Jihad Jesus: a book review

In a post 9-11 world, jihad is a scary concept for many of us in the West. We look at ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas and violence done in Allah’s name and we are. . .nervous. Each of these organizations represent militant, extreme versions of Islam, but isn’t jihad a central tenant of Islam? Certainly we can point to some pretty terrible moments of Muslim history; however we have some terrible moments of our own: the crusades, inquisition, the holocaust (the Nazis weren’t Christian, but Christians are still implicated) and more. Muslims are as perturbed by Christian violence as we are by theirs. In The Jihad of Jesus: The Sacred Nonviolent Struggle for Justice, Dave Andrews examines the mutual history of Holy War in Christianity and Islam, naming evil where he finds it and illuminating the Christian and Muslim jihad for peace

9781498217743Andrews is a Christian, Anarchist, Australian committed to following Jesus consistently in the way of peace and is active in Christian community development among Aboriginals and refugees in Brisbane. He wrote The Jihad of Jesus in conversation with Muslims. While so much jihad talk moves towards fear-mongering (“they are out to get us”) or damage control (“jihad doesn’t mean ‘holy war’ it means  something like ‘sacred struggle'”), Andrews’s dialog with Islam is characterized by both humility and truth.  He isn’t afraid to call certain acts evil, but he has the grace to turn the same critical eye on his own tradition, identifying where Christians have also gotten it wrong.

Andrews begins with a section entitled “The Jihad of Dajjall.”(Dajjall  means ‘deceiver’ and is kind of like a Muslim Antichrist). Chapter one explores Christian’s use of ‘holy war’ and violence against others through out history and in our current context. Chapter two does the same for Islam. The third chapter critically engages these ‘so-called holy wars’ showing how in both Christianity and Islam have a history of doing evil things in the name of God. He closes this section critiquing ‘closed set’ religion and arguing for ‘open-set’ religion. Andrews contends that most of the conflicts between Christians and Muslims has happened on the boundaries:

It is through defending these boundaries of belief and behavior that religious people define their religious identity. Hence Christians and Muslims have tended to fight to not only to define but also defend these boundaries of belief and behavior to the death, because not only their religious identity, but also their eternal destiny, depends on it. . . .Is [defending the boundaries] violent? Not necessarily. But normally. For three reasons. One: Christians and Muslims tend to defend their boundaries to the death. Two: the best form of defense has always been attack. And, three: there are plenty of competing groups fighting for the right to define and defend their boundaries of belief and behavior for themselves. (72)

A ‘open set’ approach, by contrast, focuses on the center: Isa (Jesus) and the  Bismallah (the Arabic equivalent to the Shema) Rather than defining and defending religion:

The essence of open set religion is all about becoming more open to God and encouraging everyone to become more open to God. Conversion for Christians and Muslims within a closed set perspective may mean confessing the creed or the kalimah. Conversion for Christians and Muslims seen from an open set perspective means constantly turning and moving towards the compassionate spirit of God, exemplified in Isa and the Bismillah, whether we use that language or not, judging our lives, for ourselves, in the light of God’s love, and beginning to trust His love, to sustain us, on the journey of the greater jihad of personal growth and the lesser jihad of social change that He is calling us to be involved with. (75)

So openness doesn’t apply a ‘looseness’ in the concept of God, but an intense focus and openness to the God that sits at the center of our own tradition. Here Andrews is making a nod towards E. Stanley Jones approach to interfaith evangelism, ““Get the center right, and the circumference takes care of itself.”(76).

In part two, “The Jihad of Jesus” reframes jihad as non-violent struggle, shows how Jesus’ life and teaching is our model, and recollects non-violent struggles from the history of Christianity and Islam. Chapter four  begins with a look of how terrorist organizations train otherwise good people to commit heinous acts before looking at how to retool the nature of jihad.  Chapter five focuses on Jesus’ as our supreme example. Chapter six has other exemplars (both Christian and Muslim) and what we can learn from their non-violent jihads.

This book recovers the term Jihad and reloads it with peace, justice and spiritual vitality. Andrews exemplifies not only how Christians may behave better to our Muslim neighbors, but suggests ways that we can also be sharpened and learn from them. As a Christian reader, I appreciated how a life centered on Christ, responding in openness to Jesus, pushes  me towards the struggle for non-violence. I think this is absolutely correct. It is Christendom with its empire building that makes war and violence a viable option.

I like where Andrews takes the open/closed set distinction, but I suppose I may still be somewhat closed-set.  Jesus (and the early church) make some pretty exclusive claims about salvation being through Him alone (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). There is common ground  but there will be tension at the boundaries, though the focus should remain at the center of our faith traditions.  I certainly don’t want to ‘build a wall’ at the border to ‘keep Muslims out.’ Dialogue is mutually edifying.

So don’t let the provocative title scare you.  This a book that will encourage Christians to be more like Christ in our work for Justice. Muslim readers shouldn’t be afraid either. Andrews isn’t secretly trying to convert you, and he doesn’t malign Islam (which is rare for Christian authors!). I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from the publisher via, SpeakEasy in exchange or my honest review.

Religious Worship As Political Act: a book review

It is an election year and so the circus begins again. Republicans and Democrats have begun Caucusing. If you examine where the candidates of both parties stand on various issues, you will see evidence of a great divide in the American political consciousness. Democrats and Republicans share increasingly little common ground. However both parties employ a common a strategic use of religious language in support of their divergent political aims.

Sacramental PoliticsBrian Kaylor (Ph.D, University of Missouri) is the Communications and Engagement leader at Churchnet. He is also a journalist who has taught political communication at James Madison University. Sacramental Politics  examines the way religion is co-opted in the political sphere and suggestively explores the political nature of Christian praxis.

Kaylor calls the use of religion in politics,’transubstantiated rhetoric,’ and pulls up plenty examples from the past decades.  The first part of his book, Kaylor considers ‘the obvious examples of worship as political action’: when politicians pray, speak at or attend religious gatherings or church services, or when clergy speaks up on political issues, parties or candidates. In the second half of the book, he turns his focus towards the non-partisan, but altogether political/religious acts: communion, baptism, confirmation, confession, etc.

This is a well-researched book. Kaylor presents many examples from past and current politicians, all documented with copious footnotes. He shows how politicians use religion to justify their ends (i.e. praying campaign slogans) and to project certainty (52). While the Right is the more overtly religious, the political left also makes use of religious rhetoric.

It is the second part of the book that I think is the most interesting. Here Kaylor explores the political dimensions of religious ritual (focused particularly of Christian religious ritual). The power of ritual is not just about forming you into a good American, but the idea is that things like liturgy, Eucharist or Baptism and sacred song makes you into something else. Quoting William Cavanaugh, Kaylor writes, “The Liturgy does more than generate interior motivations to be better citizens. The liturgy generates a body, the Body of Christ–the Eucharist makes the church” (158).  He discusses how religious ritual transcends and calls into question, partisan allegiance. He also shows examples of how church worship and religious practice provided the wherewithal to take stands for civil rights (in the case of MLK or Clarence Jordan) or Nationalism (like the Mennonites).

Kaylor is descriptive of the way religion and politics meld in the American political landscape. He argues that religion inherently carries with it political implications:

[S]everal different types of political actions are possible within religious worship. It may be partisan or nationalistic, or it might serve to offer allegiance to an alternative rule; it may promote public policies or political messages, or it might serve to create a space for doing politics differently. Regardless of which political response is undertaken, religious worship carries  political messages, expectations, and deeds. (225).

The central argument of this book, pushes us toward a conscious awareness of the political implications of our own faith. Kaylor wants to move us beyond partisan religious rhetoric to see how our religious practice shapes us into an alternative polis. Kaylor wants us to see that our worship is poltical, and therefore political worship is a political act (193). This helps us imagine new possibilities.

Kaylor has plenty of examples from the Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Reagan administrations. Carter gets few mentions, and George H.W. Bush is missing from his analysis, but the general principles still apply. The book was published in 2015 before the players in this election were sorted out. Thus he covers some of the major players of partisan politics for this cycle (i.e. folks like Rubio, Cruz, Huckabee) but doesn’t address other significant players like Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders.  I  did notice a couple of textual errors(i.e., he mistakenly calls Wayne Grudem, ‘Wayne Gruden’ on page 60), nothing major. Kaylor’s analysis is comprehensive but not exhaustive and certainly more can be added to his argument as this election season shakes out.

This book has a very Mennonite-y feel (which I like).  Kaylor’s arguments reminded me of similar ones made by Hauerwas, and Yoder, though they aren’t cited in the text (he cites Cavanaugh which is enough).  I give this four stars.

note: I received this from SpeakEasy on Tap in exchange for my honest review.

With Mild Abandon: a book review.

When we hear the word ‘abandon,’ we think of orphans and stray kittens, left to fend for themselves. This isn’t exactly what Tim Timberlake has in mind. He wrote Abandon to exhort us toward self-abandonment–the giving our whole selves over to God. Grounded in the Jacob story (Genesis 25-31), Timberlake tells us how Jacob moved from being a self-centered deceiver to a recipient of God’s blessing.

abandon_webcover-200x300Timberlake unfolds his message in three phases. In phase one, chapters one through three, he invites us to the ‘Don’t-Do-It-Yourself’ life where we stop feeding ourselves with junk that leaves empty but follow and believe. In phase two, chapters four and five, he talks about the challenge of temptation and faulty thinking, exit strategies and what it takes for us to overcome. In phase three, chapters six through nine,  he explores what transformation looks like.

This is a quick read and has the potential to be helpful, especially for young and new Christians. I appreciated that Timberlake took the time to retell the story of Jacob before launching in. It rooted his words in a story of transformation that Bible readers know, and it gave the text a practical dimension.

However this rootedness doesn’t continue in substantial way after the first part of the book. Timberlake starts uses Bible verses looser. Sometimes he uses a passage illustratively, and  does it well.  Sometimes he proof-texts. Occasionally his interpretations get a little flighty.

For example, he quotes Numbers 23:23, “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, What hath God wrought!” He observes that Jacob and Israel are used through out scripture to refer to Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel. But then he writes, ” The word enchantment is tied to “Jacob,” and divination is tied to “Israel.” Enchantment is a word meaning invocation of demons, which fits with Jacob’s personality of deceit, and divination means to discover something by means of supernatural powers, as is fitting for Israel, a prince of God” (146). He uses this passage to illustrate the different ways we are perceived, but this misinterpets the parallelism and rips the verse out of its context–Balaam’s prophecy about the nation of Israel.

Another thing that didn’t sit well was the revolution I didn’t see anywhere in this book. Timberlake exhorts us to obey God, have faith, and to allow Christ to shape us. But the light at the end of it is what? successful living, blessing, abundant life.  The self we have been asked to abandon seems very much alive, and a lot of Timberlake’s advice sound more like ‘how to get ahead God’s way’ than ‘how to live a life  which prophetically announces God’s coming kingdom.’ He talks about the power of positive thinking (168) and there is a ring of prosperity in some of his phrases.

On the other hand,  Timberlake talks realistically throughout his book about setbacks, hardtimes and valleys. He offers sound advice on managing your emotions. I can’t say this book is bad or harmful. It just doesn’t paint a compelling vision of what it means to take up your cross and follow Christ. I give this two-and-a-half stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255


Soulmaking in Your Dreams Kid! a book review

Troy Caldwell, M.D. is psychiatrist and spiritual director. In his clinical role, he  began seeing God work directly in the souls of his patients. This, combined with his interest in Spiritual Theology  he studied at the Anglican School of Theology)  propelled him into the role of Spiritual Director. He wrote Adventures in Soulmaking to tell stories of those he’s walked alongside, to explore ‘the patterns of Christian spiritual passage,’ to encourage people to be more conscious of their spiritual journey and as an aide to helping professionals (pastors and spiritual directors). Caldwell combines the insights of the Christian mystical tradition with the depth psychology of Carl Jung.

a219b0_77301c3cf5ae460c99c29211f7d52b33Adventures in Soul Making is presented in two parts. Part one provides a ‘coherent model of the soul.’ Caldwell begins with the story of a peddler who gives all his wares away and  isat the point of starvation, when a dream leads him to discover a treasure buried by his cabin. While listening to dreams may sound foolish to some (like one character in the peddler story), Caldwell sees this as a place for revelation of our deepest self and a place for Divine encounter. Caldwell shares his own story and stories from directees to illustrates dreams’ importance and the insights from Jung.  Next he explores  the ‘spiral path’ of Christian Spirituality (the Purgative, the Illuminative and the Unitive). Unitive is the goal but much of the focus of this book is on the Illuminative. Chapters four and five speak of the soul and levels of consciousness. Chapter six describes Nous Theology. Caldwell calls the Nous, our deepest self and he sets it in opposition to sarx (our base desires which cause us to sin (72-76). The next chapters (seven through twelve) dig into the importance of symbol and archetype (concepts gleaned from Jung but illustrated through Bible passages).  Chapter thirteen explores how symbols and archetypes reveal the meaning of our dreams.

Part two (chapters fourteen to twenty) explores deeper  important spiritual practices (i.e. the examen,contemplative prayer, scriptural meditation, lectio divina, journaling, inner healing prayer, etc) and tools for discernment. This is the more practical, less theory side of the book.

This is an interesting book and Caldwell has many fine things to say. I have been blessed by spiritual direction and appreciate the insights of psychology; nevertheless Caldwell’s use of Jung and archetypal symbols seems a bit esoteric to me.  At one point, Caldwell quotes a Gnostic gospel to illustrate his nous theology. Later he directs his readers to listen to a Twila Paris song. Somewhat eclectic sourcing here.

This is a book about the spiritual life. It is about going deep into yourself, paying attention to your inner dynamics and the power of Christ to bring personal breakthroughs. I find myself agreeing with the practices that Caldwell suggests without feeling like I can endorse his theology wholesale. There is a strong body/soul dualism running through his theology and method.  Talk of higher consciousness and archetypes are sometimes illuminating, but they also lend to a sort of neo-gnosticism. I find troubling. The emphasis throughout this book is on our own subjective spiritual experience. I am not dismissing Caldwell as a Gnostic or denying the reality of  spiritual experience. I am noting my unease with certain directions.

One of my standing critiques of self-published works is that reading them, you feel the editor’s absence. That is true here too, though in Caldwell’s case I think he has a narrative flow, and no grating grammar problems. I think this book would be helped if his prose was more concise and the book was shorter and the organization was tightened up a little bit.

These criticisms aside, I like this book enough to keep it on my shelf and there are sections I will likely refer back to. Certainly God uses symbols and the symbolic world to communicate to us. I appreciate Caldwell’s call for us to pay attention to where we are and where God is leading. I give this 3 and a half stars.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Goins Places: a book review

This is the fourth book I’ve read by Jeff Goins. The first three were okay. There was his straight-to-ebook You are a Writer, a sort of ‘You Can Do!’ motivational message for people who want to write. Wrecked and The In-Between were better each exploring   Goins’s story and calling. They kind of blend together for me, and I don’t remember which book said what or  much from either one. For a while I read Goins’s blog but I there were one too many posts on how he built his brand and how I can  grow my online platform. These sorts of posts bore me to tears (but had I listened this blog would be epic). I quit reading.

0718022076_4I tell you this because I genuinely like The Art of Work.  Like his early books, it is rooted in Goins’s call as a writer, his desire to speak life to others and his ability to share his (and others’) stories. But this is a more mature offering. Goins walks his readers through a ‘proven path’ for discovering our vocation.  With Goins, we learn to find our calling through:

  • Listening to our Lives
  • Apprenticing ourselves to others
  • Having plenty of  practice
  • Building bridges for discovery
  • Pressing through failure
  • Mastering a set of skills to create a ‘portfolio life’
  • Creating our legacy

Goins is somewhere is  in his early thirties but I’m sure he gets carded all the time. He looks very young. When I read other books I felt like this kid didn’t have the understanding and  experience necessary to dispense the type of life advice he’s trying to. I didn’t feel like that with this book. Goins draws on the wisdom of other writers  (like Parker Palmer and Fredrick Buechner) and shares anecdotes  from others  who have discovered (and lived out!) their life purpose. Maybe it is that Goins earlier books were more anecdotal and this is better researched. Whatever it is I like it.

I  recommend this for anyone struggling  to find out what they are on earth for. The appendix has exercises and discussion questions designed to help you engage, implement this book.

Note: I received this book via SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Therefore Let Us Keep the Feast: a book review

Have you ever sat down for multi-course gourmet meal? Beyond the  typical four-course, western meal (appetizer, salad, main course, dessert), the most courses I’ve enjoyed in one sitting was eight or nine courses at a Chinese wedding reception.  Each dish was more flavorful than the last. A culinary delight, pure pleasure, a picture of heaven. But our ordinary fare is not like this. We eat fast food we picked up on the go, never sitting down to savor our food or the relationships around the table, monotonous microwaveable meals, junk food with little nutritional substance, and food processed by the industrial food complex. I’m overstating a little. Many of us are better than that. We are foodies who delight in home-grown, slow food, lovingly prepared and brought from the farm to the table. But what are our spiritual diets like? Do we subsist on bland prayers or ‘ the processed’ devotion of others? Our we filling up on junk when we are invited to sit down to gourmet meal?

Pray Like A Gourmet by David Brazzeal (Paraclete Press, 2015)

David Brazzeal  lives in Paris, serves on the International Mission Board in Brazil, Guadeloupe, Quebec and France, helps lead five innovative churches, writes poetry, composes music, and creates guerrilla labyrinths. In Pray Like A Gourmet: Creative Ways to Feed Your SoulBrazzeal invites us to the banquet of prayer. He discusses how his own spiritual malnourishment led him to press into God in prayer and experience him in a vibrant way. His goal is to whet our appetites for communion through God by unfolding the many courses available to us as we taste and see the Lord is good. But this is not simply a petition for a deeper and richer prayer life. Brazzeal shares his experience of each course that is lovingly laid out before us,  and he directs us to creative ‘recipes’ designed to help us to enter more fully into each dimension of prayer. Drawing, writing poetry, singing songs, listening to music, walking through nature, word games,  reading, intercessory prayer plans and legal pads have ingredients which add spice, enrich and expand our enjoyment and experience of God in prayer.

What are the courses? Brazzeal starts with the standard recipe for prayer many of us were taught—ACTS: Adoration (Praise), Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication (Asking).  He adds seven more courses: Observation, Intercession, Meditation, Contemplation, Blessing, Lamenting,  and Joining. Finally he discusses how to bring a more gourmet prayer life to the routines of life and to our shared life with others.

We all get bored with the same old fare, eating the same meal everyday. How many days of leftovers can you handle? Brazzeal’s book is an invitation to a richer and more varied spiritual diet.  He is a Creative, and sees the intimate link between creativity and spirituality. I absolutely love the ‘recipes’ and am eager to make more and taste more. There is a nice balance between form and improvisation (he gives you a structure but doesn’t expect you to follow it woodenly) Brazzeal also has a rare gift of cutting through the ethereal and offering a practical approach to prayer. For example, his exploration of confession exhorts us to acknowledge sin and screw-ups, but he sets this in the wider category of a ‘reality check’ and taking an honest assessment of our life and circumstances (see chapter eight). He offers practical suggestions and clarifications on every aspect of prayer listed.

I give this book five stars and recommend it to anyone feeling stuck, hungry, or bored in their prayer life.

Note: I received this book from the author or publisher through Speakeasy on Tap in exchange for my honest review.

the Road to Recovery and Freedom: a book review.

I love reading autobiographical tales of how someone overcame incredible odds and found new purpose in life. In Against All Odds, Joe Tarasuk tells a personal tale of his life as an addict, a drug dealer, a felon, a reformed, co-dependent ex-con, and finally his work to open a new residential recovery program, Crossroads Freedom Center in Ijamsville, Maryland. Tarasuk had felt the reality of the spiritual world for quite some time before his conversion to Christianity. He also felt God’s protection along the way, even when his life was still in shambles. But his experience of blessing and his eventual wholeness comes as he meets Jesus and grows in faith in Him

This is an incredible story and good example of how God’s grace can operate in the muck and murkiness of our life. I commend Tarasuk’s story and applaud his leadership and work with those in his substance abuse recovery program. I also appreciated that while his conversion story and faith journey is dramatic, =Tarasuk knows the pain from his journey. He watched his first wife die from an addiction related incident and he walked with her faihtfully for years. This is not a Pollyanna-come-to-Jesus-and everything-is-immediately-fixed kind of narrative, though Tarasuk’s rhetoric sounds like that at times. To be sure, there are aspects of his story which are incredible, his thirty-five year sentence for drug trafficking is forgiven after eighteen months served, and through the ordeal he befriends law enforcement officers. That testifies to the work of God in his life.

So if I give this book a slightly lower grade, it isn’t because I don’t like Tarasuk or his story. I just wish this was written better. At times this book feels tedious and repetitive. At other points it seemed a little self aggrandizing. I think Tarasuk’s story should be told but this book deserved tighter prose and a keen editorial eye. I give this book three stars.

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