First Rule of Fight Club. . .a book review

One of my passions and interests is to help people grow as disciples of Christ. I also really like the gospel. So when I saw a book called Gospel Centered Discipleship coming down the pike, I just knew I had to review it. Jonathan Dodson, pastor of Austin City Life Church (located conveniently in Austin) has written a thought provoking book addressing what discipleship properly centered on the gospel is. In part 1 he defines discipleship, in part 2 he addresses the motivation and power behind discipleship, and part 3 he addresses practical aspects of how we live it out.

Sharing vulnerably about his own steps and missteps as a disciple, Dodson demonstrates the ways that our discipleship models sometimes miss the point. Some disciples emphasize piety at the expense of mission (spiritual disciplines, instead of social justice or Evangelism). Others emphasize missional activism but fail to help people grow in holiness. The desire to provide accountability, sometimes gives way to legalism, while other discipleship groups err on the side of cheap grace by providing license for believers to sin. Dodson doesn’t want you to emphasize piety at the expense of grace or vise-versa; both vertical and horizontal dimensions of discipleship are important. What he wants us to live into the reality that Jesus is Lord and follow him in his mission and piety.

Along the way, he invites us to experience confession and community, stoke our religious affections and commune with the Holy Spirit to help us mature as disciples. His focus on the ‘three conversions’ (conversion to Christ as Lord and Savior, conversion to the Body of Christ, and Conversion to Christ’s mission) ensures that his own model of discipleship is fairly holistic and communal. His model is rooted in church practice rather than individual disciplines.

The last section of the book, talks about how we can practically live out this model of discipleship. Dodson writes about ‘fight clubs’ which are his name for a three person small group where participants meet to encourage one another to fight the good fight in living for Jesus (fighting sin in our lives, fighting to keep Christ at the center of our heart, fighting to extend his mission). Admittedly, I find the name is cheesy and a little gimmicky, but I like the concept. At any rate, Dodson’s description of fight clubs can be modified. This is just one example of how you can live out gospel-centered discipleship.

There is so much I like about this book. I really appreciated the way Dodson critiques some versions of discipleship which I have found unhelpful (i.e. how accountability groups can promote legalism). His model of discipleship is Biblically and theologically informed (mostly from a Reformed Evangelical bent). While I may disagree in minor points of emphasis, on the whole this seemed like a helpful and thoughtful book. I really appreciated the richness of sources he cited.

[Edit 5-09-2012: The earlier edition of this review criticized this book for having a subject and scriptural index which did not actually belong to this book (a printing error from the publisher). Crossway has just sent me a corrected copy where this error has been fixed.]

As a whole I would recommend this book to someone looking for an accessible guide to discipleship for those who want the truth of the gospel and Jesus’ Lordship (his kingship and leadership) to penetrate every part of our lives.

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this fair and rather friendly review.

A Good Prayer-Book of a Kind: A book review

O'Connor The short life of Flannery O’Connor unleashed some of the greatest fiction the world has known. Writing as a Southerner and a Christian, her characters showcase both the grotesque and the operations of God’s grace. But what are the Spiritual disciplines that nourished the spirituality of the artist and gave O’Connor her unique literary vision? What was her prayer life like? What insights can we gain from following her practice?

In the Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O’Connor, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell has drawn together a unique prayer-book which is both a devotional work and an exploration of the prayers, poems and poetry that inspired O’Connor. As O’Donnell describes her project:

It is an attempt to assemble from materials O’Connor would have invested with authority and significance a prayer book she would not find “awful,” but instead, might see as a helpful guide for those seeking a language and format for prayer that places ancient practice within a contemporary context. It also provides an opportunity to engage the rich theological imagination of Flannery O’ Connor, to come into daily contact with her special mode of holiness–one that is grounded in an unswerving love of Christ and characterized by her extraordinary clarity of vision and a fearless commitment to her craft as a means of accomplishing good in the world(12).

The result is a window into O’Connor’s practice and exploration of various themes which are important in her work. The main part of the prayer-book is comprised of the daily office pre-Vatican II Catholic’s would have likely practiced, organized around various themes. Each day’s prayer, includes prime and compline (morning and evening prayer), various Bible readings, a ‘lectio divina’ on a passage from one of Flannery O’Connor’s letters and suggestions for further reading on the day’s theme from O’Connor’s ficiton. Here are the topics for each day:

  • Sunday: The Christian Comedy
  • Monday: The False Self & the True Self
  • Tuesday: Blindness and Vision
  • Wednesday: Limitation and Grace
  • Thursday: The Mystery of the Incarnation
  • Friday: Facing the Dragon
  • Saturday: Revelations & Resurrections

The second part of this book, draws together poetry, prayers, poems and quotations that were important to O’Connor (culled from her essays, lectures and letters). These offer a window into the things that O’Connor valued and the spirituality that nourished her.

Angela O’Donnell, herself a poet and professor at Fordham University is well acquainted with O’Connor’s works (having taught literature classes focused on her). What I liked best about this book is the ways in which the prayer practice commended here reveals a fresh Flannery O’Connor and this is testament to O’Donnell’s genius. Of course as protestant and a Northerner, some of O’Connor’s spirituality remains opaque to me, but I found enough here that provoked me to reflection and prayer. This book is a welcome addition to the library of any O’Connor fan (and if you aren’t one, it may introduce you to her).

This book was provided for me by Paraclete Press in exchange for this review.

Take a Shot and You’ll Be Stoked: a book review

Mitch Stoke's Shot It is no secret that since the twin towers fell just over ten years ago, certain atheists have gotten louder and much more forceful in their opposition to religion. The late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, are dubbed the four horseman of the new atheism and have set to work showing up religious believers for their lack of evidence, failure to reckon with modern science, and the manifold ways that religion drives war, injustice and cruel acts (like Sept. 11, for example). In the face of such vitriolic opposition what are believers to do? Does belief in God even make sense?

Mitch Stokes has written a thoughtful book aimed at bolstering the faith of ordinary believers by augmenting their beliefs in God with some of the thoughtful arguments provided from Christian philosophy. Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, Stokes was an engineer before earning a masters in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, and a Ph.D in philosophy at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. If these names ring a bell then you know that Stokes has a good academic pedigree, but this is not a book of academic philosophy. Rather it is meant to present the insights of Christian philosophy at a popular level.

Stokes organizes his book into four sections (3 parts with an intermission between Part One and Two). In Part One, Stokes tackles the conjecture that belief in God is irrational by demonstrating that neither Christians and atheists simply trust the evidence, but have to accept certain facts as ‘basic beliefs.’ The motto’follow the evidence’ in bequeathed to us from the Enlightenment, but it is impossible for us to only believe what we have personal evidence for. Rather we accept certain things as basic. Christianity can be ‘rational’ and not reliant solely on evidence for faith in God. In fact, according to Scripture it is the Spirit that reveals Himself to us and not our reading of the evidence.

In a short intermission, Stokes lays out what you can expect or not expect from an argument. He doesn’t think that you can argue an atheist into the kingdom of God (not the purpose of this book) or dismantle every argument but does see the importance of argument for intellectual engagement and giving believers confidence that there are actual reasonable supports for the faith.

In Parts Two and Three, Stokes engages the two main arguments against the existence of God from athiests: the challenge of science and the challenge of evil. He argues that science no where disproves God and that the inference for design may be made from many findings. He challenges the claims of purely naturalistic evolution. He argues that the existence of evil is due to human freedom and that God’s ways transcend our own (he might have good reasons for allowing evil that we don’t understand from our vantage point).

I really enjoyed this book and thought that it would be accessible to a general audience (though not necessarily an easy read for all). I think that Part One, where Stokes dismantles evidentialist claims. I think his weakest section is part three where he tackles the problem of evil. I generally agree with his conclusions but he introduces the problem of evil as a cosmic problem (the existence of parasitic wasps observed by Charles Darwin) but then seems to restrict most of his discussion to human evil (in two short chapters!). I think he should have unpacked this problem a little more.

That being said, I think this book is welcome apologetic resource for Christians who are perturbed by the claims of the New Atheists and other antagonists.

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Sometimes Church Don’t Feel Like it Should: Book Review and Book Giveaway!!!

If you are part of a church (and you should be), sooner or later you are bound to experience a ‘church hurt.’ Everyday wounded people leave the church never to return because of their woundedness and others’ jerk-face jerkiness. Trust me, I know. I have struggled to not be bitter at big-ego-pastors, manipulative back-stabbers, gossips and dismissive deacons. All too common and par for the course for many churches. I could tell you stories, my own and friend’s stories, about how churches discriminate, dehumanize and destroy people. Clearly there are major problems.

In Stephen Mansfield’s interesting book, he quite intentionally doesn’t address any of the problems we find in church. You could read this book and the circumstances at the First Church of Senior Pastor Overcompensating may actually not change at all. Mansfield’s purpose is a little more basic: he wants to help you heal and fix what you can inside of you, so you could rejoin the fold of God’s people. From his own experience of church hurt and that of others he interviewed, he discovered:

No matter how petty the cause is, every religiously wounded soul I encountered was in danger of a tainted life of smallness and pain, of missed destinies, and the bitter downward spiral. And every soul I encountered had the power to be free, for each of them, no matter how legitmately, was clenching the very offense or rage or self-pity or vision of vengance that was making life a microcosm of hell (10).

So he wrote this book to help people move past their wounds, their pain and anger, their church hurt, to a place of healing, forgiveness and freedom.

Mansfield examines examples of betrayal and hurt from church history, the Bible and his own experience and reflects on how to manage betrayal and wounds without letting it poison your personal and ecclesial life. He offers helpful advice, provides questions to help people sort through how they are handling their wounds, and help them learn from the experience and he attends to possible spiritual dynamics and directs people on how to re-engage the church after experiencing wounds (possibly a different church, but not necessarily).

I wouldn’t say that this is the most insightful book, but I really appreciate Mansfield’s focus on helping people move on and not let their ‘church hurts’ keep them from giving and receive love in the body of Christ. Certainly at different points in my own journey, a guide like this could have been helpful and may have guided me through some difficult circumstances.

Sounds Great James! How Can I Get This Book for Free?

So glad you asked that. As it so happens, I have a voucher for a free book which you can redeem from your local bookstore or directly from Tyndale. I will happily mail this to one of you. In order to get your free copy, please comment below (you have to provide a valid email address so I can contact you, but that won’t post publicly). As I am free to arbitrarily pick the winner, tell me a little bit about why a book like this would be helpful to you.

Regardless if you win this book, my hope is that you will find a way to navigate past your hurts and re-engage in church, feeling the joy of fellowship.

Thank you to Tyndale for providing me (and maybe you) with a copy of this book for the purpose of this review/giveaway.

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.

Calvin Seeks Pure Joy: A Book Review of ‘The Joy of Calvinism’

Joy of Calvinism We all know the stereotypes of the cranky Calvinist who is serious, doctrinaire and fervent but lacks joy. I think of the Danish sect portrayed in Babette’s Feast with their sour faces, scandalized by a good meal. But is this a fair portrayal of Calvinism? Author Greg Forster claims it is not. He argues in The Joy of Calvinism that not only do Calvinists have joy but that “if you want to understand the command to rejoice at all times, and still more if you want to obey it, of all the places you might start looking for help with the problem, the best place to start is Calvinism.(14)” And so he wrote this book as a sort of lay exposition of Calvinist doctrine to draw attention to the joy of Calvinism, especially as it relates to soteriology (salvation).

[Personal Note: At the interest of self disclosure, I read this book as a non-Calvinist but I am not an anti-Calvinist. My own spiritual formation has been shaped, in part, by my reading Calvinists and Reformed authors and I regard many Calvinist theologians warmly. Certain passages of Calvin’s Institutes bring me to my knees and I hear within his prose pure worship. But there are other voices that have formed me and I don’t feel like I can buy into the Calvinist system completely. Rather than saying I am a non-Calvinist, it makes sense to say that while others boast that they are five-point-Calvinists, I am at best a .5 Calvinist. It is part of my Evangelical heritage, but not necessarily where I theologically locate myself. Back to my review.]

Forster thinks Calvinists have not presented their own theology in winsome ways, often focusing on the things they don’t believe, rather than stating positively what they do believe. He observes:

It sometimes feels like Calvinists invoke the five points, then apologize for invoking the five points, and then explain how the five points don’t really mean what they seem to mean and aren’t really saying what they seem to be saying. This can’t possibly be the best way to introduce people to what we believe.(16)

So this book promises to get beyond TULIP (a modern summary of Calvinism), formulas and technicalities to what is positively wonderful about Calvinist beliefs. So after a brief detour addressing ‘five points about Calvinism’ and trying to correct many misconceptions (i.e. Calvinists have free will, aren’t saved against their will, are wholly defiled but not ‘totally depraved,’ do not deny God’s love for the lost, or concerned only with God’s sovereignty) most of the book is dedicated to presenting a positive account of what Calvinists believe. Forster divides his chapters into<
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four headings, each addressing an aspect of God’s love: God loves you personally, unconditionally,irresistibly, and unbreakably.

By framing Calvinist doctrine in terms of God’s Love, Forster is able to draw out some of the pastoral implications of Calvinist dogma and show where Calvinists have drawn comfort from their core beliefs. That God loves us personally, is the positive implications of the doctrine of limited atonement/election. Forster claims that to say that God loves humanity is to abstract God’s love because real love is personal and involves doing concrete things for concrete individuals (48). To say that God loves unconditionally is to say that God’s choice of the elect resides solely in his own character and love and not on any of our techniques or our own character. To say that the love of God is irresistible means that when we experience God’s good work and love we cannot help but give ourselves over to him in wonder and devotion because of his goodness to him. To say that God’s love is unbreakable means that we trust that God will continue to preserve us and keep us on the path of salvation. All of this taken together, causes and sustains the joy of the convinced Calvinist.

Despite the merits of this book I think Foster occasionally comes across as uppity. He repeatedly diverges from his ‘positive presentation’ of Calvinism to show up other Christian traditions and I don’t think he always characterizes them well. For example, he argues that Calvinism alone places the hope of salvation squarely on the cross of Christ, but other Christian traditions set up a ‘salvation system.’ Roman Catholics are saved through the Church and the sacraments, Lutherans likewise trust the sacraments as ‘means of Grace,’ Arminians lay there hope solely on the moment of decision(53-54). Forster is quick to dismiss these other traditions for putting hope for salvation in something else besides Christ’s substitutionary atonement, but his quick dismissal betrays a low view of sacraments, ecclesiology and human freedom. He is also rather flippant in his characterization of each tradition. It would have been better if he presented the positive aspects of Calvinism without resorting to an apologetic and an ‘over and against’ posture.

I also disagree with his sole focus on soteriology. Calvinists’ sometimes focus narrowly on a theology of the atonement which looks at the cross and resurrection only but fails to place Christ’s redeeming work with little regard to the wider Biblical story. A focus on salvation is not wrong, per se. It just isn’t wright. I personally need a theology which is richer than one atonement model. I need to hear how Jesus fulfills the hopes of Israel, blesses the nations and brings his Kingdom rule to the earth. I get more joy out of stories than I do out of propositions.

I thought this book offered a good summary statement of Calvinist belief from someone inside their ranks. I think Forster did a good job of framing Calvinism as a theology of God’s love. Yet, in exploring the ‘joyful life’ from a Calvinist expression, I think J.I. Packer’s Knowing God or even John Piper’s Desiring God is a more helpful exploration of the theme. I would recommend this book to Calvinist friends seeking a better grasp of their own tradition and theological contribution.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for review. This is my fair and honest review.