Anti-Christian Bias? a book review

American Christians are oft too quick to cry persecution. The hot anger and violence that Christians across the world face is far more serious than anything suffered in this nation; however as sociologist George Yancey demonstrates,there is a growing anti-Christian bias. Yancey explores this anti-Christian bias in Hostile Environment. He calls this Christianophobia and identifies it as a very real phenomenon that Christians need to contend with. Christians with a traditional, conservative bent will wrestle more directly with this.

Yancey is a Christian academic at a secular university (University of North Texas). When he was an adjunct professor he taught classes on the sociology of race and the sociology of religion. Some collegues questioned his ability to teach on the sociology of religion given his Christian commitments; however no one questioned his credentials to teach about race, even though he was African American (12). This and other experiences and observation of hostility towards Christians led Yancey to study hostility towards Christians. In So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is there Christianophobia in the United States? he unfolds the results of his qualitative studies on the anti-Christian bias in American culture (his Appendix in this volume gives a brief explanation of his research methodology).

Yancey finds two big errors in Christian approaches to Christianophobia. The first is to exaggerate it and claim that Christians are being persecuted (24). Christians on the far conservative side of the spectrum tend to this sort of overstatement. The other error is to minimize and ignore Christophobia altogether. (25). This is done especially by more progressive Christians. Yancey advocates a third way. He demonstrates that anti-Christian bias exists, that it is real and measurable, through his research. He wants Christians to respond when and where they are discriminated against and their convictions are maligned; yet he isn’t pushing us to dig a trench and prepare for battle. He isn’t commending a renewed culture war but a place at the table for respectful dialogue between Christians and non-Christians.

The seven chapters of Hostile Environment catalog and describe the reality of Christianophobia and the response that Yancey advocates. Chapter one forms an introduction. Chapter two describes the roots of Christianophobia (i.e. those who desire change and see Christianity as an enemy, those who feel threatened by Christianity, those who think Christianity poses a threat to religious neutrality).  In chapter three, Yancey describes some of the specific grievances his research reveals about people’s problem with Christians (i.e. seperation of Church and State, proselytizing, etc). Chapters four and five explore how much Christians are to blame for Christianophobia. Yancey shares the responses of those surveyed who were personally jaded by their interaction with Christians (97) and those who are at loggerheads with Christian ‘political’ goals (98). He also acknowledges that some of the anti-Christian sentiment is driven by stereotypes from social institutes and the media (101) and the reality of Christian failure to live up to their ideals (106-110).  Yancey doesn’t absolve Christians of the blame for Christianophobia even if the reality of it exceeds the impact of Christian faiilure to love their neighbors well. Chapters six and seven impart advice on how the church ought to stand up against Christianophobia.

I appreciated the balance that Yancey brought. Christianity is not universally loved by American culture, art, politics or academia, There is animosity and Yancey names it and quantifies it through his research; yet he is careful to not overstate his case. I appreciated his call for a rational, measured and respectful response to anit-Christian bias. I think this makes this a very good book. Nowhere does Yancey tell conservative Christians to abandon their convictions; nevertheless he does help us to have a more magnanimous and courageous response to the wider culture. I give this five stars.

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

Ministry to Those in the Grip of Grief: a book review

Everybody dies. We are aware–aren’t we?–of death’s inevitability. As Christians we exhort others to prepare for eternity (by cultivating a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the here and now). Yet the struggle many of us have with death, both as Christians and non-Christians, is how to carry on after a loved one is died. Even for Christians with the hope of heaven before us, the loss of a loved one is felt acutely. If your life has not been touched by grief, it will. Pastors and lay ministers who are involved in bereavement ministry need to minister with sensitivity and compassion.

Larry Michael is the teaching pastor for adults at South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He has had a long career in ministry walking alongside grieving families. Previously he served as the executive director of Alabama Grief Support Services. In A Necessary GriefMichael provides a guidebook for pastors and other ministers to the grieving. As a pastor, I am grateful for the insights that Michael imparts.

Eight chapters and four appendixes unfold how to minister with compassion to the bereaved. Chapters one and two offer insights into comprehending the nature of grief and the manner that individuals experience its reality. Chapters three through six explore areas of competency we will need if we hope to minister effectively to the grieving. Chapters seven and eight show how to coach others to care for mourners.

The four appendixes are very helpful resources. Appendix I discusses how people at different ages experience and understand grief. Appendix II is a funeral planning checklist. Appendix III and IV list Scriptures and inspirational quotes to share with the grieving.

Michael speaks directly to the ‘fallacies of grief’ and how to ‘get over it’ and shows how we ought to approach the hurting in a way that honors their experience. He counsels offering choices to people when grief is raw which will help them survive and heal. He speaks of the importance of rituals and relationships and offers wise council in how to minister to different types of loses (i.e. a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, a suicide, etc.).

I am grateful for this book and am happy to have it as part of my pastoral care library. I am less than a year into my first pastorate and am aware of places where I have not cared appropriately for those gripped by grief. Michael gave me some good suggestions about how to minister effectively with comfort and hope. I give this book five stars.

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

Belief You Can Change In: a book review

Easy faith, simply believing, doesn’t last. Our faith looks different in different seasons of our spiritual life. Often our confrontation with different theologies and worldviews may cause us to rethink some things. Or at least give us more understanding for others. We may grow from a budding apologist with sure answers for every Bible difficulty to someone with less certainty who still trusts. Our faith was made to change. We were made to move from where we were (or where we are) to somewhere deeper. The world is also changing, and that brings new challenges on how to live out our faith in ways that connect with the wider world.

Michael Hidalgo is the lead pastor of Denver Community Church and the author of Unlost. He writes regularly for Relevant Magazine.  He wrote Changing Faith: Questions, Doubts & Choices About an Unchanging God  to help us move beyond easy answers, certainty and static faith. His hope is that his readers will wrestle with their difficult questions and press on. Hidalgo doesn’t tell his readers what to think, but he hints at the movements we will make if we will continue to be people of faith.

Hidalgo identifies a dozen such movements (these are also chapter titles): From Closed to Open, From Certainty to Probability, From Definition to Description, From Words to Experience, From Knowing to Unknowing, From Being Right to Being Faithful, From Power to Truth, From Legalism to Wholeness, From Toil to Work, From Nowhere to Everywhere, From Bad News to Good News, From Fear to Love, From Small Stories to a Big Story.

It was the subtitle of the book that caught my eye: Questions, Doubts & Choices about an Unchanging God. I have read books about ‘changing faith’ (notably Kathy Esbocar’s Faithshift), wrestling with doubt and apologetic type books designed to help readers grapple with the culture they find themselves in. Hidalgo describes some ‘faith shifts’ (i.e. the movement from closed to open, certainty to probability, knowing to unknowing, right to faithful). Likewise Hidalgo writes about  some questions that will be of apologetic interest.  Fundamentally, however this a book about spiritual growth. If Hidalgo is clear on any point, it is that ‘knowing the right answers’ is not a prerequisite for growth. If anything he commends intellectual humility and trust in our unchanging God, even when nothing seems certain.

I liked this book. I think other authors do a better job of addressing the issue of doubt, but I found myself nodding my head as I read. I appreciate that Hidalgo did not write a book to help us change or to become more honest thinkers. He is writing this book to help us remain faithful in the midst of change and uncertainty. I give this book three-and-a-half stars.

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

If God Were More Christlike: a book review

In John 14, before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, he tells his disciples that if they have seen him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9). And yet often our image of God can look very different from Jesus. Our God could be a doting grandfather, a deadbeat dad or absentee landlord, a punitive judge, or some Santa Claus blend. If Jesus is God-in-the-flesh and our vision of what the Godhead is really like, then we desperately need to see this more Christlike God. This is just the vision that Brad Jersak casts in A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel. 

Jersak is an author I’ve read appreciatively in the past. His book Can You Hear Me? is one of my favorite books on listening prayer. He also wrote Her Gates Will Never Be Shut against the idea of Hell as eternal conscious punishment (like Rob Bell but with complete sentences) and has co-edited a volume critiquing penal models of the atonement (Stricken By God?). He was the pastor and church planter of Fresh Wind in Abbotsford, BC and got his PhD examining the political theology of Canadian philosopher George Grant. Additionally he edits a couple of online magazines (Christianity Without the Religion Magazine and the Clarion Journal). In recent years, Jersak has journeyed to Orthodoxy (OCA). He teaches New Testament and Patristics at the Westminster Theological Centre (Cheltenham, UK).  I do not always agree with Jersak. I tend to have a more of a classical evangelical outlook, but I appreciate his challenge and think he raises some important questions about how we understand God.

Jersak’s case for the Christlike God unfolds in three parts. In part one he confronts our images of God and offers a vision of God, shaped by the Incarnation and the cross. In chapter one Jersak relays a conversation with a teenager he calls Jess who rejected Christianity because of God’s judgment, damnation and his-Old-Testament-genocidal tendencies, etc. (16-18). Jersak’s answer to Jess is to say to her every objection  is, “God is exactly like Jesus.”  Jersak then goes on to confront the various caricatures of God western Christians often present (chapter two), and confront the voluntarism underlying much of theology proper in Western thought (chapters three and four). In chapter five, Jersak points us toward the incarnation as a means of retooling our vision of the God revealed through Christ.

Part two further unpacks what this Christlike God looks like and what he does, giving special emphasis on how the cross shapes our vision of God. Jersak paints God as loving first and foremost. Because of this, God operates in the world most often via consent (Divine and human consent). This has implications for how we tackle the problem of theodicy. In part three, Jersak ‘unwraths’ God by recasting ‘wrath’ in the Bible  as metaphorical language describing God’s consent to our non-consent (of Him). Much of part three is dedicated to unfolding the New Testament metaphors of the atonement as non-punitive.

Jersak contrasts the ‘God of Will’ in Western thought with the God of Love revealed in Jesus by his cross. According to Jersak. the God of Will emphasizes freedom of action (61). In this understading, everything God does and wills is right, because it is God that wills it. Likewise, If this is our vision of God, we also seek our own freedom to act as we choose. The theology of this willful God tends towards triumphalism. In contrast the God of love comes in the form of Christ: a God who goes to the cross and is crucified by humanity. He doesn’t force his will on his creatures but has opened up a way for them through his self giving, self-emptying (kenotic) love.

To my mind Jersak does one of the best jobs of confronting and critiquing the problem of voluntarism (the primacy of the freedom of the will in God) in a way that a general reader can understand.  I think he is right to push us towards a more self-emptying vision of God. This is a far cry of triumphalism. Jersak writes:

A theology of the cross admits the obvious: namely, God is truly all-powerful and immovable in his love but also (though not only), is surprisingly, we often experience him as all-powerless in time, in the world. ‘All Powerless’? I only make such a bold statement advisedly, not to diminish God’s omnipotent love, but to resist human conceptions of power-as-coercion erroneously imposed on God. (170)

This is a challenge to any sort of Omnipotent-Might-Makes Right, sort of Will-to-Power picture of God.   This doesn’t make God weaker, it makes him less coercive. As Jersak says, “Yes, Christ is mighty to save, since his love is a power far greater than force: the left-handed scepter of enduring mercy” (178).  I think he is right to let this vision of Jesus shape his hermeneutic of scripture as he explores the image of God.

However I wasn’t completely happy with his handling of the Old Testament.  He favors strongly New Testament texts and tends to only quote the Old Testament favorably when it coincides with his vision of this ‘more Christlike God.’ Passages that are more retributive (i.e. Numbers 31, the conquest, etc) are dismissed because they are out of character for this God revealed in Christ (16-18). Or the wrathful parts of the Old Testament are cast as an early, immature vision of God in early Judaism, using James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (putting early Judaism on par with Fowler’s description of  school children’s faith development). There is something to the notion of progressive revelation in the Old Testament but I think Jersak’s canon seems too limited. Because of this, I think he commits the same error that many of those he critiques do: he offers an overly simple picture of God that does not do justice to all that God is.

That isn’t to say I didn’t really enjoy this and found reading it fruitful. Theologically Jersak pushes me in a good direction. I applaud his critique of where we done mussed up gospel. I want the more Christlike God that Jersak commends and share his discomfort with the way God’s wrath is described by many in the evangelical world. I also appreciate his pastoral insights into places that our vision of God can be detrimental to our life and soul. I give this book four stars and recommend it to everybody who reads John Piper.

Notice of material connection: I received this book via Litfuse Publicity in exchange for my honest review.

Perfect Love Casts Out Phobias: a book review

Recently I was in a gathering of Evangelical pastors. The man sitting next to me  made some comment about ‘homosexuality’ in our culture and asserted that he ‘didn’t consider homophobia a bad thing.’  I made no response. The comment stunned me. I understood what he meant. These days any sort of traditional, religious stance is labeled as homophobic by our increasingly affirming culture. He was asserting his right to have conviction and to stand up for the clear teaching of scripture. But ‘homophobia’? Really? Is this really how we want to approach the LGBT community? Doesn’t perfect love cast out phobias?

In No Fear in Love Braner exhorts us to share the good news of the gospel in ways that listen, respect, and love. Compassion not motivated by phobias. As Braner says, “It’s fear inside that tells us, I don’t want to allow anyone to think differently than I do because that may mean I need to change the way I think, or, If I validate some point they have that is contrary to my own worldview, I might have to rethink my position.” (19). This hunker-down fearful apologetic causes us to speak louder and prevents us from listening to others and responding with compassion.  Braner wants us to face up to our fears, hold on to our convictions, but to approach dialogue with non-Christians from a different space. Reflecting on John 10:10 (The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy; I have come that you may have life and have it to the full) Braner asks, “Why do we always focus on the theif instead of taking ample time to focus on the full life? What if we started to see the world through a lens of abundance rather than remaining paralyzed by the things we’re most afraid of? What would it look like?” (43).

And so this book shares Braner’s journey from worldview warrior to someone who has sought to reach out to people different from him by seeking to embody the love of Jesus. The three parts of the book. The first section looks at fear: where Braner has experienced fear and his journey from fear to triumph. Part two examines where Braner has been able to minister beyond fear when his worldview clashed with others. There is a chapter about his learned hospitality to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and several chapters on his friendships with Muslims. Part three articulates ‘beyond fear’ responses to issues that often paralyze our Christian witness, issues like abortion, homosexuality and immigration.

I really appreciated the tone and the storybook feel that Braner has. Despite talking about the move from fear to love, Braner has a sense of adventure and the conversations he finds himself in and the relationships he forges, are beyond what most of us can relate to. Braner tours a Mosque in the middle east and even joins a Muslim for prayer there. His love and respectful tone strike a different note than the arrogance his interlocutors were used to, but I can’t imagine many of us finding ourselves in similar circumstances. I think I would have be served by a few more mundane examples of Christian witness. Still I liked that Braner tackled hot button issues like Christian-Muslim relations, sensitivity to women considering abortion, gracious witness to the LGBT community and a thoughtful look at immigration.

I like what this book signifies and happily recommend it. I give it four stars.

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

Adam and Eve Reframed: a book review

I first became aware of John Walton  my first year in seminary. My Old Testament prof gave a lecture on creation, setting the Genesis 1 account within the context of other Ancient Near East (ANE) literature. The lecture was indebted to Walton and the professor highly recommended Walton’s Genesis commentary (in the NIVAC series). When our class break hit, I sprinted the bookstore and bought the commentary before anyone else had a chance. It remains a favorite. I also gobbled up other books from Walton on Ancient Near East cosmology, including The Lost World of Genesis One. 

The Lost World of Adam and Eve picks up where that volume left off (the first five chapters are a bit of review). As with his earlier book, the chapters are propositions on how to read Genesis sensitively to its ANE context, so a glance at the table of contents gives a detailed summary of the ground that Walton covers here. Walton focuses especially on Genesis 2-3, but also pays attention to the wider context of Genesis 1-5 (and how the hebrew ‘adam functions and the text). He also shows how his reading of the text functions within the rest of the canon of scripture. N.T. Wright provides a brief excursus in relationship to Proposition 19 (“Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effects of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins”).

If you are familiar with Walton’s work, you will not be surprised by many of his claims here. Walton’s project is to get us to read Genesis without expecting it to answer our modern questions. For example, the question of the material origins of the universe are not of particular interest to the Ancient world. Instead Genesis 1 is about the ordering of the world (i.e. the Spirit hovering over the chaos in Genesis 1:2) rather than creating ex nihilo. The text has more to do with functionality than materiality.

Walton claims that Adam and Eve’s story casts them in the role of archetypes and federal representatives instead of untangling the riddle of human origins (see propositions 6, 8. 9). However this is not meant to imply that Adam and Eve were not also real, historical people. Walton eschews the term myth or mythological because the popular use of the term implies this unreality. He prefers the term imagistic (137) and sees the Hebrew writers using the ‘shared symbolic vocabulary’ and questions that other Ancient Near East people did (139).

In Walton’s view, humans were created as male and female with mortal bodies (not ones that became mortal later because of ‘the fall’),  were provided for by God and given a role of serving in God’s sacred space (200).Because ‘creation in Genesis’ is about bringing order to world, the serpent is a ‘chaos creature’ who promoted disorder by convincing Adam and Eve to place themselves at the center of the order. Sin and Death now affects all humanity because of disorder in the cosmos. Jesus is God’s plan to restore order to the dis-ordered world (Romans 5).

Walton is not a theological liberal (he teaches at Wheaton). He is an evangelical who seeks to read the Bible well. His reading of Genesis is not at enmity with scientific explanations for global and human origins. He reads the text well while trying to unravel the questions and conceptual world of its author and original audience. Where evangelical/secular discussions often devolve into creation versus evolution debates, it is refreshing to have an approach to the text that is more interested in what the Bible communicated to the people it was originally written for. This gives space for some variety within the church on questions of cosmology and removes a potential stumbling block for those who find difficulty reconciling their reading of scripture with science (different sorts of texts, asking different questions).

There are implications in Walton’s account which will be challenging to those of us with a traditional theological bent (i.e. Walton provides no grounding for creation ex nihilo in Genesis, pre-fall death in humans and nature, etc). Walton gives a careful, biblically sensitive and ANE aware case for his reading. He rolls out N.T. Wright, the world’s foremost Pauline scholar, to prove that his reading makes sense of the New Testament usage of Adam and Eve as well. Still there is a significant challenge here for us to work through if we are to remain biblical rooted.

Regardless of your stance on the mode of creation (which is not the point), this book will challenge you and get you to dig into the text of Genesis. Walton is a good teacher and brings his readers into the realm of Ancient Near Eastern thought. I give this five stars and recommend it for anyone who wants to go back to Genesis. 

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

Dominoes Deliver: a kids’ game review

Normally I review books related to theology, ministry or leadership. Occasionally I review a Children’s book. I think this may be the first ‘game’ I have reviewed: Bible Dominoes from Candle Books. Perhaps you see the dire need for such a game. There has never been a game so detrimental to the faith development of children as the godless game of dominoes.

I’m kidding. Dominoes are fun and a great way to practice numbers. So what, makes this ‘Bible Dominoes’ you may ask? A short paper booklet summarizing ten Bible stories with illustrations drawn from the Candle Bible for Toddlers. The dominoes themselves, which are board-book-quality-cardboard rather than wooden tiles, have pictures from the stories in the book. Each number on the domino is either a digit or a picture (i.e. three ladybugs for the number three) and color-coded-by-number. This allows for easy play with young children who are still learning their numbers.

My four-year-old boy enjoys playing this which means any sort of objective critique I have is totally blown. I offer this neat little syllogism: He likes it, I like him, therefore I like the game. Also since we have the children’s Bible this is based on and my kids have all read it, it is easy for them to connect with. I give it four stars and happily recommend this, though I am not prepared to offer a serious comparison with the godless dominoes.

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