Summa Contra Moroni: a book review

I was asked several months ago by a ministry colleagu if I had any resources on Mormonism. I really didn’t, other than perhaps a chapter in an overview of world religions. It is interesting that I have a number of resources  on Atheism and the grower secularism in our country. Yet we’ve come much closer to electing a committed Mormon as president than we ever have electing a confirmed Atheist. The evangelical Liberty University has had Glenn Beck deliver a commencement address where he took time to describe his experience of faith as a Mormon. Evangelicals are used to cooperating with Mormons on moral issues (i.e. Abortion, traditional marriage) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has major and growing influence on all aspects of our culture. However their vision of God, humanity, the Bible, salvation, and revelation are different from orthodox expressions of the Christian faith

Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter Day Saints is not, as the title implies, a simple overview of basic Mormon beliefs, though that is certainly included. It is a book about how basic Mormon beliefs are wrong and are incompatible with biblical Faith. Authors Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson of the Mormonism Research Ministry have dedicated their lives to engaging Mormons in conversation about the tenants of their faith from an Evangelical Christian perspective. Because they know Mormonism as a dynamic faith led by a living prophet and president, their case against Mormonism makes generous use of documentary evidence, drawn especially from leaders who are central to the Mormon faith.

McKeever and Johnsons book gives a comprehensive overview of Mormonism. They examine the LDS concept of God (the Father, Jesus, and the Trinity),  Mormon anthropology (Human preexistence, the secondary state, the fall and apostasy), their scriptures, their concept of salvation, their ordinances and temple practices, and their concept (and content) of Revelation.  I appreciated how carefully they built their case on documentary evidence (with extensive endnotes at the end of each chapter). Their purpose in writing, is to be a resource for non-Mormons as they engage in conversation with Mormons.

In general, I agree with their theological convictions and their take on Mormonism. I am an Evangelical pastor and while I respect Mormons for their lifestyle and commitment to mission, I think their concept of God, Jesus and Humanity is deeply flawed and their teachings are problematic. Nevertheless I have trouble with the tone of this book.

When I was in college I remember extended conversations on faith I had with a couple of Muslims. They carried little booklets with them with titles like How to Answer a Bible Thumper which rehearsed the contradictions in the Bible (from a Muslim perspective). Mostly, they demonstrated misunderstanding of my faith, having observed it from the outside. I wonder if there is a similar dynamic related to this book. This is not a sympathetic take on Mormonism. Not even a sympathetic-critical take. This is a critical look at where Mormonism is wrong and occasionally the authors tone bothered me and definitely would bother me if I was a Mormon reader.

That caveat aside, for my purposes, I think this is a helpful resource to have around and will likely refer to when I’m next In conversation with a Mormon. In several places, it helped me clear up some of my own misconceptions of Mormon beliefs and I think it is on point on many of the issues (especially the Mormon concept of God and humanity. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.

True Freely: a book review

It is for Freedom that Christ set us free. Then why do so many Christians live in bondage to sin? Through Jesus and his cross we have been delivered from the power of darkness, and given ‘victory, strength and freedom.’  But why do so many of us live lives that are held captive to destructive habits and shameful living. Author and pastor Robert Morris believes there is a spiritual dynamic to this. Because of sinful patterns in our life, we may have opened ourselves up to demonic influence.

Morris wrote a book in 2004 that is purported to have ‘transformed the act of giving’ called The Blessed Life. It may have. I didn’t actually read the book, so I am not sure, but some pastor friends I know really like it. Truly Free aims at a similar transformation, bringing greater freedom to us our spiritual lives.Morris’s advice rests on a couple of premises. First demons really do exist and our actively at work in the world (8).  Second, demons influence and oppress people (even Christians)(12). Morris helps us resist the devil and gain freedom through a combination of discipleship and deliverance. It isn’t either/or. It is both/and.

After a few introductory chapters designed to help us recognize the devil and his work in our life, most of the book looks at specific problems that evidence the devil’s destructive work in our lives These include the snares of pride, bitterness, greed, lust, our thought life’s and areas of past wounding.

This isn’t a sensationalized account of personal evil. The demons and spirits that Morris talks about do not make you levitate, projectile vomit or cause your head to spin around like a globe. Nevertheless the devil comes to steal, kill and destroy. Morris posits that demonic influence can be behind bondage to sin, continued illnesses (though not necessarily) and occultic spirituality (25-34).  Morris does share some of his own experience of spiritual bondage, but again this is not sensationalized. More his continued struggle with particular sinful habits. Morris doesn’t simply say, pray the evil away but gives strategies of living into freedom while praying for deliverance. This doesn’t mean sensationalized demonization doesn’t take place, but it is not the focus of this book.

I am in agreement with Morris’s approach and think he states his description of demonization well. He is careful to state that Christians aren’t possessed (owned) by demons, but that this doesn’t preclude the reality of demonic influence, even in a believers life. Morris states this in a pastorally sensitive way and then goes on to address some of the sins that so easily entangle us. Each chapter ends with a prayer that God would give greater freedom to his people. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the Book Look Bloggers review program in exchange for my honest review

Reading Barth with Charity: a book review

Certainly George Hunsinger is a charitable reader of Barth. You’d suspect so. He is well known as a Barth scholar and has been president of the Karl Barth Society of North America since 2003.  He knows Barth’s theology well and the subsequent literature on Barth.  However Reading Barth with Charity: a Hermeneutical Proposal takes aim at several less charitable readings. Namely, Hunsinger takes on the Neo-Barthian revisionists for misrepresenting Barth’s theology and then calling Barth ‘inconsistent.’ At issue is whether or not Barth believes, as classic theists do, that the Trinity is the antecedent to the election of Jesus Christ or subsequent to it. The revisionists say that the category of Christ’s election is of preeminent importance in Barth  and therefore gives shape to the economic Trinity. So Hunsinger takes on the major revisionists: Bruce McCormack, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Daffyd Jones.

In his introduction, Hunsinger summarizes what he means by reading with charity. What he is arguing for is a reading which seeks to understand Barth’s point of view, starts with the assumption of truth and internal coherence, seeks to resolve and seeks to resolve apparent contradictions (xii). Hunsinger identifies the following critera to assess the revisionist position:

  • Does it seek to understand Barth’s theology in its strongest form before subjecting it to fundamental criticism?
  • Has it truly sought to understand Barth before picking out supposed difficulties and contradictions?
  • If apparent contradictions are discerned (as they are), has an active attemt been made to resolve them in Barth’s favor?
  • If no such attempt has been made (as it has not), does not a certain presumption exist against this interpretation?
  • Finally, do the revisionists honor the principle of humanity, or do they seem to adopt an attitude of condescension toward the writer whose views they are considering?
  • In short, are the revisionists entitled to their key claim that Barth’s view on election and the Trinity, when taken as a whole, are “inconsistent”? (xiii-xiv).

One major  point that Hunsinger demonstrates is that the textual Barth (what Barth actually wrote) contradicts the revisionist claims about the Trinity and election. Hunsinger documents repeated statements from Barth as early as 1932 and as late as 1968, when Barth died, evidence that in Barth ‘election presupposes the Trinity, rather than constitute it (52).  The claims that the revisionists make of Barth’s inconsistency, seem to be (at least in how Hunsinger presents it) ways of dismissing the claims of this actual, textual Barth.

Hunsinger  identifies several points of agreement with the revisionists. He reads them charitably, though he vehemently disagrees with their reading of Barth and identifies points of sloppy reasoning. He praises them where he thinks they read well and sensitively (especially Jones, who advocates a soft revisionist position). Hunsinger also demonstrates Barth’s metaphysical eclecticism. Barth held, at least in some form, an Anselmian ‘Perfect-Being’ theology. However he also draws on the actualistic Hegelian model. He affirms a classical Chalcedonian account of the Incarnation, but not in  way that made the incarnation ‘static and immobile.’ There was an ongoing process of incarnation (162-63)

This is a book of analytical theology and the ordinary reader may wonder why it matters at which point in eternity God elected Jesus Christ as the savior of humanity. I think Hunsinger frames well what is at stake. If the election of the Son dictated the make up of the Trinity than the constitution of the Godhead is subsequent to the plan for human redemption. If the Trinity is presumed first than the Godhead acts in freedom to redeem humanity. This seems to be a more consistently Barthian claim and have a better rational basis. The Son exists in eternity as the logos asarkos before he is the incarnate one (logos ensarkos).

I give this book five stars because I think that it is a important scholarly book for clarifying Barth’s theology. No doubt the revisionists named by Hunsinger will make a response which will further the debate and clarify it further. If you are not aware of at least the broad contours of the debate you will find this book difficult despite its brevity (about a 180 pages). So I recommend this only for the serious student of Barth.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Grateful Spirituality: a book review

The Bible tells us to always be thankful at all times(Ephesians 5:20). God always gives good gifts but some gifts sting a little. We suffer. Thanks. We get demoted. Thanks bunches. We feel isolated and alone. Yay. We are humbled. Thank you Lord. Our hearts and spirits are broken. Muchas Gracious. 

Christians can give thanks in all things because we live with the conviction that all things work together for good for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:28). If that is true than grace hides in hard places. Joshua Choonmin Kang, pastor of New Life Vision Church in Koreatown, Los Angeles and author of Deep-Rooted in Christ explores the spirituality of gratitude, in (the aptly titled) Spirituality of GratitudeKang explores the grace of difficult circumstances, the benefits of gratitude and how to cultivate it. There are fifty-two pithy chapters divided into five sections. Kang is a perceptive writer on the spiritual life, and each chapter offers an incisive look at experience of gratitude, often in difficult circumstances. There is a flow to the book’s organization, but each chapter can be read on its own. The short chapters work as devotional reading.

In part one, Kang explores the grace of endurance, downward-mobility, isolation, humility and brokenness. Part two examines where we can be grateful for problems, thorn, vulnerability, deficiency, ‘being crumbled’,  having the ‘freedom to see the good.’ and slowness. Part three and four looks at  the benefits and spiritual gifts  of gratitude. Part five explores the ‘path to  gratitude’ and growing in a thankful orientation.

While this is a book about cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude,’ this isn’t a hallmark-y, sentimental book. I appreciated the theological thoughtfulness behind each of these meditations. Kang has a gift for exploring the various circumstances of life and showcasing God’s grace there. We have a lot to be thankful for, whatever our circumstances if only we had eyes to see. Kang has eyes that see the gifts of God for us, and he helps us all to see and understand all that God has for us.

This is not a personally revelatory book. Kang will talk about the experience of aging but this isn’t a book that describes his own struggle to be grateful in difficult circumstances. If Kang has had personal struggles in learning thankfulness he doesn’t really share them.  However Kang writes graciously and to read this book is to be invited to see the gifts of God in all of life. I give this book four stars and recommend it as devotional reading.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

St. Patrick Goes to AA: a book review

I have an alcoholic friend who has been sober for years now. Recently he said in jest, “It is too bad everybody isn’t an alcoholic.”  With hard-won wisdom he added, “Alcoholics need to work through their issues. If I didn’t I’d be drunk. If everybody else was alcoholic they’d need to work through their own issues and we’d all be healthier”  My friend had been helped by AA’s twelve steps. He acknowledged God, his powerlessness before addiction, and has worked through personal issues. Not everybody struggles with alcoholism but we all need make a similar journey if we are to move toward spiritual maturity.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci is the pastor of the Little Flowers Community in inner city Winnipeg. He too has observed the value of twelve-step wisdom for everyone, in helping us grow spiritually and live compelling, transformed lives. In Vulnerable Faith, Arpin-Ricci brings life, mission and church into conversation with A.A.’s twelve steps and the life of St. Patrick. Each of his seven chapters begins with a fictionalized retelling of Patrick’s story, and reflections on that part of his journey.

When we meet Patrick, he is an entitled noble with more charisma than character. When  marauding raiders take him captive to Ireland,  he has to die to his past and take up a new identity–slave. It is in dying to himself, facing his selfishness and entitlement that he experiences new vitality and new freedom Christ offers. Eventually he is set free by God and returned to his family through a vision which shows him safe passage home. But the story doesn’t end there. God gave him a missional vision of reconciliation. He returns to Ireland, and ministered to his former captors. His former masters become brothers.

In Arpin-Ricci’s hands Patrick’s story becomes a compelling picture of our spiritual journey.  Patrick’s context is different from our own and none of us longs for violence, oppression and slavery to shape our spiritual life, anymore than we long to be enslaved by addiction and alcoholism. By blending Patrick’s story (and his own story) with twelve-step spirituality, Arpin-Ricci invites us to take our own journey of transformation, admitting our powerlessness, living in right orientation to God and others, making restitution for the places we have wronged others, and spread the good news we have experienced. This isn’t just a description of super sainthood. This is not just a prescription for addictis. Saints and sinners both need to walk this road if  we are to experience all that God has for us and our world.

I have read Patrick’s Confessions several times and other books on Patrick’s life. I’ve prayed his breastplate and am awed by his life and witness. I am Protestant, so wouldn’t described myself as a devotee to the saint (maybe fan-boy?). However before reading Vulnerable Faith, I have never considered how Patrick’s journey of spiritual transformation is a pattern for us all. Arpin-Ricci’s book is spiritual insightful. I give this four stars and think that you will like it.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Beyond Cowboy Faith: a book review

The atrocities committed against Native Americans are well documented. What makes the story even more tragic is the way Christian mission was wrapped up in the story of western colonialism. The missionaries told the Indigenous peoples about Jesus; yet they also demeaned and destroyed native cultures. The city I live in Florida (Safety Harbor) is the site of early mission efforts and where the first missionary was martyred (Luis Cancer de Barbrasto). He died trying to reach a people group that no longer exists (the Tocobaga people). Many Native peoples were forced to live on reservations, had their land and livelihood taken from them. Others were treated cruelly or killed by an allegedly Christian dominant culture.

In Rescuing the Gospel From the Cowboys: A Native Expression of the Jesus WayRichard Twiss (1954-2013) unfolds a vision of Christian Mission among Native Peoples which honors their culture, traditions and sacred symbols. Twiss was a cofounder of Evangelicals for Justice and NAIITS (North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies) and the founder of Wiconi International (a Christian ministry among First Nations). Twiss was a Sicangu Lakota. When he came to faith in Jesus, he left his tribal practices, only recapturing it later. For the last twenty years of his life, his project was the contextualization and decolonization of the Christian gospel for indigenous peoples.

Twiss begins with an affirmation. ” There is only one Creator of heaven and earth. There are not “many” creators. Just one! All of human and non-human creation comes from this One creator” (17). As a Christian, Twiss upholds a biblical understanding of God but sought to follow Jesus in a manner that honored his native culture. This is not without challenges, as many conservative evangelicals see Native cultural practices as vestiges of pre-Christian paganism. Twiss writes, “For us First Nations people. following Creator-Jesus within our indigenous cultural ways without submitting to the hegemonic cultural assumptions of today’s conservative evangelicals is tough” (17).

In his first chapter, Twiss explores the nature of his gospel contextualization, distinguishing it from mere syncretism (and pointing how the American missionary endeavor, and American culutre in general is also a counteractive syncretism). Twiss participates in pow-wows, sweat lodge ceremonies, and prays while burning sage and sweet grass. As a Christian, Twiss’s understanding of the meaning of these rituals is somewhat modified from their traditional place, but he still sees it as a big part of his cultural identity as a Christian.

In chapter two, Twiss tells the sorid history of the effects of colonization on the Christian mission to the First Nations. Unfortunately the missionaries came to save souls but didn’t see any redemptive aspects to Native culture. Their cultural superiority caused them to enact a strategy of training ‘the Indian’ out of converts.  The movement of decolonization that Twiss and others are apart of, is a recovery of the Native identity they were taught to leave behind. In chapter three, Twiss tells his own story, and the stories of Christian, native friends who have recovered native practices and rituals. This is not a repudiation of their Christian faith, but something each of them has sought prayerfully, carefully, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Chapter four tells of the various movements and expressions of Christian-Native contextualization. Chapter s five and six describe the growing movement towards contexualization among Native Christians and some ongoing challenges.

A dozen years ago I had a conversation with Craig Smith, conservative native pastor and author who does not endorse Twiss’s  project (Twiss discusses his work in the book). One of Smith’s concerns was that in practicing Native rites, Native Christians were falling back into animistic religion and Idolatry. He drew a parallel with the idolatry in the temple described in Ezekiel 8. As an outsider (non-native, anglo-Christian) I respect Smith’s concern and I think there is a need for discernment. However I think Twiss is right to observe that many of the ‘Christian’ rituals were an appropriation of European culture and it is appropriate to look for redemptive metaphors in each culture that points to Christ’s coming. I also filtered Smith’s words through my context. I lived half of my life in Hawaii where every church I knew had hulu–a practice integral to Hawaiian religion, interpreting their sacred stories, used by Christians to worship Christ in Spirit and in truth. I am not Hawaiian but have many Indigenous Hawaiian friends and have been blessed by their rediscovery of  their culture and how it has informed their Christian faith. Other First Nations  cultures have gifts too and the whole church will be enriched by their rediscovery of who they are in Christ.

I recommend this book especially, though not exclusively, for Indigenous Christians. I think Twiss’s cultural affirming and decolonizing message is good news for Indigenous people. I read this book as a ‘cowboy’–white Christian and I have no desire to have my dominant culture impede my Native brothers and sisters from coming to Christ. Twiss’s vision paves the way for the rich expression of the kingdom of God where every tribe, tongue and nation are represented.  I give this five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

Maccabean Revolt: a book review

Though I am fairly Protestant, I have read Maccabees several times (part of the Catholic Deutro-canonical books). Several parts of the Maccabean story sit behind the events of the New Testament (such as Jesus’ triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple). David deSliva is a New Testament scholar who I have read some and have appreciated his insights (actually the first thing I read from deSilva was a response to a negative review on one of Gordon Fee’s books on Amazon).

In The Day of Atonement : A Novel of the Maccabean RevoltDesilva presents a novelization of the Maccabean revolt which is meticulously researched and reflects a deSilva’s scholarly understanding of the Maccabean revolt. As someone who has read Maccabees and has often lost the plot, I appreciate the clarity of deSilva’s prose. I learned stuff.

That being said, I didn’t find this to be compelling literature. If you enjoy historical novels you will likely appreciate the care that DeSilva takes in presenting these events. This is didactic fiction–teaching history through story. For what it is, it is pretty good. I give it three stars.

Notcie of material connection: I received this book from Kregel Publications in exchange for my honest review.