Category Archives: Theology

Book Review: Practicing Christian Education: An Introduction for Ministry, by Mark A. Maddix and James Riley Estep, Jr.

Practicing Christian EducationIn Practicing Christian Education: An Introduction for Ministry, authors Mark A. Maddix and James Riley Estep, Jr. appear to be primarily concerned with Wesleyan tradition and ecclesiology in combination with a business model ecclesiology. While the stated purpose(s) of the text are unclear and sometimes contradictory, it is apparent that the book is geared toward those who are looking to be paid “Education Ministers/Pastors” in large congregations who fit the stated models with significant budgets. The book is not about Christian education in a broad sense (e.g., teaching various subjects from and with a Christian manner and perspective), and many will likely find it confusing and unhelpful if looking to it for any purpose other than that stated above.

Assessing it for what it is, and not for what I thought it might be, the text falls short of being very helpful. Disjointed, redundant, contradictory, and unclear throughout, I would not recommend it for the seminary students the authors hope will read it. While there are certainly helpful moments, largely by way of quoting others’ material, I do not find them to be justifiable reasons for wading through the whole. If I had not agreed to review the book, I would have stopped reading after chapter six (out of seventeen) because it felt like I was simply being taken for a ride with no purpose or destination in sight—it didn’t get much better.

While I concur with the authors that churches need to take seriously what, how, and when they teach so that all can (and will!) mature in their faith and life in the kingdom of God, I did not find this book as a whole to be a clear and helpful tool for educating those leading, guiding, and/or undertaking that task.

 

*I received a temporary, pre-published digital copy for review from Baker Academic via NetGalley.

Book Review: As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Word of God, by Eugene H. Peterson

As Kingfishers Catch FireAs Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Word of God is a collection of sermons presented to Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA) in Harford County, Maryland, by Eugene H. Peterson between the years of 1962 and 1991. While these sermons have been organized according to their relation to major biblical authors (Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul and John of Patmos), they are completely separate sermons with no real connection to one another—neither chronologically or contextually—and no dates are given for their original presentation. This lack of context can make reading a little strange when events are referenced in relative terms (e.g., “A little more than a year ago, three men were orbiting the moon in a space capsule,” [p.8]), some being easier than others to determine the general time of writing. Each sermon is only around six pages long, making them quick and easy reads without too much depth and generally a single overarching point to be made at the end, and the lack of any real connection of one to another easily lends themselves to being chosen and read according to title and/or scripture reference listed in the Contents pages. I imagine some will find this to be very helpful, while others like myself will be left wanting more substance. In my opinion, this could and should have also been released as a series of blog posts free to be read online.

 

*I received a pre-published, uncorrected proof of this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book Review: Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation?: Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos, edited by Kenneth Keathley, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre

Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation?Edited by Kenneth Keathley, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre, Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation?: Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos is a moderated (Southern Baptist Convention), two-view presentation and discussion between two “Christian” organizations (BioLogos and Reasons to Believe) in agreement with evolutionary theory in general and an understanding of the earth as being billions of years old, but they are in disagreement over what all that necessarily means and how we (humans) became we are in particular, especially regarding what it means to be “made in the image of God.” BioLogos members believe all life, including humans, have a common ancestor; Reasons to Believe (RTB) members believe humans were created as special beings separate and apart from an evolutionary process.

WHO ARE THEY?
BioLogos is quite a diverse group with no central board of scholars dictating their beliefs and findings to others. Their “core commitments” are relatively broad:

  • We embrace the historical Christian faith, upholding the authority and inspiration of the Bible.
  • We affirm evolutionary creation, recognizing God as Creator of all life over biollions of years.
  • We seek truth, ever learning as we study the natural world and the Bible.
  • We strive for humility and gracious dialogue with those who hold other views.
  • We aim for excellence in all areas, from science to education to business practices.

When an author writes from the perspective of BioLogos, he or she often includes a caveat that not all within the organization may agree on the specifics (or even in general, as the case may be). The organization’s focus is primarily on educating Christians in the “both-and” of science and Scripture in hopes of ending or smoothing controversies surrounding both and the fear and/or disdain many have for evolutionary theory.

Reasons to Believe is rather exclusive with only a small team of four scientists (Fazale Rana, Anjeanette Roberts, Hugh Ross, Jeff Zweerink) and one theologian (Kenneth Samples) leading the pack. Requirements for participation include signing a four-page doctrinal statement (“explicitly Protestant and evangelical, patterned after Reformation creeds, but allows for diversity of views on eschatology, spiritual gifts, and the paradox of human free will and divine predestination”) with a view of biblical inerrancy as articulated by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, a Christian behavior contract, and RTB’s mission statement. When an author writes from the perspective of RTB, it is assumed all are in agreement. The organization’s focus is evangelizing non-Christians into a saving relationship with Jesus.

CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS
Southern Baptist Convention: Ted Cabal, James Dew, Ken Keathley, John Laing, Steve Lemke, Robert Stewart
BioLogos: Darrel Falk, Deborah Haarsma, Loren Haarsma, Jeff Schloss, Ralph Stearley, J. B. Stump, John Walton
Reasons to Believe: Fazale “Fuz” Rana, Hugh Ross, Kenneth Samples, Jeff Zweerink

ABOUT THE BOOK
Though not likely to convince and swing young-earth and “literal six-day” creationists to an old-earth perspective, it proves helpful in better understanding the two provided views in general and in pointing to much needed further detailed and precise information (see footnotes and bibliography for sources). The format of each chapter includes an SBC moderator introduction with questions, a response from a BioLogos author followed by the RTB response, a redirect with clarifications and questions from SBC, a response from BioLogos and RTB in the same order, and a conclusion from SBC. While authors BioLogos appear to be much more specific, detailed, and thorough than those from RTB, there simply isn’t enough time or space for fully articulated arguments and responses, and I wonder if the discussion would have been any different if the order had alternated between BioLogos and RTB responses. It would also have been helpful had the authors been able to edit their responses to better suit the moderator’s questions as intended rather than some moderator conclusions ending with something akin to “I must have been misunderstood” or “my questions weren’t really answered.” It definitely reads as an ongoing conversation, which it is, than a thoroughly prepared articulation of two views, which it isn’t.

STARTING WITH THE END
Some people read the end/conclusion of a book before reading the first page, which I find intriguing, especially in regards to fiction in general and mystery in particular. While I am not one who practices this, I perceive a few things mentioned in this book’s final chapter to be helpful on both bookends. So, for the reader’s benefit, here are three quotes from the end that should prove beneficial before starting on page one:

“After participating in all of our conversations with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos and now after working through this book, which is the product of those conversations, I am struck by a number of things. To state the obvious, this issue is huge. The creation/evolution conversation is big in the sense of how broad and interdisciplinary the topics are.” – SBC moderator Kenneth Keathley

“We probably all felt frustrated at times, wondering, Why can’t you see the strength of my argument? or Why can’t you see the danger in your position? If the group had not established strong personal relationships and been committed to humility and Christian unity, we would not have been able to sustain true engagement and would have descended to talking past each other or rancorous debate. … In today’s public square and—sadly—in our churches, people are assign guilt by association, so that even talking with someone of a different view can be seen as an endorsement or agreement with that view. I admire the courage of everyone involved to continue our conversations despite the risks.” – BioLogos author Deborah Haarsma

“The issues addressed in this book are very big and controversial and, even for people with doctoral degrees in science or theology, can be confusing. Our goal in this book was twofold: to help remove some of the confusion and to demonstrate that important controversial disagreement can be addressed in a spirit of gentleness, respect, and love. … This book…is a two-views book but not a debate book. We purposely avoided long rebuttals and responses, recognizing that there is not enough room within a single volume to engage in sufficient depth to map out pathways for resolution of our differences. Our goal is to do that in future books.” – Reasons to Believe author Hugh Ross

RECOMMENDED?
While I remain unconvinced on many of the particulars, I did find the book helpful in better understanding some of my brothers and sisters in Christ and applaud the way in which all participants demonstrated the love of Christ. I look forward to delving into some of the more specialized and detailed sources cited.

 

*I received a temporary, unpublished digital copy (hence no page numbers for included quotations) for review from IVP Academic via NetGalley.

Book Review: The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Experience of Popular Culture, by Juan M Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, and Mark G. Toulouse

The Altars Where We WorshipPowerfully convicting for those of us (all of us?) who find ourselves falling into some form of idolatry at one point or another, The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Experience of Popular Culture by Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M Floyd-Thomas, and Mark G. Toulouse exposes six aspects of American culture as altars and religions. The book’s chapters follow these aspects: (1) Body and Sex, (2) Big Business, (3) Entertainment, (4) Politics, (5) Sports, and (6) Science and Technology. Using Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion as outline in The Religious Experience of Mankind, the authors demonstrate each of the aforementioned by including supporting data for the following: mythology, doctrine, ethics, ritual, experience, institutions, and materiality.

The authors write, “Rather than trying to debunk these altars in any fashion, we believe it is important to recognize that these altars naturally connect with our human desire to locate the religious impulse in something we perceive to be greater than ourselves” (p.7). Just as the apostle Paul did not deny the perceived existence of many gods (1 Cor 8:5), the authors do not want us to deny that these exist and turn a blind eye to those that pull at us (or have completely taken hold, as the case may be). The authors continue:

We want to make clear that our approach is not interested in trying to define which religious experiences are true and which are not. In the chapters that follow, we examine six aspects of American culture that function essentially as “altars” where Americans gather to worship and produce meaning for their lives. At these altars, Americans reconcile themselves to a “serviceable God” who promises to meet their every desire. By examining the major players, fads, trends, movements, and events associated with each of these altars, each chapter will examine the religious inner workings of the popular cultural phenomenon associated with them. (p.13)

While their overall approach does not attempt to delineate those experiences as true or not true, the authors certainly make their opinions known when subjects concern their respective theologies. However, regardless of how these are read, it is important to take the book for what it is and as it is intended: describing six aspects of American culture in religious terms. Readers may find themselves convicted by an entire chapter(s), or perhaps just a few tidbits here and there. While it may be easy for some of us to recognize some things as merely practical participation in a thing without a necessary connection to a religious experience, these again should be understood as parts of a whole that support the way each of these greater culture aspects can—indeed do—very much function as altars and religions.

There’s a lot of good food for thought here, and I’m sure others will continue to find the same things in other aspects of their respective cultures.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley.

Book Review: Heaven on Earth: God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation, by Michael Battle

Heaven on EarthIn Heaven on Earth: God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation, Michael Battle unconvincingly attempts to harmonize the messages of Origen, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, with what he refers to as John’s “speculative” (105) vision of heaven and earth in the book of Revelation. Ultimately, this is a book about universalism and a realized eschatology (60, 82) living in community in an utterly selfless way to create heaven on earth. Battle argues that heaven is not some distant place in regards to space and/or time, but is in his words “an uninhibited God” (7), “where God is present” (19), and “the joy derived from interdependent persons who adore someone greater than themselves—God” (21); however, demonstrating the inconsistency found in his work, he also says it is a place we “go to” (171) that will be “everyone’s final destination and reward” (31). While he often redefines heaven in such a way that fits his argument on any given page with no regard to inconsistencies, taken in its totality, it appears that Tutu’s Ubuntu theology, “A person is a person through other persons” (135), is really Battle’s epitome of heaven on earth. (So enamored with Tutu, Battle writes as if South Africa’s example is going to save the world, all while ignoring rampant racism therein with a flip-flop of its past racial hierarchy.)

 

ORIGEN AND UNIVERSALISM:

Heavily influenced by and in agreement with Origen’s speculation about heaven and the origin of creation found in Origen’s De principiis, Battle believes everyone always existed with God before creation and that “God has given us earth to practice heaven again” (88) after having fallen from heaven due to selfish desires—earth, according to Orgien, was basically created because there needed to be a place to land from the fall. Battle continues, “On earth we are given a soul which is the ‘sliding middle’ in which choices are made. If we wish to attain transformation back into spirit, the soul must choose communal existence as opposed to individualism” (88). Yes, we must choose community, but not for the reasons found in Origen’s speculations. Whereas Battle thinks, “[Origen’s] genius is to show us that heaven can only be found in community” (90), I think it’s more appropriate to say that heaven exists as community—it certainly may not be found in just any community.

A further point of inconsistency: If this were true—if earth was created as temporary place to practicing being better in order to get back to a state of unity with God in heaven, thereafter eliminating the need and place of earth—I’m not sure why Battle found it necessary to include the following akin to ying yang philosophy: “heaven is unintelligible apart from earth; and earth is unintelligible apart from heaven. In other words, we need both of them to know each of them” (111–112). Perhaps he finds this to be a temporary necessity?

In an endnote from chapter eleven, Battle writes, “Origen uses an illustration of a student of geometry for hierarchy of souls (Princ. 1.4.1). Death does not finally decide the fate of the soul, which may turn into a demon or an angel. This ascent and descent goes on uninterruptedly until the final apokatastasis when all creatures, even the devil, will be saved” (187, n.7). Yes, the devil/Satan being saved is the only way Origen’s speculation could possibly come to fruition, and it appears Battle believes the devil will be saved. This is, however, an enormous monkey wrench even for Origen. While De principiis certainly implies the possibility, Origen never explicitly states that Satan will be saved. When pressed, Origen only goes so far as to concede its possibility while also stating, “Even one who has lost his mind cannot say this” (see Jennifer L. Heckart, “Sympathy for the Devil? Origen and the End,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 3–4. 2007: 57). Pressing further, Lisa R. Holliday writes, “By considering the devil within Origen’s stance on volition and the nature of the soul, it is clear that while the devil technically retained the possibility of salvation, he did not wish to attain it, due to the degree to which he pursued his own desires” (Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved?: Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon,” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1. 2009:1). The fact that even the Catholic Church deemed Origen a heretic for centuries is not mentioned in Battle’s argument, nor are the weightier points of De principiis that would likely cause many readers to stop reading Battle’s work altogether. While later absolved, Origen’s teachings on this subject were not.

It is my opinion that Origen did not really believe that Satan would be saved, and found himself in quite a quandary: to fully admit Satan could be saved would contradict Scripture and would have Origin deemed a heretic, which, as already noted, eventually happened posthumously simply based on his implications; but to flatly deny the possibility of Satan’s restoration would nullify his entire argument in De principiis. (Scholars often find themselves with this sort of conflict when confronted with compelling evidence contrary to their work, as if being academically honest and changing one’s position thereby negates one’s position and ability in scholarship. To be closed to correction and change is not very academic or scholarly at all, but the academy is strange and defensive thing.)

I hope Battle would be open to criticism and evidentiary change, but the following example of how Battle simply dismisses pushback with, “In any event,” leaves me doubtful:

Realized eschatology has gained some currency among biblical scholars in the United States. These tend to base their arguments, again, on the reordering of the Gospel material which then can be made to show that Jesus was a sort of Cynic teacher of social reform. My view, however, is based more on the notion that I attribute to Care Waynick, the Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis. Bishop Waynick heard that I was writing this book and offered me this insight: “[Jesus] said repeatedly that ‘the kingdom is among you.’” A critic could easily say that neither the bishop nor I seem to be aware that the passage we are referring to is unique in the Synoptic Gospels, occurring only in Luke 17:20–21: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom is among you [within you; entos hymon].” This passage has been much controverted, especially in the context of saying that Luke constructed his own version of realized eschatology. The sharp criticism comes: If one were to assume that Jesus made the statement in the passage and meant by it that there was no future coming of the kingdom, then how is the material that follows (Luke 17:22–37) to be read? Did Jesus also make the other, numerous, futuristic statements in the Gospels?

In any event, I am one of those people like Bishop Waynick who believe that Jesus did more than say the kingdom is among us—he actually came among us. In addition, not only did he come among us, he is still here. Those like Bishop Waynick and myself practice this presence regularly through the Eucharist and caring for the least in society. (82)

 

KINGDOM LIVING (HEAVEN ON EARTH?):

Battle rightly encourages his reader to be what many of us simply refer to as active citizens of the kingdom of God. Though not yet in its fullness, we are called to be witnesses to a real kingdom right now, not to coop our Christian identity into nationalism or focus merely on our personal salvation as if it could be disconnected from love of neighbor, which is very much a part of being a disciple of Jesus and kingdom citizen. He points out some proper concerns, such as, “We seem more eager to argue over passages of Scripture pertaining to sexuality than passages such as Matthew 5:38–45” (62), but he does tend to focus on communal care and acceptance of all people as they are to the exclusion of anything else we may find entailing a God-honoring life. The only sins Battle appears to be concerned with are racism, violence, and concern for oneself (individualism) to the exclusion of others. He certainly misconstrues the reason Jesus hung out with “sinners”:

Do not seek your personal salvation—in doing that we end up like those religious hypocrites that irritated Jesus the most. In fact, Jesus doesn’t get angry at those who seem to be most worthy of our anger—those who embezzle money (the tax collectors) and those who commit sexual sin (prostitutes and adulterers). These were Jesus’ best friends; he required from them conversion and fidelity. He became angry at the religious folk who sought only their personal salvation. (151)

Jesus wasn’t in the business of finding people deep in sin, becoming best buds, and telling them it’s all okay; he was changed lives by pointing them back to the way God intended us to be because he loved them. Nor was Jesus angry with people who wanted to be “personally saved,” though he did chastise folks for ignoring and oppressing others for selfish gain. To not be concerned about one’s relationship with God is, in fact, not honoring God.

 

CONCLUSION:

All in all, this book does not have as much to do with community in the book of Revelation as it does with an overly repetitive, argumentative soapbox against white, Western, fundamental, individualistic, liberal and conservative straw men with no introspection or self-criticism to be found. Here Battle should have listened to his own words: “Labels of conservative and liberal theologies only obfuscate arguments” (36). While reading this work was quite tedious and not at all recommended, I hope what I have read is simply the result of much frustration over the lack of love for one’s neighbor Battle sees and experiences on earth as it is now.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley.