Monthly Archives: July 2010

Real Church by Larry Crabb

It’s not that this book is bad, it’s just isn’t what it could be.  It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth through much of the book—and that might be the genius. I resonated with much of what the author had to say early on in the book. I loved how he talked about his former “Catholic phobia.”  I stood up and clapped (literally) when he stated, “I’m not persuaded that experiencing God sensually and knowing God compellingly are the same thing.”

But then he went and did it again. He complains about churches that don’t equip their people to “experience God” (whatever that means) and he then complains about the churches that do. As others who have reviewed the book have noted, he seems almost schizophrenic.

But maybe that’s the magic in this book. Or maybe it’s the danger. I love Crabb’s writings. I have almost all of his books. Many are marked up and highlighted but even I have to admit that Crabb has always been writing on the edge of his formed thought. One year, we need counseling, the next we just need to find the safest place on earth (ironically he insinuates in that book that it is the church).

For a while, I put this book down and walked away for a long time. Those issues were my own. This book sat on my shelf like a spurned friend’s advice. Ultimately, when I came back to it chapter 23 was there waiting for me. It has five thoughts that brought it all around for me, along with the postscript.

Crabb’s writing is raw, and honest. Maybe that should be enough.

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The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

I have a man crush on John Gottman and I actually have no idea what he looks like. Hold on, I’m going to go and google his image. John Gottman’s research and writings have changed the way I counsel, they’ve changed the way I am a husband to my wife. Having said that, a lot of his writings are dry. This book is no exception. His seven principles are not earth shattering, although I’d encourage to google his 5:1 ratio or use it in all of your relationships.

Gottman’s seven principles in this book are fairly straightforward (my thoughts are in parenthesis:

1. Enhance your love maps
2. Nurture your fondness and admiration
3. Turn toward each other instead of Away
4. Let your partner influence you

-The two kinds of marital conflict (this isn’t actually a principle but understanding this is important

5. Solve your solvable problems (does that mean there are unsolvable problems?)
6. Overcome gridlock
7. Create shared meaning

All in all, I think everyone will find this book to be a satisfying read and for almost everyone there will be at least one “ah-ha” moment where it speaks directly to something going on in their relationship. Even if you are thinking that your relationship is on solid footing I encourage you to read this book.

Marriages are something we do and something we have. As something we have, they are fragile and need constant attention and care.

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Unprotected by Miram Grossman

Unprotected is a book Dr. Miriam Grossman. I highly recommend it to everyone. I don’t agree with everything that Dr. Grossman states in the book, but the general tenor of the book cannot be ignored.
Sex has been made political in America. It is wrong to offend anyone except the religious and the fat. The psychological field is filled with left leaning and anti-religion sentiments. In short Political Correctness is causing doctors and counselors to not be able to give total treatment. To be sure, Grossman is more right leaning than I am but this book was a quick, easy read that brings into focus some necessary questions about the field of mental health and the direction it is taking.
In the world of APA the holy mantra is citation of sources and this book is full of them. Books, journals, peer-reviewed articles–they’re all there and most of them can be easily accessed for the lay reader to examine and check for accuracy.
My fear is that too many will dismiss this book because the author is on the right in the political arena. That would not only be unfortunate, it would be a tragedy because at the very least this book should begin a dialogue about how parties are treated, from the most left atheist to the most right fundamental.

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Change of Heart By Jodi Picoult

I wanted to like this book. I really did. All of my friends love this author and I want to be on the inside. I want to be able to have conversations where we talk lovingly of characters and my lips creep up into a sneer when a bad guy is mentioned.

I saw this book on a Bargain rack and figured that it would be a good segue into the Picoult’s world.  The premise of the book is something I can get behind. I’m not a big fan of the Death Penalty as it currently stands in America. I already know that she tells the story from different perspectives of the different characters in her book. Some of my favorite author’s do that so I figure we’re good to go. She and I will get along like Peanut Butter and Jelly at the very worst and at the best we’ll be more like Peanut Butter and Chocolate.

But the book never did it for me. She never was able to scratch me where I itched. The only character I remotely cared about was the little girl. Her characters never seemed fully committed to me. They just didn’t seem real or all that sympathetic.

Her “surprise, twist ending” can be seen a mile off.

Contrived is the best word for the plot.  Did the convict actually do the killing or was he protecting the child as he claims 11 years later from an abusive stepfather? I came to the point where I just didn’t care. A lot of reviews I have read say that this isn’t the author’s best work. Many of my friends say I need to give her another opportunity. I probably will but this book has brought me to the point where the next Picoult book I read will be a library one so that my investment is minimal.

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Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro

Those of us who are disinclined to brevity occasionally undergo an experience that can be quite disheartening and painful. If one is inclined to story-telling, the problem can be even greater.

You have a point and it is well-illustrated by a story. So you start telling the story. Then about 2/3 of the way into the story, you realize, “Oh, no. This story is waaaay too long for the point that I’m trying to make.” But you’ve already burned up the time of your listeners, and you can’t leave them hanging. So you trudge through the rest of the story, wondering if the listeners are as bored with it as you now are — and knowing that it’s not going to end well, either. At least they are mercifully spared this latter foreknowledge.

Such is the problem with Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I read it on a recommendation from someone, and I’m glad that I don’t remember who it is, so I can’t be mad at them.

The story is told first-person by a Kathy H. She is remembering her days at a boarding school and other finishing programs in Britain. She and her friends are different — they are being prepared for very specific lives. The nature of this preparation and it’s end intention are slowly revealed throughout the book (I won’t go into the details, as it would be a bit spoiler-ish).

About 2/3 of the way into the book, it becomes pretty clear what those details are. And it’s obviously a Bad Thing. But like the listeners in my earlier illustration, the reader of Never Let Me Go is unaware that this isn’t going anywhere — or at least not anywhere that’s worth 304 pages. In fact, there is a bit of misdirection that seems that it would at least somewhat ameliorate the Bad Thing — but then that turns out to be little more than urban legend.

To be sure, there is some pontificating near the end of the book so that the reader is clear that the Bad Thing is, indeed, a Bad Thing. And there is even some value to the pontificating, as Ishiguro raises an issue or two that had not occurred to me. But again, nothing that’s worth 300+ pages.

This is definitely not a plot-driven book (though the misdirection makes you think, temporarily, that it might be becoming one). This is definitely a character study. But there’s one problematic issue. It’s about characters that, in the end, we don’t really care much about.

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Thoughts on the Cross, Atonement, & Jesus

I happened across the blog of an author tonight whom I had never heard of before. I recognized some of the names associated in one way or another with the author so I hung around for a bit and did some reading. I discovered this author had recently published a new book he calls Rediscovering the God Imagination: Reconstructing a Whole New Christianity.

The author is Jonathan Brink. I have never heard of him before, as I said, but I did recognize the names of his endorsers and his detractors. Having had my own issues in the past with Ken Silva, I can say that to an extent Mr Brink has my sympathies. I suppose one could say that, as a rule, if Ken Silva is one of your detractors then I will give you the benefit of the doubt and welcome to the club.

The problem is that Silva is an equal opportunity judge and jury and Brink set himself up by using the words ‘reconstructing’ and ‘new’ alongside the word ‘christianity.’ I’d like to give a balanced, quick review of the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his blog.

I took the time to read Brink’s 26-page sample chapter* that he has graciously posted at his website because, well, that’s what I do. I read. I’m a little on the fence regarding some of what I read (and I was also a little taken aback when I read in the comment section that he hadn’t read The Everlasting Man by GK Chesterton–even though that comment was written, evidently, two years ago) and I’m not able to make a complete judgment about the contents of the book. He begins by reminding us that we live in an age of questions–questions about the very traditions upon which we have nursed as Christians. He opens by writing this:

But what is the inherent nature of the Gospel? What actually happened in the Garden of Eden? In order to follow Jesus, it would seem obvious that we would want to know exactly what Jesus is doing on the cross, what problem he is solving, and what it means to humanity. Yet there is no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel. Scholars and theologians have been wrestling with this tension within the Christian tradition for roughly 1,700 years.

I think people are going to have problems with this. I really do. I strongly disagree there is ‘no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel.’ Yes, indeed, scholars have wrestled (and rightly so) with Scripture and definitions. And yes, indeed, there are a lot of theories about the implications of these beliefs. But the basic suppositions of the Gospel, even at the most basic, creedal level, are not really challenged (and probably shouldn’t be). Christians still believe Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the grave (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-11).

I am not so sure, and even Brink equivocates just a bit, that we need to seriously rethink 1,700 years worth of theological reflection. He has questions about whether or not many of the theological formulas that have been created during this period of time actually address the correct question. Thus he writes:

This book suggests a provocative possibility: much of our historical understanding of the problem is wrong. The basic assumptions we make about what is happening in the Garden of Eden are skewed by the very nature of the problem. We locate the problem in the wrong place and end up trying to resolve a problem, which doesn’t actually exist. (p 6 of the pdf sample chapter)

I suppose that in order for new theories to be put forward, the historical understandings have to be cast in this light. We cannot suggest a better way forward unless we cast aspersion on all that has led to this point. This is a very post-modern way of going about things and it is very popular among many so-called emergent theologians and preachers (although I don’t think Brink categorizes himself as either). Challenging ideas is fine; I do so all the time. Suggesting that they are altogether wrong–well, there are a lot of preachers and theologians who will abandon Brink at this point.

Brink also has to do some re-working of the first three chapters of Genesis–which he does (see p 16-19 of the downloadable pdf). Here I believe Brink asks some important questions, and I am curious as to how he will answer them. I have no problem with questions being asked and, to be sure, I am always thrilled when someone, anyone, actually opens their Bible and wrestles with the story–a chore that many who are firmly ensconced in those 1,700 years of theological strictures refuse to undertake since it is much easier to whip out a quote from Calvin or Spurgeon to bolster one’s position: Calvin said it; I believe it; that settles it.

Yeah, that works.

As I neared the end of Brink’s 26 pages, I came across this paragraph:

And finally the story presents the atonement – how God is actually reconciling humanity to God. To understand the human story means confronting our traditional notions of what is happening on the cross, to ask, “Where is the problem located?” Once we answer this question, a new understanding of the atonement opens up. We are invited to discover the depth of what is happening, to shudder at the sheer magnitude of love it reveals, and embrace it with open arms. The story reveals God’s central concern is not a punitive sense of justice for breaking a law, but an overriding concern for the consequence of death. (p 21 of the downloadable pdf)

There’s more to it than this, and I don’t want to be unfair to Brink, but here I might be disinclined to go all the way with his idea. The problem as I see it is that we don’t necessarily need to confront the traditional understandings of the cross and we do not need a new understanding of the atonement. I have no problems with the idea that there is more than one ‘theory of atonement’. Nor, for that matter, do I mind someone opening our eyes to another aspect of God’s work in Jesus. What I object to is the idea that all those theories that went before need replacing or scuttling. Maybe Brink is not being so drastic, but it’s hard not to think he is. And, to be sure, he will have a lot of work to do in order to convince people that 1,700 years of theological reflection have been wrong and that, aha!, he suddenly has it all figured out.

That’s a tall order for anyone. I’m genuinely interested to see how he pulls it off, and how he resolves it for a new generation of pilgrims.

A better approach, I think, is to see all those theories (of atonement) that went before as bits and parts of a comprehensive atonement that God enacted in Christ. None of them is comprehensive, none is exclusive of the others. Together they all help explain what God was doing in Jesus and what he is doing in us. I agree wholeheartedly with Brink that the cross expresses God’s concern for the consequences of death; yes, say it so. But the cross dealt with what caused death (sin); resurrection dealt with death. Or, so says the apostle,

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21, NIV)

I will be interested to see how Brink treats the Resurrection of Jesus since it was only mentioned once in the 26 pages I read and even then it had nothing, necessarily, to do with Jesus’s Resurrection. I hope he has a very large section on Resurrection because in the sort of undertaking he is proposing it will surely be necessary.

I also agree with Brink that we need to be set free from religion. Too many Christians are far too content to live in a scripted religious experience where everything is contained inside neat little compartments that never ever mix together and share ideas or educate or inform one another. Religion is typically what destroys preachers who have been called by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel, who have been called to tell and retell the story.

Frankly, I’m not sure we need a new Christianity–maybe, better, we just need people who are willing to live the story already there (you know, the ‘take up your cross, deny yourself, follow me’ kind of stuff). Frankly, I am not so sure we need to reconstruct a new anything since we are utterly incapable of doing so anyhow (no mention of the Holy Spirit in those 26 pages either; I realize he couldn’t include everything in 26 pages so I am not being overly critical, I’m just saying…)

Brink seems rather intent on redefining some of the terms we use in the church, but I don’t know that such redefining is necessary either. And don’t get me wrong, I understand there is a disconnect between what the Bible says and the way many Christians live. I get it; really I do. I was fired by a church in whom that very disconnect was incarnate in an unimaginable, undeniable, and epic way.

I also understand that suffering and pain and injustice need to be addressed at a much deeper level than preachers have dared to think necessary and possible in the past. The so-called tried and true Sunday school clichés first uttered by John Calvin and perpetuated by the Neo-Reformed scholars of this age no longer work on a people who have questioned and will continue to question everything. One of the great aspects of my generation’s rebelliousness towards authority is the freedom to question, challenge, everything. In other words, you will not control me, you will not tell me what to do or believe; I will figure it out for myself, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, thank you very much.

It may be that I’ll end up agreeing with you or Calvin. It may be that I will reject you and Calvin (especially Calvin). But I will work that out on my own in the company of fellow pilgrims–if only I could find a group of pilgrims willing to live in the turmoil of the doubt that we call faith (see Matthew 28:17).

Brink will have no problem convincing some, will reap the scorn and hatred of others who are already convinced he is a heretic, and will, hopefully, find even more who will read what he says and shout ‘hooray!’ when they read something brilliant, will weep when they read something silly, and will search the Scripture when they come across something that challenges their understanding of Jesus, Christianity, and faith.

Brink claims to have gone back to Scripture in order to write this book. He also claims that much of what he saw in Scripture just didn’t seem to line up with some of the traditional teachings. Therefore I believe it is equally fair and important for those who read this book to go back to Scripture also and see if what Brink has written squares up with what Scripture, the Bible, says. From what I read in 26 sample pages, I think there are going to be some issues.

But we can give him a read and test that for ourselves.

*my reflections concern only the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his website.

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