Crouching Corriedale, Christian Dragon: a ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ book review.

 Christians are supposed to be different. They are supposed to be in the world but not of it and reflect Christ’s coming kingdom more than the prince of this age. Yet too often we are indistinguishable from the wider culture, with the same dysfunctions and proclivities.  Nowhere is this felt so acutely as in the realm of power. The ongoing Christian fetish with leadership means the church often mines the corporate world and politics to discover how to lead churches and impact communities. The results are something effective but not without cost. Too often our leadership doesn’t reflect the character of Christ or challenge the power structures.

9780718022358_3Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel are two guys who grew up in a church and wanted to probe what the Christian approach to power and leadership should look like. They observe, “Over time we have come to see the way of power commended in Scripture is not the way of power we have seen in evangelicalism”(xxi). They describe examples of unhealthy power dynamics in the church.For example, Goggin relates visiting a church with a model of a ziggurat in the lobby, the church’s accomplishments on plaques on the side. There was apparently no sense of irony that the church had reconstructed the Tower of Babel in their foyer. Years later the church leadership melted down due to lack of financial accountability, fear and intimidating leadership and divisiveness (59-60).

They delinate other aspects of flawed and toxic leadership in the church:

Leadership of any kind will always be alearning to unhealthy, domineering and narcissistic individuals. The church is not immune to this, because the church can provide a context for power. A toxic leader is someone who maintains power and significance by manipulating followers through their own fundamental drive to be powerful and significant. Toxic leaders dominate and control. Toxic leaders weild their personalities to cement their power, relegating their followers to a position of dependence on them rather than on Christ. Toxic leaders do not develop other leaders, because they pose a threat to their own power. Toxic leaders create an unhealthy symbiosis between themselves and the organizations they lead, such that their absence would equal the collapse of the organization. In other words, a leader is toxic if he ceases to live according to the way of Jesus—the way of love, humanization, and truth, giving himself instead to the way of manipulation, dehumanization and deception (147).

If you have been part of a church, you likely have experienced and seen these dynamics (and maybe caused a few of them?). So, in The Way of Dragon or the Way of the Lamb they take a journey through the landscape of Christian culture to gain wisdom from some Christian sages. They intentionally sought out people who did not use their power for their own sake (16). They interview J.I Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, Jean Vanier and John Perkins.

These sages have a lot to say to Goggin and Strobel! From Packer, they learn that in “Christian life and in ministry, weakness is the way” (23). In their conversation with Jim Houston and his wife Rita, they probe how the quest for power in the church has revealed the quest for self-redemption. In contrast, Christian spirituality points to dependence on Christ and his example of self emptying as the key to human flourishing (43-44). Marva Dawn,  a theologian plagued by a lifetime of physical infirmity, is well acquainted with weakness, but also aware of the need to stand against the powers—insitutional and systemic evil. She points out the power of weakness and standing with the weak.  Perkins reveals the power of love in overcoming racism, xenophobia, and hate. Vanier speaks of the power in shared vulnerability and weakness in community. Peterson describes how to pastor a church in the way of the lamb. Willard described the importance of faithfulness over the value of success (152-53)And they said lots of other things too.

Because this book was fashioned around a series of conversations, it isn’t strictly linear, but cycles around similar themes. I think it is significant that the people profiled here are lions in winter, leaders at the end of their lives reflecting on what it has meant to live a lifestyle that is both faithful to Jesus and reflects the way of the lamb. Since their interviews both Dallas Willard and Rita Houston have gone to be with the Lord.

This is the second book that Goggin and Strobel wrote together (their previous book is Beloved Dust). I loved their first book and I couldn’t help but like this one too. It didn’t hurt that they literally interviewed all my favorite authors. As a Regent College guy, I have been strongly impacted by Peterson, Packer, Houston and Dawn. Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy shaped my understanding of Christian formation. I met Perkins in the midst of urban ministry and found someone who loved more, suffered more and had more wisdom than my (at the time)twenty-something heart could hold. I’ve long admired Vanier and the work of L’Arche and Peterson shaped my entire understanding of what it means to be a pastor. My admiration for each of these folks continues to grow. If evangelicals sainted people, each of these sages would make the short list.

I appreciate the insights that Goggins and Strobel draw from their interviews and their encouragement to lead different and wield power differntly from the world. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. -★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Dangerous Love: a book review

Ray Norman is scholar-in-residence at Messiah College and the director of Fatih Leadership, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at World Vision International and the former national director for World Vision’s program in Isalmic Republic of Mauritania. While he was in Mauritania, in the wake of 9-11, he and his daughter Hannah were shot. Hannah’s situation was critical. Both received medical attention and were evacuated. Both lived. Miraculous, Norman and his family returned to Mauritania. Dangerous Love tells their story of personal risk, the Normans’ commitment to justice and mission, and the radical power of forgiveness.

225_350_book-1780-coverThis book was written more than ten years after the principle crisis it describes. Ray Norman continued his work in Mauritania until he felt God’s call elsewhere. He and Hanna’s story had a major impact on the people of Mauritania, especially those who observed the grace with which they faced near tragedy, and their commitment to caring for the poor and marginalized after being tested by bullets. Because of this instance, Norman got to share his faith with government officials, and commendations from the chief Imam for Norman’s (and World Vision’s) love for the poor of their nation. Hannah and Ray also visited their would-be-murderer in prison and advocated on his behalf. Later he was released from prison and testified to the difference the Norman’s made in his life.

This isn’t all rosy. In a postscript we hear of Hannah visiting Mauritaia ten years later on a college mission trip, which causes a breakdown and panic attack. She  and her family were courageous but that didn’t mean everything was easy.This is a good book if you are interested in mission and stories of how to reach the Muslim world with the love of Christ. I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

Evangelicals Around the World: a book review

Evangelicalism is the Christian movement I was born into and find my spiritual home. Whereas other Christian traditions have an impressive tradition and long pedigree, Evangelicals can be part of an Evangelical denomination, exist within a wider (non-Evangelical) tradition, or be denominationally unaffiliated.  There is no central teaching magistarium so there is a wide diversity in Evangelical doctrine and spirituality; however all Evangelicals hold to the veracity and authority of scripture, cling tenaciously to salvation through Jesus Christ and the missional imperative of preaching the gospel.

Evangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century aims at giving an overview of the world Evangelical movement in all its diversity. Edited by Brian Stiller, Todd Johnson, Karen Stiller and Mark Hutchinson with contributors from all over the world. Brian Stiller begins the book with an introduction to the World Evangelical Alliance (formerly the World Evangelical Fellowship), a transnational organization in which he is the global ambassador. Albert Hickman then provides a brief chronology of 200 important events in Evangelical History before they turn to the essays in this volume,

Roughly the first half the book focuses on issues that characterize the movement and the second half profiles the evangelical movement in geographical context. So it begins with chapters on the evangelical identity and mission, ecumenism and Evangelical interaction with other faiths, the Pentecostal and Charismatic (which overlaps Evangelicalism), and essays about mission and evangelism, prayer, social justice, politics, science, marketplace, stewardship, etc.  The later chapters show statistical data by global regions (the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, North America, Asia, Europe, Oceania) and discuss the unique challenges facing Evangelicals (and Christians in general) on each continent.

This is a good resource book to have on hand. As with all multi-contributor volumes, there are chapters that stand out, and some that are overly simple. It demonstrates well  the wide diversity of the movement. Noteable contributors include R. Paul Stevens (Evangelicals and the Marketplace), Ron Sider (Evangelicals and Social Justice), Miriam Adeney (Evangelicals and Other Religions), Timothy George (Evangelicals and Roman Catholics), and more.

The statistical data ad regional essays were particularly useful for me as I prepared a prayer guide for a prayer event for my church. I give this four stars.

Note: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers and Thomas Nelson in exchange for my honest review.

Searching For Sunday: a book review

Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger and author on Christian spirituality. I don’t always love her blog posts or short articles, but I’ve found many helpful. I have shared her posts via social media (along with everyone else you know). Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church is Evans at her best.

Framed around the Catholic church’s seven sacraments (Baptism, Confession, Holy Orders, Communion, Confirmation, Anointing the Sick and Marriage), Evans tells of her journey with church.  She tells of her evangelical upbringing, her growing church angst, her involvement in planting a missional/emergent type church, her inclusive vision of communion and meal/life sharing, her experience of the Spirit and entering into the wounds of others and how the mystery of marriage images the Kingdom (and the church).

Evans was raised in a conservative evangelical environment. All her books and a good many of her blog posts describe her journey to a more progressive faith. She believes in evolution, argues passionately for inclusion of the LGBTQ community, and reacts strongly against the glitzy mega-church model prevalent in evangelicalism. She also, as her book’s structure indicates, moved in a more sacramental understanding of church.

One of the reasons why Evans is such a compelling and important voice is how honestly she opens up about her journey and shows empathy to the voices and people who have been marginalized by the church. She isn’t a pastor or Bible scholar or theologian. She is a regular person who has struggled with church, theology and spirituality. As somebody who has not made the journey with Rachel to the land of post-evangelicalism, I still consider her an ally and think that she gives voice to what a lot of people feel. People who love the church and have been hurt by it. People who have longed for community and felt excluded. People who tried to walk away from the church but have been drawn back in by the beauty of sacraments and liturgy, on the church’s better days.

I don’t think Evans is right about everything and if I could sit down and have a conversation with Evans I would challenge many of her conclusions. But I appreciate the honesty she has and her journey to the stance she takes. This is a worthwhile read. I give it four stars and recommend it for anyone sorting through what they think of church. I hope that readers of this book will come out the other side to vigorous participation in the local church (as Evans does with the Episcopal church).

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Nelson Books via the Book Look Bloggers program 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.

The Leap of Paradox: a book review

If you want a simple, step-by-step approach to the Christian faith don’t read The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. Like his earlier volume, Pursuing Justice, Wytsma examines an idea from many different angles. In the former book he looked at the mosaic of justice. Here he turns around the jewel of ‘faith’ in all its mysterious and messy glory. This isn’t a book about easy faith with pat answers.  Wytsma is much more interested in the paradoxical nature of faith–how walking by faith calls us to ‘live the questions’ (13).  In the place of answers, Wytsma calls us to something deeper: trust in God.

That Wytsma examines  a topic from various angles shouldn’t be too surprising, he wears a few different hats. He is the lead pastor of Antioch in Bend, Oregon and a philosopher who teaches at Kilns College. As the founder of The Justice Conference he moderates a discussion on biblical justice and how to care for the vulnerable. He is also a C.S. Lewis aficionado. So in these pages Wytsma offers reflections that are pastoral, theologically rich, philosophically deep and practically engaged. There are a number of rich insights here, though not always ‘easy reading.’

Wytsma begins his paradoxical look at faith by examining Joshua’s defeat of Jericho. The plan that God gave Joshua was to walk around Jericho with the ark and blow horns, watch the walls fall down and take the city. From a strategic perspective this is a terrible plan, but through it God demonstrated that the victory was his and not the might of Joshua and Israel (4). The Jericho example sets us up for the nature of faith–where we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Sometimes the stuff God calls us to makes no sense, from a human point of view. Wytsma writes, “Walking by faith doesn’t bring the control or sense of satisfaction we desire, and over time, it guarantees a measure of suffering. Walking by faith on the other hand, can feel like walking blind–an even more dangerous idea–and we know that it, too, will involve suffering. Both alternatives seem undesirable.” If that was where things ended, faith or no faith carries no special promise. But Wytsma goes on, ” It is the faithfulness, the promise, and presence of God that give us a way out of the catch-22″ (16). God, and God alone provides a way through the paradox.

In chapter three Wytsma (with a great deal of Kierkegaard) describes he nature of  authentic faith as trust in God, though we don’t understand him (26). In chapter four he discusses how Christian wisdom may look like folly to the uninitiated and therefore close-communion with God is required for us to know that we are on the right track. In chapter five, Wytsma examines the imperative of justice for all who claim Jesus as savior. Chapter six examines how the pursuit of happiness (in the ancient sense) encapsulates all that is necessary for human flourishing and therefore is a necessary component of the virtuous and godly life. Chapter seven examines the interplay between doubt and faith, Chapters eight and nine examine personal calling where chapters ten and eleven examine the wider cultural landscapes. Chapter twelve examines the role of church and the final three chapters unfold the eschatological dimensions of faith.

I appreciate many of the insights Wytsma has here. I am a new pastor who has been preaching on discipleship through Lent and I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradox of discipleship. Wytsma has been a good dialogue partner and has pointed me to other theologians too. Where a lot of pastor/authors are light on content, and where justice practitioners sometimes lack thoughtfulness it is refreshing to read  a book from a justice-loving-pastor which is meaty, challenging, theological and inspiring. This is a comprehensive guide to the pursuit of God and it gives space for questions, doubt and uncertainty while still calling us to greater trust and obedience. That I appreciate.

My convoluted (and small) critique of this book is that I think he emphasizes the personal dimensions of faith at the beginning of the book to the exclusion of  its communal aspects. Wytsma doesn’t explore the church until chapter twelve. Eschatology comes later. Yes, I know he is a pastor and he cares about justice (which he addresses beautifully in chapter five), I just wish the company of witnesses was named earlier and given their due throughout. I give this book a solid four stars.

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

The Mosaic of Justice: a book review

Say you wrested a shard of glass from its setting in a beautiful mosaic, took it home and placed it on the table and declared to anyone in earshot, “This is a magnificent piece of art!” Ken Wytsma  says, “No matter how lovely that single shard was it in no way captures the glory of the whole” (6). And yet often our treatment of justice, is a mere single shard treatment:

Justice is like a mosiac. It’s not only about single pieces–it’s about all the pieces working together in a stunning whole. All too often we believe that our desire to pursue justice can only be lived out or understood in a single shard. Criminal justice. International development. Creation care. Education. Anti-trafficking. Works of mercy and love.

All of these shards are vital parts of God’s mosaic of justice. (Wytsma, Pursuing Justice 6-7)

Wytsma’s book Pursuing Justice explores the multifaceted nature of justice and helps us get a sense of God’s larger vision for Justice. Wytsma, who launched the annual Justice Conference is passionate about presenting justice in all its full-orbed flavor.  So he explores how justice helps us know God and live in light of the good news, gives us meaning significance and happiness, confronts our own religious hypocrisy, and challenges our consumerism. worship,He also explores how justice, needs to be done justly and wisely to be truly just, and the ways that jutice enables real relationship between people and people and people and God.

The chapters of this book are punctuated with interludes—interviews, poems, pictures and poetic prose which evoke our concern for deeper justice. Wytsma tackles some heavy issues (i.e. sex trafficking and sexual violence, racism, poverty, etc. These little ‘interludes’  help maintain a hospitable place to explore the issues.

I liked this book a lot and plan to refer back to it. It is rare to find an author that opens up the concept of justice so completely. I mean, Wolterstorff, kind of does but he isn’t accessible to the general reader. Wytsma on the other hand has graphics, stories and personal examples which are compelling. I give this book five stars and recommend this to anyone wishing to explore the meanng of God’s justice and what it means to act justly and love mercy. ★★★★★

I received this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.