Category Archives: theology

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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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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Scandalous: DA Carson

Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus
D.A. Carson
Crossway, 2010
168 pages plus 2 indices

It might be a sign that I have read too many of Dr Carson’s books if they no longer truly impact me where I am at any given moment. I have read a lot of his books. I have listened to a lot of his sermons. I have read a lot of his formal journal contributions. I am like a junky for Carson, at one time actually spending money to purchase very poor cassette tape audio recordings of his sermons. But this time I found myself finishing his sentences and skipping over time-worn illustrations and yawning. The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus are amazing, mind blowing, earth shattering, soul undoing events. As Tim Keller notes: If Jesus is who he said he is, then everything changes.

In this book Carson did not do a good job of bringing those earth shattering realities to the surface or bringing my understanding of them to the point that my life is thoroughly, completely, utterly undone.

Scandalous is the first Carson book I have read in some time and, to be sure, I was disappointed. Disappointed enough that this will likely be the last Carson book I read. This is not to say it was a terrible book or that Carson’s scholarship was off or that his writing was, well, not Carsonish enough. It’s just to say that for the most part I was bored.

The book was cobbled together from a series of five sermons Carson preached at the 2008 Resurgence Conference at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. I’m willing to bet that these five sermons were actually written down in other books that Carson has written at some point in the past (many of his illustrations have been used elsewhere). If anything positive can be said about the book it is that Carson is at least consistent: He hasn’t said anything new since I started reading his work twenty years ago. That is what makes the work a rather tedious and hum-drum affair for me.

Don’t get me wrong. As far as theology is concerned, Carson mostly is right on target. He never deviates from his essentially Reformed Calvinist point of view and even though he never once mentions the name ‘NT Wright’ (he does get in a dig at Steve Chalke and Alan Mann in the note on page 69) one can sense that underneath much of what Carson writes is a polemic against the so-called ‘new perspective on Paul’ and what many in the Reformed camp feel is a threat to the grip they have on theological power that goes along with the Reformed interpretation of the atonement (viz., penal substitution). I find it hard to believe that something so obvious needs so much defense.

It’s almost as if someone is trying to dress up an old theologian and make him into a hip, happening kind of guy. The cover is cool: ‘Scandalous’ is emblazoned on the cover in shiny, raised, blood spattered letters that would make Dexter proud. The rest of the cover is an appalling black. All the right cool people are quoted lauding the work. Yet none of this changes the fact that when you open the book and begin reading you are struck by the fact that the most modern poet Carson quotes is himself. There are plenty of quotations from hymns written by Martin Luther, Lidie Edmuds, William Cowper and others, and these folks are fine, excellent hymn writers and poets. But they are from yesterday. I found it terribly disconcerting that Carson resorted three times to quoting his own poetry in the book (72, 109-110, 167-168) and that he was the most modern poet he quoted.

I think if you have never read DA Carson before you will find this a helpful book and, perhaps, even a good book. Like I said, Carson is not wanting for scholarship skills. If you have never read him before you will get a very good introduction to the Reformed view of the cross (although the book is subtitled “The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus” the Resurrection of Jesus only gets one chapter to itself) and resurrection. This may or may not be a good thing. I think when we get so intent on defending a point of view we often fail to be challenged or changed by the story itself.

If you have read Carson before, I think you will be bored and/or disappointed. He has not given his readers anything different or anything new to think about in this book. I wish he had interacted with some of those he opposes since it would have made the book a better read. He would likely be pleased with that fact, but for his readers there will be much yawning and sleepy eyed skipping ahead to the next page or the next chapter. And that will likely not please him one bit.

2.5 Stars out of 5

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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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Sinning Like a Christian: William Willimon

Sinning Like  a Christian, by William Willimon

Abingdon Press, 2005

A Peculiar Prophet (Willimon’s Blog)

I wish I had the courage to sin like William Willimon, but I know that if I did, people might looksinning willimon at me funny. After all, I’m not William Willimon.  The problem with Willimon is not his theology. I think he is a fine theologian. His problem is not his preaching: he is thought provoking, at times his tongue is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and his sense of irony and sarcasm is astounding. I can take him in tempered doses which is why it takes me a month to read a  150 page book like Sinning Like a Christian. I read Willimon like I read Anne Lamott: slowly, cautiously, and with a small glass of sipping whiskey.

The problem with Willimon is that, for all his intelligence, he really doesn’t know when to quit, and when he keeps going he comes off as terribly judgmental, arrogant, and ungracious.  So, Willimon, true to form, published a Postscript at the end of this book wherein he waxes eloquently about grace and love and happy-happy-joy-joy but manages to take swipes at former president George W. Bush and an unnamed ‘conservative, evangelical, Bible-thumping pastor.’ It’s at this point that Willimon tends to lose me: for as much as he talks about grace, he seems to reserve not the tiniest bit for those who are on the opposite side of the political aisle from him. I find this to be true of a lot of theological liberals.

However…

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Sinning Like a Christian is Willimon’s exploration of the so-called seven deadly sins. Overall, I think this book is worth the read if, and I say if, you can read with a light-heart and laughter. For example, take this quote, “Jesus was crucified for the very best of human good reasons such as peace, justice, doctrinal fidelity, national security, and on an on. We are rarely more murderous than when we are defending some noble ideal like freedom or democracy” (29). Frankly, it is this sort of statement that makes me want to vomit on the book. It is so painfully obvious what he is saying (and thank God and the warmongering conservatives he can say it!) It really gets old when one’s person political agenda manages to makes its way into a book that is not about politics. This is not the only time it happens in Willimon’s book, and it never, ever gets new.

It is difficult to continue reading Willimon after he makes such a blatant political statement. But, then, he will keep typing and come up with something like this:

The most moving moment in Sunday worship for me is when my people come forward at Holy Communion, streaming down the altar, and there they hold out empty hands like little children, like the famished folk they really are, empty, needing a gift in the worst sort of way…What’s strange, from the world’s point of view, is the empty-handed, needy, empty request for grace. (47)

That is beautiful. I wonder if Willimon is confident enough in God’s grace to serve communion to President George W. Bush? The true test of grace, it seems to me, is not how you treat your friends, but how you treat your enemies—especially your enemies who are your brothers in Christ. I’m not sure if Willimon is attempting to appeal to the more liberal folks among his readers or if he is just trying to irritate the more conservative folks among his readers. Anne Lamott is at least wise enough to realize that someday she will have to share a table with the former president (see her book Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith). Sometimes I wonder if Willimon realizes that?

So what I’m trying to do here is write a short review that a) talks to the strengths and weaknesses of what is written on the pages of the book I am reviewing and b) gives you enough reason to actually want to read it. I’ve read enough Willimon books to know that he is, frankly, difficult to pin down theologically. Sometimes he is profoundly gracious and other times he is profoundly stupid. I say that lovingly, of course; he’s probably said the same thing about most of the people he reads. That’s why I say that Willimon is hard to read: sometimes you love him, other times not. I know, you need a reason to read him so I’ll go back to what I said at the start.

Don’t read him for his political views (I don’t happen to think that his theological or political liberalism is any better an option than another’s theological and political conservatism.) Don’t read this particular book because you hope to find something particularly insightful, or new, or interesting about sin. Don’t read this book because you hope to find something that cures what ails you because I don’t think the book is chock-full of the sort of answers you might be looking for. But if you want, and if you dare, read the book because no matter how much Willimon appears to withhold grace from his political enemies (i.e., those who are ‘conservative, evangelical, [and] Bible-thumping’), I believe Willimon actually understands grace all too well—and perhaps that is what frightens (motivates?) him to write in the first place.

This is who we are, says Jesus, not big, self-sufficient adults, but rather little children, naked, frail, empty, and hungry, needing a gracious God in the worst sort of way. You can’t get into this Kingdom if you are all grown up and big and important. You can only come in through a very small door as an inept, bumbling, ignorant, and empty little child” (47)

And this is exactly the reason why I keep coming back to Willimon. No matter how distasteful he finds conservative politicians and haughty academics, he always comes back to grace. He cannot stay away from it. He circles it, swoops in, hints at its borders, dabbles here and there, and then in one final blow he unleashes a barrage of grace missiles (I couldn’t resist using a warfare metaphor to describe the tactics of a pacifist writing about grace; it’s my own bit of irony)—even he cannot stay away from it! It’s like he is writing along, happily minding his own business, and wham! out of nowhere—grace.

I’m a big fan of grace and my reason for reading Willimon is that he is too and he has found a way, amidst all the hoopla that is America, academics, politics, church and church-folk to articulate it in such a way that I actually find myself loving Jesus more and despising those who disagree with me less.

That, my friends, is the worth of a good writer.

By the grace of God, a good-enough church, and lots of practice, it is possible even for ordinary folk like us to become saints” (146).

Amen.

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