Seeking the City: a book review.

Christians through the ages have found a variety of ways of navigating wealth, poverty and politics. In the modern era, the American church is divided between fiscal conservatives and social progressives and everything inbetween. Underlying the diversity are different attitudes towards wealth and poverty and different understandings about how to respond to the poor. Chad Brand, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his co-author Bible-teacher Tom Pratt, take a look at the biblical and historical approaches to economics and politics and draw out some implications for today (from a conservative perspective).

Seeking the City: Wealth, Poverty and Political Economy in Christian Perspective begins by examining what the Bible tells us (about economics (part 1), before delving into the two thousand year history of Christian political economic engagement (part two). Part three endeavors to tell us how we should live as evangelicals in light of these biblical-theological and economic realities. Five assumptions under-gird the work as a whole. First, ‘a biblically informed  economic outlook is essential for evangelical faith and social interaction.’ Second, ‘the Bible does not explicitly lay out a theory of economics and social justice.’ Third, all Christians ought to be concerned about the poor, the widowed and orphaned. Fourth, a marketplace is essential to produce wealth and create access for it for all people (though politicians divide on how much intervention government should have in the marketplace). Finally, materialistic/secular societies are in opposition to biblical Christianity and brings us into confrontation with the wider culture (27-29)

Brand and Pratt spend roughly two-hundred and fifty pages looking at what the Bible has to say about socio-economic and political realities. Unfortunately I found this to be the weakest part of the book. They do examine the broad themes of all Scripture, looking at the Old Testament’s narrative, legal, poetic and prophetic material before examining the New Testament witness. They also make many astute exegetical observations. Unfortunately, they make conclusions here that go beyond what the biblical text warrants. For example they posit that the idea of systemic and structural evil is a modern fad whereas the Bible sees the root of our problem as personal, human sinfulness and ‘failure to rule ourselves. (73). I fail to see why these are in opposition. There are plenty of examples in the Bible of kingdoms and rulers who created structures and systems that led people into sin. This doesn’t deny personal culpability for injustice. Also, Brand and Pratt dismiss contemporary appropriations of the concept of Jubilee or the Acts church as examples of economic redistribution. The former because it was originally based on a divine fiat for Israel to underscore their Convenantal identity (97). The latter because it is nowhere commanded or repeated (192-6).  These observations are quite right, though puzzling. It is as though Brand and Pratt miss the evocative significance of having a radical socio-economic leveling in the first ever church or a built in economic reset for the nation of Israel (and yes I know that redistribution in the Jubilee sense was not a total equalization of all economic resources, simply a time to restore what was lost and originally given as Divine gift). I also found that their chief interlocutors are all Evangelicals (i.e. Craig Blomberg, Ron Sider) when there has been a great deal of  other literature done on Biblical economics which they show little or no awareness for.

Part two proceeds on much solider ground and is really the ‘meat’ of the book. As the their largest section, Brand and Pratt devote themselves to describing two-thousand years of  Christian approaches to economics and politics. They begin with Christianity under the Roman empire, take us through patristic sources, medieval scholastics, the reformation and beyond. Because they write as Americans, and for Americans, they lay particular emphasis on American economics and politics (five of the twelve chapters focus on the U.S.). I tended to agree with their analysis of medieval, and Reformation era history. As they draw closer to the modern period, they have a decidedly fiscal conservative read on current economic realities. For example, the Great Depression was aggravated because of Hoover and FDR’s New Deal (chapter 20).  However they do a great job of describing the plurality of evangelical views on economics post WWII (chapter 21).

In Part three they set a socio-political agenda for Evangelicalism today. There is some good material here, but they also devote themselves to reiterating conservative talking points (i.e. they describe ‘climate change’ as politically motivated  ‘junk’ science rather than resting on a broad scientific consensus and have little positive to say regarding creation care, though they acknowledge that it is the responsibility for wealthy nations). But they also argue for morality and social engagement (as all good conservatives would and should!) and speak intelligently about the effects of globalization. Certainly their is some good food for thought here and they have done a great deal of ground work before taking readers to this point!

All works of practical theology are written from a peculiar ideological vantage point. This book is no exception. The authors are two white middle-class evangelicals and write from that context. That doesn’t mean that they are unaware of the problems of racism and its affects on society. In fact, their preface relays a story of confronting racism during the civil rights era and they go on to make some astute observations about civil rights. However their conservative political bent also, in places blinds them to the contributions and insights from the evangelical left (or the left in general). The so-called social-gospel has at times de-emphasized the necessity for personal salvation, but the gospel is more than personal salvation. It is has social implications. Brand and Pratt are not always fair and balanced in their presentation but I appreciate their irenic tone through most this book. I find many of their conclusion ill-founded and overblown (coming from my perspective as a moderate). I give this book 3.5 stars.

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

Freedom and Forgiveness: a book review

Pope Francis made headlines when, during Lent,  he stunned onlookers by received confession publicly at St. Peter’s Basilica before hearing  the confession from the faithful.  However, as radically different many find this pope, his theology and practice is consistent with Catholic teaching post-Vatican II. A new book from Father Paul Farren explores the practice, purpose and meaning behind the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In Freedom and Forgiveness: A Fresh Look at the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Farren examines the history of the sacrament and the ways it brings us into a deeper experience of God. Confession is somewhat daunting for many of us; yet Farren argues, “Our understanding of the sacrament reveals our image of God. If our image of God is one of an uncompromising judge, then the sacrament can fill us with dread. (1)” Instead of coming to confession to avoid judgement and hellfire, Farren paints a picture of the Sacrament of Reconciliation which has a loving God behind it who longs for a restored relationship with His children.

In Farren’s short book he explores how confession brings us into the realm of freedom and forgiveness, reveals the nature of God and of ourselves, and produces in us a proper sorrow for our sins. Farren also give practical instruction for those who wish to enter deeper into the practice of Confession, both in its formal parish celebration and in preparation for it.

This is a Catholic book which I read as a non-Catholic Christian. While my ecclesiastical membership is once removed from Rome, I think that this is one area we (protestants) can stand to learn from our Catholic brothers and sisters: Confession is good for the Soul. Bonhoeffer, the German Martyr, scholar and pastor discussed the importance of hearing words of absolution from another in his book Life Together. However many of us save confession for private prayers and yet are surprised when our religious experience becomes increasingly privatized.

I think Farren issues a challenge for all Christians, though he writes primarily to Catholics and grounds his reasoning in Church dogma. However what he tells us about God’s character and the experience of freedom and forgiveness is a word appropriate for us all, even if work is to be done on how to fit these wise words into our own contexts. This is a short book (about 85 pages) but it is full of practical insights worth turning over. I recommend this book for all Christians longing for a greater experience of freedom from sin and a deeper relationship with God. I give this  book four stars.

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

 

Spiritual Direction: a book review

One of my favorite teachers on Christian spirituality is Gordon Smith. I have been privileged to take classes from him at Regent college in the sacraments and conversion & spiritual transformation. I have also read several books by him on the spiritual lives. These books and classes have helped shape my vision of Christian formation and spirituality. Because of this, I pretty much put anything Gordon Smith writes on my must read pile. So when I saw that IVP put out a book by Gordon Smith on Spiritual Direction I knew I had to read it!

Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving & Receiving Direction gives Smith’s thoughts on Spiritual Direction. Smith, who is currently the president of Ambrose University College and Seminary in Calgary Alberta, got his PhD from Loyola School of Theology and sat under the spiritual direction of Thomas Green. As such, his model of Spiritual Formation is deeply influenced by the Jesuits, though he finds his theological home among evangelicals. This book shares his wisdom and particular understanding of what Spiritual Direction is.

Smith’s nine chapters articulate the nature of spiritual direction. Chapter one describes spiritual direction as an individualized relationship with a director who intentionally helps you pay attention to where God is at work in your life. Smith doesn’t shy away from the language of spiritual direction though some prefer the language of companionship or friendship, because direction implies intentionality and purpose. Chapter two grounds spiritual in direction in a theology of the triune God, an understanding of the religious experience and the  affections and the particularity of each person. Chapter three describes the nature of spiritual direction as a ‘focused conversation.’ Chapter four focuses on the importance of prayer to spiritual direction. Chapter five details the format of a spiritual direction session. Chapter six describes how spiritual direction can inform pastoral ministry, evangelism and friendship. Chapter seven examines the qualities of a spiritual director while chapter eight looks at the qualities of the directee. The final chapter explores the importance of the Holy Spirit to spiritual direction–as the only one true director.

My experience of spiritual direction is positive, if rather limited. I have read several books on spiritual direction and briefly had a regular director while in seminary. I also have been blessed to have several significant conversations with spiritual directors which have helped me make sense of my spiritual life, and sense of call.  Smith’s book is a fitting introduction to those who are new to the realm of spiritual direction and full of practical insight for finding a good director. I give this book four stars and highly recommend it for those who are curious about spiritual direction (especially my fellow evangelicals).

Comic-Book-Christ Dying and Rising: a graphic novel review.

I am a reader of great literature, and by that I mean comic books. I grew up reading comics and still love a great graphic novel. There is something special about artists who are able to pair storytelling with images in a way that is dynamic and compelling. You can’t get a more compelling and moving story of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. This is the story that Alex Webb-Peploe  and  André Parker tell through their new comic-adaptation, The Third Day.

This is not the first comic adaptation of the Bible. There are a number of recent projects which rehearse biblical themes in graphic novel form. What makes this title unique, is that other graphic novel adaptations veer from the biblical material to explain why things happen the way they did (i.e. why did Judas betray Jesus, why did the High Priest plot against Jesus, etc), The Third Day restricts itself to the biblical account focusing on three chapters from Luke (22-24). The words in this novel come straight form the Bible (HCSB version). Words from Luke’s prologue also introduce the story.

Limiting the text to the Bible alone does not detract from the story-telling. Webb-Peploe helps us hone in on what the Bible tells us about Jesus’ final hours. When speech is implied but not recorded in the biblical account, there are story telling panels with no speech bubbles. This attention to the gospel’s actual words leaves some questions unanswered but also helps us stay tuned into what the Bible tells us.

But Webb-Peploe doesn’t reproduce every word from Luke either. The economy and pacing of the genre demand a certain sparsity in the details. If you read this comic beside your Bible, you will notice some details skipped or skimmed over and other elements of the story left out (i.e.). There is the occasional word or phrase written out of order, but the events themselves follow Luke’s account.  To my mind, this is artfully telling the story by choosing which  elements to emphasize from the text.

I also loved that in addition to being biblically correct, this graphic novel is also ethnically correct. In a world full of white Jesus movies, yellow-haired stained glass Christs, and other pasty renderings,  it is refreshing to see an artistic presentation of Jesus that presents Him as an olive-skinned Mediterranean Jew. This is a marked improvement on the ‘traditional’ blue-eyed Jesus  often imaged through Western media and art. The illustrations in this book are strong and dynamic, well-inked and colored .I am impressed.  I give this book 4.5 stars and recommend it for young adult and teenagers, children and other fans of ‘great literature.’ The publisher suggests this title for teenagers. i I read it was my six-year-old.

Thank you to the Good Book Company for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

A Prayer for Income Tax Day by Walter Brueggemann

Brueggemann isn’t right about everything, but he is always worth reading. I especially like the collections of his prayers. This comes from Prayers for a Privileged People:

 

Income Tax Day

On this day of internal revenue,

some of us are paid up,

some of us owe,

some of us await a refund,

some of us have no income to tax.

 

But all of us are taxed,

by war,

by violence,

by anxiety,

by deathliness.

 

And Caesar never gives any deep tax relief.

 

We render onto Caesar . . .

to some it feels like a grab,

to some it feels like a  war tax,

to some–some few—

it is a way to contribute to the common good.

 

In any case we are haunted

by what we render to Caesar,

by what we may render to you,

by the way we invest our wealth and our lives,

when what you ask is an “easy yoke”:

to do justice

to love mercy

to walk humbly with you.

 

Give us courage for your easy burden, so to live untaxed lives.

An Intimate Collision: a book review

Craig Lounsbrough is a pastor, a licensed professional counselor, and life coach. In these three capacities, he has walked alongside broken people. He has also encountered his own brokenness. In An Intimate Collision, Lounsbrough introduces us to the people he’s encountered and what they reveal to him. As he sees them, I mean really sees them, he also comes away with a deeper revelation of Christ.

An Intimate Collision blends together personal encounters, a counselor’s keen eye and insightful biblical exegesis. In these pages, Lounsbrough is caught off guard by his own daughter’s declaration of love when he feels so jaded and cynical around the holidays. This causes him to meditate on the meaning of the incarnation, and the way at Jesus enters our brokenness and ministers to us in the midst of life’s handicaps. As the chapters unfold we meet people like:

  • Dustin, a six boy with spinal bifida who has learned a daily lifestyle of ‘overcoming’ obstacles.
  • Darren a thirty-five year old man with the mind of a child who has a plastic fish, full of childlike wonder and faith.
  • Jonothan, an abused child who finally experiences freedom from fear.
  • Amy, a suicidal and abandoned young lady who is given life and restoration
  • Susan, a girl given to profound emotional outbursts which her family and pastor could not understand.
  • And more. . .

Each of Lounsbrough’s chapters intertwine his encounters with these people, with biblical explorations of Jesus and his response to people on the margins. The people that Lounsbrough profiles challenge his own prejudice and lack of faith. At times, I found some of his language paternalistic, and antiquated (like when he speaks of one person as ‘retarded’), but I think his overall project honors those he encounters. By listening to and telling the story of broken people, Lounsbrough sees more clearly the crucified one.

Lounsbrough is an insightful and interesting writer. I was not sure what to excpet of this book but felt very touched by it. Lounsbrough has a real gift with connecting Jesus to the struggles of life and sharing his stories through winsome prose. I give this book four stars: ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from the publisher or author via Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review.

Question the Living: a book review

I remember sitting, once, in the audience at a Christian conference where  author, Philip Yancey, described how at time he feels like the most liberal person in the room and at other times, the most conservative. This captures in part my feeling while reading Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. In this book, authors David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy take us through some of the distinctives of the ‘progressive-Christian’ perspective. As a avid (okay, occasional) reader of progressive Christian bloggers, I figured I would resonate with this book. Unfortunately for me, I felt out of step with much of what this book argues for (or against).

There are three parts to this book. They are: Journey, Reconciliation, and Transformation.  These are three really great words which describe the Christian spirituality.   However I have serious qualms with where Felten and Procter-Murphy go with the first and frustration with parts of their use of the second (I more-or-less like their use of word number three).

Felten  and Procter-Murphy invite us on a journey. This journey involves asking good questions, taking the Bible seriously (just not too-literally!), thinking theologically, and realizing that a couple of creation accounts in Genesis (Genesis 1 and 2) and how little we know about the historical Jesus makes room for us to believe whatever we want (i.e. alternative pictures of cosmology and Jesus’ role). In part two, they focus on how Christ brings reconciliation between God and humanity, between all peoples and creation. Here I found myself challenged by Felten and Procter-Murphy’s call to take relationships and creation-care seriously as a significant part of Christian spirituality.  Alas, their commitment to debunking biblical literalism lost me when they focused on the silliness of objective aspects of the atonement and the bodily reality of the resurrection. For me, part three was the most fruitful. In discussing transformation, they talk about the importance of social justice, incarnational spirituality, prayer, compassion and creativity in the spiritual life.

I found myself at loggerheads with much of Felten and Procter-Murphy’s material. First I was alienated by their source material. I have read some John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan. I respect some of the scholarship (more Borg and Crossan than Spong) but find many of these conclusions overdrawn. Felten and Procter-Murphy quote these three (and others) as justification for liberal, progressive views but offer no argument as to why as a reader I need to take their words seriously.  A lot of what this book does is appeal to so-called experts, make dogmatic (or anti-dogmatic?) claims and then expect you to simply buy in and feel freed up by it.I don’t. There are so many assertions in this book that are made and assumed without any argument at all. Why should I question the reality of the bodily resurrection? Why should I simply see it as a metaphor? I am puzzled by this and why they felt the need to debunk every historical Christian claim as a relic of an unhealthy literalism. Christianity is a historically rooted faith and God is God. I can see questioning some narrow fundamentalist interpretations but I think this book goes too far in the other direction.

However the call to justice and incarnating the kingdom now seems appropriate. I have my evangelical roots and find many of Felten and Procter-Murphy’s ‘answers’ too liberal and loosey-goosey for my tastes. Yet I agree that questions are appropriate and necessary for anyone seeking to deepen their faith. I do not fault the questions, I just don’t think this book does the work to provide secure answers. There is too much conjecture and assertion and not enough real exploration. I give this book three stars: ★★★.

Notice of material connection: I received this book through the Speakeasy blog review program in exchange for my honest review.