Open to Every Which Way the Spirit Blows: a book review

Being open to the Spirit once meant, for me, attending a charismatic church. There the works of the Spirit were front and center—prayers for healing and deliverance, prophetic words, ecstatic utterance. It was good for me to be there, to cultivate an experiential openness and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow where they would. Unfortunately, not everything I’ve experienced and witnessed at that church was the move of the Holy Spirit. I witnessed poor discernment, unhealthy dynamics, and psychological manipulation. It took me years to sort out the difference between being open to the Spirit and just being weird.

McknightOpentotheSPiritScot McKnight’s Open to the Spirit is a great overview of how to cultivate an openness to the Spirit’s movement, that attends to the Spirit’s purposes for us. McKnight is a New Testament scholar, and professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, author of a gazillion Christian books and is a popular blogger at Patheos. This is a popular level book designed to help ordinary readers enter into and appreciate what it means to be open to the Spirit. Nevertheless, McKnight is a New Testament scholar and he seeks throughout to root his description of the Spirit’s work in the biblical text, and where appropriate, he interacts with various other biblical scholars (notably, Gordon Fee, Jimmy Dunn, Jack Levison, NT Wright, Daniel Wallace, Monica Coleman), but this remains a non-technical book, with plenty of personal examples from  McKnight’s faith journey.

McKnight explores being open to the Spirit in five areas. In Part 1, he describes being open to the voice of the Spirit (e.g., the Spirit’s witness in pointing us to Jesus, in the written words of Scripture, in prophetic utterance, and in the Spirit’s wordless, groaning intercession for us). In Part 2, he discusses being open to the Spirit’s new creation in us (e.g., God’s presence in our lives, in the Pentecost, in a new baptism, in our transforming inner self and in giving us new power).

Part 3 talks about being open to the Spirit in Christian community, in inspiring the cruciform style of Christian leadership in the way of Jesus, and in an other-oriented spirituality of love. Part 4 explores what it means to be open to the Spirit’s sanctifying work—the assurance of life in Christ, our growth in freedom and holiness (e.g. the ‘fruit of the Spirit) and living towards the good.

Finally, part 5 explores being open to the victory the spirit brings over sin, victory in communication (e.g. tongues, prayer, and evangelism), victory over sin and death, victory over demonic powers, structural evil and victory in worshipping God.

Because McKnight focuses on the role of the Spirit in the Bible (with a special focus on the New Testament), he acknowledges and describes charismatic phenomenon without laying the emphasis on the strange and esoteric. McKnight’s emphasis is always on what the Spirit of God wants to accomplish in us if we allow ourselves to be open to the Spirit’s multifaceted work in our lives. Each chapter explores a dimension of the Spirit’s work and closes with a question asking if we are open to the Spirit’s work (e.g. “Are you open to the Spirit who speaks in the Living Word and takes you to Jesus?” – pg 27; “Are you open to the Holy Spirit who brings you new power?”- pg 95; “Are you open to the wild freedom of the Spirit?” -pg 147; “Are you open to the Spirit who grants victory in communication, sometimes in miraculous ways?” -pg 179.

Three times McKnight includes a prayer of openness to the Spirit for readers to pray as they read (in the introduction, on page 70, and on page 204):

Lord, I am open to the Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit, Come to me, dwell in me, speak to me

so I may become more like Christ.

Lord, give me the courage to be open,

Lord I am open to the Holy Spirit.

Come Holy Spirit

Amen.

McKnight’s goal is that in reading the stories he shares (his own and others) and in reflecting on the Spirit’s movement throughout the biblical text, we will be open and the Spirit of God would move in us. This is a good book to read prayerfully and expectantly. Are you open to the Spirit? Sometimes the Spirit moves in weird ways, but always with the purpose of bringing us into a deeper experience of the Kingdom of God. McKnight names the way the Spirit directs, intercedes, inspires, renews, brings intimacy with God, knits Christian community together, and compels us to work toward healing and justice, to the glory of God.  I give this five stars. – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the blogging for books program and Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my honest review.

 

Theology Gone Wyld: a book review

5202Rich Wyld is an Anglican priest with a PhD from Durham University in theology.  He is the brain behind the Theologygrams blog where he has created hundreds of ‘theology diagrams’ which describe the world of the Bible, theology, church history, ethics and life in the church. With Vin diagrams, pie charts, tables, graphs and just a bit of cheek, helps us visualize the world of theology.

Theologygrams: Theology explained in diagrams (IVP, 2017, previously published in the UK by Darton, Longman & Todd) collects a number of Wyld’s reflections on the Old Testament, the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament, the Life of the Church and Theology. Wyld has a gift for being silly without being wholly irreverent. He describes this as “quite a silly book about some quite serious stuff” and says his “intention is never to mock or belittle God, theology, the Bible or the Church” (4). So this isn’t a book making fun of faith, though Wyld does give us a fair share of good-natured ribbing.

Because it doesn’t seem fair to review a book of diagrams without sharing some of them, here are a few pictures previously published on Wyld’s blog and included in the book:

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This is a fun little book. A perfect stocking stuffer for a theology buff. Some diagrams are more serious and content heavy than others. Some are mostly silly with a side of theological reflection. I give this book four stars – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

A Renegade Monk and Protestantism’s First Lady: a book review

The tales of Martin Luther defacing a door and denouncing the Catholic Church’s captivity to Babylon are well known. The whole Protestant movement owes its origin to the way this cantankerous monk was gripped by the idea of saving grace. The story that many Christians don’t know, or know in far less detail, is that of his marriage to Katharina von Bora.

9781493406098In Katharina & MartinMichelle DeRusha unfolds the love story between the renegade Monk and Protestantism’s first lady. DeRusha previously authored 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.  Here she hones in on the story of a marriage. Meticulously researched, she describes the story of Martin and Katharina’s love—the events leading up to their marriage, the reaction of friends and critics, their shared life and the circumstances of their deaths. DeRusha includes cultural background of the late Medieval ideas of marriage.

Katharina was an aristocratic nun who fled the cloistered life in the midst of the sixteenth century, Protestant awakening. Luther tried in vain to marry her off, but she was not happy with her would-be suitor. Eventually, he married her, himself, albeit partly for practical and political reasons (he had already written on the sacredness of married life and against celibacy). Luther’s primary reason for marrying was wanting to be obedient to what he felt was God’s call.

Luther was not attracted to Katharina at first and there was no spark of romance. Many of Luther’s friends (including his close friend Philip Melancthon) did not approve and actively opposed their union. Yet Luther grew to love his wife and value their partnership. Katharina discussed theology with Luther, managed the household and the family finances. Luther’s would come to speak of his wife with real affection and respect (even if still self-aggrandizing), “Kate, you have a god-fearing man who loves you. You are an empress; realize it and thank God for it” (207). The two of them weathered crises together, including the grief of losing children.

This is popular level history at its best—a compelling read with enough footnotes for the reader to verify the substance. DeRusha relies on good research, referencing documentary evidence and scholarly research rather than opining on Luther and Katharina’s inner thoughts. I enjoyed this book and am happy to have it on my church history shelf. As unique as their relationship was, DeRusha places Martin and Katharina within the late Medieval context.  Martin Luther was neither an arch-Complementarian or Katharina a proto-Egalitarian. Their marriage was countercultural in lots of ways (i.e. Katharina was intelligent, industrious and independent women, but in other ways traditional and deferring to her husband). I give this book four stars and recommend it to anyone interested in church history, the Reformation era, or the history of Christian women.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

God’s Supernatural Agents: a book review

I was interested in Angels: God’s Supernatural Agents for two reasons. First I do not have enough authors on my reading list, or enough Christian authors from the charismatic/pentecostal stream. With this book,  I got both. Ed Rocha hails from Brazil and is immersed in the Charismatic movement (á la Randy Clark, and Bill Johnson).  Rocha has a degree from International Bible Institute, London, is the founder of Pier49 and a speaker for Global Awakening Ministries and is planting a church with the Global Awakening Network. In this book Rocha describes angels as ‘ministering agents sent to serve those who inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). He aims to demonstrate the ways angels protect us, come to lead us into worship, or in answer to prayer, and the gifts they have to offer us.

ANgelsThe scholarship in this is really thin. The foot notes mostly point to the Strong’s Bible lexicon (accessed via Blue-Letter Bible). Rocha does point to scriptures about Angels and discusses angels in the Bible, but for the most part account of angels is colored by his experience of signs and wonders (i.e. where he or others have witnessed ministering angels). He tells stories of angelic visitations and times when angels helped him through difficult circumstances (like getting him through customs).

I like hearing angel stories, and I am interested in seeing how a supernatural God may use such beings to intervene in people’s life. I felt challenged by Rocha to be open to the way God uses angels in our lives. Unfortunately this book strained credulity. In chapter twelve Rocha describes unusual signs which sometimes accompany angelic visitations, such as gold dust, golden teeth or hair, and gems from heaven. Golden teeth and gems sounds more pirate-like than angelic. He also describes a picture of an angel he has on his iphone. I am all for recapturing the supernatural nature of the Christian faith but this all seemed like it fell into ‘experience hunting’ rather than abundant life in Christ.

I give this book two stars (because I enjoyed some of the stories) but I can’t recommend this.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Hungry Avidity Here: a ★★★★★ book review

What makes poetry good? Is it the poem’s voice or the music of the words? Is it the use of metaphor, the poet’s intuition, or her keen observation of the world? I don’t always know what makes poetry good but I know a good poem when I read it. Regina Walton’s The Yearning Life is a wonderful collection. Her subjects range from childhood and motherhood to art, nature, Sunday worship, scripture, friendship and medieval mystics. She captures both holy longing and delight.

the-yearning-lifeWalton is an Episcopal priest whose poetry has appeared in Poetry East, Asheville Poetry Review, Spiritus and Anglican Theological Review and other journals. She is also the first winner of the Phyllis Tickle Prize in Poetry for this collection.   Her poems are organized under four headings: Spirit and Marrow, ShowingsVisitations and Seven O’s: Antiphons. the latter section has the seven “Great O Antiphons” (short verses before the Magnificat chanted in the monastic office through Advent). They are produced here in Latin, and translation with one of Walton’s poems accompanying each antiphon.

Sometimes religious poetry seem unearthly, tending toward the super-spiritual with more ethereality than reality.  Such poems might be luminous, but they forget the path of roots and stone. However, the  physical and spiritual embrace throughout Walton’s poetry, “So thickly knotted,/The Holy twins—/Real and ghost,/Untold apart” (from Spirit and Marrow, 17). Consider the interplay between physicality and spirituality in  Walton’s Psalm 131:

My grandma put her breasts in a drawer
And that was that—
The prosthetics, anyway, meant to fill her bra,
The originals claimed by cancer in my childhood

For all her children, her breasts had never suckled—
The doctors put her under before each birth,
Then told her
Nursing was for savages.

Ann, after the Virgin’s mother,
she prayed out loud and often to her own.

On the feast of Annunciation,
Five years gone, she visited me
And in the no-place dream space,
Our bosom-embrace renewed, I felt them—

Hesed, womb-love that moved over the abyss,
That mothered the churning darkness into life—
Her wholeness shocked me awake. (49)

I love the way Walton’s imagery draws together the psalm alluded to with her grandmother’s body and experience, Annunciation, covenant and resurrection.

There is also a spiritual hunger underlying Walton’s work. This is captured by her title poem, The Yearning Life,  which envisions Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec reflecting on that space between lives active and contemplative. Walton describes Ruusbroec’s yearning, “Each holy favor, eagerly awaited, consumed,/Only melts into more craving./And satiety is the missing dish” (32).

These poems range from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the prayerful to the playful. I’m still chuckling at Walton’s Enoch’s Wife, “I wish I never said/ If you love God so much,/why don’t you go/and live with him instead” (59). Other poems give snap shots of conversations, theological and biblical musings, and observations of the world. I enjoyed reading these poems out loud to just to hear Walton’s words play on my tongue. This collection is well deserving of the accolades it received. I will be on the look out for more from Regina Walton. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Reading Well for the Sake of Others: a ★★★★★ book review

 C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Booksan online and print journal  which  showcasess valuable resources for the people of God. Another site Smith, curates is Thrifty Christian Reader, a website which catalogs quality sale books—mostly Kindle, mostly Christian—which explore culture, theology, sociology, justice, ecology, poetry and literature. His own books also promote the kind of thoughtful Christian engagement he highlights online. Notably, Slow Church (IVP, 2014), which he co-authored with John Pattison, is a prophetic challenge to the way churches are sometimes co-opted by the dominant cult of speed and efficiency. Smith and Pattison point us instead to honor the terroir of place, cultivate community, and ways for the church to be a faithful presence and witness to God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

44491For a church to transform a community it is imperative we learn to read well. Earlier generations of Christians were sometimes called ‘the people of the Book.’ A good part of Smith’s influence has been about helping us to, again, be the people of the Book. In Reading for the Common Good: How Books Can Help Churches and Neighborhoods FlourishSmith points out the crucial place reading (in community) has for shaping our identity and practice of God’s people.

In his introduction, Smith helps us to conceive of church as a ‘learning organization,’ with learning and action as central components of our identity. We can have a significant impact on our communities as we understand our context and discern effective ways to act and then act(16). Learning and acting form a cycle which helps us live out the compassionate way of Jesus for our neighborhoods and communities (18-20). But this sort of reading is a communal, rather than individual activity.

Smith’s first couple of chapters orient us to the practice of reading. Chapter one points us away from our modern, technologically infused reading (where we read a lot but not deeply) towards ‘Slow Reading.’ The ancient practice of lectio divina and preaching which attends to the words of Scripture provides the church with counter-cultural habits of mind. Chapter two illustrates how reading and conversation help shape the social imagination. Smith observes:

The practices of reading and conversation are vital for the process of transforming our social imagination. Part of human experience is imaging how the world should function. The question is what stories are feeding and shaping the imagination? Reading renews and energizes our social imagination. For our churches, reading and embodying Scripture is the foremost source of renewal, but renewal comes from reading reflecting on and discussing a broad range of works in the life and teaching of Jesus (51-52).

The next six chapters explore the way reading shapes our social imagination and paves the way for communities to flourish. Chapter three explores how reading the Bible in communion with other believers helps shape us into “the image of Christ, the Word incarnate” (55). While the Bible remains central, reading other books communally (and in a cruciform way!) is also beneficial for making sense of the world and our place in it (59-61). Chapter four discusses the role of reading in helping communities and individuals understand their vocation. Chapters five and six discuss how churches can read with their neighbors and neighborhoods. Churches can be (or support) libraries which preserve the shared memory of place and provide resources for the community. Churches can also become centers of education which promote literacy and understanding. The telos of this is a greater civic literacy and engagement in the community. Our reading also promotes a better understanding of our neighborhood place in the economic, environmental, educational and civic realms (103-107). Chapter seven discusses how reading connects us to our world, creation and other churches and chapter eight discusses how reading can support our faithful engagement in the realms of politics and economics.

Smith’s final chapter discusses ways to help congregations become reading congregations, with examples from Englewood Christian Church (the faith community that Smith is a part of). The book closes with two reading lists: Recommended Reading for Going Deeper and Englewood Christian Church Reading List. 

Smith is an avid reader and this is a book about how reading well (in community) can help churches and neighborhoods flourish. So this book will make you want to read other books. Lots of them. Smith promotes helpful books throughout and he himself has been shaped by his reading of such luminaries as: Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, Peter Senge, Marva Dawn, Gerhard Lohfink, Mary Oliver, and more. I think it is impossible to read through this book without discovering new literary treasures (or at least places to dig). My wish list grew exponentially from reading this.

More significantly, this book touches a hunger I have for thoughtful engagement. I have been a part of churches which felt like the theological equivalent of a ‘food desert.’ Sometimes the  reading theology (or biology, philosophy, or whatever) is criticized for being disconnected from ‘real life.’ Smith rejects the binary between academia and activism, thinking well and living well. His chapter on the social imaginary (with a generous nod to Charles Taylor) should be required reading for pastors and leaders. I give this five stars and highly recommend it. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

 

Lessons in Belonging: a book review

9780830843176I was slow in getting around to reading Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe. I had wanted to read it ever since I saw Erin Lane on a Regent Redux forum. But shortly after the book came in the mail, I lost it behind the couch.  For months. I had recently completed my time as pastor with a church (AKA as my lesson in ‘not belonging). I continued to attend weekly worship at another church but felt fairly disconnected. My interest in ‘belonging; waned. When I unearthed the book from its hiding place, I was completely  sucked in by Erin’s story.

Lane describes herself in the book with these words:

I am a twenty-nine-year-old who wears skinny jeans, man boots and Mac’s Red Russian lipstick. I live in North Carolina but was born in Nashville, reared in Ohio, raised near Chicago, schooled in Ann Arbor, married outside of Charlotte and awakened in San Francisco. I want to live in Seattle some day, but these days I’m making my home in Durham. I call myself a Christian and a feminist too.

I believe in being the church. I believe in attending church. I just don’t like to do it. I don’t like when the older people talk too long even though I need to be reminded of our shared history. I don’t like it when the young babies cry too loudly even though I need to be reminded of our shared need. I don’t take well to authority figures telling me what to do. And yet I have a lot of opinions on what they should do.

I like Jesus; I just don’t like when he’s separated from the other persons of the Trinity like the cheese who stands alone. I believe in tradition if there’s a good reason behind it. It’s just that I often can’t get a straight answer about what that reason is.

I have a master’s degree in theology, but I don’t want to hear your dissertation. I want specifics, like how you picture God when you pray and what you say to the beggar on the street who asks for money. I am interested in women and men who want to belong and are ready to do so with people who don’t look and sound like them.

The trouble is I have a hard time committing to these people, because as pastor Lillian Daniel puts it, “In church, in community, humanity is just too close to look good.” (17).

Lane’s memoir shares her struggle to belong to  a church. She struggles with patriarchal pastors,  artificial gender roles, and feeling ‘lost’ and ‘disconnected’ in the congregation. She does learn belonging by choosing to stick with a community, to show up at stuff, to read the community charitably, to be vulnerable and to offer ‘her portion.’ But this is no Pollyanna tale. Lane’s church angst persists. She sees the gifts of Christian community and belonging, she leans in, but it remains a struggle

I read this book with interest, because I really wanted to hear how her story turned out. She doesn’t attend church with her youth pastor husband, and at one point, moves to Seattle for a season (for work, but also to figure things out). Her marriage to Rush and cold feet about commitment, is also a window into her struggle to commit to a local congregation.

But reading this book reminded of some of ‘the lessons in belonging’ I have  had in my own church journey. I haven’t struggled in committing to churches the same way Lane has, but I can think of a couple of churches that I didn’t feel I belonged to until I committed to them for a coupe of years. There is no shortcut to knowing and being known.

I recommend this book for anyone who likewise struggles with ‘going to church’ or feels angsty about committing to a community. Lane is winsome and funny.  And she keeps it real. Despite being so theologically thoughtful, this isn’t a preachy book. I give this four-and-half stars. You should totally read it.

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