It is Friday but Saturday’s Coming (and also Sunday): a book review

A. J. Swoboda wrote A Glorious Dark about three days. The Friday we call good when Jesus died on the cross, Sunday when Jesus surprised everyone by refusing to be dead and the Saturday in between ( ‘awkward Saturday’)–a day of silence when defeat appears complete and we are full of doubt and questions. The fancy-shmancy word for these days is Triduum,the last three days of Holy Week. Many denominations and spiritualities major in one of these three days. Friday people enter into suffering and loss. Saturday people allow space for doubt, questions and deconstruction. Sunday people are the clappy,happy people who emphasize blessing. Swoboda sees a problem when Christians treating any one day as though it is the total Christian vision and experience, “We need both Friday and Sunday, not just one or the other. Some want to suffer with Jesus; others want to be resurrected with Jesus. Few Desire both. We can’t prefer one day and reject the rest” (5).

So instead Swoboda takes these three days, the last three days of Holy Week, and treats them as a comprehensive vision (though not exhaustive) of Christian spirituality. The book’s fifteen chapters are organized under the broad headings of the days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday), each giving a ‘glimpse of that day.’  On Friday, we reflect on Christ’s cross and in it see both God’s great love for us, and our own need with greater clarity. The cross confronts our sinfulness, our personal need for a Father, our addictions and apathy. In its place we see God’s lavish love and welcome. We also see Jesus so identify with the struggles of humanity that for the briefest of moments on the cross, he looks like an atheist. Awkward Saturday is a day of silence and rest and questioning. It is a day for ‘sitting, waiting and hoping.’ On that  day what Jesus built on earth and what we’ve done ourselves for God, seems very insignificant. There are reasons to question everything. Yet the questions and doubts are part of the waiting, so in the tomb we wait.Sunday is a day of surprises The same Jesus who came born of a sixteen-year-old Virgin, shocked everyone by coming out the tomb. Through Jesus’ resurrection over the grave he secured for us the victory over every power and strong hold that held us captive and He invites us to share in his life, becoming part of his resurrection community.

Swoboda weaves his theological reflections with personal narrative, pop-cultural references, and stories from his church. He is a pastor of an urban church in Portland and talks about his vocation and context throughout. He is also funny, bookish and insightful. I enjoyed these reflections and think they are appropriate not only for Holy Week (which is when I read this book), but throughout the Christian year. We are Easter people and the truths that Swoboda explores are constantly relevant.  While this book is organized around the three-day-theme, it is also more like a conversation than a tightly written treatise. The conversational tone makes it an engaging read but it also occasional made me impatient for ‘the point’ of a chapter (or kept me wondering how it related to the overall theme). But I’m not sure I’d like a pared down version of this. Swoboda is engaging (it makes me want to pull his previous book, Messy, off my shelf and actually read it). I give this book 4.5 stars.

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

30 Events that Shaped the (Evangelical) Church: a book review

I am a bit of history buff so on this score I may be a bit more critical than the general reader. Still I was excited to read 30 Events That Shaped the Church by Alton Gansky. Ganksy is the author of twenty-four novels and eight books of non-fiction and this isn’t his first foray into Church history. He also wrote 60 People Who Shaped the Church (Baker Books, 2014).  These thirty historical vignettes failed to capture my interest, were light on analysis and were highly selective. I think church history is far richer and more interesting than what is presented here.

I admit that Ganksy culled together some facts I did not know and is generally even-handed in his presentation of these events. Nevertheless he is not a historian and relies heavily on other popular level histories (such as Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language) and older, more dated material. He is responsible in what he shares, though he occasionally conflates events. Where I took issue with Gansky was in the 30 events he chose for this book.

The first three chapters cover biblical accounts (Pentecost, the conversion of Paul, and Acts 15 council in Jerusalem). The next couple of chapters describe Rome burning (under Nero) and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  This is followed by three events in the patristic period: the edict of Milan, the first council at Nicea (though he gives us the Nicene Creed text as it was finalized at the second council at Constantinople in 381), and Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate. Nevermind that the patristic period is far richer than this, the medieval period is vastly under represented, descring only three events in over a thousand years: the schism between the Chirstian East and West in 1054, and Pope Innocent III and Boniface VII’s consolidation of papal power. The rest of the book takes us from the Reformation to the present ( the Gutenberg Bible in 1456 is proto-Reformaiton) and tells a largely Protestant Western story (Catholicism is described as significant points in relation to how open or closed they are to Protestant expressions of church).

Gansky describes the publication of the King James Bible, the birth of the Baptists, The Great Awakening, Bishop Usher’s chronology, the Scofield Bible, the Fundamentals (conflating the 1910’s publications with five fundamentals described by the Niagra meetings of 1876 to 1897) the Neo-Evangelical movement.and the Jesus People. He also talks about other significant events for the church such as the American Bill of Rights, Charles Darwin’s publications, the Scope’s Monkey Trial and the Rise of New Atheism (by this he means secularism and does not even mention the principal New Atheists or 9-11).

This is all a very Protestant Evangelical Story and  an American tale (I say this as a Protestant Evangelical American!). I would have given weight to other events. Things like the fall of Rome, the rise of Christian Monasticism, the Crusades, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement. Ganksy never says ‘the 30 events’ only 30 events and there is room to have a different list.  Still I didn’t by and large find his account compelling. For a deeper look at significant events in the life of the church, I recommend Mark Noll’s Turning Points (Baker, 2001).

But on a note of appreciation, I think that Ganksy did a great job of describing the Evangelical and Fundamentalist story, noting the philosophical differences between the two. As an Evangelical with fundamentalist roots, Ganksy names part of my story too. I give Ganksy’s effort three stars.

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

Me Too God, Me Too: a book review

Is it evidence of my image-bearing that I like the things God likes? Kidding aside, sex and sexuality is God’s idea, a gift from God meant to be enjoyed (within the bounds of marriage and monogamy).  It enables  us to express our love, and relationality. Yet I don’t typically like Christian books on sex. Too many of them focus on mechanics–how to do it and how often. Some offer troubling advice on how to achieve sexual fulfillment (often for just the male partner) without giving enough space to explore mutuality in relationships or holiness.  Other books fail to account for the various ways we are all sexually broken.  Rare is a book dealing with sex that combines psychologically insight with theological depth in a sensitive and engaging way.

God Loves Sex is one such book. Co-authors Dan Allender and Tremper Longman have teamed up to explore God’s purposes for sex and healthy sexuality. Allender teaches counseling at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology [curiously the back of the book says he teaches at Mars Hill Graduate School but it was renamed the Seattle School three years ago].  Longman is professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College. The two have collaborated on several books and a number of Bible Studies in the past. In God Loves Sex they explore the issues of sex, desire and holiness through the lens of the Song of Songs.

Longman and Allender approach the Song of Songs, not as an allegory about God’s love but as a loose collection of poems exploring sexual love.  They do not read an overarching narrative into the songs, though they explore the narrative elements in various poems and find an internal coherence in the collection. Their examination of the poems explores sexuality, desire, beauty, sexual play, intimacy, and the glory that sex was created for.  These six themes are the substance of the book, each explored in their own chapter (intimacy gets two chapters). The remaining ten chapters tie these chapters together through a fictional story:

Malcom, a new Christian gets roped into attending a small group Bible study on sex by his boss and wife. He goes reluctantly, nervous because of his own sexual past and shame. He is also unsure that the Bible has much interesting to say about human sexuality. Along the way he confronts his own sexual woundedness, his dissatisfying sexual history, the past influence of pornography on him and abuse he suffered. However, he discovers in this small group a safe place to explore these issues with others, all of whom are dealing with their own areas of brokenness. Also in the group are a husband and wife who married to each other after the husband had cheated with her on his previous spouse,  a recent divorcee who escaped an abusive situation, a single woman who is a virgin but has her own struggles with sexuality as she tries to navigate the ‘Christian dating scene.’

This fictional small group allows Allender and Longman to explore the many sides of sexual brokenness, which highlights relevant material as they explore the Song of Songs. It also makes for a riveting presentation and create space for us as readers to probe our own marred sexuality and God’s plan for it.

The commentary is incisive, demonstrating Longman’s literary sensitivity to the biblical text and Allender’s psychological insights. Readers of this book will see evidence in the Song of Songs that God gave us sex (and sexuality) as a gift to be enjoyed; yet they will also will be drawn into introspection  at the places we need a little ‘sexual healing’ (not in a Marvin Gaye way). I give this book five stars and recommend it for individuals, couples or small groups. ★★★★★

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

Power Through Weakness (or Community, Rest & Mission): a book review

The Christian life is the empowered life.  In Christ we are set free to live life and face the challenges that come our way. But sometimes we feel powerless in the face of life’s obstacles. Kevin Harney, author of Reckless Faith and the Organic Outreach books has written a month-long daily devotional exploring how God’s presence empowers believers. Each week of Empowered By His Presence explores a different God-given source of strength which reveal God’s empowering presence. These include:

  • Suffering, loss & pain.
  • Community
  • Sabbath and rest
  • Mission

The daily devotional entires profiles a character from the Bible which explores their experience of God. Each week has a reading on Paul and Jesus, but the rest of the entries take you across the Old and New Testaments. At the end of each section in the book are a daily reading plan (which parallels the daily devotionals, suggestions for prayer, personal reflection questions and action steps. There is a discussion guide at the back of the book, designed to accompany a small-group DVD also available from Baker Books.

I really liked this book for a several reasons. First, this is a book about God’s empowering presence, but it isn’t esoteric or strange. Harney starts with the experience of grief and loss in Job, the persecution of Paul, Hannah’s sorrow, Joseph’s betrayal at the hands of his brothers, Peter leaving his nets and Jesus’ cry of dereliction.  Each of these people were met by God, but they came to experience his power through loss, grief and weakness. This isn’t a book about the ‘power of God’ that never enters into human suffering. Rather Harney posits that we meet God there!

The other sections are similarly thoughtful. Community is a Christian buzzword, but Harney draws attention to the ways we mediate Christ to one another. The chapter on the four friends and the paralytic is pure gold (chapter seven). He has good stuff to say about Sabbath and Mission as well.

Second, I think the format is perfect for a small group. I am suggesting it for a small group study at my church and will  likely be ordering the DVD.

Third, I appreciate the breadth of Biblical people profiled. Harney isn’t stuck in the New Testament or Old but gives us a nice cross-section of the communion of saints.

Finally, I loved how solid this is. Harney has keen pastoral insights and is judicious in his reading of the Bible. I don’t remember any specific passages where I felt like he fudged it

I give this book four stars and recommend it especially for use in small groups. It may also be read profitably as a small group resource. ★★★★☆

We Cry Freedom: a book review

If God is good, live fully, love boldly and fear nothing because all is grace.

Rick McKinley’s The Answer to Our Cry explores what real freedom is. If you grew up in Sunday School or have imbibed your share of Christian publishing, you know ‘the answer to our cry’ is probably Jesus (♪♫Jesus is the answer for the world today♪). Well that is part right. McKinley leads us through a mediation on how ‘freedom comes only when we are attracted to the communion between the Father, Son and Spirit (15).  You see, God, as Trinity, is the one being free from any need or obligation:

The Triune God is entirely free in himself as Father, Son and Spirit; They are happily united and fulfilled by their own communion within their own being. . . .They created everything seen and unseen so that we can share what they have. That’s just how good God is. (27)

The human experience of freedom is always within bounds. Freedom without boundaries, would lead us to death (like when a man jumps off a building or cheats on his wife).  McKinley argues that for freedom to be sustained it needs a form, and that form is relationship. Thankfully God has made a way for us, in Jesus, to share in the life and relationship of the Triune God. This allows for the fullest expression of sustainable human freedom.

So the answer to our cry (for freedom) is the Triune God, but our example of what real human freedom looks like is Jesus (yay!  Sunday School answer still works!).  Like Jesus, McKinley says Jesus:

  • Lived Fully–because he came from the Father, the Giver of Life
  • Loved Boldly–exemplified especially by his life poured out on the cross for our freedom
  • Feared Nothing–because no power on earth could shake him (28)

And So McKinley exhorts us also to live fully, love boldly and fear nothing. This book explores the nature of what the Christian life is, and can be. McKinley draws on trinitarian theology (recommending Michael Reeve’s Delighting the Trinity)(157). This book is the gospel reexplained and examined in trinitarian terms. It is theological–exploring the themes of God’s love and justice but it is also pastorally sensitive.

I am an occasional listener to the Imago Dei podcast (the church McKinley pastors) and have read a coupe of McKinley’s previous books (This Beautiful Mess and The Advent Conspiracy). I like McKinley’s conversational communication style and appreciate how substantive he is (a rarity for famous pastors).  I would say that this book is deeper than his early volumes, but not necessarily a compelling read. McKinley lays his thesis out early and spends the rest of his chapters expanding the theme. All and all great stuff, but repetitive in places. I give it four stars.

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

Pastors Prepare For What’s Next!: a book review

I am at the beginning of a pastoral succession process. The church I start leading on Sunday, has had a pastor for the past twelve-and-a-half years who is loved by the church and the wider community. This is a woman who has networked, started ministries which reach out to the community and has prayerfully led the church through difficult circumstances. She has a heart for racial justice, community outreach and mission. She leaves this position to focus more in these areas and she will still be part of the church family.

I am the ‘noob.’ I care about many of the same things as the previous pastor and want to see the church impact the wider community but am still at the beginning of learning how to lead a church. I want to do that well. So I read Next: Pastoral Succession That Works with interest hoping to garner whatever kind of wisdom it had for me at this moment in my pastoral career. Authors William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird have years of experience in helping church leaders lead effectively. In  this book, they research successions that work, successions that fail and how church boards and pastoral leaders can plan for a good succession process.

This book wasn’t written directly to me, but for out-going pastors, search committees and elder boards to help them think ahead. Vanderbloemen and Bird noticed that many successful pastors stay in their role past their prime, with no real plan of succession. As a result, the church looses momentum and when the inevitable switch happens it falls off mission and loses membership. They suggest intentionality about the succession process. After all, every pastoral position (or really any position) is temporary. All pastors are interim pastors who steward the church for a term, and they should be thoughtful about how to prepare the way for their successor.

Because Vanderbloemen and Bird base their findings on qualitative research, this book is full of stories of the succession process at various different kinds of churches (both glorious successes and epic failures). They observe that some of the best succession stories happen when churches groom someone from their staff or membership to take the place of the out-going pastor. This makes sense to me, though I think large mega-churches are more likely to have the pool to draw on for this sort of succession (and I am kind of glad the church I was hired at didn’t follow that route).  Also, they speak highly of father-son successions without any worry about nepotism (i.e. Joel Osteen is one of their ‘success’ stories).

However, they do not have a formula ‘one-right-way’ approach. They assert that if God is in it, successions will work. Three pieces of salient advice I found helpful were: (1) intentionality about the succession process-especially in the first 100 days, (2) help from the out-going senior pastor, (3) new pastor honoring their successor and the church’s past.

I think churches will benefit from reading this book, especially when they are in the midst of a search process. Vanderbloemen and Bird talk about the intentional, good sort of succession, but they also address succession problems when a leader unexpectedly dies, has a moral failure or resigns early. A board with proper foresight can plan for every contingency. Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest creating a succession plan and revisiting annually.

At times I disagreed with their pragmatic bent. They seemed to  measure the success of a succession in terms of congregational attendance.  Organizations go through ebbs and flows and I think a church that shrinks from thousands to hundred when the new pastor comes but is more faithful to the gospel, has had a successful succession even if their metrics do not bear this out. God can be in apparent failures too. This doesn’t mean that new pastors should not strive to bring in new sheep and to bear fruit in their ministry. It means that the picture of what it means to be a good, and faithful pastoral servant is more complicated than the picture that Vanderbloemen and Bird suggest.

But practical advice is important and I think that this book will be read with benefit. My own case is not the typical succession and I am blessed to have the input of the previous pastor, a good and faithful servant, mentor and friend. I give it four stars: ★★★★

Thank you to Baker Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Jesus Comes to Somewhere America: a book review

This isn’t the first time I have read a book by Matt Mikalatos. A few years ago, I read The Night of the Living Dead Christian, Mikalatos’s take on the monster novel genre. He humorously used werewolves, vampires, mad scientists, androids and zombies to talk about human sinfulness and our need for spiritual transformation (and its possibility). His first novel, (My) Imaginary Jesus, explored some of the false images of Jesus we Christians present. Mikalatos cast himself as a character in both novels. 

The First Time We Saw Him is not really fiction, but a series of fictionalized retellings of the gospel story with commentary from Mikalatos. Jesus’ life and parables are retold in modern idiom and set in a contemporary American setting. The ‘prodigal son’ goes to Hollywood. The ‘Good Samaritan’ finds a beat up, left for dread truck driver somewhere along the I-5 corridor. Many of the stories about Jesus are not tethered to a particular geographical locale in these narratives. Sometimes I wondered if Jesus lived somewhere near Portland (where Mikalatos lives). Though his death-by-lynching (the closest modern equivalent) may suggest somewhere south east of there. 

Mikalatos is not a character in these stories, though he does share some of his own story of discovering Jesus as he tells his tales. Beginning with Mary’s annunciation (Miryam) and ending with Jesus’ (Joshua’s) post resurrection appearances and ascension, Mikalatos highlights some favorite stories from Jesus life and teaching.  The beauty of this book is it helps us hear Jesus through passages we’ve stopped listening to because we are pretty sure we already know what they mean. Mikalatos helps pull the scales back from our eyes so we see how remarkable Jesus is. 

Certainly Mikalatos is not the first author to revamp the Jesus story. Beyond Jesus Christ Superstar, there are also some thoughtful books which retell the Jesus story. Notably, Clarence Jordon’s Cotton Patch New Testament  casts Jesus as a poor white boy from Valdosta, GA.  Joseph Grizone’s series of novels revolve around Joshua (a modern day Jesus).  Mikalatos’s own efforts do not attain to the level of ‘great literature’ but it is well written and will give you a new window of Jesus’ life. The crucifixion/lynching scene is gruesome and heart-rending. The post resurrection account retains the magic.

There is still a sense of Jesus being lost in translation.  The gospel accounts make allusions to God’s larger story. Placing Jesus in somewhere-in-America removes his particular character and life. This is where Mikalatos  own comments and encouragement to explore the Jesus story yourself remain important. I give this book four stars. 

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