Rare Bird: a book review

Generally when I get a review book, my turn around is pretty quick. However I received Anna Whitson-Donaldson’s Rare Bird outside my regular channels and the subject matter seemed to heavy to just jump in. So as my book stacks piled up, I kept putting her book at the bottom of the pile. A book that I’ll definitely get to, soon-ish. When I finally picked it up to read in earnest, I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting.

This book is a tearjerker. Whitson-Donaldson tells the story of the death of Jack, her twelve-year-old boy that drowned in a near by creek. Most of the book is the story of her, her husband Tim and daughter Margret pick up the pieces in the midst of their grief. Whitson-Donaldson is vulnerable about how Jack’s death made her feel self-loathing, deep pain, isolation and broken. She also struggles to hold on to her faith in God through mourning. This memoir is set in the first year since Jack’s passing, so you see her walk through the raw pain and shock, and the cloud of grief that settles in afterward. You also see rays of hope break in as she learns to live with the pain. She also comes to trust that Jack is somehow still close to her.

This is Whitson-Donaldson’s story in her own words. I think many of the short chapters, probably came to life as blog entries (she blogs about her grief online). It is a touching story and I am glad I read it. I give it four stars.

I received this book from Convergent Books in exchange for my honest review.

The Cats in the Cradle: a book review

My parents are both nearing retirement. Now that I am pushing forty, that isn’t as old as it used to be (It was really old whne I was in my twenties). My mom and dad are still active and I suspect they have many good years ahead. Yet they are aging. My father who hands were always strong now hands me the pickle jar to open for him. My mother is on her own entropic journey. Yet

Aging is a reality and the day will come when I will have to take a more active role in caring for my parents. As a pastor, I walk alongside others, both aging parents and their caretakers. So I was interested to read Nancy Parker Brummett’s Take My Hand Again: A Faith-Based Guide For Helping Aging Parents. Brummett walks through issues that adult children face as they care for their parents at the end of life. This includes helping them get their paperwork in order, making decisions about living and care, whether parents should keep driving, and helping them leave a godly legacy.

This is billed as a ‘faith-based’ approach to helping aging parents and is published by Kregel, an evangelical, Christian publisher. For the most part, it isn’t particularly ‘faith-based’ so much as practical and helpful. All the chapters have a Bible verse epigraph and maybe a verse or two is quoted in the text, but the advice that Brummett doles out is helpful for Christians or non-Christians alike. The exception would be the last couple of chapters that speak more directly to the idea of spiritual legacy and eternity. I think the broad appeal to this book is actually good. Most of the issues around issues aren’t Christian, or secular. They are human. God cares about our mundane, ordinary concerns and I appreciated the practical way Brummett addressed the real needs of aging parents. If you are looking for a book about the spirituality of aging, that is a different book.

As I said, my parents are aging but not agéd. They are also well prepared. They’ve prepared a living will, chosen someone to manage their finances when they are gone, and have seen to some of those practical details. Still I liked Brummett’s practicality and think this is a useful book as parents age. I give it four stars.

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

From Culture Wars to ‘Re’ Words: a book review

The Bible likes the  “re” words. No, I am not talking about: reduce, reuse, recycle. Those words are important but I can’t find them in my Bible (perhaps in the Message?). Nor am I talking about the lesser “re” Bible words: resisting, reacting and rejecting. Nope, the big, important ones are: redemption, renew, repent, restore, resurrection, reconciliation and redemption.  In Restoring All Things, authors Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet argue that these are the most important “re” words in the Bible, even if our Christian reputation most often reflects lesser ‘re’ words like rejecting and resisting (17). (Hey did you notice that ‘reflect’ is also a ‘re’ word?).

Smith is the vice president of the WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD magazine, author and radio program producer. Stonestreet is a speaker and fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and host of BreakPoint (with Eric Metaxas) and The Point. They are both conservative (both politically and theologically) but they are gracious in their engagement with the wider culture. Much like Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, Smith and Stonestreet have not abandoned the convictions of their predecessors, but embody a noticeable difference in tone.

Chuck Colson still looms large in Smith’s and Stonestreet’s eyes, but Abraham Kuyper is their muse. The epigraph at the head of their introduction is the oft quoted Kuyper quote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'” (17).  Their fifteen chapters are an attempt to bring the lordship of Christ into every realm of contemporary culture including: poverty, capitalism, abortion, the plight of women and girls in our world, education, restorative justice, race, the prevailing secularism in the university, ministry to the LGBT community and those with disabilities, promoting marriage, caring for orphans, the arts, and local action.  Both Smith and Stonestreet earn their bread as Christian commentators and that is their primary role here; however each chapter tells  the stories of Christians who are active in each of these arenas.

Four questions guide their quest on how to bring Jesus into the public square:

  1. What is good in our culture that we can promote, protect and celebrate?
  2. What is missing in our culture that we can creatively contribute?
  3. What is evil in our culture that we can stop?
  4. What is broken in our culture that we can restore? (25-26)

And so Stonestreet and Smith celebrate the good (like capitalism), look for creative Christian contributions (the arts) call us to put a stop to evil (Abortion on demand, racial injustice) and call us to restore that which is broken (the institution of marriage, the prison system, etc).

I really appreciate the stories of people and ministries that Stonestreet and Smith profile. They profile people I respect (i.e. John Perkins, Makoto Fujimura, Bob Lupton) and many others. The stories are my favorite part (and that is part of their strategy of capturing the culture). They take sensible stands on issues that many evangelicals ignore (such as the racism and prison reform). They also have helpful suggestions for readers to research deeper and begin contributing in each arena they discuss.  However on other points, I found the commentary one-sided (such as their passionate defense of Capitalism) or shallow. Perhaps a book that tackles this many issues is bound to be underwhelming in some places. Still I appreciate the aim and irenic spirit they have. I give this book three-and-a-half stars.

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

We Got Spirit, Yes We Do: a book review

Every year Wheaton college hosts their annual Theology Conference. These gatherings host scholars discussing pertinent theological topics. While Wheaton and its conference are broadly evangelical, they gather an impressive range of scholars from various biblical, historical or theological disciplines and church traditions. The 2014 conference, The Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faithhas just been published by IVP Academic (edited by Jeffrey Barbeau and Beth Felker Jones). In it, you will find historic, fresh and challenging perspectives on the Holy Spirit and his work in the church and world.

Part one of the book, explores biblical and historical perspectives on the Holy Spirit. In chapter two Sandra Richter gives a ‘bird’s-eye-view’ of the work of the Holy Spirit through out Scripture. In chapter three, Gregory Lee compares the pneumatology of Basil of Caesarea and Augustine of Hippo, representative voices from East and West, discovering a great deal of commonality. In chapter four, Mattew Levering examines Thomas Aquainas’s theology regarding the Filoque clause that was added to the Western version of the Nicaea-Constantinople creed. In chapter five, Jeffrey Barbeau recovers the pneumatological insights implicit in Charles Wesley’s conversion (on Pentecost, May 21, 1738–a few days before John Wesley’s famous Aldersgate conversion). In chapter six, Oliver Crisp describes the insights of Reformed Pneumatology. Chapters seven and eight describe the Pentecostal movement. Allan Heaton Anderson profiles the global Pentecostal movement, Estrelda Alexander focuses on the African American Pentecostal experience.

Part two explores doctrinal and practical perspectives on the Holy Spirit. Chapter nine wrestles with the role of the Spirit in hermeneutics. Here, Kevin Vanhoozer expertly untangles the lack of pneumatology in many approaches to biblical interpretation and presents the crucial, formative role the Spirit has. In chapter ten Amos Yong explores the Spirit’s role in creation and Michael Welker does the same for salvation in chapter eleven. Geoffrey Wainwright presents the Spirit’s role in the liturgy of the church (chapter twelve). Doug Petersen talks about Pentecostals and social justice (chapter thirteen). In chapter fourteen, Timothy George explores the Spirit’s role in Christian Unity. The concluding essay (by Barbeau and Beth Felker Jones) argues three basic premises: (1) The Christian life should reflect our worship of the Triune God, (2) Christian theology is fully pneumatological and (3) Christian practice should be characterized by love.

Like all multi-author works, there are some stand out essays. Barbeau’s essay about Methodism and Charles Wesley’s contributions to pneumatology is quite good. As is Vanhoozer’s recovery of the Holy Spirit for hermeneutics. I found both of these chapters insightful–the first for offering an anatomy of conversion with an eye toward the Spirit’s work, the second for making hermeneutics spiritual. Yet my favorite chapter is Crisp’s presentation on Reformed pneumatology. Crisp hones in on the Spirit’s role in uniting us to God (and the Reformed, dogmatic presentation of that), and he offers two principles. The first is the Trinitarian Appropriation Principle (TAP) which posits that where one person of the Trinity is at work, all members are likewise at work (99-100). The Intentional Application Principle (IAP) claims that the aim at every Divine action is the telos, our union with God and the transformation of creation at the end of  the age (101). The second principle names the peculiar pneumatelogical dimension to God’s work. While Crisp extrapolates from the Reformed Tradition (Calvin and Brunner, and the various confessions), these are insights appropriate for the whole church. Beyond these three chapters, the essays are generally still quite good.

Unity in diversity is especially important in a volume devoted to the  Holy Spirit’s work. Of the fourteen contributors to this volume, three are people of color and three are women. The ecclesial diversity is somewhat greater. One of the contributors is Catholic, there are Pentecostals, Reformed, Methodists, and a Baptist (this book may be more ecclesially diverse than this, I am not sure of everyone’s denominational affiliation). Lacking is a Greek Orthodox perspective on pneumatology, though at least a couple of essays present on and interact with Orthodox perspectives (see especially Lee and Levering’s chapters). There also is not a Mennonite pneumatology here. I’m not sure what the specific Mennonite contribution would be, but since that tradition has helped shape my Christology and ethics I am curious about what Anabaptism may bring to the discussion.So certainly this group may have been more diverse, but it still does a fairly good job of presenting a good cross section of theological perspectives.

This is not a scholarly monograph but a collection of essays (originally lectures). The authors do not agree on every point, in either theology or historical detail. Still books like this give you a taste of various perspectives. I thouroughly enjoyed this romp through (mostly) Evangelical pneumatology. I give this book four stars.

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

Start Tripping: a book review

Mark Batterson is the pastor of the National Community Church in Washington, DC and the author of several Christian bestsellers (The Circle Maker, The Grave Robber, All In, Soul Print, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day, Wild Goose Chase). While I have read Batterson profitably, even if I have areas of critique. Richard Foth is a retired pastor a generation older than Batterson. When Batterson and his wife Lora arrived in DC to plant a church twenty-one years ago, they developed a friendship with Dick and Ruth Foth after they had Thanksgiving dinner at the Foth home. Foth became a mentor, friend and kindred spirit for Batterson.

Foth and Batterson team up to challenge us toward adventure. A Trip Around The Sun shares Foth and Batterson’s stories of how they each chose a lifestyle of adventure. In each of the twenty chapters, Foth and Batterson relate parts of their life journey. They tell stories of risk, adventure, learning, prioritizing relationships, investing in family, and trusting God. They aim at inspiring their readers to do the same.

Each chapter closes with a succesories-style-slogan summing up a little life lesson. Things like: “Choose Adventure” “When You Follow Jesus, All Bets Are Off” “Catch People Doing Things Right” “Never Lose a Holy Curiosity” “Don’t Sacrifice Your Family on the Altar of Success” “No One Can Worship God Like You or For You”

Both Batterson and Foth are good communicators (or Susanna Foth Aughtmon is, who helped them write this). I underlined things I found personally inspiring. Their challenge towards risk-taking and adventure is something I need to hear. I don’t want my life, vocation,or faith to just happen to me. I want to press into life, grab all that God has for me, participate in his mission of redemption for my community and world. I want to love well and live well. To the extent that I feel pulled in that direction by Batterson and Foth, this is a good book.

But I can’t say that I connected well with what I was reading. Foth talks about being raised as a third-culture kid (before the term existed), of meeting famous people, and his lifestyle of trying to live faithfully. Batterson tells of church planting, taking his kid to a super bowl game, reading two hundred books a year and kissing his wife on the eiffel tower. These accumulated experiences are fun, significant, important, but Foth and Batterson never connect the dots for me in a way I found particularly helpful. They offer slogans instead of a compelling vision.

But I did appreciate their relationship and the way their friendship finds their way into each others’ stories. Batterson sees Foth as a godly mentor for him, which I am certain he is and has been. In the acknowledgments, Batterson admits that his primary goal for this book was ‘to capture Dick’s stories for posterity’ (201). Dick sings Batterson’s praise throughout these pages. I like the way they model a godly mentoring relationship.

I give this book three stars. I appreciate their overall message, even if aspects left me feeling flat. Still, I choose adventure. . .

Notice of material connection. I received in exchange for my honest review.

This trip around the Sun, I will choose Adventure by praying risky prayers.

All the Good Things & the Bad Things that May Be: a book review

When Christians talk about sex, beware. Popular Christian communicators tend to either fixate on abhorrent sexual practices in our culture or sing horndog-songs-of-praise about the gift of sex. The former use sex as exhibit A in their fear-mongering case about national moral decay. The latter write Christian bestsellers about the joys of marital sex with their ‘smoking-hot-wives.’  There is a dearth of Christian literature  which speaks honestly about the gap between our church’s and culture’s visions of sex. That is part of what makes Redeeming Sex so refreshing.

Debra Hirsch is the wife of ,and co-conspirator with, missional guru Alan Hirsch (they co-wrote Untamed, which may be my favorite Hirsch book). She serves on the leadership team of the Forge Mission Training Network and is on the board of Missio Alliance. She brings to the topic of sexuality twenty-five years of ministry experience to and with the LGBT community. The church that She and Alan planted and led in South Melbourne had about 40% of its members come from the LGBTQ community. When Debra came to faith in Christ, she was living and identifying as a lesbian. This book offers her wisdom and insights (and part of her story) about how to approach the issues around human sexuality with grace.

The first thing to observe is that Redeeming Sex is not about ‘sex.’ That is, if you reduce sex to mechanics, genital stimulation and technique you won’t find what you are looking for here. This is a book about sexuality. It tackles Christian attitudes toward sex, sexism, gender, our approach the LGBTQ community.

Hirsch’s book divides into three parts. Part one, “Where Did All the Sexy Christians Go?” tackles our attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Here Hirsch steers us past prudish repression, fear-based responses and our tendency to elevate sexual sin above other sins. She points to how the life of Jesus, his relationships with men and woman, affirms the goodness of sexuality.

Part two, “Bits, Bobs and Tricky Business” looks deeper at Christian views, especially our approach to gender and same-sex attraction. Hirsch describes eight fumdamentals of sex: (1) the term sexuality names the impulse to genital sexuality and social sexuality, (2) sexuality involves the whole self, (3) sexuality is embodied, (4) sexuality celebrates difference, (5) sexuality is fractured, (6)sexuality is deceptive, (7) sexuality needs a chaperone, (8) sexuality is ageless.  These ‘fundamentals’ describe both the gifts and dangers of sexuality. In the following chapters, Hirsch discusses gender and homosexuality,  Hirsch pleads for dialogue and mutual self understanding of the various positions  on the options available for gay Christians (i.e. healing leading to heterosexual marriage, celibacy and affirmation of gay lifestye). She doesn’t commend a one-size-fits-all approach to ‘healing homosexuals.’ At one point, she observes that heterosexuals are also in dire need of healing in their sexuality because all of us are sexually broken (120).

Part three, “The Mission of Christian Sexuality,” draws these threads together. Hirsch offers a vision of participating in Christian mission in ways that  are cognizant and honor people’s sexuality. Hirsch urges us towards ministry that emphasizes grace, ministry that gets beyond our stereotypes to engagement with real people, affirms the way we all are God’s image bearers,  and ministry that is ‘centered-set’ versus ‘bound-set’ (not seeking to mark who is in or out, but helping people to take steps to follow Jesus in healthy sexuality where they are).

Despite Hirsch’s interest in ministry to the LGBT community and her personal history with it, I am not totally sure of her ‘theological position.’ I know that her church at one point of time worked with Exodus International but became increasingly uncomfortable with their position (Exodus International itself became uncomfortable with Exodus International’s position). She quotes affirming authors and promotes dialogue between conservatives and gay Christians, but this isn’t a book that tells you what your theology should be. This is a book that urges us to greater love and understanding as we reach out in the love of Christ. This is a message both conservatives and progressives need to hear.

I enjoyed reading this book. Hirsch is funny, irreverent and insightful. She doesn’t mince words about where we’ve mussed up a biblical vision of human sexuality AND the gospel of grace. Too often evangelicals are defined in our culture by their views on sexuality (i.e. homosexuality and abortion). Hirsch points us towards deeper love and mission to all who are sexually broken. This doesn’t mean that we necessarily abandon our theological commitments; however it means seeking how to love well. I give this book four stars.

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

Friends and Lovers: a book review

Wesley Hill self identifies as a gay, celibate Christian. That is, he is same-sex attracted but his theological convictions preclude him from joining in a romantic, sexual partnership with another man. His early book, Washed and Waiting (Zondervan, 2010) tells of his journey of seeking to follow God with his Christian faith and sexual orientation in tension. In his new book, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, he explores the importance of friendship in the Christian life, especially for those in the LGBT community. Hill is bookish and thoughtful. He is also vulnerable about his struggles to form deep non-sexual friendships with other men. Despite the heartache he feels in pursuing the ideal of Christian friendship, he sees it as a gift to gay Christians. And us all.

This is a short book, consisting of six chapters, divided into two parts. In part one, ‘Reading Friendship’, Hill explores the necessity of friendship in the Christian life. Chapter one explores some of the ways that friendship has been marginalized and eclipsed in contemporary culture (6). Hill weaves together a narrative of himself naming his need of friends (on the eve of his confirmation) with theological reflections from Benjamin Myers, C.S. Lewis and seveal literary references. As a gay Christian, he feels the need for friendships acutely but the lack of cultural space for friendships impoverishes everyone.

Chapter two explores deeper the special dispensation of friendship and the cultural history of it. Hill points to Bethge and Bonhoeffer’s friendship and how they saw how fragile friendship was and the ways it was not recognized by others (25). A later readings of Bethge and Bonhoeffer’s relationship claim that it was ‘really a homosexual partnership’. Whatever the nature of that relationship (text and subtext), it does speak volumes that later audiences can’t conceive of such a close, male friendship without speculating about their sexuality (25,26). Hill  delves into the Christian tradition, exploring the insights on Spiritual Friendship in the writings of twelfth century Cistercian, Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred wrote On Spiritual Friendship (which this book’s title alludes to) and described the value and same-sex, celibate friendships with the context of monastic life. And of course C.S. Lewis’s reflections on love, friendship (and homosexuality) are woven through these chapters. Chapter three explores the language of friendship (and family) in the New Testament.

Part two explores the practical side of ‘living friendship.’ Chapter four describes some of the challenges to developing friendships (especially the challenges to those who are same-sex attracted). Chapter five discusses suffering in love and relates a particular difficult loss of a friendship for Hill (when a heterosexual friend got engaged). Chapter six gives six concrete suggestions for recovering friendship as a Christian discipline:

  1. Admit our need for friends.
  2. Start renewing the practice of friendship with the friends we have (not the idealized friendships we want).
  3. Remind ourselves that friendship flourishes best in community.
  4. Realize that friendships strengthen communities.
  5. Imagine specific ways friendships are doorways to the practice of hospitality and welcoming the stranger.
  6. Look for ways to avoid the lure of mobility–staying put and investing in relationships with people where you are.

It should be evident from this list that Hill sees the importance of friendship for everyone. It would be impossible to read this book and not feel the call to deeper friendships. Hill is realistic on both the joys and sorrow, blessings and difficulties involved in cultivating friendships. Hill is in tune with how his sexual orientation informs his call to friendship, “I want to explore the way my same-sex attractions are inescapably bound with my gift and calling to friendship. My question, at root, is how I can steward and sanctify my homosexual orientation in such a way that it can be a doorway to blessing and grace”(79). He also writes, “My being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to more of a friend, not less”(81).

This is a great book for the way it roots the challenges and blessings of friendship in Hill’s own experience as a gay Christian. Too often sex is seen as the ultimate expression of human love, leaving those who are celibate (by choice or circumstance) feeling less than human. I think many traditional Christian apologetic of marriage and heterosexual love are pastorally insensitive on this point, describing the virtues of marital love as God’s design but declaring it off-limits to gay people. Hill presents a vision of friendship that is not ‘second best’ but considers orientation, vocation and love together. This commendation to friendship is not a ‘less-than’ proposition but is every bit as life-giving and challenging as marital vows. Those of us who hold to a more traditional stance on marriage need to have this sort of compelling alternative to offer to those who don’t have that option.

But this is not a book about gay friendships as the subtitle implies. This is a book about friendship. Hill thinks through the implications from his own perspective as a gay and celibate Christian, but friendship is necessary for us all to thrive in our Christian life whether we be single, married, gay or straight. There is so much here! I give this book five stars. ★★★★★

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