Life After Mars Hill: a book review

“Two years ago if you would have told me that the next big book project I was involved with was to be co-authored with Rob Bell, I would have asked what you were smoking,” says Mark Driscoll (from the Introduction, ix). At the time, Driscoll was at the helm of Mars Hill Church in the Rainier Valley in Seattle and on the board of Acts 29, a missional church planting network, he helped co-found. In 2013 there were criticisms and intimations of trouble, but Driscoll had always been a polarizing figure with his critics. Comes with the territory when you are a bombastic communicator and a man of strong convictions. He was under near constant criticism for what he said and how he said it. Yet in 2013 the new criticisms began to mount. Driscoll was accused of plagiarism, faulted for unethical marketing, had formal charges filed against him by a former elder, was protested against by a number of former members and got his name dragged through the mud for a decade-old-internet-rant. By September of 2014, Driscoll was forced to resign and his once thriving church dissolved.

Mark Driscoll & Rob BellThree years earlier, in September 2011, Rob Bell left his own Mars Hill. At its zenith, Mars Hill Bible Church had a weekly attendance of 10,000 people. However Bell’s bestseller Love Wins had made him a pariah to many in the evangelical world and hurt the attendance of his congregation. Bell was under constant fire for not holding the doctrine of hell dearer and for suggesting that perhaps, maybe, ‘Jesus will save everyone.’ Since leaving MHBC, Bell has found a new home on the Oprah Winfrey Network and has self-consciously sought to ‘pastor those outside the church.’

Temperamentally, theologically and stylistically, Bell and Driscoll couldn’t be more different. Yet both of these charismatic leaders and church planters, found themselves forced to resign their respective Mars Hills. So how did these two get  together and decide to collaborate on a new book, Life After Mars Hill (forthcoming, HarperOne)?

Driscoll tells the story:

When I left Mars Hill, I was given an ultimatum. I was forced to retire. All of my old friends and allies didn’t answer any of my calls. My conference dates were all cancelled. My publisher dropped me. Of course Grace stuck by me, but it was really hard. When I felt totally abandoned by everyone, even God, I got a phone call. It was Rob. He said he was praying for me and wanted to know how I was doing. I had been critical of Rob but when I needed someone to remind me of God’s grace, he was the one that was there for me. We met several times and discussed life, our mutual struggles and God. Rob had the idea of recording our conversations. When we listened to the terrain we covered, we both knew it would be interesting and helpful terrain for the church as a whole (6-7).

That is how the two struck up their unlikely friendship. The book  tells the story of the hurt and isolation both of these men felt after their fall from evangelical super-stardom. The format for the book is dialogue between the two former pastors (with a couple of brief chapters describing Driscoll’s and Bell’s personal journeys..

That the two men now call each other friends shouldn’t diminish the significant differences between their respective Christian visions. Bell  still finds Driscoll’s Christianity narrow, legalistic and he finds Driscoll’s complementarian views and authoritarianism troubling (39-40). Driscoll still faults Bell for his lack of doctrinal precision, and his utter lack of manliness (43). The two also find themselves on different sides on a number of social issues (such as marriage equality). At one point, Driscoll kids Bell, “You have the style’ while I am the  one with substance” (89). In response, Bell quips, “Jesus came full of grace and truth. You cling to  truth. I love the truth but have sought to err on the side of grace” (90).

But this is not a raging debate. Driscoll and Bell  speak respectfully and humbly to one another. Critics of Driscoll will likely see him, in these pages, as stubborn and chauvinist as ever. Critics of Bell may still find his lack of doctrinal clarity aggravating and his teaching dangerous and pernicious. But there is movement on both sides. Bell is gracious and Driscoll reciprocates.I think the real value of this book is the conversation itself. Rachel Held Evans endorsed this book saying, “Rob Bell has done what I never could arrange. He sat down and had a civil conversation with Mark Driscoll. While I find Driscoll’s Christianity problematic, I came away with a deeper appreciation of the man, his story and God’s graciousness to him.” I highly recommend this book for anyone troubled by the legacy of either of these former ‘Mars Hill Pastors.’ I give this book five stars!

Notice of material connection: I received this book as a complete fabrication. I was not asked to write a positive review. But don’t you want to read this book? Happy April Fools.

A Storied Easter: a book review

About a dozen years ago my wife and I read a little devotional called Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. It was published by Plough Publishing, the publishing arm of an intentional Christian community called the Bruderhof (also called Church Communities International). It was a wonderful collection of stories, poems, memoir and theological reflection. It remains my favorite Lenten devotional.

This year Plough Publishing has published a new book for the Easter Season: Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season. Edited by Miriam Leblanc with beautiful woodcut illustrations by Lisa Toth, this book gathers twenty-seven stories which are related, in some sense, to Easter and Passion week. A poem and a tale from Bruderhofer, Jane Tyson Clement, opens the collection, but the theological perspectives and literary styles of what follows are diverse. There are stories that follow closely the passion narratives and Easter story (see Andre Trocme’s How Donkeys Got the Spirit of Contradiction or Clarence Jordon’s Stories from the Cotton Patch Gospel). There are stories that speak evocatively about Easter and the meaning of spiritual transformation (for example, C.S. Lewis’s The Death of the Lizard’ excerpted from “The Great Divorce” or Sarah Cone Bryant’s Robert of Sicily). A few of these tales come from European folklore. Mostly these stories were penned in the Nineteenth or Twentieth Century. Vocationally the authors were novelists, dramatists, childrens’ story authors, pastors, and poets). There are Christian authors, communists and the religious unaffiliated.

As diverse at the material is, the authors and stories selected are from White Europeans (or their American descendants). There are German, Russian, English, French, Swedish, American authors. While this is a limited selection, it does reflect the context and heritage of the Bruderhof. I picture  that these are the sort of tales that they would tell their young. I had read some of the material they include here (C.S. Lewis, Tolstoy, Wangerin, etc), some authors I knew by reputation, others were unfamiliar to me.

As with all collections, I enjoyed some stories more than others. Some grabbed me, others didn’t. On the whole, however, an enjoyable collection and thought provoking. Story has a way of igniting the imagination and helping us see the meaning of things. Can’t think of a better subject matter than the Easter event. I do not think this is as strong a collection as Bread and Wine was, but it is a worthwhile and enjoyable read. Toth’s woodcuts are stunning. I give the book 3.5 stars.

Notice of Material Connection, I received this book from the publisher via Handlebar Media in exchange for my honest review.

Forty Days for Breathing Deeply: a book review

A few years ago I read Jack Levison’s Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for the Inspired Life. I wrote a gushing review of it.  My enthusiasm for that book was due in part to the way Levison unfolded the mystery of the Spirit’s presence in scripture in a number of ways, and connected it to everyday life. While my previous run-ins with the Holy Spirit focused on his role in convicting us for sin, empowering us for mission, and ecstatic experience, Levison helped me enlarge my frame to see how the Spirit sustains us with his breath, and is active not only through ‘events’ but through habits, decisions (and a lifetime of decisions), and meditation. Levison also explored how the Spirit poured himself out on God’s people (not just individuals but communities). While Fresh Air was a popular level book but full of rich insights

It is about three years later and I am again reading Levison. This time it is a devotional, 40 Days with the Holy Spirit. In forty daily readings, Levison reflects on Spirit’s presence and activity in the Bible through seven verbs:

  • Breathing– the ruach, Spirit Breath, which sustains each of us.
  • Praying–the listening, receiving and Abba-whisper of the Spirit.
  • Practicing–the long-haul of Spiritual formation.
  • Learning–the way meditating ( gnawing) on the Scripture opens us up to a deeper experience of the Spirit.
  • Leading–How the Spirit inspires, equips, sustains, empowers leaders.
  • Building–How the Spirit forms (and re-forms) vibrant communities of faith.
  • Blossoming–How the Spirit transforms us into what we were meant to be.

Each of the forty entries begins with a scripture, a brief meditation from Levison on the theme, a space for personal reflection and a space to ‘breathe’–a short prayer to the Holy Spirit.

As with Fresh Air, I am inspired by the texts that Levison includes here. The devotional format demands a slow read and thoughtful lingering. Also Levison’s meditations treat forty different scriptural passages. He is a perceptive reader and he treats some ‘Spirit’ passages that are overlooked (i.e. looking at the Spirit-breath of Job, how the faithfulness of Joseph allows him to exhibit the Spirit, the intimacy of Jesus’ breath in the Johannine Pentecost, etc). Also Levison’s prayers are artful and inspiring. Where I am not always a ‘devotional’ guy, I felt drawn in by Levison’s depth and insight.

Often when we talk about what it means to be ‘Spirit Filled’ we hold up a small dimension of the Spirit’s work in our lives. This book will lead you deeper into the life of the Spirit where we will encounter his wisdom, his inspiration, his daily teaching, his empowerment, his sustaining us through suffering, his enabling us to persevere and grow in grace, his guidance, his constituting community his transformative work. . .  If you are looking for a devotional which will enlarge your vision (and experience) of God, look no further. Five stars.

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

Faith and the Hiddenness of God: a book review

Unhappy circumstances set Tony Kriz thinking about the way God hides. His four-year-old nephew, Ransom, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of liver cancer. Kriz prayed that God would show up and hold Ransom’s hand–through treatment and through death. This set his mind thinking on his own journey and the way he has sensed God’s hiddenness throughout his life. More accurately, Kriz recounts the way God ‘shows up’ unexpectedly just beyond his grasp.

This is a memoir of doubt and faith. Kriz recounts how he sensed God’s presence when he was a child and said the sinner’s prayer to receive Christ. He also tells of how a well-meaning Sunday School  teacher caused him doubt that experience. He describes how his growing doubts during his teen years swallowed his child-like-faith whole. When he left for college he had every intention of leaving Jesus behind but God pursued him. So in college his faith deepened through prayer meetings, Bible study, mission trips and joining a fraternity (because God told him). These were the ‘dojo years’ and he felt the nearness of the Master. But when Kriz went out into the world his faith again became untethered. He threw himself into Christian missions and an activist faith. Kriz reveals that part of his activism was an attempt to get God to notice him. He ends up broken, needy and abandoned. There is one encounter where Jesus came to him in a real way but mostly Kriz felt abandoned and alone. Thankfully this isn’t the whole of Kriz’s story. He comes back to faith and begins to sense this Hidden One in rest, in waiting, in the shyness of the Spirit, on learning to encounter God on His terms, in community and in all things.

I gave as bare-bones of a sketch as I could. Kriz’s story is worth reading for yourself. Kriz has given us a gift of opening up his journey and reflections to us (these reflections were intended first for his nephew Ransom). With searching honesty he traces his tenuous faith from childhood to his forties. With searching honesty he reflects on answers to prayer along the way and experiences of Divine intervention, but he never lets these become easy-proofs of God’s Presence.

Kriz’s story is much more impressive than mine–both in its highs and lows. Yet I relate to some of the unrequited desire  to meet God and to experience him intimately. His uneasy faith and seasons of doubt reminded me of difficult spells in my own walk. Like Kriz, I cannot point to anything in my history that ‘proves God’ but like him I have come though to a place of strong(er) hope.

This is the second book from Kriz that I read. Neighbors and Wise Men was another memoir that recounted parts of his story and how Kriz was nurtured back to faith through unlikely people. This book is more personal. It is sadder in some respects, but no less hopeful. I highly recommend this book. Five Stars.

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

Preaching Preparation with Accuracy: a book review

I like reading preaching books. As a regular, but rookie preacher, I know I have lots to learn. Preaching books provide me with ideas on how to engage the text and present it to a congregation. Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching is a new book from Kregel Ministry on how to preach messages that are faithful to the Bible’s text and intent. Author Randal Pelton is a pastor and professor at Lancaster Bible College and Gordon Conwell. Pelton pairs Haddon Robinson’s ‘Big Idea’ approach with Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered canonical approach. The result is a ‘homiletic hybrid’ which allows selected passages of scripture to control meaning while placing it in the larger frame of the Bible’s unity and the understading of Christ (13).

The seven chapters of Pelton’s book provide a hands-on approach to selecting and exegeting the preaching text with attention to its main idea, its function in the wider context of the individual book or genre, and its place in the canon–the larger biblical story. The first three chapters address how to approach the text. In the first chapter Pelton makes the case of the expositional (rather than topical) approach to preaching. In chapter two, he urges us towards locating the ‘big idea’ from the passage and warns that preaching the ‘little ideas’ skews our understanding. In chapter three he advises us on how to select and ‘cut the text’ (decide the limits of the pericope and whether or not our passage has a ‘big idea’ of its own or if it is borrowing from the immediate context).

The rest of the book describes his method. Chapter four exlains how to locate the ‘textbi’ (textual big idea). Pelton walks through how to identify the big idea in various genres (and invites practical hands-on practice in relationship to particular texts). Chapter five examines the ‘conbi’ (contextual big idea)–how our text functions within the larger context of the book it belongs to.  As with the text, Pelton gives helpful advice on how to determine how passage functions in its peculiar genre (i.e. a story fits into a larger narrative, laws and legal material, geneologies are also encased in narrative, epistle texts are a link in the larger argument, etc). Chapter six explores the ‘canbi’ (canonical big idea)–how this work functions within the God’s story (i.e. how it relates to the story of Jesus, the canon’s center). Pelton’s final chapter explores how to use these different levels in crafting a sermon with an eye toward application.

Pelton’s argument is that accurate preaching happens when we attend to the meaning of the text, its context, and then its larger canonical frame. The order is important. By attending to the literal-historical meaning of the text first, Pelton guards our canonical/theological interpretation from devolving to a shallow allegory with little resemblance to the plain-meaning of the text. But he also helps us connect the dots to the larger biblical story. I think in practice it doesn’t work as neatly as Pelton describes. Sometimes our understanding of canon or our wider theological commitments drives our understanding of an individual text (in ways we may not be aware!). Still I appreciate his emphasis on making sure what we are preaching is the passage’s main idea (not our own).

This is not a book about ‘preaching.’ This is a book about the work preachers do before sitting down to craft their sermon. Pelton has little to say here about the preaching moment. He doesn’t address the sermon form (other than a couple of paragraphs on thinking of an introduction for your sermons). His focus is almost solely on sermon content rather than delivery. I think that emphasis is appropriate but it does indicate the limits of this book. If you are looking for a book which gets you to think about how to preach the Bible, attentive to the text, to its larger context and the gospel, there is a lot here for you to chew on. If you are looking for a book which will aid you to proclaim in relevant, creative ways, you will be disappointed with what you find here. That is a different topic altogether.

Still for what it does and is, it is pretty good. I read through and implemented his approach as I prepared my Sunday sermon this week. It didn’t change how I approached my text significantly but it did help me organize some of my ideas. I give this book four stars.

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

Beatitude-nik? a book review

Beatniks weren’t my generation but I’ve read Kerouac and Ginsberg. I find their spiritual ramblings to be egocentric, self-absorbed, nonsensical, heretical, tried and tired, misogynistic, fanciful and bland, Manic self-aggrandizement enshrined as wisdom. From a literary perspective, I appreciate a lot of what they did–how they broke rules and cast aspersions at convention. There is honest searching. There are moments of epiphany and wonder. There is also the beauty of the bygone era–non-traditional nostalgia.  Yet I don’t find in their writings a compelling narrative (even with all the sex, drinking and drugs). All this tells you that reading a book that urges the common thread from the Apostolic age to the Beat Generation a little out of my ordinary frame.

Andy William Smith (aka Andy Sunfrog) is an English prof, DJ, activist, poet, blogger, PCUSA elder, aspiring preacher and Vanderbilt seminarian. In Beat is Beatitude Smith examines Beat culture appreciatively for the ways in which Kerouac et al. rejected societal norms and the ways they lived life in the present.  For Smith there’s an overlap between the counter-cultural vision of Jesus and the Beats. He writes:

The great American novelist & author of On the Road, practicing alcoholic & Catholic-Buddhist poet Jack Kerouac said, that the beats in beatnik came from the Beatitudes. “Beat doesn’t mean tied or bused or beat so much as. . .beatific,” Kerouac penned, calling us all “to be in the state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cltivating joy of heart.” (3)

Smith joins his voice with Kerouac & the Beats & Jesus as he celebrates life, experience and the journey. In poem and sermon (poetic prose?) he explores the spiritual life. We hear Smith’s joyful quest and his rediscovery of the Christian faith (coinciding with his journey to sobriety). Smith doesn’t idealize the beatniks and acknowledges their lapses, but he sees a great deal he admires:

Kerouac &  [Neal] Cassady were right about living in the moment, about rejecting the ways of the world, about the complementary teachings of Jesus & Buddha, about  the spirituality of everything & everyday life, even & especially about the spiritual aspects of travel, of an itinerant lifestyle on the road. Jesus & Paul & many disciples & Early Church Movement Folk certainly lived “on the road.” But Kerouac and Cassady were wrong about alcohol & drugs & how to treat women (13)

My own list of what they got right and wrong differs in some respects from Smith, but I appreciate that he appropriates their legacy critically.

Smith’s collection of poems and sermons is playful but uneven. I enjoyed the creative handling of biblical texts: Paul, the Cross, Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.  I also liked hearing pieces of his own Godward journey with Presbyterians and anarchists, with addiction and twelve-steps. Yet I felt like I could penetrate far below the surface of the poems. I wondered if I would appreciate these more as performance art, spoken word in a dimly lit coffee shop. Without the jazz these remain opaque to me.

I am happy to admit that it is probably just me. I am not as progressive as the author. I am not as cool. I didn’t get every literary reference or poetic allusion. Though it is me and for me this book is just a three.

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

Blindsided : a book review.

When I picked up Blindsided by God I was only tagently aware of his story. My wife read his blog and I can remember telling me about his journey. My eyes welled up with tears several times as I read his story.

BlindedChin was an Evangelical Covenant Pastor in Washington D.C. and a church planter.  He blogged about justice, race and the Kingdom of God. But his first year as a church planter was marked by suffering. Before he moved into the neighborhood he was to pastor in, burglars broke into the house they were moving into and stole the bathroom fixtures. That same year his wife Carol had a miscarriage. Then came a diagnosis. She had breast cancer and a particularly aggressive form of it. When they sought treatment their health insurance provider told them they wouldn’t cover them because of a gap in coverage (they managed to prove their wasn’t one and get their insurance company to reverse their decision). It seemed like everything that could fall apart in their world did.

Carol was steadfast in her faith and strong in the face of cancer. This book is Peter’s story of anxiety, worry and fragile faith in the face of watching someone he loves suffer, feeling powerless to do anything. When Carol underwent surgery they made another discovery. She was pregnant. This meant that if she carried the child to term, they would have to delay chemotherapy until at least the second trimester. An oncologist advised Peter that Carol’s best chances were to terminate the pregnancy. But Carol never wavered in her resolve. Later they discovered that women who are pregnant during their cancer treatments have a higher survival rate. Peter sees this as God’s purposes and plan as they faced this trial. Carol is alive today with three more children (her son whom she was pregnant with at the time, and two more children).

This is a faith story. Peter opens up his prayer life, his anxiety and his struggles with God and where he senses God’s answer and presence with him and Carol through their most difficult year. In the end, this ‘seminary of suffering’ taught them to trust God in profound ways and they have a powerful testimony of God’s care. But it also made Peter a better pastor, more sensitive to those in his charge. In fact, that year his church plant didn’t attract your typical young energetic disciples you would expect. Peter’s preaching attracted fellow broken people and he learned to listen to their pain without offering easy answers.

But  Peter and Carols story doesn’t wrap up neatly with all the ends tied up. They went through a lot and it took a tool on their life and ministry. Peter had to close the doors on their church plant. They have also suffered other break-ins and bad times. They still are part of a suffering world, but they have an experience of knowing God’s care and reason for hope.

This is a moving story and I challenge you to read it and not cry. I give this book five stars.

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