Category Archives: discipleship

Fasting by Scott McKnight

Jesus once said:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

Earlier, in the same sermon, Jesus also said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)

So here, in what is arguably the most important sermon ever preached, fasting is mentioned twice: once rather prominently and a second time veiled in mystery; nevertheless, twice. I suppose Jesus could have preached many sermons about many things, and, to be sure, he probably did. John reminds us Jesus did and said many other things that are not written about in these books (or at least his). I sometimes like to imagine what Jesus would think of the sermons we humans have preached. When I was preaching regularly, that was always my deepest caution: what would Jesus think of this word or that word, this idea or that. I think more preachers would do well to imagine Jesus reading their sermons before they preached them. Yet I digress.

In this sermon, Jesus mentions fasting. He doesn’t talk about justification by faith. He doesn’t talk about substitutionary atonement. He doesn’t mention the cross or his resurrection. But he does mention fasting. This leads me to wonder why: why would Jesus, in this most important sermon, mention fasting so prominently?

Fasting, by Scott McKnight, is one book in a series of books published by Thomas Nelson in their The Ancient Practices Series of books that also includes titles such as Sabbath, Tithing, The Liturgical Meal, and In Constant Prayer. This is the first book (Fasting, that is) I have read in the series. I have to say that I thoroughly, 100% enjoyed this book. I was refreshed. I was strengthened. I was renewed. McKnight found a way to take a topic usually reserved for Lent and show how it is, and should be, an everyday practice among those who follow Jesus. (For example, he wrote, “More attention needs to be given by proponents of body discipline to the A Column—to the grievous sacred moments that prompt fasting as a daily, rather than occasional, response” 63.)

I love this book, and, frankly, that is saying something because I am very hard to please when it comes to books (there’s only a handful of authors who get instant approval from me—authors like Eugene Peterson and NT Wright and Stephen Ambrose to name a few.) It is also important for me to note my love of this book because I opened the pages with a healthy dose of skepticism. The series of books of which this one is a member includes a book by Brian McLaren and the series itself is edited by Phyllis Tickle and I thought at the beginning, “Why would McKnight include his name among people who have been relentless dogged as heretics and who are famous for the theological scandals they create?” By the time I was finished I was saying, “How could Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle, famous for their willingness to kick against theologically orthodox goads have their names associated with something so thoroughly and theologically orthodox, something so profoundly, deeply, thoroughly Scriptural?”

Yes. This is, in my estimation, the most important aspect of McKnight’s work: it is deeply Scriptural and when he ventures into the area of personal conjecture or historical church tradition, he is always careful to say something like, “we don’t know” (73) or “[B]ut we have to be fair with what the Bible says and doesn’t say” (69).  He is extremely careful to note for his readers when the Bible does and does not say something and is willing to criticize authors (like Dallas Willard) who make conjectures which may not be explicitly spelled out in Scripture.

Another important aspect of this book is that McKnight is also extremely aware of church history. He makes more than passing references to Andrew Murray, John Calvin, John Wesley, Jerome, Tertullian, Augustine, Martin Luther, and more. Modern authors find their way into the book also. One particular moment caught me by surprise and made me laugh. He may or may not have done it intentionally, but I was amused the find the name of John Piper in the book—actually in the introduction to the work. He is tracing a line from the Scripture to the early church all the way to the modern church. So he mentions Dallas Willard (a Protestant author), then he mentions John Piper (a Reformed Pastor), then Thomas Ryan (a Roman Catholic Priest). I found it amusing that John Piper finds himself in agreement with a Roman Catholic and Dallas Willard.

The importance of this, however, is that it demonstrates a connectivity in the major streams of Christian thinking: we are not all so different after all. Here John Piper can be quoted as freely as Joe Biden or Dallas Willard or Thomas Ryan or Tony Hall or Paul the Apostle or Abraham Heschel. We have something to learn from one another. In this sense, McKnight is not the author of the book as much as he is the editor, bringing together all these wise words and putting them before us in order that we might see the connection and understand: now is the time for fasting!

The book is rooted deep in Scripture and tradition. There is a healthy, wholesome balance—but tradition never trumps Scripture. McKnight is a careful scholar who respects the traditions of the church, but who is also determined  to demonstrate that perhaps there is something greater, more important that binds us together than our strange theological traditions.

Fasting serves a purpose, but it is not often what we might expect. Consider:

I have come to this conclusion about fasting: when the grievous sacred moment is neglected and instead we focus on the results, fasting becomes a manipulative device instead of a genuine, Christian spiritual discipline. Far too much of the conversation about fasting is about what we can get and not enough about the serious and severe sacred moments that prompt fasting. (xxi)

This is the echo that continues to reverberate throughout this book: we fast not to get something even if we get something from fasting. The end of fasting is not losing weight or answered prayers or healing or anything but God himself. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they will be filled.” Our goal is not the self-centered ideas we have, “Oh, if I just fast for a few days God will see me, reward me, and bless me. Yet the Scripture is fairly clear, “If you would humble yourself, and before God, in secret, fast, you will be rewarded—you will get God.” Thus he can write, “Because the Israelites yearned for God’s presence, they fasted; that yearning was blessed by God” (30).

He goes on later to say something similar:

The emphasis of these passages in the Bible is not that fasting clears the mind and opens the windows for God’s light to enter. Instead, the emphasis is on the yearning of God’s people to know God’s will. They are focused on the sacred moment more than the use of fasting as an instrument to get what they want. To be sure, they wanted something and they pleaded with God to get it, but I want to emphasize that there is genuine spiritual balance here: these good folks encountered the serious sacredness of wanted to know God’s will, and that yearning prompted their body plea. (49)

And so it goes for one-hundred and sixty nine pages. He continually draws us back to this simple fact that fasting is not about what we get (sometimes we get nothing) but about being with God, hungering and thirsting for God, finding our appetites sated only by the presence of God. McKnight concludes, “Ultimately, then, fasting is being with God and on God’s side in the midst of life’s grievous sacred moments” (169). This is key to understanding the position he takes and he consistently emphasizes and reinforces this point: fasting is about God, seeking him, searching him, hungering for him.

I love this book and there is so much more I want to say about it, but I want you to read it for yourself and discover these gems and jewels and graces. He has very important points to make about fasting and justice, fasting and suffering, fasting and sacraments, and more. The overall layout of the book is superb and flows beautifully. Still, what I want to emphasize is something I scribbled in the margin on page 59: I continue to be amaze at McKnight’s overwhelming dependence on Scripture to make his case.  This is an especially wonderful exposition of Scripture and its implications for the everyday life of the Christian. Why? Because we will need such wisdom to help us through dark times—such as the times currently upon us—in this life. Life, by any measure, is long, and the journey is complicated with all sorts of grief and frustration. Peter wrote that we should be ‘alert and of sober mind’ (1 Peter 5:8). Fasting is an important and necessary way to stay disciplined, to focus on our hunger for righteousness, to respond to the grievous, sacred moments of life, to earnestly seek God and his will:

Body discipline is not about the immediate resolution; instead, body discipline prepares the Christian for the long haul. This kind of discipline, like all the other kinds of fasting described in this volume, brings to expression an overall yearning to be more holy, to be more loving, and to be more responsive to God, self, others, and the entire world….Progress is measured in decades, not days. (67)

I highly recommend this book and give it a robust 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Scott McKnight @ Jesus Creed

Buy Fasting @amazon.com

**I received Fasting free for writing this review. Visit BookSneeze for more information.

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The Goodness of God by Randy Alcorn

The Goodness of God

Randy Alcorn

117 Pages

Multnomah Publishing

I have read quite a few books concerning suffering. D. A. Carson wrote a good one called How Long, O Lord? And many authors of the Christian stripe include sections on suffering in their books regardless of the subject matter of the book itself. They are not, for that matter, all Christians either. Some authors, in their exploration of suffering, have actually discovered what they believe to be God’s Achilles heel. “Aha,” they say. “Suffering and evil in the world prove there is no god or God.” Alcorn does not view it that way: “…we can follow the lead of Scripture and embrace the belief that God is accomplishing eternal purposes in the midst of painful and even tragic events” (73). That’s a difficult proposition, to be sure. But if our point of view is only from this world, horizontal, we will surely abandon all hope. Rather, Alcorn writes, we put our faith in God’s character and God’s promises.

I’ve read some good books on suffering. He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek is a fascinating book by a Catholic priest who was convinced that the time he spent in Soviet slave labor camps in Siberia had meaning. “It is much easier to see the redemptive role of pain and suffering in God’s plan if you are not actually undergoing pain and suffering” (119) he wrote. He went on to write,

It was only by struggling with such feelings, however, that growth occurred. Each victory over discouragement gave an increase in spiritual courage; every success, however fleeting, in finding the hand of God behind all things, made it easier to recapture the sense of his purpose in a new day of seemingly senseless work and hardship and suffering (119).

He learned during his time in the camp. He learned about faith, humility, humanity, death, freedom, and the kingdom of God. He met Jesus and became acquainted with his sufferings.

Leaving Church by Barbara Taylor Brown is another exciting book about suffering. When she began to lose, and eventually lost, she, too, learned about Jesus: “The second thing that happened when I lost my power was that I got a taste of the spiritual poverty that is central to the Christ path…Only those who lose their lives can have them” (163). Indeed. Yet sometimes we are not so willing to give up those lives and they have to be taken from us. We do not enjoy that taking away so we fight and kick and scream like little children who have had their favorite toy taken from them by a tired parent. We cannot prevail.

N.T. Wright’s fascinating look at suffering is found in Evil and the Justice of God, yet it is difficult to read through any of Wright’s books without finding a paragraph or two, chapter or two, devoted entirely to helping the wayfarer discover meaning in suffering.  Couching his argument entirely in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus, Wright writes, “The new life of the Spirit, to which Christians are called in the present age, is not a matter of sitting back and enjoying spiritual comforts in a private, relaxed, easygoing spirituality, but consists rather of the unending struggle in the mystery of prayer, the struggle to bring God’s wise, healing order into the world now, in implementation of the victory of the cross and anticipation of the final redemption” (119).

Many authors of fictional work have written brilliantly on the subject of suffering. Some of my favorite books The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas), Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), and King Rat (James Clavell) are books that delve deeply into philosophical and theological explorations of suffering. Another favorite, Silence by Shusaku Endo, is simply brilliant. The priest suffers mightily in the story, but at the end Endo writes, “…he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love” (191).

There are others. Annie Dillard, Philip Yancey, Flannery O’Connor, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, C.S. Lewis, and many, many others have written either overtly or through a glass about suffering. So now is added to the plethora of books on the subject of suffering, God, and justice Randy Alcorn’s thin The Goodness of God. Inherent in all the books I have mentioned, and not absent from Alcorn’s, is the idea that our suffering means something. There is some point to pain and sadness and darkness, we are told, that we may or may not understand while we are suffering it or being blinded in darkness. The problem, of course, is coming up with answers that in some way or other cover all possible scenarios. Alcorn does ask a very important question a little more than halfway through the book: “Whose purpose in your suffering will prevail? Whose purpose are you furthering?” (79). I agree this is a most important question to ask and, frankly, I wish this had been explored a little more than it was in the book.

I know that Alcorn is not intending his book to be a tour de force explanation of suffering. His book is one-hundred, seventeen pages; I read that many pages before breakfast. Still it is a helpful book, I think, for the beginner. Those who have taken a few more steps on the journey of faith will likely find the book to be a bit shallow while those who are just getting started, so to speak, will find nourishment. The book is milk, not meat. I think there are a lot of times when Alcorn gives us some good one-liners that we can jot down in our journals or on note cards for handy reference. This book, while theologically sound, is not taking us to greater heights or depths, but again, it is not intended to. Nevertheless, there are some rather profound insights in the book that I appreciated and have given much thought to. I’ll note two in particular.

First, he wrote, “Most people today understand evil as anything that harms others; the more harm done, the more evil that action. The Bible uses the word evil in a broader way to describe anything that flows not from loving God but rebelling against him” (9). I think this is healthy. I recently had a friend ask me that question, “What is evil?” Interestingly enough, before I read Alcorn I gave a very similar answer: Evil is anything that works against God, his righteous plans, his purposes in Jesus. Not everyone buys this, of course, but apart from such a righteousness (God’s righteousness) how else can we define evil? If I am the measure of all things, then my standard necessarily prevails against yours, and you had better hope you don’t violate my standard! Either everyone is wrong, or no one is. And if one person is wrong, then clearly we are all wrong.

A second important point comes from a later chapter where he wrote, “….there’s a fault in the logic of the major premise of the problem of evil… ‘it shouldn’t be limited to only two attributes of God—being loving and powerful—but it should include all of them—merciful, faithful, wise, holy, patient, glorious, etc.’” (33). Again, this is true. Often when considering God and his relationship to suffering we see on earth we limit God to one or the other of these two categories: power and love. And when we do, God is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  We are never fully satisfied with God’s answers to our suffering—the suffering and evil that we tend to bring upon ourselves.

I disagree with Alcorn on a couple of points. His discussion of hell being a moral necessity if God’s justice is to be real in chapter 9 was a bit sketchy for me. I don’t believe our modern constructs of hell are fully in line with the Scripture and thus I think that some of Alcorn’s points here are a bit antiquated and missing the mark.

I also disagree that suffering and evil necessarily define what is and is not a good worldview: “And I believe the greatest test of any worldview is how it deals with the problem of evil and suffering” (34). I believe that the greatest test of any worldview is how it deals with Jesus.

The book is riddled with some of the more troubling Christian clichés about suffering. Of course the story of John Newton and Amazing Grace are recounted. C.S. Lewis’s tired saying about suffering being God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world is quoted. Stories about the perplexities of suffering under noted Atheists like Hitler and Stalin are paraded across the pages. We are told the story of the Eliot’s and the Saint’s too. Predictably, Harold Kushner, Richard Dawkins, Viktor Frankl made appearances. And, finally, we are told that undeniably banal story of the train operator who had to choose between saving his son or saving a hundred people on a train if he didn’t pull the switch. There are so many, many, many other authors and stories to pay attention to when talking about suffering—not least of which is Endo, Dostoyevsky, Dillard, Chesterton, Tolkien, Hemmingway, Buechner, P.T. Forsyth, John Donne (who wrote a great book on suffering called Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions), Thornton Wilder (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)…and so many others. All I’m saying is that some stories in the repertoire ought to be laid to rest forever and authors who want to write in popular level theologies on suffering and evil and God ought to have to give us better illustrations. (To be sure, Chesterton and Dostoyevsky both make appearances in the book, but it is the clichéd stuff we might have expected, not the unexpected we might hope for.)

In the few short pages, Alcorn gives us a robust portrait of the God who allows our suffering. There is no doubt about that. But there is not enough help understanding God’s silence–which I believe to be the biggest problem for Christians. Christians for the most part get suffering; we struggle with God’s silence. Who could write that book without falling back to the, “Oh, God is sovereign and wants you to grow up a good jelly-bean that’s why he is being quiet” kind of clichés we have grown accustomed to in pop-Christianity? What we least like about suffering is God’s silence. This was Job’s complaint, but when God answered—ah, then it was Job’s turn to be silent. We despise God’s silence, I suppose, as much as we despise his noise. That is, I dread not hearing his voice, but when I do I am frightened of what he is saying. I’m not sure, after reading Alcorn’s book, I have heard that voice—even if I did happen to hear traces as if through a static filled radio.

2.5/5

Get more @Randy Alcorn

Alcorn’s Blog

Chapter 1 @ Scribd

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**I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah for this review.

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Radical: David Platt

Radical

by David Platt

230 Pages

WaterBrook Multnomah

Eugene Peterson tells the story in his book Eat This Book about visiting an orthodox synagogue in the little Galilean village of Hoshia. He tells of going to an early morning prayer meeting and hearing some young boys, ranging from twelve to seventeen, read from Scripture. Peterson comments, however, that “it only seemed to read for he had memorized it, the entire Torah, the first five books of the Bible” (35).  He continues:

We were moved by the joyful devotion of those boys to God’s revelation to them in that scroll, by their not talking about but living the centrality and authority of these Holy Scriptures. And then more deeply moved when we later talked over how many boys and girls and men and women in gatherings all over the world, hungry men and women, were doing the same thing, and how lucky we were to have had so many good meals with so many of them—hearty meals, soul-filling meals. (35-36)

If you were to ask me, “Are you a Christian?” I would likely answer with something equivalent to a “Yes.” I don’t think I would hedge that with any fences or equivocate in any way. I would say “Yes,” but maybe I wouldn’t be as quick to add an exclamation point as others would. Maybe it’s just cold outside.

I jest, of course, but the truth is that it is easy to wonder at times whether or not we do believe what we profess. Jesus says a lot of things in his book that are very, very difficult to come to grips with—especially if one is a Christian in America.  And if these things are hard to believe, how much more difficult are they to live out in everyday life? Here is where David Platt’s book picks up the story.

Platt does two things, primarily, in this book. He asks if we really believe what the Bible says and he then asks whether or not we are living it out in everyday life.  His opening salvo should be enough to make one either close the book in hopelessness or press on in the hope that the book is going to challenge its reader to radically alter the very core of their faith.

I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe. And I am convinced we have a choice. You and I can choose to continue with business as usual in the Christian life and in the church as a whole, enjoying success based on the standards defined by the culture around us. Or we can take an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed him and really obeyed him. (3, paragraph break omitted.)

Platt spends a lot of time decrying so-called American Dream Christianity and I am being honest when I say that I struggled with this a great deal, and this is my only really, truly honest complaint with the book: it is very difficult to read about how terrible we are as American Christians when the person doing the writing is a 30-something, with a PhD (and two Master’s degrees for a total of five degrees), leading a 4,000+ member church, and globetrotting on mission trips. By the time I got to page 85, I had heard about trips to India, China, Sudan, Indonesia, and other African places. This was the only aspect of the book that truly frustrated me.

To an extent, though, Platt redeemed himself. I did sense as I read the book that Platt himself struggles mightily with these things.  There were two places where I sensed this struggle in Platt and one of the two times I thought maybe a breakthrough was coming.  The first was on pages 48-49 where Platt writes:

This is where I am most convicted as a pastor of a church in the United States of America. I am part of a system that has created a whole host of means and methods, plans and strategies for doing church that require little if any power from God. And it’s not just pastors who are involve in this charade. I am concerned that all of us—pastors and church members in the culture—have blindly embraced an American dream mentality that emphasizes our abilities and exalts  our names in the ways we do church.

The second time was near the end of the book when Platt ‘wrestled’ all the way to Sudan with whether or not he should have spent $3,000 to travel there after someone confronted him with this question: “Why don’t you just send the three thousand dollars to the people in Sudan? Wouldn’t that be a better use of money than your spending a week and a half with them? Think of how far that money could go” (197).

Don’t misunderstand me, please. I’m not criticizing Platt for sharing these two anecdotes.  He has his own journey to make and I am actually glad he has shared his struggles while on the journey. I’m glad he is being honest with us about his struggles.  But if you recognize you are part of the problem, and if you will ask me to give up my own money (as he does frequently), then there is wisdom in asking the question about whether or not spending three thousand dollars is a good use of money and no amount of justification (as follows this story on page 197-198) will do.  Platt asks his readers to sacrifice; indeed his constant decrying of American-Dream Christianity is his sacrificial rally-cry. I understand his point; I don’t understand his solution: “Like the rich young man in Mark 10, every Christian has to wrestle with what Jesus is calling us to do with our resources as we follow him” (119). Wrestling is not a solution.

I guess I wanted the conviction to run a little deeper and I wanted a heroic conclusion. I wanted a Francis Chan solution: give up the mega-church ministry instead of wrestling with the contradiction. Three thousand dollars to sit with someone in Sudan is a far cry from three thousand dollars to feed the very people Platt says we ought to feed:  “More pointedly, if our lives do not reflect radical compassion for the poor, there is reason to wonder if Christ is really in us at all” (111). That’s bold.  It’s perfectly true. And it’s strangely confounding given his wrestling. I’m glad Platt shared the story and opened himself up to the criticism; he gives all who read it a lot to consider.  (Don’t misunderstand me, please, because I don’t believe for a minute that Platt is a man who is neglecting the poor.)

There’s a lot of John Piper (the phrase ‘make much of God’ is right out of the Piper lexicon of neo-Reformed theology) in this book and clearly he is Reformed (Calvinistic) in his theological disposition. This doesn’t bug me too much, although it is a bit pedantic for those of us who do not happen to share his happiness and conviction for said theology. I’m not personally a huge fan of Piper’s theological ideas, but it does not necessarily get in the way of the larger point that Platt is making.

All of that said, I like this book. I like it because Platt is honest: he struggles. He struggles with the words of Jesus. He struggles with the journey. He struggles with the contradiction. He struggles with consistency. I could worship in his church and listen to him preach. I would gladly serve alongside him as he serves the poor because I am certain that no matter how many trips he takes, he is serving the poor, feeding them, and loving them in the name of Jesus. Platt believes that the words of Jesus are true and that we ought to be living according to them. And, to be sure, the stories he tells of Christians in various parts of the world is encouraging and challenging at the same time.

He tells stories like Eugene Peterson does: with passion: “And then more deeply moved when we later talked over how many boys and girls and men and women in gatherings all over the world, hungry men and women, were doing the same thing.” That’s the kind of stories Platt tells: Christians around the world, hungry for the Word of God, hungry to worship, hungry for the Spirit, dying for Christ, suffering for the cross, and praying despite all appearances that no prayers are answered. These are the folks that Platt tells us about, the people he has chosen to identify with, and the Christians who are our brothers and sisters in Jesus. It is the stories Platt tells about Christians around the world that ultimately makes this book worth the read.

I go away from this book extremely challenged. He challenges me to take the words of Jesus seriously and literally.

As a result, Christ commands the church make the gospel known to all people. If this is true, then the implications for our lives are huge. If more than a billion people today are headed to a Christless eternity and have not even heard the gospel, then we don’t have time to waste our lives on an American dream. Not if we have all been commanded to take the gospel to them. The tendency in our culture is to set around debating this question, but in the end our goal is not to try to find an answer to it; our goal is to alleviate the question altogether (157-158).

That is radical indeed.

****/4

*I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Read an excerpt at Scribd

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Whole Life Transformation: Keith Meyer

Whole Life Transformation

by Keith Meyer

217 Pages

InterVarsity Press

I don’t believe that most men are looking for the Ultimate Fighting Jesus of Mark Driscoll lore. On the other hand, I don’t believe most men are looking for a Diary of a Wimpy Kid Jesus either. Unfortunately, for me, Meyer did not manage to strike the balance necessary to portray a Jesus I can relate to.

Meyer evidently was an overworked, ambitious, and terribly successful church pastor. He had everything going for him: a family, a church, and success. But he had something else too: piles of work on his desk in his church office, an overwhelming sense of self-importance, and a disconnect with reality. All of this came to a head one day when, while ‘spending quality time’ with his son, his son said to him, ‘Dad are you home yet?’ This caused Meyer to examine his life deeply.

He soon discovered a hole in his heart, a less than fulfilling life, a lacking social life, a distance with his wife, his son, and friendships. He also discovered a flaw in his character—filled as he was with all sorts of anger, lust, ambition among others. He claimed to a Jesus follower, but there were obvious flaws. It was Dallas Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines that sort of helped bring Meyer back to reality because it helped him to ‘see things in the Bible in such a different light’ so that he ‘began to hope for a different kind of life’ (17). He went on the proverbial journey in order to discover this new way of living. This led him out of ministry, back into ministry, and eventually to teaching at seminaries and conferences, retreats, and consultations (19).

He writes as one who hasn’t necessarily arrived, as one who has many questions still, but who is willing to hear the questions and search for answers. He admits that he has searched for answers in strange places for a Protestant Evangelical including the Roman Catholic Church and in Quakerism (19) and other places too. I’m not so much bothered by where he found answers as to where he didn’t. I wonder, that is, why it seems that so often when such journey’s take place the person on the journey looks to the Roman Catholic Church, the Quaker Church, or the Eastern Orthodox Church for answers? Why is it, so often, the answers to life’s most troubling questions concerning slowing down, not being busy, loving your family, shunning ‘success’, and the like are found in the mysticism found in these church expressions?

It’s about this point that the author loses me. Simply put, the book comes across as wimpy. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m most certainly not suggesting that we need to have hyper-masculinity in order to be a Jesus follower. At the same time, reading through Meyer’s book was difficult at times because, frankly, it comes across as terribly weak. Sometimes I sensed that Meyer wanted to say more than he was saying, or that he was saying less than he should have been saying. Sometimes he was elusive and enigmatic.

Meyer is well read. He talks about books he has read from Mike Yaconelli to Philip Yancey to CS Lewis to Dallas Willard to NT Wright to Brother Lawrence to Scott McKnight to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Frederick Buechner and others. I appreciate that he has read these authors. He has taken their ideas and woven them cohesively into his own semi-auto-biographical narrative of the discipline driven life. These authors have been valuable to my own journey and I see the value of their work.

There are some Evangelical Christians who will have trouble reading Meyer’s high praise of Roman Catholicism. They will have trouble with him listening to Eddie Vedder and Led Zeppelin. They will have trouble with his praise of Mother Teresa and John Henry Newman. They will be most unhappy with his praise of Phyllis Tickle, Dallas Willard and NT Wright. They will be most unhappy as he recounts his story of how the church he was pastor at ‘Open Door’ held a private baby dedication for a lesbian couple (chapter 6). And finally, there are those who will be somewhat bothered by Meyer’s insistence on seeking help from therapists and ‘life coaches’ and ‘spiritual directors’ and counselors. I admit that I find a bit of this annoying, but I am not Meyer. He had issues he believed could only be dealt with in this way. Just because I don’t find them particularly useful, doesn’t mean others will not.

I’m not altogether bothered by this stuff. The goal of Meyer’s book is to teach his readers the steps that he took to see his life transformed. Ultimately it boils down to the so-called disciplines. Again my trouble is not so much the disciplines themselves as their particular ‘use.’ One, in particular, bothered me greatly and that was Meyer’s suggestion of using an ‘image of Jesus’ when he prays. He wrote:

At the time I began a practice of starting my day with Jesus, I would use a picture of Jesus that my spiritual director suggested as I prayed. I need a new image because, as a child I was frightened more than comforted by a large picture of Jesus that hung behind the pulpit of our church. It was a popular painted called Head of Christ by Warner Sallman….The new picture that my spiritual director suggested I use isn’t culturally correct. I call it ‘GQ Jesus’ due to the Brad Pitt face, vanilla but tan, and hair. (189)

Frankly, I cannot imagine a worse practice whether it is a Warner Sallman or GQ Jesus. I find this suggesting appalling, dangerous, and deceiving. This is where some of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions have rendered Meyer’s arguments rather ineffective and useless. I see absolutely no use whatsoever in the use of icons in worship–it borders way too close to idolatry.

Two final criticisms. I hate endnotes. I understand the need to keep the academic feel out of the book, but I had endnotes. Second, there is no bibliography. For as much as Meyer quoted from a hundred different authors or referenced their work in some way, it is terribly disappointing that the book is devoid of a good bibliography or a at least a ‘books of further interest’ section.

I think this book, my criticisms notwithstanding, might be helpful for some people. There are a lot of people who have experienced problems similar to those of Meyer: overwork, burnout, distance from family members, sense of self-importance and worse. I’d like to think that Meyer’s book will help them in some way. The problem is that for all the helpful chapter titles, for all the quoted authors, for all the stunning anecdotes, for all the personal angst and revelation, for all the success, for all the wonderful ideas flowing from spiritual disciplines…I was left wanting more because I was left wanting Jesus. Maybe that was his point.

I have no doubt that readers will gain something from the book. I have no doubt that if read and applied faithfully, people will grow in their depth of spirituality. But what if we never have that crisis moment that causes us to question everything? What if we have no children to ask us if we are home yet? To be sure, there is no such thing as a life ‘free of worry, lust, anger, contempt, gossip and greed.’ There is only the life that contends against these things, continuously, by the power of the Spirit and the blood of Christ—his grace is sufficient regardless of how insufficient our faith is. If people get to the point where they read this book, I think they will find some grace they need.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5 not because I think he has a lot of answers, but because he is at least willing to go on the journey. Too many of us are not willing to take the journey and thus we never meet Jesus who is waiting for us. Meyer’s journey is a courageous one even if I am not particularly enthusiastic about some of the places he has stopped along the way.

***/5

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Sun Stand Still: Steven Furtick

Sun Stand Still

By Steven Furtick

210 pages

Multnomah

“The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel.”  (Joshua 10:13b-14)

Steven Furtick claims that these verses (and 12b-13a) form the core of what he calls a ‘theology of audacity’ (7). He goes on:

“You probably don’t have one of those yet, but it’s essential. In fact, if you ever encounter a theology that doesn’t directly connect the greatness of God with your potential to do great things on his behalf, it’s not biblical theology. File it under heresy. I’ll take it further: if you’re not daring to believe God for the impossible, you’re sleeping through some of the best parts of your Christian life. And further still: if the size of your vision for your life isn’t intimidating to you, there’s a good chance it’s insulting to God. Audacious faith is the raw material that authentic Christianity is made of” (7-8; paragraph breaks omitted, emphasis added).

At the heart of my review of this book lie two questions. One is theological, the other personal. First, is Steven Furtick’s interpretation and application of this verse from the book of Joshua fair, biblical, and orthodox? That is, why did God causes the sun to stand still, what is the theological lesson learned in the context of The Story, and what are we to take from it? Frankly, this question must lie at the center of our inquiry of any book whose author takes a passage of Scripture and develops an entire idea or principal of living around it—as Christian authors are fond of doing (even though the Bible was not written in a verse by verse vacuum). I ask this question of every book and every sermon I read or listen to. I’m not one who believes the Scripture can be used in a willy-nilly way in order to fashion any old or new idea or justification for an idea. (Many times, while reading this book, I thought, ‘This is little more than the Prayer of Jabez for a younger audience.’)

So I did some research on Joshua chapter 10, consulting some of the more significant commentaries that have been written [among them, Joshua, by Richard Hess (Tyndale OT Commentaries); Joshua, Trent C. Butler (Word Biblical Commentary); The Book of Joshua, Marten H Woudstra (The NICOT); and Joshua, Mark Ziese (CPNIV Comentary)]. What I wanted to know is if Furtick’s understanding and application of this prayer of Joshua is valid and not entirely outside the bounds of solid exegetical practice. The emphasis in each one of these commentaries centered around the idea that ‘God fought for Israel’ (Woudstra); of ‘God’s assistance to Israel’ (Hess); and of ‘God’s [provision] of victory for his people in battle’ (Butler). Ziese took another trail though focusing more on YHWH’s specific action noted in the text:

“Readers have the luxury of slowing down to contemplate the portents in the sky (hail, sun, or moon), but the narrator presents and altogether different reason for pause. The true marvel arises when an audacious prayer is coupled with a positive answer: ‘Yahweh listens’ or possibly even ‘obeys the voice of a man’” (Ziese, 222)

There’s that word, audacious. It shows up so much in Sun Stand Still that I was actually sick of reading it by page 21, but there it is—used in the same interpretive context, by another author, as Furtick uses it. Such a person who boldly comes before God with such a request is indeed audacious. What Ziese suggests is amazing about this chapter is not so much the audacious prayer, audacious though it may be, but the fact that God listened to a man!

The book of Hebrews says we are to boldly, confidently approach the throne of God with our prayers (Hebrews 4:14-16). Then there’s also this story in Matthew’s Gospel:

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.  “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.  (Matthew 8:5-13)

So there is a biblical theology of audacity or boldness and Furtick is careful to define what this means: “Audacious faith is based on who God is, what he’s already done, and what he continues to do” (120). Audacity of faith, worked out through the boldness of prayer in the throne room of God, is centered entirely on the person and character of God. Jesus, indeed, admired such boldness. And, furthermore, Jesus listened to the prayers of the audacious.

But is that the point of the story in Joshua? Is Joshua’s prayer, uttered during the course of an extermination program on YHWH’s behalf, to be used to fix broken relationships, secure financial provision, make career advancements, find physical or emotional healing, achieve important life goals, or to discover one’s purpose in life? (This is a partial list from Sun Stand Still found on page 37.) Frankly, it is difficult to square these ideas with the context of the Joshua prayer. There’s nothing wrong with those prayers (as the story from Matthew 8 partially demonstrates) but I’m just not certain that is the conclusion the author of Joshua wanted us to come to after reading this story—this story of the conquering of The Land. In other words, I’m not persuaded by Furtick’s use of the Joshua story—as if it were a mere outline for us to fill in with modern scenarios. There is far more going on in the story found in Joshua 10 than mere success in battle or overcoming obstacles standing in the way of important life goals.

The problem is: Centurion’s Servant Healed doesn’t make nearly as good a book title as Sun Stand Still.

The second question is personal: If Furtick’s thesis is correct and God does want us to be bold, audacious, and praying-like-a-juggernaut success stories, then why does it come so easily for some and not for others? (And why do those for whom it does come so easily always end up writing books about it?)  Furtick provides plenty of answers to this question (especially in chapter 13 ‘When the Sun Goes Down’—which is a really good chapter in the book.) Ultimately, however, I found his answers unsatisfying and somewhat self-serving (He recounts the story of his ‘Aunt’ Jackie who told him one day after church, “Well, whether you believe it or not, it’s true. God always gets his, and I am praying that you’ll be one of God’s greatest instruments to get the Word out”, 168; audacious indeed!) Why God causes some preachers, even some Christians, great success and others great failure is beyond my imagination—and I’m not convinced, per Furtick’s argument, that it has anything to do with the sort of prayers we pray. I know plenty of faithful, prayerful preachers who are bold and unassuming and audacious who are mired in the morass of small church life, who pray for years and yet never see what Furtick describes in his book.

Here again is the difficulty: Furtick never talks about failure. That sounds negative and terrible, but it is the reality of life. I think the closest he gets to talking about failure is in chapter 14 (‘Pray Like a Juggernaut’) where he talks about Furtick’s Book of Dumb Prayers. He candidly admits, “Audacious faith doesn’t mean my prayers work every time. It means that God is working even when my prayers don’t seem to be working at all” (148). But what does this mean in a book full of stories about how his prayers have in fact succeeded every time? I’m not clamoring for ‘failure’ stories, but for those of us in the world and in the church for whom failure seems to be the way, the only way, God works—it’s a bit much to read of how one person’s prayers always seem to succeed. But that’s the point of the book, right?

We know a strange God according to this book. This is a God for whom prayer either doesn’t matter at all or for whom only the right kind of prayers matter. I haven’t decided which one yet is true, maybe I don’t want to. Maybe there’s a third option—the one that involves never seeing success, never tasting victory, and never seeing God ‘move.’ And maybe those prayers and the Christians who pray them are not heretics, but faithful in the way God has called them to be faithful. Or maybe we are just missing something.

Since to this point I have been mostly critical of Sun Stand Still allow me a minute to note just a couple of highlights from the book that add balance to my criticism. These are thoughts from Furtick that I believe are wholly justified and would be helpful to write down in your Moleskine for future reference.

  • “Seizing his big purpose for your life is not just about figuring out what God wants from you and getting down to business. It’s about becoming intimately acquainted with who Jesus is. It’s about mining the depths of who you are in him.” (26)
  • “How will God accomplish the impossible vision he has planted in your heart? By his grace—and through your willingness to sacrifice your life for the sake of Jesus.” (80)
  • “The very sin you’ve been ignoring and minimizing may be the one that’s limiting your ability to rise to greater heights in God. The most powerful sin in your life is the one you haven’t confessed yet.” (135)
  • “Prayer is the arena where our faith meets God’s abilities.” (153)

These are a few of the better sound-bites from the book. I’ll leave you to interpret them or apply them to your life.

There is a lot to admire in this book, and in the person of Steven Furtick. He seems thoroughly convinced of what he’s saying. Evidence of this is found in the prologue. When questioned by a friend as to whether he truly believed he would host a worship service in the same building where he had attended a U2 concert, Furtick replies, without so much as a hint of doubt, “Yeah. I did. I really believed.” The main problem I have with this book is its naiveté. Frankly, it reads like the journal of someone who has never experienced a setback or failure in his life (not that he has not). Furtick is the golden boy, charged at the ripe old age of 16 to be ‘one of the greatest instruments to get the word out.’ It’s hard to read this with enthusiasm knowing how hard it is for most preachers who struggle day in, day out, praying constantly for change that never comes to their small congregation. It’s hard to read this because in the back of my mind I constantly wondered: When is he going to tell us the reality of life on earth, that most of our prayers go unanswered? When a congregation is in the fight of its life to stay in possession of their building, after breaking away from the denomination, it is sort of difficult to understand why God was more concerned about whether Furtick’s church would take up space in a shopping mall.

That’s not a personal criticism, but a cold hard reality. In my experience, Furtick’s ideas and experiences are simply not the norm—maybe he wants them to be? So I wonder why this is true. Is it because those of us who haven’t had his success have simply not prayed the right prayers? Is it because we didn’t have an aunt or uncle who prophesied over us? Is it because we were unwilling to do something for Jesus? Is it because we are, gasp, the sort of heretics Furtick described in the opening salvo? Or is it because God gave only Steven Furtick the wisdom to figure out that Joshua, in fact, held all the clues to pastoral and Christian success? (Again, echoes of Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez.) It is difficult for me to read books that build a philosophy of discipleship on one prayer, from one book—especially when there is good cause to believe that prayer and the reason for it have been misinterpreted in the first place, as I do.

This is what troubles me most. I grant you this is personal and that may be unfair. Maybe, on the one hand, there are preachers in the church who can perfectly understand where Furtick is coming from and validate and justify his theology of bigger-is-better audacity. Maybe, on the other hand, there are preachers in the church who get so caught up in the everydayness of visiting nursing homes, preparing two or three sermons a week, preaching funerals, conducting weddings, visiting shut-ins, preparing worship services, writing letters, printing bulletins and newsletters, going to meetings, leading, etc., that they don’t have the time to dream as big as Furtick did and does—and maybe that’s OK. Most preachers, for better or worse, have time to pray, “Lord, give us this day our daily bread—that’s all I have time for.”

Most of the time, daily bread is enough.

**/5

*I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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The Next Christians: Gabe Lyons

The Next Christians

Gabe Lyons

Doubleday, 2010

230 pages

“I believe that it is expected of the Church and its theology—a world within the world no less than chemistry or the theatre—that it should keep precisely to the rhythm of its own relevant concerns, and thus consider well what are the real needs of the day by which its own programme should be directed. I have found by experience that in the last resort the man in the street who is so highly respected by many ecclesiastics and theologians will really take notice of us when we do not worry about what he expects of us but do what we are charged to do.”—Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God 1.i, in Church Dogmatics, xvi

Let me say at the outset that I started hating this book around page 21 when the author added the word ‘the’ before the word ‘faith.’ I hastily scribbled in the margin, “No! The faith doesn’t change. There is only one faith once delivered. That doesn’t change even if the context in which it is lived out does.” I still wish the author had written that sentence a little differently because it took me the rest of the book to fully appreciate and understand what he had written and why he had written it that way. I sort of regretted getting hung up on the word ‘the’; it seems such a silly thing to stumble upon.

But maybe the faith does change. It would have been all too easy to get hung up on a mere article and let it ruin a wonderful journey just like so many Christians get hung up on small things and thus find their entire journey ruined also. Life and faith have so much to offer:  so much joy, so much adventure and thrill—I’m reminded of Bilbo Baggins who thought it a wonderful adventure to just step outside the front door. It’s easy to miss the faith when we are busy pretending we are defending something important like the faith. We Christians are very, very good at getting stuck at ‘the.’

I persevered—determined not to get stuck at ‘the.’ I am so glad I did because as I did I met up with some familiar friends. It is very, very difficult for me to argue or disagree with an author who quotes from the authors that I, too, enjoy: NT Wright, Eugene Peterson, TS Eliot, Stanley Hauerwas, Brennan Manning, and William Willimon—they all made it into the book. And there are more, plenty more.  I love these authors because they are the very authors, the very Christians, who have been shaping my own faith for a long time. Seeing these authors’ ideas in Lyons’ book was encouraging to me because it meant that he is a reader and that his own faith was being shaped by the same people who have been shaping my faith. I started realizing what Lyons was getting at when I started to hear myself: these are the same things I had been saying to my congregation when I was still preaching every Sunday.

The gist of Lyons’ argument is that by and large we have missed the point of the faith. In being cultural separatists or cultural adoptionists we have failed the mandates of the faith. We haven’t offered a better way forward when we determine to take up residence in either of those categories: “If we fail to offer a different way forward, we risk losing entire generations to apathy and cynicism” (11). Lyons is offering a better way forward in his book by drawing on the wisdom of others who have made a similar call, preachers like Eugene Peterson, Chuck Colson, John Stott, and Tim Keller. Our faith ought to change us and ought to change the world. And if it is not, then we might ask whether or not there is a ‘the’ in front of the word faith in any case.

I think some readers might have problems with some of the anecdotes found in the book. I don’t think that holding up Christopher Hitchens’ criticism of Jerry Falwell to make a point, however right the point may be, will resonate with the people who need to read this book (14-15) any more than I think holding up a lesbian high school student as a positive example of a change agent will (21-22; c.f., 114-115). I don’t think that the Christians who need to read this book will take joy in his example of a person who sought spiritual substance in Mormonism (173), regardless of how much they too detest the pizza party culture of some churches, any more than they will take joy in his example of spiritual devotion of Muslims who pray when it is time to pray (179). Is it commitment and devotion when it is commitment and devotion to something that is not true or is it absurdity? Do atheists, lesbians, Mormons and Muslims put Christians to shame? It’s an intriguing question that begs a further question: are there no examples of such people in the church he could hold up for his readers?

I just don’t know that Christians need examples of how pagans put us to shame; we do well enough on our own with our lack of such devotion.

Another problem with the book is, frankly, that Lyons lives in a world few of us can fully appreciate. It may seem a trivial thing to suggest that his anecdotes are otherworldly, but the world in which Lyons lives in not the same world most of us live in daily. His anecdotes of meeting with Hollywood bigwigs, friends who work and live in Beverly Hills, magazine publishers, CEO’s of investment companies, high profile fashion models, or people who work with money that has more zero’s than my name has letters is, well, way too out of touch for most of us. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad those are his friends and that he rubs shoulders with important people, but sometimes it just comes off as if: Hey! Look at me!

Lyons states on page 126, “I’m not suggesting that every person’s calling is to start a nonprofit organization to address a huge global problem. For you, it probably doesn’t mean leaving your job or career at all. It simply means restoring right where you are.” And I couldn’t agree more. The only problem is that there is a dearth of examples of those of us who are the ‘you’ represented in his story.  I would have preferred more stories about those every day Harrys and Marys who are being encouraged to do just what he says. Yet page after page is filled with stories of people that most of us cannot in any way relate to. It puts a huge distance between author and reader–not just in the people’s stories he tells, but in other ways as well.

For example, consider his criticism found on page 97 where he talks about the way we decorate our houses. Lyons is talking about creating culture—a brilliant idea and one that Christians do not talk about nearly enough. But then the conversation drifts to the type of wood that our furniture is made of: “Does the china cabinet in your house tell a story of craftsmanship and beauty or of speed and mass production? If it’s coated in a ‘faux-wood’ veneer, it tells the story of the latter.” Here I disagree. I think if my house contains furniture made of ‘faux-wood’ it tells the story of what I have chosen to own. It says, “Here’s a person who doesn’t need to spend money on real wood furniture to be happy.” Or it says, “Here’s a person who has bought something he can afford, something utilitarian, something his children can break and not feel guilty for.” Or it says, “Here’s a person who constantly has a house full of his sons’ friends and finds it is far more convenient to own a veneer than furniture that can be easily scratched and devalued.”

It is a silly argument he puts forward. It is, in a word, pretentious. What if I don’t even had a china cabinet?  The type of furniture in my house has nothing to do whatsoever with the depth of my devotion to Christ. Then again, I’m probably defeating his point which is that we should be creators and not critics. Or maybe he is. I mean, I might have to leave my job and get a new job if I’m going to have to create culture by buying really expensive, real wood furniture. Or I can keep feeding the 20 neighborhood kids that stroll in and out of my house on a weekly basis because I have faux-wood furniture instead. I suppose it is a matter of who Lyons’ readers are, but when he tells stories about my furniture or his friends who host house parties in Hollywood Hills (147ff), I feel like I am not the intended reader. I get the point: these are Lyons’ friends and his experiences. Fine. It doesn’t fix the disconnect.

Nevertheless, Lyons struck a nerve with me and picked at a scab that has been bugging me ever since I was fired from a church I had served for nearly ten years. I have struggled mightily with God and wrestled with the Lord by my own Jabbok for nearly two years trying to understand how I could serve Him outside the pulpit—the very place I believe, even now, I was called to serve. Yet when Lyons told the story of his son’s Down syndrome (105-108), I was moved deeply, not in mere emotion, but with an  energy and determination to press on in my new calling (Special Education). And when he told the story of how some pastors are deliberately moving into urban centers and ‘incarnating Christ’s love at the heart of culture’ (201), I was motivated to work harder to finish my career change—which has already taken me away from a formal pulpit—and get on with the work I now believe I have been called to do (to eventually move into such an urban center).

Truth is, this book was very personal because I continue to see, in book after book, God’s affirmation and confirmation, that there is service in His Kingdom apart from a pulpit on Sunday mornings. Lyons wrote, in what might be the best couple of sentences in the entire book: “[The next Christians] have finally recovered what many who have gone before them always understood about the faith: namely, that the Christian view of the world informs everything, that the Gospel runs deep, and that the way of Jesus demands we give our lives in service to others. Jesus’s atonement was not only meant to be a simple ticket to heaven—it carried consequence for how Christians live their lives on earth today” (201). I have heard this before, read it before, preached it before—and Lyons is right, not because I believe him, but because he believes Jesus. Too many Christians live like all that matters is thing we were told not to worry about: “Why do you stand here looking at the sky?” the angel asked (Acts 1:11). In other words, “Get your head out of the clouds, get back to Jerusalem, and get ready to be empowered to be Jesus to the world.”

Seriously.

And thus we come back to Karl Barth, writing nearly 80 years ago, who said that if we are to take ourselves seriously as the church, then we need to be doing the things we are supposed to be doing, the things we are charged to do by Jesus himself:  “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me….Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind…and Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:21; 22:37, 39).

Where has Jesus called us to love right now? Who has he called me to love right here? How has he called me to love those who are in the places where I find myself each day? In what way has the Gospel informed my life? How deep does the Gospel run in my life? How am I serving others?

I’m really glad I got past ‘the.’

4.5*’s/5

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The Radical Disciple: John Stott

The Radical Disciple

John Stott

InterVarsity Press, 2010

142 pages

There is a part of me that wishes John Stott had not written this book, or at least that he had written a different book, or given the book a different title. Or something along those lines. This small book published by InterVarsity Press this year marks, if I understand correctly, the conclusion of John Stott’s public career. Stott has long been a leader in the Evangelical church as a preacher, Rector, author and lecturer. But if this book marks the final chapter of his storied literary career then he ended on a less than celebrated note.

I would have preferred to remember the John Stott who wrote the great books The Cross of Christ and Between Two Worlds and The Spirit, The Church, and The World. Those books helped form my early views of the Christian faith and were marked by careful scholarship and attention to detail. I kind of feel like The Radical Disciple was a publishing company’s attempt to cash in one last time on a fading light. I confess that when I saw it as a book of the month from IVP I was very excited and couldn’t wait for it to arrive. I was disappointed, to say the least, in the final product.

Stott started out strong with a call to non-conformity yet what follows (his other seven characteristics of a radical disciple; viz., Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death) fell short of the sort of theological brilliance that has typically characterized Stott’s work. He begins this way: “So we are neither to seek to preserve our holiness by escaping from the world nor to sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world” (17). Bold. Very bold and very true. I only wish he had simply explored this theme through the rest of the book.

The worst chapter is chapter 4, Creation Care. I know not one single Christian who believes that our mandate to ‘rule’ and ‘subdue’ the world means that we ought to rape and pillage the planet’s resources. In this chapter he speaks of the ‘ecological crisis’ that is looming over our heads. He continually uses the word ‘crisis’ which is, in my opinion, mere hyperbole. For example, his first crisis is the ‘accelerating world population growth’. Why is a rising population a crisis? The very Scriptures Stott alludes to in support and justification of his version of creation care as, an aspect of the Radical Disciple’s life, namely, Genesis, tells us that we are to fill the earth, to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ So how can it be a crisis that we are doing just that? Is God not capable?

One gets the impression that God is not the Lord of the planet after reading this chapter. One also gets the impression that Stott is sort of agitated with those who do not share his conclusions with respect to global warming (or, as he calls it, ‘climate change’). He regurgitates the typical ‘liberal’ line when it comes to the earth—lines I do not agree with or subscribe to. “Crisis is not too dramatic a word to use” (57) he writes. I disagree. If God is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, as I know Stott believes, then there is no crisis–unless it is our responsibility to fix all that he thinks is wrong. Thankfully, this is the shortest chapter in the book.

There is a sort of randomness to Stott’s selection of the eight characteristics he writes of, which he himself admits (see p 134). To be sure, he does call these eight characteristics ‘my portrait of the radical disciple’ and goes on to write, “You will no doubt want to compile your own list. Hopefully it will be clearly biblical, but still also reflect your own culture and experience, and I wish you well as you do so” (134).

This is generous and important. I may well disagree with Stott that accepting ‘climate change’ as a prop in my discipleship is necessary, but I do agree with him that discipleship in Jesus will necessarily be shaped in part by the culture in which we reside.  It is as unavoidable as Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader. Culture necessarily has to do with the way we act and practice our faith. I will leave it up to each person who reads Stott to decide how their culture will affect, define, and shape their lived-out life in Christ. And there is no doubt that what Stott wrote in these pages reflects areas in his own life where he has struggled or even failed to be as pristine as hoped. Each of us will write a valedictory message, and it will reflect our own failures and struggles. We can only hope to be as honest and forthcoming as John Stott has been in his.

***/5

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