Dogma & Greg: a ★★★★★ book review

I was interested in reading Brian Matz’s Gregory of Nazianzus because Nazianzus is the Cappadocian father whose works I am least familiar with (though I don’t want to feign expertise on the other two). In seminary I had the opportunity to read Basil, and read  a number of Gregory of Nyssa’s. The only Gregory of Nazianzus I read was his five Theological Orations  which I read for pleasure on my own time. They were interesting—witty, theologically erudite, and well crafted. However, I am no scholar and felt like the best way for me to get a handle on Nazianzus is to find a wise guide.

Sample_noprice

Brian Matz (PhD, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Saint Louis University) is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri associate professor of the history of Christianity. He wrote a dissertation on Gregory of Nazianzus at Saint Louis University (of which this text is partially adapted).  In this book, Matz provides a biographical sketch of Gregory (chapter one) before examining the importance of purification as a central theological motif for this Cappadocian (chapter two). Chapters three through six explore the theme of purification in four of Gregory’s orations (Oration 2, 45, 40, and 14). As part of Baker Academic’s Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, series eds.), this book has a particular eye for Nazianzus’s use of Scripture.

Matz argues convincingly that purification is the key to understanding. Chapter two of this volume,  provides a broad overview of Gregory’s preaching of purification (or spiritual healing). Matz illustrates Gregory’s terminology and his understanding of the practice and process of purification (i.e. self discipline, ascetical practices, cleansing the senses, acts of mercy, contrition, fasting, celebrating holy festivals, desire to know God, the purifying fire of difficult circumstance, baptism, the Eucharist and piety). He then describes the benefits of the purification of the soul: knowledge and contemplation of God, divinization, becoming a recipient of heaven, undermining evildoers and the devil, escape from the torments of judgement, esteem in the community, etc. Finally, Matz examines the role that pastors, the Spirit, and Christ play in leading a soul through the purification process in Gregory’s thought.

Matz’s discussion of the four orations illustrates how Gregory works out this theme pastorally (oration 2), in contemplation (oration 45), in his understanding of baptism (oration 40), and in care for the poor and vulnerable (oration 14). Most these orations are available to the general reader free online (or for a nominal fee on Kindle as part of Phillip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection). Oration 14 can be found as part of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Select Orations (Catholic University of America Press, 2004). Not having access to the latter volume, I read the other orations in Schaff (in my case, through my Bible software program).

I really enjoyed this book and thought Matz did a wonderful job of walking the reader through Gregory’s exegesis. Nazianzus was less fanciful than Nyssa in terms of allegory, but made great use of the Canon (particularly found of the Psalms and Matthew, but drawing on a good swath of the biblical material). Like his Cappadocian counterparts, Nazianzus is Christological and Christocentric in his interpretation.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for anyone interested in a short, attainable introduction to Gregory. ★★★★★

Note: I received a Net Galley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Killing Field Christian: a book review

Intended For Evil tells the story of Radha Manickam, an ethnically Indian, Cambodian Christian who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide (1975-1979)  and aftermath before emigrating to the US. Journalist and journalism professor, Les Sillars relays Radha’s story and provides historical and political context.

intendedforevil-sc.inddIn 1973, Nixon ordered carpet bombs on Cambodia, turning the small South Asian nation into the most bombed country in the world (bombed 2.7 million times. A civil war with the Khmer Rouge had been going on since 1970. The US bombings led to greater destabilization of the country. The Khmer Rouge took the reigns of government in 1975 and their paranoid, four-year Cultural Revolution re-mix of the Holocaust resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 3 million people.

Also in 1973 Radha trusted Jesus savior and Lord through a conversation with a pastor Nou Thay at an English class at Maratha Church, a Phnom Penh church planted by American missionaries. Radha’s faith grew, and he participated in evangelistic efforts  and worshipped at the church, though his faith was not always reflected in his life.

When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they were governed by  both Communist ideology and Cambodian nationalism. Pol Pot was opposed to Western ideology, ideas and aid (except for what his government accepted from Russia). Westerners and those educated by the west were executed or re-educated. The Khmer also expected Cambodians to have a total commitment to the state, which they  vigorously enforced. The hope was to reshape Cambodians into a new Socialist people. Cambodians lived in fear because as the government became more and more paranoid about subversive elements, more and more people were killed.

Radha kept his faith and his relationship with Western missionaries quiet. More than once he tried to commit suicide but he felt God had a plan for his life. He didn’t invite martyrdom by living his faith openly. Outwardly he complied to whatever demands the Khmer put on him, making certain he never fell behind in his labor (and so give soldiers a chance to punish him). Several times his life was in peril. The Khmer control was total and they even arranged marriages for the Cambodian people. It is only after his marriage to Samen he discovered she was a third-generation Cambodian Christian.

Pol Pot’s government fell to Veitnam in 1979. He and the Khmer Rouge escaped to the jungles of Thailand. The terror was alleviated though danger and bad conditions persisted. Vietnam set up a client government which continued to engage in warfare with the Khmer Rouge through the next decade. Radha and Samen  emigrated to the US. They made their first trip back to Cambodia in 1989 after the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc (the dissolution of Soviet support, made Cambodia more stable and open). Today he and his wife work to bring the gospel to Cambodians in Cambodia and North America.

Radha has an amazing story and  Les Sillars tells it in an engaging way. I give this book four stars and recommend it for anyone who likes a good biography.

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

Celebrating Advent Like a Boss: a book (p)review

Advent is just around the corner and I can’t wait to. . .wait. If you are like me, Ordinary Time felt a little less sacred than normal this year, with the election season overshadowing the liturgical calendar. Its over now but I feel anxious and icky. I pray: even so, come Lord Jesus. 

all-creation-waitsAdvent is the season of waiting for Jesus’ coming. We remember the hopes of the Hebrew prophets, the events leading up to Christ’s nativity. We cry for light to come and shine in our own darkness(es). While the wider culture rushes to Christmas with a consumerist frenzy, the wisdom of the Christian tradition has always said wait.

I’m a father of four, always on the hunt for resources which help my family enter into and appreciate their Christian heritage. We’ve picked up advent calendars with cheap chocolate from the grocery store and Jesus-y ones with printed manger scenes and bible verses behind each door from the Christian bookstore. Gayle Boss’s All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings was birthed as her personal family advent calendar, more than twenty years ago from a similar desire to help her kids enter into this season:

Advent, to the Church Fathers, was the right naming of the season when light and life are fading. They urged the faithful to set aside four weeks to fast, give, and pray—all ways to strip down, to let the bared soul recall what it knows beneath the fear of the dark, to know what Jesus called ” the one thing necessary” : that there is One who comes to be with us and in us, even, especially, in darkness and death. One who brings a new beginning.

This is Christian tradition at its best, moving in step with creation. When the sun’s light and heat wane, the natural world lets lushness fall away. It strips down. All energy is directed to the essentials that ensure survival. Engaging in Advent’s stripping practices—fasting, giving away, praying—we tune into the rhythms humming in the cells of all creatures living in the northern hemisphere. We tune into our own essential rhythms (introduction, xi-xii).

Boss’s eldest child was a toddler and she was pregnant with her second. She made an advent calendar for her family, not with Bible verses and scenes, but with creatures intimately aware of what it means to wait, to hope, and to long. She made a calendar that was “less about Christ’s human birth and more about the need for that birth” (xii). The animals stand in as metaphors and teachers, showing us what it means to wait.

This book is an elaboration of her family’s advent calendar (with some new creatures thrown in), published here with the beautiful illustrations of David G. Klein. There is a painted turtle,  a muskrat, a black bear, birds,a porcupine, a skunk, lake trout and more. Each creature, in their own way says: The dark is not an end, but a door. This is the way the new beginning comes (xiii). The creatures walk us through Dec. 1 to 24th. Jesus, the Christ comes on Christmas Day.

The words and images of this book are simply stunning and I look forward to delving into this with the family during the coming season. Watch the book trailer below to taste and see what sort of Advent reader this is. I give it five stars.

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

All Creation Waits Book Trailer from Hailey Jansson on Vimeo.

After the Wreckage: a ☆☆☆☆☆ book review

I loved Jonathan Martin’s previous book Prototype. It was about becoming like Jesus (the prototype of the new humanity) by discovering your true self. One chapter that was particularly meaningful to me was the one on wilderness. Martin described the experience of waiting and longing I was feeling at the time, and invited me to see my wilderness as a pregnant place, to attend to it, and discover what Christ may be birthing in me.  This helped me reframe my life and circumstance.

225_350_book-1966-coverIt is now three-years-later. Martin, like me, went through a bit of a vocational crisis. He was the pastor of  Renovatus, a thriving church in Charlotte North Carolina, he was happily married, and had a supportive network of friends.  Then came the shipwreck. Martin was a broken man:

I had failed in my marriage. I had failed my church. I had failed my friends. I sailed my own ship into the rocks and both the relationships that mattered most to me and my calling to the church I loved were the casualties. (Kindle location 337 of 3001).

How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help Is on the Way and Love Is Already Here is Martin’s encouragement to fellow castaways. He opens up his journey through the wreckage. He tells of the practices, relationships and the strong loving God that carried him through: Martin writes:

It is possible to fail, and not have our faith fail us. It is possible to lose our lives, and not lose our souls. The master teacher taught us himself that it is only in losing our lives—in their ego pretensions and posturing, in their careful image constructions and neediness—that this richer, deeper, below-the-surface life can be found. This is the life hidden with Christ in God, where almost anything can happen at the top of things without disrupting the grace that lies in the bottom of the sea in you. (Chapter 1, Location 404).

Martin gives only sparse details of the nature of his crisis, but this book isn’t about that. It is about the aftermath. Martin’s shipwreck brought him significant, lived insight about the life of faith and the spiritual journey. He shares about learning to relinquish control, the importance of eating, sleeping and breathing through a crisis, the art of dying, and learning to risk again. He tells of the community and relational connections he made as he found himself in a more vulnerable place.

I enjoy this book as much as Prototype. It comes from an honest place and shows the ways that Martin has grown in the last couple of years. Critiquing his earlier book, Martin writes, “those were things I knew so much more with my head than with my heart, uplifting information that was still turning into revelation inside of me.” He observes the lack of understanding about death in his earlier volume:

I had written a book on Christian spirituality, of which death and resurrection are its central motifs and defining characteristics—and had moved straight from wounds to resurrection. There was nothing in that book about death, because I did not yet know what it would mean to die.  (chapter seven, location 2194).

I love seeing the growth in Martin. And he does walk through shipwreck and crisis and come out the other end. Currently he is a teaching pastor at Sanctuary Church in Tulsa.

I have had this book for months and have been meaning to review it for some time. My own shipwreck was too raw for me when I first got this for me to appreciate Martin’s theme. This is an encouraging, vulnerable read but the truth underlying it is that God is still there, his love is still strong and there is no crisis, failure, or catastrophe that God can’t use to form us. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

The Place God Lives: a book review

The significance of temple and tabernacle cannot be understated. The theme runs right through the biblical story. It describes the place(s) where God dwells with his people. In The Temple and the Tabernacle: a Study of God’s Dwelling places from Genesis to Revelation, J. Daniel Hays traces the theme of God’s presence with His people from Creation (‘God’s garden temple’) to the New Heaven and New Earth of Revelation 21-22 (where God dwells with his people on earth as it is in heaven).

9780801016202Hays walks us through this material chronologically (though he saves Ezekiel’s prophetic temple vision in Ezekiel 40-48 until his discussion of the eschatology in his ‘New Testament’ chapter). Hays notes God’s presence with (or absence from) His people throughout the biblical narrative. The Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-2 describes a ‘garden Temple’ where God dwells with his people. When Adam and Eve’s sin cause them to be evicted from the garden, they fell cut off from God.

Between humanity’s eviction  from the garden and the building of the tabernacle, God does sometimes meet with his people and promise to dwell with them (i.e. his Covenant with Abraham, meeting Moses at the burning bush and Israel at Sinai); however the tabernacle becomes a portable dwelling for God’s presence, so that God would be with his people all along the wilderness way. Hays describes the physical features of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant that dominate the latter half of  Exodus. He describes the architecture, design and significance of each item or tabernacle feature. The Israelite’s gave generously and willfully to construct the tabernacle and when it was finished, God’s presence fills the tabernacle(59). 

Hays chapter on Solomon’s temple describes a different dynamic entirely. He eschews a shallow surface reading of the Solomon story that treats him as a mostly good king who loses his way toward the end of his life. There are troubling aspects of Solomon’s life all along and Hays points out where this is evident in the construction of the Temple.

This is  evident when reading the construction of Solomon’s temple against the backdrop of the construction of the tabernacle as described in Exodus. Exodus had described the role of God in the construction of the tabernacle (68). Conversely, 1 Kings emphasizes the directives of Solomon and his craftsmen from Tyre rather than God’s role (73). In constructing the tabernacle, the Israelites gave freely and participated willingly in the construction; but Solomon conscripts 30,000 Israelites into slavery, plus 150,000 other workers whose ethnicity is not specified (77-78).  In the Exodus, much is made of God’s selection and Spirit’s infilling of Bezalel son of Uri, and the appointment of Oholiab son of Ahisamak and other skilled workers (79-80); yet Solomon appoints a foreigner, Huram of Tyre, based on his reputation (constructing other temples?)(81). These differences are startling. Furthermore, Hays points out other differences between Solomon and his fore-bearers which show his drift (use of ‘the cedars of Lebanon’ as building material, reference to Canaanite months, possible Canaanite influence in the depiction of the temple Cherubim, etc). God’s presence fills the temple, but God’s endorsement of Solomon is merely conditional and tentative (101).

Solomon’s temple is the last structure that God’s glory fills. The rest of the book of Kings tells the story of this temple’s downfall and destruction. Ezekiel describes the departure of God’s presence from the temple (Ezekiel 8-11) before the Babylonian destruction. Ezra and Haggai describes the rebuilding of the temple, but God does not take up residence there (130-31).  Nor does God indwell Herod’s temple. The renewal of God’s presence with his people comes with Jesus who ‘tabernacles with his people’ (John 1:14) and ultimately the eschatological vision of Revelation’s closing chapters.Hays conclusion points us towards the implication of his study on the Temple/tabernacle for our worship and our focus on God’s indwelling presence.

Hays has done a wonderful job laying out the history of temple and tabernacle and their theological significance. With glossy pages, charts, photographs and diagrams, this book is beautiful as well as informative. It is nice that a book  about the temple and tabernacle has a pleasing aesthetic (though a hardcover might have been nice).

Hays offers a d literary sensitive reading of the  tabernacle/temple narratives and clearly  keeps abreast of scholarly discussions; however he does occasionally reference other interpretations (scholarly or otherwise) opaquely. For example,  he acknowledges that the ancient tabernacle points forward to Christ but faults “various writers and speakers” who “simply let their imaginations run free and look for any kind of similarity between even the smallest details of the tabernacle and Christ”(61). He gives  examples of some writers pointing to a fanciful and spiritual significance of the tabernacle tent pegs (61-62), but he leaves us guessing as to which writers or speakers interpretation he is referencing. This book is not without footnotes, but here is one place where they are sorely lacking.

Of course not every reader will want to track down these arguments (I may be odd that way). Hays has done the church a tremendous service in helping us recapture the significance of temple and tabernacle: God’s dwelling place with his people. I give this book an enthusiastic four stars.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books 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.

The Jesus Way of Love and Justice: a book review

A recent book I read was Dave Andrew’s The Jihad of Jesus. That book is interfaith dialogue at its best. Andrews explored the concept of Jihad and relates it to Jesus’ gentle struggle for peace and justice (also noting similarly gentle struggles within Islam itself). That book, plus another recent read, Craig Greenfield’s Subversive Jesus, (which speaks highly of Andrews) made me want to reach back into his catalog of books and see what else he had on offer.

9781610978514Not Religion But Love: Practicing a Radical Spirituality of Compassion was originally published in 1999, a follow up to Andrews infamous/influential Christi-Anarchy.  A 2006 edition accompanied a 2006 class Compassionate Community Work (published by Piquant Press). Wipf and Stock has republished the book (2012) with a new introduction from Brian McLaren and a forward by Charles Ringma.

The book picks up on the radical vision for personal and communal renewal that Andrews described in Christi-Anarchy (the first chapter is a summary of some of the ideas from the earlier book). This book describes how to work out Jesus’ vision of love and justice in our lives and neighborhoods. Each of the nineteen chapters ends with ‘ideas for meditation, discussion and action, which call us to recall, reflect and relate how we can embody Christ’s relational and communal vision for justice.

The book divides into five parts. Part one, The Heart of Christ, describes Jesus’ vision for compassion, justice, and gentleness as an alternative to the dominant mode of operating in society. Part two, A Heart for Breaking Barriers, describes how living into Christ’s vision breaks down the barriers of futility, selfishness, fear and spitefulness that runs through our hearts. Part three, A Heart for Building Bridges, explores the work of building bridges between people through relationships and groups and through cooperation. Part four, A Heart for Bringing Growth and Change, describes how walking in Jesus’ way of love brings hope, political empowerment, problem resolution and prophetic transformation. The final section, From Half Hearted to Wholehearted Humanity provides ways to press into Christ’s spirituality of compassion through exploring his sayings, stories about his life, through resources, and through courses that Andrews offered (I haven’t checked to see if the courses are still on offer).

This is radical spirituality in the sense that Andrews is calling us away from Christendom back to the source: Jesus Christ. He aims at helping us recover Jesus vision for spirituality and justice and his challenge to the status quo.  Andrews peppers his chapters with stories of how he has tried to live out the way of Jesus in living simply, sacrificially and missionally.

I am tired of statusquo spirituality which tells people to come to Jesus but leaves them fundamentally unchanged in their to injustice, culture and everyday life. Andrews offers a vision of the life Jesus calls us to where we take up our cross and follow in his footsteps. Andrews is inspiring (with a little bit of hippy counter culture thrown in for good measure). I recommend this book for anyone else tired of status quo spirituality who wants to explore what it can look like to live out Jesus’ vision of compassion. This book is challenging and makes you hunger for something more prophetic, transformative, and life-giving than some of the ways the gospel is packaged. Religion doesn’t transform, the radical, relational and sacrifical love of Jesus does. This is a book about how to live Christ’s lvoe out.  I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Wipf and Stock in exchange for my honest review.