes Wright sound more like a psychotherapist. I am reminded of a scene in Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which Lucy read a story that refreshed her, but after reading it could only recall bits of what it said. That's how I view this book, though it didn't quite refresh me as Lucy's story refreshed her.
That said, I can't be against any book that tries to interpret Christianity properly, as opposed to certain modern "buddy Jesus" paradigms, and Wright definitely succeeds in that arena. I'd say if you want apologetics ammo, you won't find it here; but if you want a "Christian manifesto" for yourself or for others, you've come to the right place.