Apologetics Urban Style: a book review

Apologetics is an important Christian discipline and I am grateful for theologians and philosophers that are doing good work. However, a lot of apologetics is focused on the academy, aimed at showiing the reliability of scripture (or a religious worldview) in the face of skeptical scholarship. This is important, especially with the growing secular trend in academia, but sometimes the objections to the Christian faith by professor types, is different from the ordinary unbeliever. Apologetics is not just about providing a rational basis for belief in theism for academics, it is about addressing the issues that keep the masses from coming to Christ.

This is what is so refreshing about Christopher Brooks’s Urban ApologeticsBrooks, who is dean of Moody Theological Seminar, radio host and popular speaker on apologetics, is passionate about speaking to the issues that affect urban people. Unlike traditional apologetics, Urban Apologetics is not full of sophisticated proofs  for theism  Instead the apologetic that Brooks promotes focuses on the issue of religious pluralism and a range of life issues ( abortion, sexuality, family, social justice).  Brooks is a conservative Christian but he is not doing apologetics from the center. He is advocating for a Christian apologetic that wrestles with the ideas and options urban people, especially minorities, face. This means he is cognizant of the dynamics of race, poverty and the Christian responsibility to act wisely and graciously in the face of them.

This is a short book (176 pages) and so is not a comprehensive answer book about what the Christian faith has to say to the issues. What Brooks does instead is offer some hints at how to answer questions biblically and relevantly. He also demonstrates a humble and generous spirit in his approach. How he says what he says, is as important as what he says.

In terms of answers to the issues, I don’t agree with everything Brooks says. I won’t nit-pick here, that is probably true of every book of apologetics, especially when the author is not in your own theological camp. However I agree the general tenor and tone of the book and think that Brook’s attentiveness to the issues that face city people (i.e. religious options, social issues, etc) are important touch points that the Christian faith can speak to. I give this book four stars.

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

Watercolors are Sketchy: a book review

This is one of the few ‘non-theology/spirituality’ books I’ve reviewed here. I have done some non-religious business books and Susan Cain’s Quiet but for the most part my reviews focus on the Spiritual life, God and how to live meaningfully in light of God’s coming Kingdom.  But I have reviewed books on spirituality and art and so I thought I would explore a book which is more focused on craft and practice rather than meaning and significance.

Felix Scheinberger’s Urban Watercolor Sketching is written with both the artist and non-artist in mind. He explores the medium of water color (and mixed media, water color and pen drawings) for sketching. As someone who self-describes himself as artistically reclined, I really enjoyed this book and have used it as a practical manual to explore art. Sorry, I will not be sharing any of my ‘sketches’ online. They are not very good. I am still trying to get a handle on water color and against Scheinberger’s advice, I paint too much, and destroy the artistic value of my sketches.

But as Sceinberger demonstrates through out this book, Water color can be used effectively to add a splash of color to pen ink drawings, enlivening them and lifting them out of the drab black-and-white-world. He includes discussions on watercolor techniques, the use of colors (and how particular water-colors work and how to use them), and tricks of the trade.

Scheinberger has written two other books on watercolors, illustrated numerous children’s books and has had his work appear in several periodicals. He shares practical insights on artistic craft. I can’t say I have used this book as well as I would have liked, but I appreciate Scheinberger’s technical knowledge ad encouragement toward practice. I will keep this book accessible and refer back to it for it’s practicality. I give it four stars.

Thank you to Random House for providing me a review copy of this book through the blogging for books program.

Spider Theology: a kids’ book review

Jonathan Edwards is the great American theologian. He was pastor in Puritan New England and a key player in the first Great Awakening (c.a. 1730’s-40s).  Yet outside of the ‘Reformed crowd,’ Edwards is  no longer a household name. Reformed Heritage Books’ Christian Biographies For Young Readers series has released a new book to introduce the Edwards legacy to children.

Jonathan Edwards by Simonetta Carr covers the whole of  Edwards life. It tells the story of:  his childhood, his education and marriage to Sarah Pierpont, his early days as a pastor, his pastorate at North Hampton, his friendship with Whitefield and his part in the revival,  his dismissal from North Hampton and his Stockbridge years, his last days and death at Princeton. This is a children’s book, and short, so not a comprehensive treatment of Edwards. Carr points to episodes that would be of interest to young readers. She is an award winning biographer and has written quite a few biographies for young readers.

Carr’s Jonathan Edwards is beautifully illustrated by Matt Abraxas as well as maps, photos and Library of Congress stock images. There is even a portrait of Edwards from my favorite über-Calvinist theologian/portrait artist with a philosophical bent, Oliver Crisp. Crisp, who is a noted authority on Edwards, also read through Carr’s manuscript and helped answer some of Carr’s questions regarding Edwards.

The cover of the book, one of Abraxas’s illustrations, depicts the teenage Edwards dangling a spider from a stick.  A sketch from Edwards’ journal (12) reveals that Edwards once dangled a spider from a stick and made several illustrations of it dangling from it’s web. Carr comments on the time that Edwards devoted to observing the natural world, which is one of the aspects I most appreciate about his writings. Readers of his most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, will also recognize the image of the dangling spider.

This is a good biography and presents Edwards in a way that is accessible for chidren. Because this book is written for young readers, Carr does not wrestle with the ambiquities of Edwards legacy (i.e. he like many in Puritian New England, was a slave holder). It also doesn’t explore the nature of Edwards struggle with the difficult youth of his church (such as his strong words against ‘bundling‘).  This is a favorable presentation of Edwards  and I think a good introduction for youth.

My seven-year-old stalled on reading this somewhere in Edwards college years. I think this book is probably best for readers slightly beyond her level. Perhaps children in the 8-11 range. I especially think kids will like the ‘Did you Know?’ section at the end of the book that shares trivia about the Edwardes and their time period. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Reformation Heritage Books and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Style and Substance: thoughts on ministry and mission

This is probably a little random. But as my blog is titled thoughts, prayers and songs, i thought I’d do a little thinking out loud over here. Feel free to opine.

I’ve been thinking about style and substance lately. Style was the subject of the so-called ‘worship wars.’ As churches in the 80’s and 90’s fought over hymns or praise songs, seeker sensitive mega churches sought to downplay anything that seemed too churchy. This was an effort to help the de-churched overcome their religious baggage. Because of this, the face of the contemporary church in America has radically changed in our lifetime. There are a few traditionalists and there has been some recovery of older music, liturgy and symbol, but for the most part, ‘worship style’ corresponds to our own personal preferences. “Style” is a consumer category. We like liturgy the way we like American Eagle, tattoos and interesting facial hair.

Sometimes substance is pitted against style. When we encounter worship services which are too ‘glitzy’ for our tastes, we dismiss them as shallow, that is, ‘lacking in substance.’ Often we don’t really have a theological complaint, it just didn’t do anything for us. We are more tuned into  our personal sense of style than we are to substance. This doesn’t stop us from dismissing the substance of the type of worship experience we don’t like. Most of  the churches we ‘don’t like’ are just ‘not our style.’

Every worship service has a style, and a substance–a ‘mode’ and a ‘message.’  These too things are not at odds. If we want to reach our neighborhoods and communities, we need to speak the gospel (our ‘substance’) in the idiom of the people (‘style’). If you fail to consider the ‘style’ of worship in your gathering, who it includes and who it excludes, than you are off mission. We need a style that reveals the Kingdom and invites people into life with Christ.  If we are too concerned about appealing to the masses that the gospel isn’t central to all we say or do, than we lost the plot and we are wasting our time. Loving God and loving our neighbor is the substance and style of all we do in ministry.

If I was forced to choose, I’d say that ‘substance’ is more important than ‘style.’ But style and substance are not easily divided. When you consider how formational Christian worship is than you consider the intimate link between worship style and the substance of a particular gathering. A charismatic believer raising her hand in praise is formed differently than an Anglican who rises for God’s word and kneels for confession. Our liturgies help us apprehend and enter deeper into our life with God. They also frame our ways of approaching Him. One ‘stylistic question’ we need to ask is, “what is the ‘substance’ of what we wish to live into?”

This may seem heady and abstract, but I guess what I am arguing for is for us to be thoughtful about the link between our beliefs and practices. We can’t just say that style, modes of practice and technique don’t matter because it is through these that we embody our faith. It is also through these practices that faith seeps into our bones. Negatively, our own stylistic prejudices can contribute to our spiritual malformation. If we don’t attend a church that practices confession because we are uncomfortable with how vulnerable it makes us, than we never experience what God has for us through the practice (i.e., freedom, community).  We need to be aware of where our personal preferences (style) and what it obscures.

What do you think the relationship between style and substance is in the Christian life? 

Redeeming the Pain: a book review

Ricky Texada was living the dream. Called by God to the ministry, he was informed that he and his wife would both soon be ordained as pastors. Unfortunately his wife Debra was stolen from him by a tragic car crash. He felt the pain and searing loss and wondered why God did not spare his wife despite the number of people praying for them. Later he felt God reveal to him, that Debra had a choice and she chose to be with Jesus rather than tarry any longer.

Less than a year after the loss of his wife’s life, Texada felt led to another woman, Cyd. He had first met her in college. When his friend Keith met her at a concert, he told Texada and that he told Cyd that Ricky would talk to her.  After a couple months’ delay, Texada calls and takes a few halting steps towards dating Cyd. It becomes increasingly clear, that God is leading Ricky and Cyd together.

My Breaking Point, God’s Turing Point tells the story of Texada’s courtship and marriage to Cyd, after his heartrending loss of Debra. He talks about the ways God led them together. His story is a testimony of how God gives us beauty for ashes, and restores us from our brokenness.  While I do not belong to the same theological camp as Texada, I do respect his journey and the ways that our God has cared for him and brought him through a season of pain.

This book is designed to help people through their own journey of pain and seasons of loss. Texada hopes to impart hope to his readers. This makes his story read a little more like a ‘life lesson’ than a biography. At times I found his writing too didactic and heavy handed. The story has power on its own without always needing to draw a ‘life lesson’ out. I wished for a less packaged telling. But the sorrow and joy is all here.

This would be a good book for someone facing similar losses. I give this book three stars.

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

Living Witness: a DVD/Study review

When I was in college, I was part of a Christian fellowship which was intentional about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with our campus. However, very few of us were your typical evangelists. We didn’t do open air preaching or hold up Bible verses at sporting events. If anything, we had a certain shyness in sharing our faith with our friends. And so our group leader had us watch a video of Rebecca Manley Pippert on sharing our faith conversationally (the video was based on her book Out of the Saltshaker. Pippert shared her own journey and stories of how she learned to share her faith in personal, winsome ways. We were all challenged to be more intentional about our witness.

Fast forward a few years, Pippert is still preaching what she practices with a brand new DVD series designed to introduce  to ‘joyful newness of life with Jesus Christ.’ Live: Your Life with Jesus Christ is the first of a series of DVD curriculum designed to help seekers and new believers press into truths of Christianity and the wonders of the Christian life.

Live has five sessions which work well for a small group Bible study. The videos have an introduction, a presentation by Pippert on the session theme, and testimonies from a variety of people on how they came to faith. The corresponding handbook has a suggested framework on how to use the video in conjunction with a small group Bible study session (described in its pages).

The five sessions take us through the following:  (1)”How do I know it’s true?” examines why we can reasonably trust that Jesus did rise from the dead, and the implications of that belief for our life,  (2) “What is the Good News?,” (3) “Is [the Christian Faith] Worth it?,” (4) “A Time for a Commitment” and (5) “New Life in Christ.”  The individual themes are each tied directly to a particular scripture and Pippert shares what has been helpful to her in her own journey towards faith.

I appreciated the DVD and the handbook for these studies. Part of my joy in watching these is knowing that Pippert remains both a faithful witness, and someone who helps others be more faithful in their witness. The Good Book Company, which publishes Christianity Explored, produces this video. The videos are done well but are ‘talking head’ videos of Pippert sitting down discussing the theme. The testimonies are also ‘talking head’ shots with minimal editing. I think that these videos are golden as far as content, but that they suffer a little for their production value. I wish the makers of this video, had more experience with and respect for the medium. Still I give it four stars, because I think that it can and will be used fruitfully in small groups. I may even suggest it for my context.

Thank you to Cross-focused Reviews and the Good book company for supplying me with a review copy in exchange for this review.

Freshly Expressed: a book review

First there was missional. Then there was the emergent resurgent insurgence, organic church, liquid church, free range church, new monasticism, the new parish and the New Kids. We are always on the hunt for the latest way to be church in ways that engage neighborhoods and culture. Michael Moynagh conducts research at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford for Fresh Expressions UK. He is an advocate of the ‘fresh expressions’ of church (UK speak for missional?).  He examines ‘witnessing communities’ in the UK  and around the globe. With over 120 examples of Fresh Expression Witnessing Communities,his book, Being Church and Doing Life,  explores the creative ways that Christians have sought to connect the gospel to everyday life.

Moynagh’s book is divided into three parts. Part one explores the reasons why have ‘communities in life’ (i.e. churches that meet in pubs, laundry mats, etc.). Part two explores the ‘tools’ necessary for developing witness communties (practices, disciplines, and approaches). Part three explores the tools (organization, leadership, networks and structures) for the wider church. Each section (and chapter) are full of stories of on the ground practitioners who are reaching out in creative ways.  Alan Hirsch ( Author of The Forgotten Ways, The Shaping of Things to Come). This is very much a book written with the missional impulse and a desire to participate in God’s Kingdom coming.

The stories of what other churches (witnessing communities) are doing is the best part of this book. It is always exciting to find out what churches are doing. This is an ‘idea book’ for brainstorming what church could look like in my context. Of course these ‘witnessing communities’ are highly contextualized so are not necessarily reproducible. Still I appreciate some clues to what’s possible.  I also really appreciated the emphasis on relationship. I was reminded of Rodney Stark’s thesis in The Rise of  Christianity, that the early Church grew exponentially by enfolding seekers into their social networks. This is the principle I see at play in witnessing communities. The intentional relationality of this approach means that these ‘witnessing communities’ are fostering meaningful connections with their neighbors.

I do wonder if smaller, contextual communities are too self selecting. A lot of the examples seem to focus around ‘lifestyle’ groups. I wonder if this is too homogeneous. I also wish that this book had a more explicit theological grounding. What this book advocates for is creative relational building with neighbors and friends, but Moynagh spends far less time rooting this biblically.  A few times I wondered what the content of the gospel proclamation was in a few of the witnessing communities he cited.

Yet there is real value in a book of this kind. I recommend this book for people dreaming of new ways of being church and churches interested in a more robust form of life sharing. Moynagh has profiled some interesting stuff. Four stars.

Thank you to Kregel Publications and Monarch Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.