More Scattered than Cohesive (My review of More Lost than Found).

When I picked up More Lost Than Found I was expecting it to be a spiritual memoir of someone who lost his faith and then found it again. This is indeed part of Jared Herd’s story, he alludes to it in the prologue of this book. The rest of the chapters are comprised of his reflections on faith, culture, what it means to believe, what the kingdom is, how technology adversely affects us and prevents us from having meaningful connections, the divisions between rich and poor, how misery and pain form us, how faith and certainty are thankfully different. There are some interesting essays in this book and Jared Herd does indeed have thought-provoking things to say, but this book lacks an overarching vision and a connecting thread holding the chapters together.

So who is Jared Herd? He has been on staff at both Rock Harbor Church, in Costa Mesa, California and North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA. He is the Creative Director of XP3 College Ministries (part of the Rethink Group). A millennial himself, he engages in ministry and presenting the gospel to young people.

Admittedly, the lack of comprehensive vision for this book is annoying to me, but there is a place for a book like this: the bathroom. The chapters are devotional, pithy and thought-provoking, making it the perfect bathroom reader. If you treat the chapters as separate entities and do not look for interconnection and flow, the book is quite good.

Alternatively, this is the sort of book you could get someone to read a chapter of. I think Herd does a good job of offering a winsome apologetic without spelling out all the answers to everyone’s tough questions.

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Could it be….Satan? (A book review)

As I am reflecting on the nature of sin this season, I thought it would be worthwhile to read a book from a Charismatic/Pentecostal perspective. This book talks about the invisible battle we face as we seek to live holy lives. As someone who’s diabolic imagination has been set aflame by Screwtape Letters I accept the world that Kris Vallotton describes in Spirit Wars: Winning the invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy. I have attended charismatic churches and been around when people were praying over others for demonic deliverance. A lot of these ‘deliverances’ seem more psychosomatic than real, in the same way that divine healing can sometimes be attributed to the placebo effect. Still I have seen enough, and have thoughtful friends with enough discernment that I know that some of it is real and there is a real spiritual battle being fought. Therefore a book helping Christians better wage this war makes sense to me.

And Kris Vallotton does not disappoint. He shares from his own experience of demonic oppression, physical depression (or in his case a hormonal issue), experience in praying with people and his reading of scripture. He argues that for those who are in Christ, victory over sin and the powers is not only possible, it is the norm (explaining at one point that he can go several weeks without sin). Vallotton does not discount that there could be psychological causes for struggles and advocates that those struggling with long term depression or anxiety see a physician, get a proper diagnosis and medication. He also avoids the spirit-flesh dualism of some Pentecostal preachers by urging that physical, emotional and spiritual causes for our struggle are intermingled inside the human person and cannot be easily separated.

I don’t endorse everything that Vallotton says here. He oversimplifies at some points and takes fanciful leaps. I would question his interpretation of the Bible. People who self-describe as prophets (as Vallotton does) often take an imaginative approach in biblical exegesis, which provides keen insights as well as abysmal errors. So I affirm some of what he says but have serious questions about other portions of this book. For example, he uses Nehemiah and Joshua as exemplars of how we can resist “the enemy” and carry out the task that God gives us. This spiritualizes and allegorizes the biblical history of the Old Testament, which is legitimate to a point, but Vallotton’s approach means an uncritical view of both Nehemiah and Joshua. Contrary to leadership and popular accounts, the hero of the books of Joshua and Nehemiah are not the men the book is named for, but Yahweh himself. Joshua and Nehemiah do some things well and also make horrid missteps along the way ( i.e. Joshua is told to be strong and courageous, but instead sends spies and sits on his hands for several chapters, fails to call on God; Nehemiah ends with the sending away of foreign wives). I think if Vallotton was attentive to the ways these leaders failed, his insights for spiritual warfare would be more incisive.

Also, Vallotton makes errors in his interpretation of passages by drawing distinctions that are not in the text. He makes the common error of drawing a strong distinction between spirit and soul (within the human person), but the biblical material neither supports this nor warrants it. Likewise, he distinguishes terms (such as a distinction between prisoner and captive in Isaiah 61:1) which betray an amateur understanding of Hebrew poetics and parallelism.

I think this book is more useful as describing one person’s experience of the spiritual battle and his personal insights into the nature of it. When it comes to Biblical interpretation I do not think Vallotton is a trustworthy guide though he does provide and interesting window on individual texts. I would recommend this book to the discerning charismatic Christian who can separate the good from the bad, truth from error. While I have my reservations about parts of this book (some of which I failed to mention here), I will likely refer back to sections.

Thank you to Chosen books for providing a copy of this book in exchange for this fair and honest review.

Christian Contours: Worldview for Shapely Christians (A book review)

If you were lucky enough to attend a Christian college (or Homeschool High) you probably are familiar with the importance of”the Biblical Worldview.” Basically, a worldview is a conceptual framework which includes all the beliefs we hold as true (our view of the world). In Christian Contours: How a Biblical Worldview Shapes the Mind and Heart, the faculty of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota (a Christian college), under the editorial direction of former colleague, Douglas Huffman (now at Biola University, another Christian college), flesh out what the Biblical worldview is, its importance and how we may live faithfully, formed by our Christian convictions. This book provides an accessible guide to major issues and they do an admirable job of presenting a unified argument (no small feat, as there are ten authors in total). Bellow I will offer a brief summary of the book’s contents followed by my comments.

Christian Contours is divided into two parts. In part one, Randy Nelson, Douglas Huffman, Walter Schultz and Paul Kjoss Helseth present an overview of worldview thinking and their conceptual framework for defining and addressing the Biblical worldview. In chapter one, Randy Nelson articulates the beliefs that he sees as forming the essential core of a worldview: Theology, Anthropology, Ethics, Soteriology, Epistemology (29-30). It is through these beliefs that we perceive and process reality, which in turn affect how we live. To be a Christian means we embrace the Biblical worldview (that is, the Bible informs and shapes beliefs in any of these areas).In chapter two, Huffman argues that there is one single unified biblical worldview, despite the plethora of denominations and theological viewpoints (from a standpoint of metaphysical realism). In chapter three, Schultz relates the concept of truth to God’s Knowledge of himself and creation and argues that worldviews are only true insofar as they agree with God’s knowledge. In chapter four, Huffman and Helseth present the Biblical worldview under the rubric of core beliefs that Nelson articulated in chapter one (they acknowledge that a biblical worldview can also be presented in a narrative form, or a creedal way).

Part two focuses on contemporary challenges to living from a Biblical worldview. In chapter five Daryl Aaron talks about the need for intellectual humility when two or more Christians striving to live out the biblical worldview come into inevitable conflict. Mark Muska talks about maintaining a personal Biblical worldview despite our inconsistencies (stemming from submerged beliefs). Ardel
Caneday addresses the challenge of pluralism (chapter 7) while James Raymo and Dale Hutchcraft challenge readers to Evangelize and invite others into the Christian worldview (chapter 8).

Besides these parts, Huffman writes a brief conclusion and there are two appendices and an annotated bibliography for thinking through the Biblical worldview as it relates to various academic disciplines. I particularly enjoy good bibliographies and found this one to be helpfully constructed.

As someone passionate about faith and learning and wanting to see people embrace a meaty faith, I think this book makes a valuable contribution to the literature on the Christian worldview. It challenges Christians to not compartmentalize their faith, but to think Christianly (biblically) about all of life. To this end, I think this book will prove a valuable resource for Christian academics (Christian colleges), apologetic minded organizations, and for theological minded Christians who are eager to connect faith to life.

However, I am also suspicious of the worldview project for ways in which it privileges the intellectual and cognitive side of Christianity demoting behavior and desires to a secondary status, easily brought inline by right thinking. James A. K. Smith of Calvin College (a Christian College) offers a critique of worldview thinking which I think is apt here:

First, this focus on a Christian worldview as a system of beliefs and doctrines marginalizes or ignores the centrality of distinctly Christian practices that constitute worship–arguably the single most important thing that Christians do. From most expositions of “the Christian worldview,” you would never guess that Christians worship! From the pictures of Christians implied in worldview-talk, one would never guess that we become disciples by engaging in communal practices of baptism, communion, prayer, singing and dancing. Second, this focus on beliefs is inattentive to the pedagogical significance of material practices. The cognitive-centric approach exhibits a fixation on the cognitive region, a kind of tunnel vision that is narrowly focused on the mind. Because of this, the body–and all the things associated with the body, like the imagination–don’t really show up on the radar. (Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, 64).

As unfair the authors of Christian Contours may find this, I don’t think they really escape Smith’s critique. Huffman et al. claim that the Biblical Worldview shapes mind AND heart(notice the order), but there is almost no discussion of the affections, except as a secondary consideration. Similarly they fail to account for the ways our practice opens us up to new beliefs (rather than just worldview controlling practices) Sometimes truth is in the bones before it is in the brain.

This doesn’t invalidate many of their fine and helpful observations and arguments. Instead I think that a book like this which addresses Christian beliefs is best read by practicing Christians well-formed by worship, liturgy and practices.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

A biography of Julian of Norwich (a book review)

Julian of Norwich-Amy Frykholm As anyone who has delved into Julian will probably tell you, there is very little about her life that we can know for certain. We know she was a fourteenth century anchorite and that her Showings(or revelations) are universally praised for their beauty and depth. Rowan Williams has said that “Julian’s Revelations may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English Language.” Yet when we try to untangle the details of her personal life, we have scant documentary evidence about who this Julian of Norwich really is.

In Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography, Amy Frykholm does the impossible and presents us a sensitive and sympathetic vision of the beloved anchorite. Through eleven ‘windows’ she draws on various passages from Julian’s revelations and sketches a portrait of her, placing in her in her historical context. She is able to show, convincingly, the backdrop of the plague, the culture of Norwich and Julian’s religious education, and devotion to the life of prayer. At times Frykholm gives a carefully reasoned account, at other times this book is an imagined retelling, but in either case her picture of Julian is thoroughly realistic and judicious.

I found the picture that Julian that emerges here thoroughly compelling and it makes me want to return again to Julian’s Revelations so that I can read it with fresh eyes. Julian’s devotional and prayer life is compelling and makes me want to approach prayer with the same attention and expectancy. And so I heartedly recommend this book to three sorts of readers:

  • Those who love Julian will appreciate Frykholm’s prose for the ways she lovingly, imaginatively and sensitively handles Julian and giving us a glimpse of her character. It is a beautiful book.
  • Those who have attempted to read Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love and have found her too difficult and ethereal. This is not a commentary on the Revelations, but it does draw on material of Julian’s and contextualizes it. I love Julian and found that reading this book helps me see aspects of Julian with fresh eyes.
  • Lastly, I would recommend this to those who would love to read Julian but are looking for a short simple introduction of her first. This book would serve you well.

In case you missed it, I am recommending this book to anyone who has even a remote interest in Julian because it is readable, well-researched, imaginative and sympathetic to Julian.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review. I know this review sounds overly positive, but they didn’t tell me to say nice things. The book is just that good.

A little more Orthodox than normal (A Prayer book review?)

Prayer Book of the Early ChristiansWhen the author of Ecclesiastes penned, “On the writing of books there is no end” he had no idea what the future of publication held for prayer-books. Books on prayer abound and every year you can expect to see new books promising some new spiritual insight which will make you a better pray-er. Despite this (and seminary) I am still a neophyte at prayer and struggle, like everyone, to have regular prayer times and establish a rhythm of prayer.

What is refreshing about Prayer Book of the Early Christians is that has no new spiritual insights of any kind and it makes no promises that ‘reading it’ will make you a better pray-er. Rather, this book draws on the wisdom of the early church and the Orthodox tradition. This is not a book to be ‘read’ though I have done that for the purposes of this review. Rather this is a book to be prayed.

John A McGuckin is an Orthodox priest and patristic scholar. He has gathered up the pieces of this prayer-book from the richness of the Christian tradition, particularly the Christian east. After a brief introduction offering advice about prayer and the use of this book, the book unfolds in three parts. Part I presents prayers for the Ritual Offices of the day (i.e. Vespers, Compline, Matins, the first and third hours of the day). Part II contains rituals and prayer services for various occasions (traveling, the blessing of a house, prayer for the sick, grace before meals, personal repentance, etc.) Part III collects various prayers and hymns from the Ancient saints.

What I really like how this book unfolds the beauty and prayerfulness of the Orthodox tradition. If the church in the East has a gift for the whole church it is how the life of prayer penetrates their entire theological reflection. These prayers and rituals are rich and beautiful reflections on the triune God.

Of course some of what is here is foreign to me as an Evangelical christian. My understanding of the Christian faith has been more profoundly shaped by the Roman Road (not the ‘road to Rome’) than by the Great Tradition, so the practice of candles, incense, praying with icons are all things that are new to me (these are not strictly required to pray any of these prayers but suggested by McGuckin as part of one’s ‘prayer kit’) Also the ritual offices include prayers offered to Mary the mother of God. I am willing to admit that Evangelicals do not pay Mary due homage, but these are prayers I can’t in good conscience pray. I mention these things not as a criticism, but to say that while I appreciate and am enthusiastic about this prayerbook, McGuckin’s theological tradition is different from my own and not every prayer speaks meaningfully to me in my context.

My one criticism of this book is that I feel that a book called ‘Prayer Book of the Early Christians’ should have more prayers gathered in it than it in fact does. But the choice to restrict the amount of prayers may have been intentional because what we are left with is a short, hardcover volume which contributes to its personal usefulness and portability.

This book may be used profitably by individuals and churches who are interested in dipping deeper into the Christian tradition and the life of prayer (Paraclete has special prices for multiple copies. As I have indicated, reading a Prayer Book is the wrong way to assess it. This book has prayers to pray and commends a lifestyle of prayer to entered into. I, myself, am using this book over the season of Lent, planning to pray ‘the hours’ and likely will blog about my experience with this in the coming weeks. My initial assessment of the book is positive and think that this book can enrich your (and my) devotional life.

Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me a copy for the purpose of this review. Please stay tuned for further thoughts on how these prayers are leading me into an encounter with the Triune God!

The Spirit You Didn’t Know: A Book Review of Who is the Holy Spirit? A Walk with the Apostles

Who is the Holy Spirit? YongThis is my fourth review of Paraclete Press‘s series of guides on the Holy Spirit. The other books I reviewed, each of the authors seek to articulate their understanding of the Holy Spirit from their own theological tradition (Jewish, Orthodox and Protestant). While the author of Who is the Holy Spirit?, Amos Yong, is deeply formed by the Charismatic and evangelical tradition this book examines the Holy Spirit by providing a close reading of the book of Acts and supplemented by material from Luke. The effect is that Yong is able to draw out some of the social and political implications of who the Spirit is and his activity in the world.

Right now, some of you may be saying, “the Holy Spirit I know, but who is Amos Yong? Why do I need to read this book?” Amos Yong is one of the most well-known and respected Pentecostal scholars working today. He is the J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach (as a graduate of Regent College, we call this the other Regent). Because Regent University was founded by Pat Robertson some may be tempted to write it off as a ‘right-wing institution’ but Yong’s analysis has implications for people on both the right and the left (note: I actually have no idea what Yong’s politics are, I just want to make sure you don’t think you know what he’s gonna say before you read the book).

This book came to fruition when the acquisitions editor at Paraclete Press read an article by Roger Olson in Christianity Today entitled, “A Wind that Swirls Everywhere: Amos Yong Thinks He Sees the Holy Spirit Working in Other Religions Too (note: the back of the book mistakenly attributes the article to Yong, but it is an article about Yong).” In response to this idea, Amos Yong went to work on exploring the material on the Spirit in Luke and Acts for a Sunday School class at his church. Who is the Holy Spirit? is divided into 39 chapters covering all of Acts and selections from Luke, and a discussion guide for each chapter.

Acts has been fertile ground for Charismatic reflection. Personally I have read through Acts to see evidence of the Spirit, miracles, to discover how to do (be) the church and to explore missional implications. What sets Yong’s book apart is that he focuses not only on where the Spirit is invoked, but what the Spirit evokes. He doesn’t just point out the Spirit’s presence but he asks us to open our eyes to discover that the scope of the Spirit’s work is bigger, more inclusive than we sometimes imagine. Yong writes:

I now believe that the Spirit is at work not just at the level of the individual but also at the level of society and its various political and economic structures; not just the otherworldly, spiritual level but also at the this-worldly level of the material and concrete domains of our lives; not just in and through the church but also in and through wider institutional, cultural and religious realities. In other words, I now think the world of the Holy Spirit is much wider than I’d guessed, and that the work of the Spirit is to redeem and transform our world as a whole along with all of its interconnected parts, systems and structures (x).

And so, Yong sets out to answer the question of Who is the Holy Spirit? not by giving us doctrinal formula and propositional truth, but by paying careful attention to the narrative of Luke-Acts and showing us the Spirit’s work. He explores how the Spirit brings and is bringing about the full promise of the Kingdom of God, how the Spirit overcomes divisions of language, ethnicity, nationality, gender and class, and how the Spirit brings about new freedom and liberation. This isn’t a denial of the Spirit’s individual and personal work within the human soul, but he probes the narrative also for wider socio-political implications. Acts provides rich fodder for reflection as he explores how the church is born through the Spirit’s work in overcoming divisions of language and culture at Pentecost and the Spirit keeps impelling their witness outward from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Each chapter explores a text (or set of texts), discovers what it is saying, the implications of the Spirit’s work, and explores the implications for our own context.

I found this book refreshing! Too often confessional scholars examine spiritual realities in the text while critical scholarship focuses on the political aspects of the early church. It is exciting to read a Bible study which explores both of these poles. Yong’s bibliography, while only showing the references he deems ‘accessible,’ displays his willingness to tackle the issue and draw on a wide range of scholarship. As this is not a scholarly book, there are no footnotes. Most people probably like this better, but I missed them and my reading would have been enriched by knowing where he drew various aspects from and being able to chase things back. But lucky for me, this isn’t the only thing Yong has written on the topic, and I will get my chance.

Yong’s critics (even Olson) point out that his views weaken the need for evangelism by de-emphasizing Christian particularity and paving the way for pluralism and syncretism. This seems hardly fair. By rooting his reflections in the book of Acts, Yong is able to affirm both the continuities and discontinuities between other religions and the gospel. Yong says:

If the work of the Spirit brought about renewal, restoration and re-appropriation of all that was good and true in the social, cultural, and religious spheres of human life, it could also be seen from another perspective that the coming of the Spirit turned the world upside down in each of these domains of human endeavor. Continuity or discontinuity, when and how? These are questions that require ongoing discernment of the Spirit’s presence and activity(160)

This has implications for how we engage in mission. We do not dismiss other religions out of hand as utterly false; we do look for evidence of where the Spirit is at work (like Paul in the Aeropagus).

This book would be great for personal reflection, or as a curriculum for a small group Bible Study. I certainly think it would inspire a rich discussion of the Spirit’s role, presence and work in our lives and in the church. I am not sure that Yong answers, or intends to give us a firm answer to the question: Who is the Holy Spirit?. Instead through his calling to attention the widening scope of the Spirit’s work, he helps us to see that the Spirit is bigger and more wonderful than we have previously imagined.

Thank you to Paraclete press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.