Babylon Bee Yourself: a book review

I am an occasional reader of the Babylon Bee and occasionally share their satirical articles on social media.  Or more than occasionally. I’m a Babylon Bee oversharer. I have appreciated their acerbic wit and the way they turned their scathing, tongue-in-cheek critique on the Evangelical industrial-complex. Often the headline does it for me. I don’t always read the articles even when I shared them. Yeah, I’m that guy.

But the Babylon Bee has now moved into new territory, beyond the ethereal internet onto a palpable (and pulpable) printed page, a Babylon Bee book, How to Be A Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide to Flawless Spiritual Living. This is your guidebook for navigating evangelicalism. This includes joining the right church, with just the perfect mix of over-the-top pyrotechnics and punny church signs. It means always giving off the appearance of everything being “fine,” doing life together without letting community get too deep, vulnerable or authentic, serving God without doing much of anything, exploring ways to look spiritual online, inhabiting the Christian subculture and being sufficiently cut off from the wider world, conforming to mainstream Christian beliefs, crusading against the heathens and fighting those cultural wars.

Yes, it lampoons everything that drives you crazy about the Evangelical subculture and all those things that drive people away from the church. OMG, Evangelicals are a bunch of hypocrites. They are shallow, judgy, self-centered, dismissive of outsiders, and live in their own bubbles. Haha. Get it? It’s funny because it’s true. 

Adam Ford (creator of the Babylon Bee) and Kyle Mann (current head writer and showrunner for all things Bee) collaborated to bring this book to print. Writing humor is a difficult thing, and the Bee often succeeds admirably. I can’t say I enjoy this print edition all that much. Perhaps it is that for humor to be rip-roaringly funny, there has to be an element of surprise to it. If satirizing the evangelical subculture is amusing on page 3 (why do books always start on page 3?), I  found I was barely interested in the topic by page 192.  The last 9/10 of this book were a bit of a slog. There was no surprise, the jokes become more and more predictable. If the concept was fresh at the beginning (big if), by the end, Ford and Mann are almost wholly reliant on snark to keep their readership’s interest. So like my online-sharing self, the headlines grab me, but I lose interest in the long haul.

But beyond the humor, I kept asking myself, “what is this book trying to say?” Creator of the Onion (internet satire par excellence), Scott Dikkers writes in How to Write Funny,  “Satire has something to say—something important—that’s hidden in the literal text.” What was the point? Did I feel like I was being challenged to do something different? Is there a prophetic edge to what Mann and Ford are saying? Maybe. My sense is that their lambast of the Christian subculture re-enforces in the reader their own judgment against perceived evangelical shallowness. Moreover, the caricature of the movement is so overdrawn, it would be difficult for any reader to find themselves (we will only see those we already dismiss). There is snark but no prophetic edge. I wish the Babylon Bee was more like Samantha Bee (but with fewer F-bombs).

If you enjoy reading everything from the Bee, you probably will find this book enjoyable too. I was a little underwhelmed but certainly, there is value in being able to laugh at yourself. I give this three stars.  ★★★

I received a copy of this book from the publisher and have provided you with my honest review.

 

Only Love is Credible: a book Review

Brian Zahnd was a big fan of the Angry God. As a young pastor, he carried around a handwritten copy of Sinner’s in the Hands of an ANGRY GOD, Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon. He memorized portions of the sermon, in order to give preaching more of an edge, so he could draw sinners to repentance as Edwards had done. However, Zahnd since discovered the Father revealed to us through Jesus Christ is not the violent, angry, retributive monster god articulated in Edwards’s sermon.

SinnersWrestling with issues like Old Testament genocide, Jesus crucifixion, eternal punishment in hell, and the final judgment, Zahnd re-presents to us the Christian God—a God who is Love, not wrath. But just because the God Zahnd now preaches is loving, not angry, doesn’t mean he doesn’t deal with sin. We are Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. The monsters are the things that keep us from finding our life in Him. Zahnd writes:

Today my handmade copy of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is stored safely away among other memorabilia. I’m no longer mining it for material to terrorize sinners. The monster god has faded away and today I preach the beauty of God revealed in the face of Christ. But that doesn’t mean there are no monsters.  The monsters of war, violence, greed, exploitation, racism, genocide, and every other form of antihuman abuse continue to inflict  our species with unimaginable suffering. If we try to manipulate these monsters for our own self-interest, they eventually turn on us and destroy us. (22).

Zahnd’s book unfolds in 10 chapters. Chapter 1 describes Zahnd’s shift from believing in the mere angry God, to believing in the loving God. Chapter 2 examines how Jesus closed the book of vengeance by emphasizing the “Jubilee good news of pardon, amnesty, liberation, and restoration” (44) in his reading of the Old Testament.  Chapter 3 discusses the importance of interpreting the violent and troubling passages through the lens of Jesus.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion. Zahnd eschews interpretations of the cross that appeal to fear-mongering, instead, the cross emphasizes the love of God:

I’m not afraid of God. I used to be, but I am no longer. I am no longer afraid of God because I have come to know God as he is revealed in Christ. I have come to know that God’s single disposition toward me is not one of unconditional, unwavering love. The knowledge of God’s love has made it impossible for me to be afraid of God. (97).

As such, Zahnd does not believe that the Father was a blood-thirsty God demanding Jesus death in order to save some. No, Zahnd argues:

When we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving our sins. By saying “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are politically religious systems that orchestrated Jesus’s death. At the cross we see how Adam and Eve’s penchant for shifting blame and Cain’s capacity for killing led to the ultimate crime : the murder of God (109).

In chapter 6, Zahnd describes the doctrine of Hell. As with the Angry God, Zahnd used to like Hell a lot but observes that many (evangelical) interpreters make Jesus’ word’s of judgment about the afterlife when he intends to talk about injustice and consequences in this life. He also challenges as fundamentalist fiction the notion that the sufferers of Auschwitz or godly non-Christians (like Abraham Heschel) are consigned to eternal torment (144-45).

chapters 7 through 9, describe Jesus, the Lamb of Revelation and the final judgment. Chapter 10 forms the conclusion: “Love alone is credible.”

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is similar to other recent books which question the traditional Angry God of evangelicalism. I think of recent publications from Brad Jerzak, Greg Boyd, Thomas Oord, Keith Giles, Rob Bell.  People who love John Piper (and are therefore more Reformed than God) will not like this all that much. If you feel, as many of my Reformed friends, that we are only drawn to God by feeling the weight and cost of our sinfulness, then you won’t enjoy this book. However, if you believe, as I do that, that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance(Rom.2:4), then you will be challenged and inspired by Zahnd’s words.

Zahnd does emphasize the here and now sometimes at the expense of the Hereafter. Of course, historically evangelicals have done the reverse, speaking only of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-when-you-abide-in-the-great-by-and-by. Both this age and the age to come are part and parcel of the gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus preached, and I think it is appropriate to speak of the former alongside the latter. I also wonder if Zahnd under-emphasizes some of God’s anger. It is always the loving who get angry, and I think it makes sense to still speak of an angry God in that context. Still, it is not as though Zahnd ignores human sinfulness and its destructive power for human souls.

I have talked with too many people whose experience of evangelicalism is one of judgment, anger and wrath. I recommend this book (along with books like Brad Jersak’s A More Christlike God) as representative as a more gracious depiction of biblical orthodoxy. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review

And it was Very Good: a ★★★★★book review

A number of recent publications have helped us enlarge our frame of what the gospel is beyond ‘pie in the sky in the great by-and-by.’ Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel (Waterbrook Press, forthcoming June 2016) is one such book. Harper helps us see the expansive implications of the biblical concept of shalom (peace). Our contemporary concept of peace is deficient—our imagination forged in the eras of Cold War stalemates and our tenuous Post-9/11 world cries for ‘peace in the middle east.’ The biblical concept of peace is more robust than the mere cessation of conflict. It involves good news to the poor and oppressed, justice for all, and “God’s vision for the emphatic goodness of all relationships” (14-15). In short shalom means that everything wrong can be made right.

27177624Harper’s voice is one I trust. I have read her online articles at Sojourners (where she is the chief church engagement officer), and The Huffington Post and I follow her on social media. With Leroy Barber she was on the ground in Ferguson training clergy on how to respond to the crisis. She is a passionate advocate for social justice tackling racism, economic injustice and systemic oppression. As an African American woman she brings perspective and insight to these issues; however, what also makes The Very Good Gospel so very good is her deeply rooted faith and her serious engagement with biblical theology.

Harper draws on the insights of Walter Bruggemann (who writes the forward), Miroslav Volf, and a host of other scholars, commentators and researchers). In this book she unfolds the biblical concept of shalom. She explores what it means to live at peace with God, and to live at peace with self,  to have real peace between the genders, to live at peace by exercising proper dominion in creation, to bring peace to broken families,  to have real peace between races and nations, what it means for Christians be witnesses to God’s kingdom peace, and to have peace in the face of death.

This book goes a long way toward helping us see how robust Shalom really is. Harper blends personal anecdotes from life and ministry with biblical theology and astute cultural analysis. She shares some of the ways she has seen (or experienced firsthand) the lack of peace, and where shalom has burst into our broken world. She has practical suggestions for how to live into God’s kingdom shalom. Harper shares painful moments and touching and poignant parts of her own journey (such as her final goodbye to fellow evangelical justice advocate Richard Twiss). This is a very good book and it oozes good news. Read it. I give it an enthusiastic five stars! ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review.

 

It’s Heaven, I Promise: a book review

Christians believe in Heaven.  It is our final destination at the end of life, our After-After-Life, our great hope for eternity. Nevertheless we don’t all believe the same things about it. Popular images of heaven depict a whole lot of harp playing up  there on those billowy white clouds.Our images of heaven and the after life are formed from pop-culture–movies, books, comics–and medieval art and literature. In contrast, Scot

The Heaven Promise
The Heaven Promise By Scot McKinght

McKnight wrote The Heaven Promise to give us a picture of our Christian final hope, drawn  primarily from the pages of the Bible.

It was perhaps only a matter of time before McKnight tackled the topic of heaven. Several years ago, this New Testament scholar and popular blogger and author, took on Reformed evangelicalism for reducing the gospel ‘to going to heaven when you die’ (See The King Jesus Gospel). However McKnight never repudiated heaven; his problem was with the ways the gospel (and heaven) were relegated to the afterlife.

McKnight divides The Heaven Promise into four sections. Part one is essentially an introduction to the question of heaven, our assumptions about the afterlife and where we got them. Part two looks deeper on what the Bible says about heaven: that it is promised to us by God, that this promise is sealed by Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, that a bodily resurrection awaits those who share in Christ’s resurrection, and that heaven begins wherever the reign of God is. Part three unfolds six promises about heaven:

  1. God will be God (present in all his glory, majesty and power).
  2. Jesus will be Jesus (central to everything as a reflection of the God of heaven).
  3. Heaven will be a utopia of pleasures
  4. Heaven will be eternal life
  5. Heaven will be a global fellowship
  6. Heaven will be the eternal beloved community

These six promises will have implications for what heaven will be like and for how we live our lives now.

Part four was the part of the book I read first. It is kind of a FAQ  section. McKnight tackles ten questions people have about heaven. He answers questions about near death/out of body experiences, heavenly rewards, ‘who get’s in,’ God’s fairness, family in heaven?, children who die, cremation, purgatory and pets. In his final question “Why Believe in Heaven?” he gives  a personal account of his belief in heaven.

I found this to be a well-written account of heaven grounded in biblical theology. McKnight has a gift for presenting complicated but important theological ideas in language that ordinary readers understand.  In a few places, McKnight challenged my reading of particular passages and what that tells about heaven (i.e. he gives a fresh interpretation of Jesus’ confrontation of the Sadducees).

McKnight doesn’t simply rehash Bible verses  about heaven. He talks about the implications of what our vision of heaven should have for our day-to-day life. For example, his chapter on the eternal beloved community (chapter 13) expounds on how the Bible’s last book describes the end of the exploitation and injustice of Babylon. McKnight knows we aren’t there yet. We live in a world with food deserts and unjust incarcerations (McKnight gives examples of each). He suggest that our heavenly vision of Justice and Shalom should cause us to seek to live out heaven now. For McKnight heaven isn’t just ‘pie in the sky when you die’ but a vision we live towards.

This is a popular level book, so not exhaustive. You may not agree with Mcknight on every point. But if you want a book that gets you excited about heaven and presses into the implications for life, this one is great! I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah and the Blogging for Books Program in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Highly Happy Marriages: an extremely exciting review

When I received my copy of Shaunti Feldhahn’s The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, my wife and I had this conversation:

Me (showing her the book): I’m reviewing this and you can read it when I’m done. If you ever want a Highly Happy Marriage™ this book tells you how.

Her: I already have a Highly Happy Marriage™!

Me: I mean if you want another one.

Ba-Dum-Ching

This is the first time I have read anything from Feldhahn. I picked up For Women Only once and was going to read it just to see how much of it was clichéd gender-essentialist tripe. I didn’t read it, but I can tell my own prejudices of Feldhahn’s work were absolutely overdrawn. Highly Happy Marriages rests firmly on social research. Feldhahn conducted a study of one thousand couples in order to examine not only the pitfalls of unhappy marriages but to discover the characteristics of couples who describe their marriage as a ‘highly happy one.’  Speaking of highly happy couples, check out the cover. This couple exudes happiness and married-ness, don’t they?  I assume this is one of those really, really happy couples that Feldhahn spoke with.

Highly happy couples are faithful in doing little things for one another, believe the best of their spouses, go to bed mad (rather than going on an anger-sleep strike), ‘keep score’ of the good things their spouses do for them, manage their emotions and focus on the positive, have realistic fantasies, use sign language (or other signals) which tell the other person that ‘we are okay,’ hang out together, speak with consideration to each other, have God at the center of their relationship, hold nothing back, and believe they ‘hit the jackpot.”  Feldhahn peppers her chapters with statistical results to her survey data and anecdotal tales of couples she meets walking down the street that are both highly married and happy.

I think anyone who reads this book (who is actually married, and if you are not stop reading marriage books because that is not healthy) will find good advice and encouraging words for your marriage. I think folks who are in troubled marriages will find a few actionable steps to take to improve their relational health. Of course, a book doesn’t fix every problem but I think Feldhahn has good things to say and she does it with adverbs. I give this book three and a half stars.

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

I Like I Like Giving: a book review

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked up Brad Formsma’s I Like Giving: The Transforming Power of a Generous LifeThe title did not grab me. I expected that the pages would included highly individualized tale of how rewarding he finds giving. And yes, he does open up his own story of giving but what makes this book so special are the stories he shares from co-conspirators, givers and recipients of his and others’ generosity. Some of the gifts given are simple: time, attention, small acts of service. Some gifts are radical acts of generosity: vacations, money for college tuition, surgery, water heaters and forgiveness. Formsma shares and these giving stories in hopes to inspire readers toward more generous living.

This isn’t a ‘theology book.’  Formsma’s, giving is an act of faith and his response to nudges from the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t unpack this, preach or try to persuade people of the moral obligation to give. Instead he tries to awaken the desire to give by sharing stories and ideas and invites us to look for people and situations we can give towards. This book is an invitation more than a summons.

There is a ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul‘ feel to some of these stories: heartwarming encounters and miraculous answers to prayer. I may just feel sentimental, but I was really touched by a lot of these stories and do find them inspiring. As someone who has been on both side of generous giving–responding to God’s leading to give and someone who has received and sustained by the generosity of others, I encourage you to read this or go to Formsma’s website ilikegiving.com and watch some of the short films which highlight the ways people are giving. Be inspired and do something. I give this book four stars: ★★★★.

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

Thirty-Minute-Life-Change: a book review

If we dedicated some time–even thirty minute increments, towards impacting our lives–clarifying our purpose, strengthening our faith, building our character, advancing our dreams, improving our relationships, or changing our world–we would be completely different. We would have a significant impact on those around us and live significant lives before God and others. We would live our dreams and do the sorts of things we wish we were doing now.

Tommy Barnett is the senior pastor of Phoenix Assembly of God.  As a pastor, he has ‘devoted his entire adult life to helping people connect with God and find better ways to live’ (vii). What is Barnett’s method for helping people achieve their full, God-given potential. It is two things: time and intentionality. In The Power of a Half HourBarnett advocates carving out 30 minute time frames for: personal development (part one and two), cultivating spiritual health (part three), moral formation (part four),  achieving success (part five), attending to our relationships (part six) and changing the world (part seven).  Each section of his book is made up of pithy chapters meant to inspire you to invest your time and intention in growing in that area. The end of the book contains thirty, thirty-minute action plans which help readers put the book’s message into practice. There are also questions for group discussion corresponding to each section.

Barnett offers some good advice: if you want to make, real lasting change to your life, grow spiritually and impact those around you, it will require time and intention.  Carving thirty minute increments devoted to personal growth seems like great advice. Barnett also illustrates this with countless stories of lives he impacted through consistently investing thirty minutes (for prayer, for reflection, for relational encounters, etc).  Half an hour is a magically time frame because it is short enough to not feel burdensome, and long enough for something substantial to happen.  I found lots of practical insights in this book.

However I did find Barnett’s recipe for personal success  overly simple. Many of the stories he shared recount thirty minute personal encounters and prayer times. Yet these are only part of the picture. The effect of his thirty minute plan is cumulative. People change because of their continuing commitment to a set of principles, practices, and persons.  Barnett understands this (as many of his examples attest) but the thirty minute rhetoric does not bear the freight of his message. I found myself agreeing with much of Barnett’s advice while feeling like his account of personal transformation was somewhat  truncated by the temporal constraints he puts on each growth opportunity. Perhaps he just finds it easier to think in half hour chunks, but I don’t.

I think there is some helpful insights in here and I found myself touched my several of Barnett’s stories, but I did not resonate with the overall tenor of the book but think that his action plan will be helpful for those seeking to make significant change to their lives. I give it three stars.

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