Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars: a book review

Sometimes we approach issues ready to do battle. Talk-radio warns us of a subversive liberal agenda while the rest of the media caricatures conservatives as money-grubbing, hate-mongering xenophobics.  Often faith gets co-opted in debate. Evangelicals are defined, in many eyes, by their stance on abortion and traditional marriage. Progressive Christians are  written off for their lack of theological substance. Is there a way to ‘stop taking sides’? Can we approach issues without drawing battlelines? Is it possible to listen and hear the good on all sides of an issue and still offer a critique? This is the approach that Scott Sauls commends in Jesus Outside the Lines.  He aims at approaching issues and people in ways that are generous and tolerant and with clarity and conviction.  This doesn’t mean watered-down niceness anymore than having strong beliefs means we have licenses to be jerky.

Saul’ has two parts to his book. In part one he focuses on issues that divide Christians from one another. These include Red and Blue politics, abortion and justice for the poor, personal faith versus the institutional church and our different approaches to money. Sauls can find things on both sides of these issues to affirm. I liked his chapter on money because he points to a middle way between pursuing financial blessing and feeling guilty about our enjoyment of money. I appreciate that the extremes of prosperity and poverty are to be avoided (though I still weigh sacrificial giving/living a little more).

In part two, Sauls promotes a generous response to those ‘outside the lines of Christianity.’ He argues that Christians should be quick to affirm the good in culture while still offering our critique. He gives a plea for us to emphasize both accountability for oppressors and compassion for victims. He challenges us to not write off each other as mere hypocrites but to see that we are all works in progress. Sauls gives a traditional defense of human sexuality but one that is sensitive to the LGBTQ community and the ways that they have sometimes been treated by the Christian community. He showcases how Jesus imparts hope for a brighter tomorrow and allows us to take a realistic look at the suffering of the world.  Saul also takes us beyond Self-Help culture, helping to see ourselves how God sees us (which affirms the individual without enthroning her).

This is a readable and sensitive book. I appreciated the way that Sauls navigated the cultural polarities and highlighted a third way. His opening chapter, begins with an anecdote where one of his sermons caused one person to dismiss him as a right-wing extremist while another congregant thought he was a left-wing Marxist (3). Often the way of Jesus is unsatisfying to all parties on the battlelines. But it is a better way!

Sauls does not offer an exhaustive treatment of every important issue. Nor does he name every battleline.  Two big issues that I think white, conservative evangelicals need to approach with generousity are systemic racial injustice and climate change. The past few years has highlighted ways in which our legal system treats minorities. Think Ferguson and similar tragic encounters between African Americans and police and the  ongoing problem of minority mass incarceration. The dismissal of  climate change by those on the Right and the alarmism of the Left reveals the way special interest has sometimes framed the contours of debate. Sauls can’t cover everything, but given the current significance of these issues, I wish they were handled head-on.

Sauls isn’t the first author to explore the way Jesus defies our polarities. I think of Shane Claiborne’s Jesus For President, Tony Campolo’s is Jesus a Republican or Democrat? or Sojourner magazine’s “God is Not a Republican . . .or a Democrat” campaign. But these represent attempts from progressive evangelicals to bring balance to the force. Sauls  is a conservative voice with strong convictions who has listened well to those across the aisle from him.  This book promotes a generous conversational tone with Christians who are different from us  and those outside the faith. I give this four stars.

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

Testifying Teens: a book review

Testimony has a significant impact on the faith development of adolescents. As young people learn to tell their story of faith, it cements their understanding of God, fosters identity formation and allows the wider community to feedback into their experience and when necessary offer a critique. Amanda Hontz Drury explores what happens for youth as they testify, and puts forward a theology of testimony and offers practical advice on how churches can incorporate intentional, public testimony into youth ministry.

Drury has fifteen years of youth ministry experience and is professor of practical theology at Indiana Wesleyan University. In Saying Is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Development, Drury offers a similar case for testimony as Thomas Long’s Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, though she is much more sophisticated in her use of sociological research and theology than Long (cementing for me, yet again, that the most interesting work being done in the area of practical theology comes from the youth ministry world). Having read both Long’s and her book, I would say this is the better book. I also see a similarity between Drury’s project and Brandon McCoy’s Youth Ministry from the Outside In which builds off social construction theory and helps youth ‘thicken’ their connection to God’s story as they learn to share their own. There are differences between their approaches but I think enough of an overlap that these books are worth reading side by side.

Drury draws on her experience in youth ministry and her holiness heritage (where a mic in the aisle meant we’d hear from more than just the pastor). As you would expect, she has anecdotes about the telling our particular faith story, but at its core this is a book that is well-researched, sophisticated and theologically thoughtful. Drury doesn’t simply make claims of the necessity for testimony but engages serious research. Her chapter on a ‘Theology of Testimony’ synthesizes the perspectives on witness in Phoebe Palmer (the Nineteenth century, Holiness evangelist) and Karl Barth. This is a creative and thoughtful treatment on testimony.

The book’s five chapters lay out Drury’s case for testimony. Chapter one forms her introduction. Chapter two discusses the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion which illustrated that young people are inarticulate about their beliefs. Drury argues that teaching youth to speak about their faith strengthens their understanding of Christian truths and their grasp on where God has been active in their lives. Chapter three utilizes the insights of narrative psychology to illustrate the importance of telling one’s own story for identity formation. Chapter four outlines a theology of testimony. Here Drury creatively synthesizes Phoebe Palmer and Karl Barth in attempt to give a full account of the role and function of testimony for the Christian life. Palmer considered herself a ‘Bible Christian’ and had little use for ‘theological technicalities.’ Barth for his part, would be dismissive of Palmer’s subjectivity (95); however Drury points out that Barth corrects Palmer in offering a Christocentric spirituality focused on Jesus rather than the individual self (97) and Palmer corrects Barth in placing personal testimony within the domain of biblical witness (98-9). Drury places these thinkers in dialectic and illustrates that testimony is a Christian call, an expression of gratitude for what God has done, and is enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Her final chapter offers her pragmatic approach to implementing testimony with North American adolescents.

The theological core of this book is applicable far beyond the realm of youth ministry. All ages and stages would benefit from intentional space for testimony; however the way that learning to tell our story impacts our grasp on reality and our self-understanding is of peculiar importance for adolescents. Drury offers practical insight in how to incorporate testimony into youth ministry. As a pastor who is concerned that the youth of my church grow in their knowledge of Jesus and in relationship to Him, I appreciate Drury’s take.

This book is more ‘theological’ than your typical youth ministry book. Drury isn’t offering a “How to” so much as providing a conceptual framework and a re-orientation around the theme of testimony. Obviously this is a good ‘student’ book for those who are learning and thinking about youth ministry but I hope it finds itself in practitioner hands. I also think her theology chapter is widely applicable beyond youth.  I give this book four stars!

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

A Growing Church is a Dying Church


Timely post for me.

Originally posted on The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor:

Whenever a congregation goes looking for a new pastor, the first question on their minds when the committee interviews a new candidate is: Will this pastor grow our church?

I’m going to go ahead and answer that question right now: No, she will not.

No amount of pastoral eloquence, organization, insightfulness, amicability, or charisma will take your congregation back to back to its glory days.

What then can your pastor do?  She can make your board meetings longer with prayer and Bible study.  She can mess with your sense of familiarity by changing the order of worship and the arrangement of the sanctuary.  She can play those strange new songs and forget about your favorite old hymns.  She can keep on playing those crusty old hymns instead of that hot new contemporary praise music.  She can bug you incessantly about more frequent celebration of Communion.  She can ignore your phone…

View original 562 more words

Tracing the Trinity: a book review.

Peter Leithart is a fun theologian. As professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College, contributing editor for Touchstone and president of Theopolis Institute, his books often wed theology with cultural, literary or historical connections. Traces of the Trinity showcases the kind of creative theological thinking I’ve come to expect from Leithart as he probes creation and the human experience to see signs of the Triune God.

Leithart picks up on the tradition of looking for vestiga Trinitatis–traces of the Trinity–clues to the Triune life, the imprint of perichoresis (vii). He is not trying to  argue compelling evidence for the Christian concept of God apart from special revelation. Leithart takes special revelation as his starting point, affirming that the God revealed in scripture is revealed as Trinity. He then works backwards, and seeks to trace God’s presence in His creation.

The themes of perichoresis and mutual interpenetration runs straight through this book. In chapter one, Leithart picks up on the Cartesian distinction between the Self and the outside world and shows how though these realms are distinct, they overlap and penetrate one another (i.e. our bodies are outside our mind but part of the self, we need to consume matter and eliminate to remain alive in ourself, etc).  Chapter two describes the individual and her relationship to society. As with Cartesian dualism, Leithart affirms the distinction between individuals and society but shows how each domain contributes to and defines the other.  Chapter three discusses the visceral interpenetration of sex and the accompanying physical, spiritual and psychological intermingling. Chapter four examines the way the past and the future inhabit the present (the past through memory, through structures and culture making, the future through possibility and the telos of things).  The inter-textual nature of words and languages also evidences an interplay between shared language and individual expression (chapter  five), as does music (chapter six). Chapter seven implies an ethic of hospitality–making room for the other–which underlies human community and chapter eight probes concepts, logic and relationship further. Chapter nine is where Leithart speaks specifically about Trinity and also the perechoretic unity in the thing called church.

This brief summary points at the breadth of Leithart’s survey (all within about 150 pages) but the beauty of this book is in the details:

The world is not patterned by mutually opposing things that need to be kept in “balance.” Things are much more intricately interlaced. The world is designed according to a pattern I’ve called “mutual indwelling” “reciprocal habitation” “interpenetration.” I’ve used words like “intertwining” and “interleaving” and “twists” and “swirls, whirls, curves and curls.” I’ve written of how things circle back on themselves, of Mõbius strip and Celtic knots. I claim to see the pattern everywhere–in physical reality, in language, sounds, sex, personal relations, ethics, and the concepts we form to understand the world. (129).

This romp through philosophy, politics, culture, music, sex and ethics highlights the interconnection between the alleged poles. This is poetic theology and an enjoyable read. Leithart is at times concrete and in other places abstract, which makes this book somewhat complex in its execution, but it is tightly argued and well thought through. It is worth tracing Leithart’s argument all the way through.

Leithart is careful to call these instances of perichoresis ‘traces.’  Leithart’s project doesn’t appear to be another Thomist attempt at ‘analogy of being’ (at least how I understand it). This seems far less ambitious than that. Leithart starts with the Divine life (as described in the Bible and the theological tradition) and argues that the inter-relationship between Father, Son and Spirit gives us a window into the nature of creation.  That creation images God is discernible only to those who know the God whom they seek.  I give this book four-and-a-half-stars and recommend it for anyone interested in the nature of revelation.

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

Artisan Bread, Broken for You: a book review

The synthetic, the industrialized, and the mass-produced have fallen on hard times. Everywhere you look there is a rediscovery of natural and sustainable methods. People love local, organic vegetables, artisan bread, real chocolate, good coffee, craft-brew and good music.  John Joseph Thompson explores this cultural shift away from mass-production toward more wholesome fare and asks what the implications are for the spiritual life. Is this a re-discovery of something important here that will re-enliven our vision of the Christian faith?

Jesus, Bread and Chocolate is much more than an exploration of three of my favorite things. Thompson explores a range of plastic-y products ranging from twang-less pop-country music, bread for the masses, chocolate that is more chocolaty than chocolate, bad coffee, and cheap beer.  Alternatively, he holds up honest, raw music which has a healthy dose of reality (twang), artisan bread crafted with love and care and good ingredients, pure chocolate, the perfect cup of coffee and a cultivated taste for the local and the small. Interwoven with these chapters on less-industrialized fare are reflections on justice, gardening and Thompson’s story.  This book chronicles his personal journey from consumer to enjoy-er. Thompson explores how the turn away from the industrialized, commodified, and mass-marketed prepares us to drink deeply from the real Jesus.

I think two different groups of people will appreciate this book. Because Thompson is attentive to justice (i.e. environmental impact, farming practices, etc), he presents a vision of faith and life that is responsible and responsive to the world around him. Thompson adds his voice to a chorus of evangelicals who are starting to be thoughtful about creation care, especially in his chapter on organic gardening. Secondly, this is a sensual book. Thompson really enjoys good sounds (music), good smells, and good eating. This is a foody-faith-buffet, inviting others to come and enjoy the feast. In both regards, Thompson imparts a thoughtfulness about what we consume and what nourishes us.

I like Thompson’s reflections and where he calls me to enjoy the good things in life. I also think he is appropriately attentive the way industrialized food (and faith) fail people. Certainly there are other domains of the Christian faith that Thompson leaves under or unexplored, but I appreciate this book for what it is.  The link to biblical theology could be clearer and Thompson’s cultural analysis could be more incisive (though he points in good directions). In the end, this is a personal journey and Thompson’s own reflections around food and faith. It is also a popular level book. For that, I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher via the booklook bloggers program. I was not asked to write a positive review, just an honest one.

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.