The Prayer of Art: a book review

Art and Prayer. Both are human attempts at transcendence. So art has adorned houses of worship throughout human history. In Western history, the visual arts reflected the faith and practices of Christianity (and Judaism). My own theology teachers spoke of the Medieval Synthesis–the confluence of the Arts and sciences, philosophy and theology throughout much of Western History. Since the Enlightenment, there has been a great deal of fragmentation. Art today is not always representational. Sometimes it aims at deconstructing the world, worldviews, and belief itself. But historically art and prayer were joined. Art sometimes depicting prayer, calling us to prayer, or making visible the interior dimensions of our prayer. 

Monsignor Timothy Verdon is the director of the Mount Tabor Centre in Barga, Italy. He directs the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage, the Cathedral Foundation Museum, and the Centre for Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Florence. As a senior cleric in the Roman Catholic Church and a respected art historian, Verdon is well acquainted with both prayer and art. In Art & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God, Verdon describes how the arts make visible the nature of prayer. With reference to church fathers, theologians and artists he explores the theme of prayer in Western art. The pieces that Verdon discusses are displayed in full color on beautiful glossy pages.

Most of the art  that Verdon profiles is from the Medieval era (from the 6th to the 15th Century). There are a couple of pieces that are older (third century) and  one piece is from the modern era (Filippo Rossi’s Magnificat). But this is not a chronological exploration, it is a thematic one. Verdon explores how art helps us enter prayer in everyday life (chapter one),  our spaces of prayer (chapter two, which also explores sacred architecture), liturgical prayer (chapter three), prayer of pleading (chapter four), lectio divina (chapter five), contemplative prayer (chapter six) and prayer at the hour of our death (chapter seven)

Verdon weaves theology and art, using various paintings, frescoes, reliefs and altar pieces to illustrate the Catholic tradition’s wisdom on the nature of prayer. Neither art nor prayer are understood through ferocious consumption, but through thoughtful contemplation. This book requires a slow, meditative reading. I found myself flipping back and reading several sections again, I recommend this book for Artists and pray-ers alike. There is lots to digest here–I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

We Cry Freedom: a book review

If God is good, live fully, love boldly and fear nothing because all is grace.

Rick McKinley’s The Answer to Our Cry explores what real freedom is. If you grew up in Sunday School or have imbibed your share of Christian publishing, you know ‘the answer to our cry’ is probably Jesus (♪♫Jesus is the answer for the world today♪). Well that is part right. McKinley leads us through a mediation on how ‘freedom comes only when we are attracted to the communion between the Father, Son and Spirit (15).  You see, God, as Trinity, is the one being free from any need or obligation:

The Triune God is entirely free in himself as Father, Son and Spirit; They are happily united and fulfilled by their own communion within their own being. . . .They created everything seen and unseen so that we can share what they have. That’s just how good God is. (27)

The human experience of freedom is always within bounds. Freedom without boundaries, would lead us to death (like when a man jumps off a building or cheats on his wife).  McKinley argues that for freedom to be sustained it needs a form, and that form is relationship. Thankfully God has made a way for us, in Jesus, to share in the life and relationship of the Triune God. This allows for the fullest expression of sustainable human freedom.

So the answer to our cry (for freedom) is the Triune God, but our example of what real human freedom looks like is Jesus (yay!  Sunday School answer still works!).  Like Jesus, McKinley says Jesus:

  • Lived Fully–because he came from the Father, the Giver of Life
  • Loved Boldly–exemplified especially by his life poured out on the cross for our freedom
  • Feared Nothing–because no power on earth could shake him (28)

And So McKinley exhorts us also to live fully, love boldly and fear nothing. This book explores the nature of what the Christian life is, and can be. McKinley draws on trinitarian theology (recommending Michael Reeve’s Delighting the Trinity)(157). This book is the gospel reexplained and examined in trinitarian terms. It is theological–exploring the themes of God’s love and justice but it is also pastorally sensitive.

I am an occasional listener to the Imago Dei podcast (the church McKinley pastors) and have read a coupe of McKinley’s previous books (This Beautiful Mess and The Advent Conspiracy). I like McKinley’s conversational communication style and appreciate how substantive he is (a rarity for famous pastors).  I would say that this book is deeper than his early volumes, but not necessarily a compelling read. McKinley lays his thesis out early and spends the rest of his chapters expanding the theme. All and all great stuff, but repetitive in places. I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book free from the publisher for this honest review.

Holy Shift! a book review

In 2006, Kathy Escobar underwent a ‘faith shift.’ No longer able to conform to the beliefs and practices of her conservative evangelical church, she went through a time of shifting and unraveling before rebuilding her faith, albeit in a new way. Currently she is a popular blogger,  the co-founder of Refuge, a mission center and Christian community in the North Denver area and a spiritual director. As a spiritual director and pastor she has journeyed alongside many spiritual-shifters.

Faith Shift is not just Escobar’s story;  it is the fruit of her story and is birthed by her work with fellow-faith-shifters. Escobar has cataloged the process that she and others have gone through as they moved from  a faith which was ‘certain’ but narrow toward a reconstructed, generous faith (or a movement beyond faith).  By naming the process, Escobar comforts those experiencing the disorientation and disequilibrium of a ‘faith shift.’ The stages she describes are:

  1. Fusing– characterized by believing, learning and doing underscore this stage. People in this stage place a strong value on  affiliation, certainty, conformity.
  2. Shifting–discomfort with formulaic answers and beginning to disengage with aspects of belonging with the in-group.
  3. Returning–This stage is a ‘re-engagement’ and a ‘return’ to the faith community we were in, in the ‘fusing stage.’
  4. Unraveling–A letting go of the faith we had in our ‘fusing stage.’ If the fusing stage valued affiliation, certainty and confromity, in the unraveling stage we value autonomy, authenticity, uncertainty (65).
  5. Severing–cutting ties with your past belief system (Escobar observes that most shifters do not give up their belief in God, or their faith totally, but she allows for the possibility.
  6. Rebuilding–In the final stage, new faith (or a new spirituality, even an atheistic one) emerges. In this stage, our values are freedom, mystery, diversity (129).

Along the way, Escobar has a number of wise and compassionate things to say. Escobar validates whatever stage we may be at on our spiritual journey because each stage has peculiar gifts for us. Those who return to their original faith are validated because all our journeys are different, people return or a variety of reasons and the simple certainty we knew at that stage is comforting (see chapter 5).  Escobar has a gift for honoring the spiritual lives of others. She knows that even as we change and grow, something is lost from the ‘faith’ we had and it is worth grieving and appreciating. The reflection questions at the end of each chapter allowed me to explore how the theme of the book and make sense of  some of my own story.

When I began this book, I felt like I wasn’t exactly her intended audience. Most of the faith shifts she describes were movements from conservative Evangelical to something more progressive (or beyond). Like Escobar and her tribe, I too began my spiritual journey as part of a conservative evangelical church. Currently, I pastor one. I have made some denominational and doctrinal shifts along the way but still hold to the central doctrines I was raised with. I hold some issues far looser but I also feel more certain about the aspects of faith I regard as essential.  Still my own faith journey parallels Escobar’s stages.  I moved from a narrow  version of evangelicalism to one that is more generous and values freedom, diversity and mystery.  I think a lot of of what Escobar says will be instructive for anyone moving from a rudimentary faith toward spiritual maturity (not that I necessarily have arrived there yet!)  Faith Shift is first and foremost about spiritual and personal growth.

Escobar places no judgment on the outcome of a faith shift. You can move from fundamentalist to agnostic and in so doing, experience more freedom and authenticity. That is growth, and in many respects, growth in the right direction. However, I’m not sure that I want to relativize all aspects of ‘faith.’ I think it is possible to move towards a belief system that is healthier but falser (or as false). The stages that Escobar describes are individualized and allow each shifter to decide what they still believe:

Each person’s journey is unique. While I know some people who are no longer certain of the divinity of Christ, others hold strongly to this belief. While some believe the Bible might be inaccurate and therefore loses parts of his authority, others still believe it is inerrant and take it extremely seriously. While some may have five or more things they still firmly believe, others may have only one. (143)

I am enough of a Pietist to believe we each have to own our own faith, but I am not a relativist and and put a higher premium on (capital T) Truth in our spiritual quest. I certainly agree with her that many, whose faith has unraveled, need to pursue growth outside of the communities they are no longer a part of.  Honest, vulnerable doubt is preferable to quiet pretense.  But personally I hold out hope for God’s self revelation in Christ as a shining star in the midst of our wilderness wanderings.

If you forgive me my Evangelical quibbles, I think this is a very good book and I am grateful for Escobar’s insights. In the spiritual life we need more openness to mystery and wonder and less slavish obedience to some imposed standard. If it takes a faith shift to open us up into a new way of exploring God and fatih, I am in favor. I give this four stars. ★★★★☆

Notice of material connection, I received a review copy of this book for the purposes of this review.

Clean Up, Clean Up, Everybody, Everywhere. . .a book review

I review a number of books, mostly of a religious nature but sometimes a topic will pique my interest and you’ll read about it here. One topic I have never before reviewed because I never before finished a book in the genre, is ‘Cleaning & Organizing.’ Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the genre. I have purchased books which promise to help you transform your living space. Mostly I leave these on my wife’s side of the bed hoping that when she trips on them, she’ll read them and go into a cleaning frenzy. This doesn’t happen (and come on, that’s just sexist!).

But then I got The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. The author, Mari Kondo developed the KonMari Method by decluttering and re-organizing her name. As a reader of housekeeping magazines from the age of five, she has invested her life in learning how to tidy and organize and her career is helping others do it too. Her method is relatively simple: throw your stuff away and what you don’t throw away, organize.

Alright maybe it is a little more complicated than that. She advocates discarding anything that is unnecessary (i.e. you haven’t used it, won’t use it, don’t actually like it but have held on to it because you feel guilty because your great-aunt gave it to you, you will only need it in a Zombie Apocalypse, etc). And she exhorts her readers to re-organize in one fell swoop by category instead of location (so you don’t end up with two junk drawers with the same stuff in it).

Kondo has lots of practical tips, but she also sees the transformative power of  a simplified living space. She writes,”In essence, tidying ought to be the act of restoring the balance among people, their possessions and the house they live in (190)” Thus she promotes simplifying your life and getting rid of the ‘things’ that weigh us down. This helpful.

But I didn’t find everything she says helpful. She talks to houses and doesn’t roll up her socks to put them away because it disrespects them (because they never get to rest, but are always tensed up).  She also only owns thirty books and suggests getting rid of most of books you own, especially if touching the book doesn’t make you happy. Here is where I got problems. I like having lots of books, even ones that don’t make me happy.  But following her advice, I have an idea where to file this book. I give this book two stars.

Thank you to Random House for providing me a copy of this book through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review.

Evangelism Study Bible: a Study Bible review

I self identify as an evangelical Christian. Among other things, evangelicals think that studying the Bible and evangelism are really, really important. So it was only a matter of time before someone published the Evangelism Study Bible.  Kregel Publications, in cooperation with Evantell and ThomasNelson (the publishers of the NKJV) have published a Study Bible designed to help Christians be a more ‘confident, joyful witness for Christ.’

This Bible seeks to be a tool which will aid us in evangelism, but it is also a Bible with cross references, a concordance and full-color maps. The rest of the resources in this book relate directly to Evangelism. This includes: book introductions highlighting evangelistic themes, 2,600 study-notes, articles which give you evangelistic tips, training in apologetics, discipleship or contextualization, ‘how-to-features,’ and devotions. Larry Moyer, founder and CEO of Evantell, hopes that this resource ‘will provide you with the training to explain and make clear the good news of the gospel. (Introduction p. v). 

Because of the focus on Evangelism, the study notes are not comprehensive in their treatment of all the Bible’s themes. Creation is treated briefly in two or three study notes. The first feature article is on the first sin (4).  The study notes are sparse in much of the Pentateuch or the Old Testament historical books. Only when the implications for evangelism can be seen (directly or indirectly) are there notes, leaving some difficult material (i.e. genealogies, sacrifices, etc) without comment.This  isn’t so much a criticism, but a recognition that a volume like this comes with certain limitations.

The articles themselves have helpful material, sometimes imparting knowledge and skills, at other times taking a look at the heart of the evangelist (the best way to share a compelling vibrant faith is to have one yourself). I had three questions  as I surveyed the notes and articles: (1) What is the content of the gospel that this Study Bible commends? (2) How does it handle the gospel-go-to passages? (3) What about other passages?

What is the Content of the Gospel?

The gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). The study note on the Romans passage says, ” When people place their faith in Christ, they are delivered from the wrath of God and declared righteous in his sight.” In general, the gospel that this Study Bible proclaims tells you about how to go to heaven when you die (escape God’s wrath and live at peace with him for all eternity). Dallas Willard would call this ‘the gospel of sin management.’ I think the notes and articles do a good job of talking about personal salvation, bringing people into the realm of God’s grace by helping them to deal with their sin problem; however there is more to the gospel than just the personal transformation narrative. The gospel is nothing less than the proclamation that Jesus is King and the reign of Christ is here. This captures the revivalist salvation narrative (described here) and  places it in a wider frame. If the gospel is about a King and its Kingdom than we sense social and political implications. The ‘evangel’ of this Study Bible is perhaps one aspect of the ‘Good news’ but it is not the whole story described in the text,

How does it handle the Go-to-passages?

Evangelicals have long had their go-to-texts for Eeangelism. Think John 3:16, the ‘Romans Road’ passages, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Ephesians 2:4-10 etc. These passages focus on what Christ did through His cross and resurrection to bring us in the way of salvation, and our role in accepting Christ through faith. As mentioned above, the focus of the notes are on our personal, eternal destiny. Little is said about the abundant life in Christ now (John 10:10, Luke 18:30) or passages that relate to gospel justice. The good-news-proclamation in the Synoptic gospels was the announcement that God’s kingdom was at hand (Matt. 4:17, Mark 1:14-15). These passages are referenced in the notes but the concept of kingdom is not really unpacked in relation to gospel proclamation. Again this is all good in as far as it goes but more could be said!

Other passages?

I have already hinted at an approved canon with in the cannon that this Study Bible focuses on for Evangelism and the gospel. There are other passages which are full of good news which the notes fail to engage substantively. Related to this season (and my Sunday sermon text), I think of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Despite the way this passage announces and proclaims God’s saving action and looks joyfully at the wonder of Christ’s Incarnation, the notes treat only three verses of her song. For verse 48, the notes make clear that contrary to Mary’s claim of blessedness, Christ alone is our Redeemer (1117)  and that those experience God are those who fear him (verse 50).  There is a brief note on Abraham’s seed and how God is a promise keeper (vs. 55). Fair points, but this fails to wrestle with Mary’s message about how God should be praised for his action in her life—how the proud and the powerful were being brought down while the humble were being lifted up. This is a gospel word and the notes fail to engage her song and its implications for Evangelism.

The brief introductions to each book of the Bible, and the fact that there are notes through out train our eyes to see the Good News in each book of the Bible, Old and New Testament.  There are limitations in the notes, but there is also a lot here that is good and helpful. I give this Study Bible three stars and recommend it for anyone wishing to sharpen their witness for Christ. My caution is that I think the gospel proclamation is bigger, more robust and wonderful than these notes, with their narrower focus make it out to be. ★★★ ☆☆

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Soundings from the Asian Diaspora: a book review

My own theology and faith has been shaped by Asian-Americans. I half-grew up in Hawaii, so feel at home in an Asian culture, but I can also point to key Asian-American mentors who invested in my spiritual formation. They taught me the Bible, mentored me,  prayed for me and helped me confront my own blind spots and white privilege. I was also blessed to have a number of Asian friends at seminary which challenged me to see theology from the margins, when the curriculum was largely a Western story. [My graduate school prided itself on being an international Christian graduate school and had a number of Asian students. But I can remember sitting at a table with a group of Asian American students who pointed to a large painting  which only depicted Europe and North American. There is still more work to be done on including our Asian sisters and brothers!].

Amos Young is perhaps the preeminent Pentecostal theologian in America and is a Chinese-American (by way of Malaysia). He has taught theology at Regent University and currently professor of theology and the dircetor of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary. Yong begins The Futrue of Evangelical Theology: Soundings from the Asian American Diaspora  by examining the effects of globalization and the shift of Christianity’s center to the South and East. He then looks at Asian theology  and Asian-American theology (chapter two before honing in on the contribution of Asian American evangelicals (chapter three) and Pentecostals (chapter four). Chapter five and six explore Asian American Pentecostal/Evangelical contributions to im/migration and in the final chapter, Yong lays out some ‘next steps for Asian-Americans, Evangelicals and Christian theologians.

As the subtitle of this book indicates, this book records ‘soundings’ from the Asian-American diaspora and is not an exhaustive treatment on Asian theology (as if such a work were even possible). Yong is good at naming distinctives and trends in theology.  As an Asian-American, Yong speaks of his own experience of immigration, generational tension, and navigating the tensions between East and West. Asian-Americans who read this book will be encouraged and inspired to reflect theologically on their experience (especially in his introduction and epilogue). He proposes ‘local theologies’ from an Asian American perspective.

But this book was not just written for Asian Americans. It was written for the Church (specifically the church in America, but this will be pertinent to Canadian friends as well). Yong focuses on the Asian-American experience because he knows that their theological reflection enriches the whole of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. Specifically, Asian American theology helps the church reflect and converse well in the realm of culture, economics and inter-religious dialogue.  Asian American theologians can inform our public theology and we are impoverished if we ignore their contributions.  Yong writes:

Asian Americans who live betwixt-and-between Asia and the United States can bring more existential and interrelational resources to bear on the transnational and globaliing dynamics of the present time. (118).

While my own reading of Asian American theologies is limited (I’ve read some Yong and a couple of others that he cites), I  think Yong illustrates well their contribution to the wider Evangelical discourse.  Specifically, Asian American voices are ignored to our peril if we fail to wrestle with their perspectives on immigration and Jubilee.  I highly recommend this book for anyone who cares about theology and race (and if you care about neither you ought to read it anyway). Asian American friends will appreciate Yong’s thoughtful survey and encouragement to let their cultural perspective inform their work. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Academic for providing me a copy of this book for the purposes of review.

The Mosaic of Justice: a book review

Say you wrested a shard of glass from its setting in a beautiful mosaic, took it home and placed it on the table and declared to anyone in earshot, “This is a magnificent piece of art!” Ken Wytsma  says, “No matter how lovely that single shard was it in no way captures the glory of the whole” (6). And yet often our treatment of justice, is a mere single shard treatment:

Justice is like a mosiac. It’s not only about single pieces–it’s about all the pieces working together in a stunning whole. All too often we believe that our desire to pursue justice can only be lived out or understood in a single shard. Criminal justice. International development. Creation care. Education. Anti-trafficking. Works of mercy and love.

All of these shards are vital parts of God’s mosaic of justice. (Wytsma, Pursuing Justice 6-7)

Wytsma’s book Pursuing Justice explores the multifaceted nature of justice and helps us get a sense of God’s larger vision for Justice. Wytsma, who launched the annual Justice Conference is passionate about presenting justice in all its full-orbed flavor.  So he explores how justice helps us know God and live in light of the good news, gives us meaning significance and happiness, confronts our own religious hypocrisy, and challenges our consumerism. worship,He also explores how justice, needs to be done justly and wisely to be truly just, and the ways that jutice enables real relationship between people and people and people and God.

The chapters of this book are punctuated with interludes—interviews, poems, pictures and poetic prose which evoke our concern for deeper justice. Wystma tackles some heavy issues (i.e. sex trafficking and sexual violence, racism, poverty, etc. These little ‘interludes’  help maintain a hospitable place to explore the issues.

I liked this book a lot and plan to refer back to it. It is rare to find an author that opens up the concept of justice so completely. I mean, Wolterstorff, kind of does but he isn’t accessible to the general reader. Wytsma on the other hand has graphics, stories and personal examples which are compelling. I give this book five stars and recommend this to anyone wishing to explore the meanng of God’s justice and what it means to act justly and love mercy. ★★★★★

I received this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.