Tag Archives: Christianity

Book Review: God-Soaked Life: Discovering a Kingdom Spirituality, by Chris Webb

God-Soaked LifeChris Webb’s God-Soaked Life: Discovering a Kingdom Spirituality is a beautiful and encouraging reminder to live with eyes to see and ears to hear the reality of the kingdom of God right now. Disciples of Jesus are not called to wait until they “fly away” somewhere; they are called to live in the kingdom now until we are fully united with God in the new heavens and new earth. What does that mean? Living and acting now in such a way that embodies the future kingdom that is “already among [us]” (Luke 17:21) and “not from this world” (John 18:36)—a kingdom and worldview that originated in God, not a human mind or institution. This way of love is not merely a suggestion; it’s a command. But if all we’re being are rule followers, then we’ve missed the entire point of loving God and neighbor—the kingdom.

Webb presents perspective on and life in the kingdom of God in practical and accessible ways. The book is divided into seven sections (The Invitation, Heart Renewal, Fearless Honesty, Close to the Father’s Heart, God in Everyday Life, Creating Community, and The Politics of Love), each containing three substantial chapters followed by a concluding fourth, which includes seven helpful and introspective questions based on particular readings of scripture. These questions may be pondered and answered all at once or, as suggested, taken a day at a time for a week’s worth of introspection and devotional time.

I will be recommending this book to my students, as well as many others (including you!). If it were scheduled to be published a month earlier, I would have had it on a reading list. Alas, it will be released too late, but never too late to recommend!

Grace and Peace to you all, and may you have eyes to see and ears to hear the kingdom of God in which we already live!

 

*I received a temporary, unpublished digital copy (hence no page numbers for included quotations) for review from InterVarsity Press via NetGalley.

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Book Review: A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, by John Pavlovitz

A Bigger TableIn the introduction to A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz writes, “This book is about humanity, about the one flawed family that we belong to and the singular, odd, staggeringly beautiful story we all share. It’s about trying to excavate those priceless truths from beneath the layers of far less important things that we’ve pile on top of them since we’ve been here. It’s about jettisoning everything in and around us that would shrink our tables.” (xiii) What it’s really about is tolerance and inclusion of LGBTQ in Christ’s church with no reservation. While I concur with Pavlovitz that we need to love people and be willing to sit at the same table, his use of Scripture and Jesus’ example leads the reader to believe that exclusivity is the only sin, that we are only unwilling to allow people into the Christ’s church because of our prejudices and biased upbringings, and that Jesus was a happy hippy who had no agenda and didn’t try to change people (except to make them tolerant of all other people). Much of this stems from some personal and unpleasant experiences with the church, with which many of us can certainly relate and understand. He rightly pushes back against business- and attraction-model churches, but argues for something that may appear virtually and functionally the same to those on the outside (108–110). Much of what Pavlovitz believes and writes is based on emotion what has felt good to him (even if they be difficult to deal with) rather than from a good wrestling with the whole of the Bible.

While likely intended to be a book about mercy and grace, it is really about loving people as they are and leaving them that way “because we are full image bearers of God and beloved as we are, without alteration.” (164) After reading Pavlovitz’s own words about his upbringing and current faith, I am not convinced he believes he has ever sinned (164–165) or that there is such a thing as sin (he encourages the reader to see suffering instead of sin [124], but this ought to be both-and, not either-or). Heaven on earth for him is simply diversity for the sake of diversity with open conversations where there is absolutely no pushback or accountability—where churches people can curse and say anything from pulpits like they do at his because that’s “real.” (81–82) While I’m certain there are many who will find this and the embedded universalism appealing, it’s not the image of ultimate redemption I find in Scripture.

 

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

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: 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.

Book Review: The Minister as Moral Theologian: Ethical Dimensions of Pastoral Leadership, by Sondra Wheeler

The Minister as Moral TheologianFor the aspiring, new, and even seasoned shepherd/pastor/preacher, I cannot recommend enough Sondra Wheeler’s The Minister as Moral Theologian: Ethical Dimensions of Pastoral Leadership. This is not a book on ethics, as some would academically approach the subject, although Wheeler does offer a brief primer on types and methods; it is an encouragement and guidebook on being ethical for those shepherding the church. Pastors are not merely prayers, preachers, and teachers; we are (ought to be!) shepherds who model the life of a disciple of Christ and guide others to do the same. This means we “walk the talk,” so to speak, and come alongside others—beginning where they are—and guide them in the same.

Life is messy and often encountered in the grey, which makes how we “do ethics” vitally important in our greater task. Regardless of how much some may want or force it to be, it’s usually not as easy as “yes or no” or “do this to fix that.” In such a small book, Wheeler helpfully discusses with much wisdom the “what, when, why, and how” of living, preaching, teaching, and counseling—or not, as the case may need be. While written in a way that often presumes a more traditional, western and liturgical church, particularly with clergy, its application is by no means strictly understood and confined therein. As a longtime pastor of smaller and home-based churches, as well as a mentor, teacher, and guide to those who come from other churches for pastoral care, I found Wheeler’s book to be an exceptionally helpful and encouraging reminder. I learned from her scholarship and wisdom, as I suspect will any reader open to Spirit of God.

Wheeler is already working on a follow-up, also to be published by Baker Academic: Sustaining Ministry: Foundations and Practices for Serving with Integrity. I look forward to reading that, too!

 

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