Where the Cross Meets the Street: a book review

I first heard of Noel Castellanos when I attended the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference in Atlanta over a decade ago. Castellanos shared the stage with John Perkins and Wayne Gordon and showed how the CCDA song may be sung in a Latin key. Today Castellanos is now the CEO of CCDA. I have a deep appreciation for the work CCDA does in transforming whole communities. Decades before other evangelicals were talking about holistic mission and incarnational ministry, the CCDA folks were doing it, seeking to live out God’s justice in neighborhoods.

So when I saw that Castellanos published Where the Cross Meets the Street I knew this was a book I had to read. But as much as I love CCDA, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. CCDA publications often focus on introducing readers to the philosophy behind their approach. Which is good but that gets repetitive. Certainly Castellanos also cares about delineating his approach to ministry but this isn’t a book outlining “the eight components of Christian community development” or the “three r’s.”  This isn’t so much a book about components or principles, though Castellanos is thoughtful about the dynamics of incarnational ministry and he imparts some principles for urban mission from Nehemiah.  This is much more Castellanos’s own story of his coming to faith and eventually his life work in Christian community development.

Castellanos narrates his early life in Texas and California. He was born to Tejano parents. In California, Castellanos worked at losing his Spanish speaking. Though raised Catholic, he invited Jesus into his life at a Young Life camp.  After attending Whitworth College, Castellanos found himself increasingly drawn to those on the margins.  This culminates in his relocating to Chicago’s La Vilitta neighborhood (after attending the first CCDA conference). Ministry in a Latino context helped Castellanos reconnect with his own cultural heritage and put him in a place of humility as he had to rely on his neighbors to help him to relearn Spanish. He learned things as he sought to minister in his context. For example, his ministry among neighbors who were undocumented immigrants sensitized him to the need to advocate on their behalf:

I am shocked and appalled by the insults l against undocumented men, women and children in our nation. Yes, they have broken laws to be in this country but they also have been hired, used and of abused by employers and our economic system in need of cheap labor. Because of their vulnerable status, it has become common to scapegoat and hurl insults at them without regard to the fact that they are human beings created in the image of God. Most shocking is that they types of insults are sometimes made by those claiming to be followers of Christ.  (141)

Castellanos doesn’t stop at immigration reform but advocates on behalf of the poor and flawed in all sorts of ways. When he voices his concern about injustice in our country, it is not some arm-chair liberal diatribe or paternalistic platitude. These are issues Castellanos has come to care about through walking alongside people in pain and making his home with them.

Castellanos is passionate about effecting systemic change–not just raising individuals but whole communities. This puts him on the same page as his mentors John Perkin and Wayne Gordon. And Castellanos shares other traits with these two men. Like them, Castellanos has invested his life in neighborhoods and people that others had written off. Like them he has stared down difficulties, struggle and false starts but he remains hopeful and confident that Jesus confronts injustice, demonstrates compassion and restores communities.

I recommend this book for anyone seeking to do neighborhood ministry and who cares about justice. I love that Castellanos is so attentive to his neighbors and what Jesus is up to in the neighborhood. In a world where issues of systemic injustice, racial tension and poverty can seem overwhelming it is inspiring to read such a hopeful account. CCDA is in good hands and I am excite what God will do. I give this book five stars!

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



Help for the Conflict Avoidant: a book review

The four words that fill the heart with fear: we need to talk. When you hear the phrase, what happens inside of you? Do you wonder what you have done? Do you think of someway to avoid the potential fall-out. Linda Minte is a therapist, academic and blogs regular on her BeliefNet blog, Doing Life Together. She wrote We Need to Talk to help people navigate the sometimes troubled waters of relational conflict.

The fourteen chapters of this book explore a number of issues that feed into the dynamics of conflict. These include trying to avoid it, trusting the other person, acknowledging differences, how negativity exasperates the issue, our different ‘styles’ in conflict, and solvable and unsolvable problems. Mintle also discusses at length the need to manage expectations and to have proper boundaries. She addresses the challenges of conflict within a blended family system, the different ways males and females approach sex, dealing with difficult people, the dynamics of anger and resentment and the power of forgiveness.

Mintle offers a great deal of sage advice and the sort of things that go on internally and interpersonally when we lock horns with another.She has written a self-help book to help people navigate through some difficult spots. While she has helpful insights for just about anyone I think you have to actually be in conflict to see the value of some of what she says. Still a helpful resource for the next time someone says we need to talk. I give this book 3.5 stars.

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

The Ladies Tell Their Story of Jesus: a book review

Frank Viola enlisted the help of Mary Demuth for his follow up to God’s Favorite Place on Earth. The earlier book focused on the city of Bethany, a place where Jesus was accepted and loved and where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived. That book told stories from Jesus’ life, narrated by Lazarus. In Viola’s follow up, he wanted to present some of the significant interactions Jesus had with women he encountered but didn’t feel, as a man, he should write the narrative sections from their perspective. So he enlisted DeMuth to bring these women to life.

The Day I met Jesus profiles five women: the woman caught in adultery, the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet, the woman at the well, the hemorrhaging woman and Mary of Bethany (a story in three acts). The first three of these women struggled in the area of sexuality, the hemorrhaging woman struggled with a physical problem. Mary of Bethany is exemplary in her devotion to Jesus. All of them are transformed by their encounter with Christ.  These women give us a window into the power of God to set us free and fill us with Joy.

Demuth’s narrative sections are the heart of the book and she does a really good job of telling these stories. I didn’t necessarily envision each story as she did, but in storytelling you make your exegetical choice and commit. I think she gave these women life and made their choices understandable. Demuth did a fantastic job. Following the narrative sections were a section that explored the meaning of the biblical passage, offering some exegetical insights and some practical takeaways. I think generally this was the work of VIola but there are some creative elements here too. These are also interesting but I was less enamored with them.

To me, I wish the book did one or the other. If story is powerful and evocative then tell the story. If you need to explain the significance of the story you just told, then you don’t really trust the power of story. This might be my own hobbyhorse, and I will happily admit as much. A number of readers do appreciate the mix of fictional and non-fictional elements that Demoth and Viola bring. But for my money, I want the narrative told without an editorial essay on the ‘moral of the story.’ I think Viola said some great things in his commentary sections, I just wished those were more thoroughly encapsulated in the stories they shared. Story is show and not tell. This book was more than half tell. I give it three stars.

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

There is a Wideness in God’s Presence: a book review

Christians are found of saying that God reveals himself in two books: the Bible,God’s special revelation, and creation, God’s general revelation. While there is some baseline recognition that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1), Protestants are generally suspicious that we can apprehend or trust much truth ‘out there.’ Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary, and author of Reel Spirituality: Theology of Film in Dialogue, here tackles the issue of general revelation with God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation.  Johnston sees ample evidence of God’s Presence in the world in nature, culture and even world religions; however this is not a capitulation to some sort of universalist pluralism, but an acknowledgement that God’s Spirit works in mysterious ways and places.

Johnston’s eight chapters are a romp through modern theology, Bible passages and the world of film and fiction. In chapter one, he argues that our problems with general revelation and lack of theological reflection on it, stems from several causes. First we have too narrow of a ‘definitional’ focus. Johnston observes:

Rather than understand general revelation as any encounter with the Transcendent that occurs outside the believing community and that is not directly concerned with redemption, many have wrongly reduced it to a perceived ‘lowest common denominator’ by limiting ‘general revelation’ to those general truths that are communicated by God to all persons at all times and in all places” (8).

This understanding plays out in our biblical theology as well, “Theology’s bias toward the redemptive over the creational, and toward the propostional over the narrative is perhaps the second explanation for the relative paucity of theological thinking on general revelation” (10-11). Thirdly, Johnston sees a dim view of human receptivity to divine revelation in much of conservative evangelical theology. Against these objections, Johnston suggests a way forward that invites a theological dialogue about “God’s revelatory Presence outside the church and without direct reference to Jesus Christ” (15). Johnston calls us to have a robust two-way conversation between Scripture and the theological tradition and the realm of culture and  personal experience (15).

Chapter two describes the growth of spirituality in contemporary times and some of the challenges that face this discussion. Johnston points to God’s revelation in creation, conscience and culture (which he will return to later). He gives testimonials from a number of people of where they sensed God. He also refers to the work of Rudolph Otto and Peter Berger for their significant generalizations about the observation of Presence in the world. Otto observed the human experience of the holy in a variety of religious contexts (34). Berger’s observations led him to the conclusion that ‘there were experiences of the human spirit that pointed beyond that reality, that had “an immediacy to God”‘(35). Johnston acknowledges the cautionary words of other theological explorers of culture, that we can be self-deceived in our fallen human reasoning, but he sees an equal danger in failing to look for God (any)where he may be found:

The danger of self-deception, if not outright blasphemy, is ever present and must be taken seriously. . . As I will argue this is why it is crucial for one to have a full-orbed theological hermeneutic, a robust methodology that includes scripture, tradition, and community as well as experience. One does not whisper “God” by shouting “man.” The witness of God’s revelation in Scripture is authoritative and the testimony and reflection of Christians through the ages foundational. But the danger for Christians is also on the other side. We can exclude by an overemphasis on sin and salvation the real, revelatory Presence of God through his Spirit that is the clear testimony of the vast majority of Westerners today (37).

These two chapters set the trajectory for the rest of the book. Chapter three looks at the experience of transcendence in film by Johnston’s film students (in a variety of styles of films). Chapters four and five illustrate how scripture itself testifies to the Presence of God outside of the covenant community. This includes the borrowing of sayings in Proverbs from Egyptian origins, Yahweh speaking through Pharoh Neco to ward Josiah off of battle. King Huram of Tyre sends Hurumbai as a skilled artisan for the construction of Solomon’s temple,  Cyrus of Persia in Chronicles and Ezra is seen as God’s instrument, Additionally, Johnston highlights two creation psalms (19 and 29) that speak of the revealing nature of creation (and not just reflecting on the creation as described in Genesis). Other examples include Melchizedek, Elijah’s hearing God on Mt. Horeb, Balaam, various non-covenant peoples in the prophetic literature, Paul’s use of natural theology in Acts 14 and his use of Roman poetry and religion in Acts 17. He makes a strong case that the Bible leaves open the possibility of God speaking through unlikely vessels.

In chapter six, Johnston engages the theological tradition.  Johnston examines three different thinkers who were influential on twentieth century Christian thought and takes his cues from them on revelation. With Barth he affirms that natural theology cannot happen from below (recalling his famous answer to Brunner) but “that revelation always needs the Spirit as Revealer–it is event” (127); with Schleiermacher he affirms that general revelation is not accessible through rationality “but through an intuition of Something or Someone beyond us and our feelings that result from that encounter” (127-8); from CS Lewis he gets the idea that general revelation is more than just an insignificant trace in comparison to the glory of Christ but “an experience of the wider Presence of God through his Spirit mediated through creation, conscience and human culture” (128).

In chapter seven Johnston tracks this wider Presence of God through the writings of John Taylor, Elizabeth Johnson, and Jurgen Moltmann. Taylor tackled the reality of real Spiritual encounter in the realm of experience in mission and world religion. Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson explored how the Spirit was “God’s livingness subtly and powerfully abroad in the world” (174). The social-trinitarianism of Moltmann, releases the Spirit from  his subjectivity to the Son, acknowledging the Trinity as a co-equal community. This allows for more freedom for the ‘wind to blow where it may,’ and the Spirit to show-up outside of the tale of our redemption. The final chapter continues to examine the Spirit is at work in the realm of creation, conscience and culture.

Without a robust understanding of general revelation, we have to remain skeptical of any spiritual experience, or moment of transcendence anywhere outside of the Word of God.  That means a moving book or a film, a orchestral piece that brings you to tears, or any cultural achievement is at best merely a human endeavor, at worst demonic. If Johnston is right about the operation of God’s wider Presence, this gives space to critically engage other traditions and perspectives, allowing us to not be dismissive and suspicious of everything, while still acknowledging that aspects may be destructive, delusional and in conflict with the gospel. This gives us a different starting point in our conversations with non-Christians, one where our hunt for common ground reveals God’s Spirit already at work in the life of the world. Throughout this book, I appreciated how seriously Johnston takes the experience of Transcendence as a revelatory event. Even Barth, who was suspicious of  human ability to apprehend God unaided, affirmed that Mozart, a non-practicing Catholic had heard the harmony of creation and captured it in his music (137).  God’s wider Presence sings if only we hear the music. five stars: ★★★★★

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

Evangelism is Hard: a book review

I have friends that came to faith through Christianity Explored, the evangelistic DVD course produced by All Souls Langham Place, London, staring Rico Tice. I even had the opportunity to review that course for another context, so I am aware of Tice’s ministry. So that piqued my interest in his new book, Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When it’s Tough (Good Book Company, 2015).

Tice begins where most evangelism books do not. The opening sentence of his introduction  says, “I find evangelism hard” (11). Coming from one of the most visible and effective evangelists, it is refreshing to find that he too finds evangelism difficult. His first chapter he discusses the difficulty that awaits the would-be-evangelist. He says first that hostility, persecution, hardship, rejection will be our experience. But the other half of the story is that in addition to hostility, you will see hunger for good news. Tice writes, “The same rising tide of secularism and materialism that rejects truth claims and is offended by absolute moral standards is proving to be an empty and hollow way to live” (20). While Tice offers no guarantees on the results of our efforts, he writes, “Hostility and hunger, that is what you will find as you tell others about Jesus. And of course, at the moment you open your mouth, you don’t know which you are going to be met with; and you don’t know what your words may do to people years later. You have to risk the hostility to discover the hunger”(23).

In chapter two, Tice explores how ‘evangelism is worth it.’  He roots evangelism in three motivators: the glory of Christ, the guarantee of new creation, and the grim reality of death and hell (25).  Certainly he sees the reality of hell as a significant piece of evangelism (loving people means warning them), but I think his order is significant. Tice begins with the glory of God, then the promise of new life in Christ, before addressing hell and death. This is not scare tactic evangelism, but he doesn’t ignore hard subjects. In Chapter three Tice talks about why we (still) don’t evangelize. His conclusion is that it is because we harbor idols in our hearts which keep us from participating in God’s mission. Chapter four, gives three truths to remember as we share our faith: God’s sovereignty, God’s grace and God’s power (48).

Chapter five begins the practical section of the book. Tice lays out his approach to the gospel and frames the gospel in terms of Jesus’ Identity, Mission and Call (62) which is the same approach he takes in Christianity ExploredIn chapter six he encourages us to bear witness in our own style. Peter was confrontational, Paul was intellectual, the ex-blind man was testimonal and the woman-at-the-well was invitational (76-79). Tice encourages us to bear witness in whatever style is most like us. In chapter seven, he explores how to evangelize in a culture of increasing tolerance and permissiveness. In his final chapter he exhorts us to pray and proclaim.

Some questions I have whenever I read an evangelism book is, “Is this the full gospel ?” ” Does the author rely too much on ‘technique’?” “Is the story they are telling compelling?” I think Tice does a good job of letting the gospel sing, placing evangelism in the wider context of God’s purpose and plan. But he does focus his presentation on Jesus’ mission, on dealing with the problem of guilt and death. I think more could be said here about freedom, participation in God, restoration, but I didn’t feel like Tice’s presentation was reductionist or transactional. He is also organic in his advice on how to share your faith, prioritizing it without prescribed methods. I felt called by Tice to more purposeful witness, but I didn’t feel guilt-tripped by him. In the end, this is a helpful book for anyone seeking to share their faith. I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection:
I received this book from The Good Book Company via Cross Focused Reviews. I was asked to write an honest review.

Humanity See, Humanity Do: a book review

In Desire Found Me André Rabe explores René Girard’s theory of Memetic Realism and Christ’s mimetic atonement (with its single scapegoat mechanism). Girard is a Catholic anthropologist. His theory has the advantage of taking seriously human falleness and our need for a redeemer. Unfortunately Girard is a subtle thinker and his works are not particularly accessible. Rabe, for his part,  is a strange choice popularizer for the great french thinker. For most of his career, he was an IT guy, designing e-commerce sites and administration systems. Like Girard himself, you would not expect someone with his CV to be this theologically astute, but Desire Found Me is a great summary of Girard. Rabe incorporates Girard’s insights into his overall theological vision.

In part one, Rabe chases the development of human mimesis in relation to the fall. Mimesis means something like ‘imitation’ or ‘reflection.’ The creation of humankind is described in Genesis 1-2. In it, we were created in God’s image–created to perfectly reflect God to the cosmos. When human beings chased after the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, there entered into their heart a desire for something other than God and their mimentic desire became twisted. They began to reflect forbidden desire. This led to serious consequences, a sense of lack, ‘fruitless chases; and projections of  ‘fGod’ which were false (55). Building on Girard (for example, in I see Satan Fall Like Lightening), Rabe sees this twisted desires as the condition named in the expanded form of the last of the ten commandments: covetousness (64-5),  This twisted desire leads to mimetic rivalry, culture making to justify violence, and ultimately the need for a ‘single-scapegoat’-mechanism embedded in human culture (fore shadowing Christ and his cross).

Part two is the most complicated section of this book. Here Rabe endeavors to illustrate how the Bible is conversant with mythology, how it developed within the context of the Ancient Near East myths and how its vision and understanding has become distinct and unique among world faiths. Also in this section, Rabe demythologizes Satan, making him not a being of personal evil but the resulting spirit of societies and structures based on twisted desire. This paves the way for the coming of JesusIn part three, Rabe unfolds his understanding of the gospel and the cross. Following Girard he sees Jesus as subverting the whole system of mimetic violence, defeating ‘satan’ by exposing the structures as evil and making visible the love of God.  He also reviews other popular atonement models to illustrate how Mimetic theory complements or critiques each model (hint, Penal substitution is rejected for the way it caricatures the Father, while moral exemplar theories and Christus Victor are synthesized along mimetic lines).

There is something to Rabe’s (and more so, Girard’s) analysis. I can see why this theory is popular. It examines sin with acute psychological insight and seems to describe reality. Nevertheless I am wary of this approach to the atonement as a totalizing vision of what Christ does on the cross. I also do not share Rabe’s interest in source criticism and the development of the biblical text. It is not that I don’t think there are sources and development, it is that statements about what should be attributed to ‘Elohist’ or Yawehist source (or how YHWH became the high God El) are beside the point. I prefer a synchronic reading of the text and eschew the modernist arrogance that thinks that claims that we can ‘now understand what is really happening in scripture’ because of more scientific methods. I also see the reality of powers as human structures (as Rabe and Girard do) but also as a personal, spiritual evil, even if I can’t always sort out which is which. But yes to what Rabe is saying in a broad thematic sense, even if I disagree sharply on the details.

If you are unfamiliar with Girard, Rabe’s Desire Found Me is a great place to start. Not only does he synthesize and explain a number of Girard’s (and other theologians works), he has a helpful ‘Recommended Reading’ section at the end, arranged topically by chapter. I give this book 3.5 stars

Notice of material connection: I received this book for free via the Speakeasy blog review program. I was asked to write an honest review.

Braving the Waters with Acts: a commentary review

Guy Prentiss Waters has penned a new commentary on Acts from a conservative Evangelical, Reformed perspective.He is Professor of New Testament at RTS in Jackson and a teaching elder in the PCA and a cessationist. He wrote his Acts commentary for the EP Study Commentary (series edited by John Cirrid). For my part, I am more justice-minded Evangelical nurtured in the faith by Pietism and the charismatic movement. (with a healthy load of Anabaptism thrown in).  But all that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this commentary and read it fruitfully! On  the back cover is a gushing endorsement from D.A. Carson. I like plenty of commentaries and commentators that Carson doesn’t have much use for (N.T. Wright, for example); yet his endorsement says to me a quality and careful reading of the text and that is what I discovered as I braved these Waters.

While Waters writes from a Reformed perspective, quite self consciously, he does not  do so in a sectarian way. He doesn’t spill any ink arguing for the veracity of infant baptism over believers’ baptism. His doctrine of election is not the central feature to this text. Many of his doctrinal distinctives would be felt more sharply  in one of the epistles than in Acts. This is a close reading of Acts with exposition in view. Waters draws out the meaning of the text for the preacher. This is not a technical commentary but a good mid-level commentary (with footnotes to more detailed treatments).

Where Waters’s theological heritage is most evident in the text is in the application section in each subsection (below his comments on the passage). There cites the Westminster Larger Catechism and John Calvin to warn against unfruitful speculation about the future (44). He also goes to pains in places to explain his understanding of redemptive history. His cesassionism means that he is careful to hedge the fence of Holy Writ. What we read in Acts was historical describing a moment in redemptive history. Waters argues that the outpouring of the Spirit evidenced by signs and wonders and tongues is not ‘the normative pattern of Christian experience for all generations (74). This was a unique apostolic age that died with the apostles (39).

I have more charismatic leanings than Waters and think that he overstates his case,  but I applaud his attentiveness to scripture and the words on the page. He has a different theological lens he does illuminate features of the text I would otherwise miss. I also appreciate that while he relegates supernatural manifestations of the Spirit to the distant past, he doesn’t treat this first century church account as ‘merely descriptive and never prescriptive.’ When he reads an evocative account in Acts, such as the life sharing in response to Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:42-47, he parses those aspects as he sees as unique to the apostolic-age (signs and wonders in v. 43) and those  aspects that apply to us–namely, devotion to apostolic teaching, life sharing and evangelism (100-101).

On the whole, Waters is balanced and a careful exegete. I found plenty I disagree with, but I think he does a great job through out of capturing the Spirit’s mission in the first century. I give this commentary four stars and plan to use this further as I plan towards Pentecost.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.