Care for the Vulnerable:a book review

Levi Benkert was a successful Sacramento businessman until 2009 when the economic downturn forced him to close his business.  While his life in California was falling apart he was presented an opportunity to go to Ethiopia to rescue orphans. A tribe in the south of Ethiopia  regards some children born under certain conditions as ‘mingi‘ or ‘cursed.’ These were children who are conceived without the parents announcing their intentions to the tribal elders or children who’s top teeth come in before their bottom teeth or any number of differences from what is considered ‘normal ‘ in that culture. The tribe lives in fear that if the mingi child remained in their midst they would bring on them ill will from evil spirits. So the traditional practice was to abandon them to die from exposure or starvation.  However through the mediation of a local man named Simi and some German photographers (who were there short-term), the tribe agreed to allow Simi to remove the children from the tribal land instead of killing the kids.

Levi embarks on a two week mission where he sees these kids who were rescued, feels acutely the weight of the problem  and is moved to do whatever he can to help. Shortly thereafter he returned to Jinka, Ethiopia with his wife and three kids to run an orphanage for the rescued children. They had sold all their belongings and lived off support that a church gave to them. As Levi tells his story, he in honest about where he and his family wrestled with culture shock, personal motives (was here to escape his business failures or to help?), mistakes he made, and the challenge of being both culturally sensitive and courageous in his stance against injustice. This is a Christian story, and so the themes of surrender and trust in God permeate Levi’s life in Ethiopia.

Without giving you all the details of Levi’s story ( read the book for yourself), the situation with the tribes in Southern Ethiopia has changed somewhat with the Ethiopian government taking a more active interest in managing orphans.  Levi and his family now run another orphanage in Addis Ababa which places orphan children in homes with widow care takers (a creative way of fulfilling James 1:27).

Despite my enthusiasm about missions, I sometimes am wary of  problems in various missionary organizations (i.e. ethnocentricity, paternalism, etc.). I also am suspicious of much of the international adoption agencies because of an array of injustices perpetuated by some organizations. On either score, I found little in Levi Benkert’s memoir to make me wary of his project. He and his wife decided to adopt one of the ‘mingi‘ children, and were involved with setting up adoptions for others but tried to do so in ways that respected Ethiopian culture but didn’t profiteer from the children or the system. They conducted their mission in Jinka and Addis Ababa with a high level of integrity. I was pretty impressed. That being said, I know nothing of their mission except what I have read in this book and have not researched the situation myself. A ‘Note to Reader’ at the end of the book gives the link to their ministry website for those who want to learn more.  On a personal note, I find books like this where people take huge risks to do something good inspiring. You probably will too.

I received this blog from Tyndale Publishing House in exchange for this fair and balanced review.

Take up and Breath: a Book Review

When I picked up Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit For an Inspired Life and saw endorsments from N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson, Walter Brueggemann, Scot McKnight, William Willimon and Phillyis Tickle I got excited. I am always on the hunt for a good book on the Holy Spirit so seeing this one endorsed by some of my favorite authors made me want to take up and read.  Much of what is written on the Holy Spirit has an ‘anything goes’ feel to it with low-level discernment, but these people don’t endorse those books. So I had high hopes that this book would thoughtfully present the reality of the Spirit in a way that was fresh, insightful, inspiring and eye-opening. I was not disappointed.

Jack Levison is professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University. He’s written an engaging book with each of the chapters profiling  people from the Bible and illuminating aspects of the spirit’s activity. Through out the book he speaks of the   ‘holy spirit’ rather than “Holy Spirit” because he is trying to be attentive to the way the biblical language functions (he is not denying the Trinity). The Greek word pnuema and the Hebrew ruach both mean wind, breath or spirit (ruach means wind fifty times in the Hebrew Bible, but the rest of its nearly four hundred occurrences refer to the spirit from God). Levison wants to preserve the way a single word in the Hebrew or Greek ‘could encompass stormy winds and settled souls, the rush of the divine and the hush of human holiness(17).’ And so he attends to where he hears the spirit in the text and shows us the way God’s spirit is powerful and unsettling,  life-giving and good.

Levison does not always go to the most common passages people use when speaking of the spirit. But each of the people he profiles and the passages he chooses reveal who this spirit is. Here is a taste of some of the things I learned as I read this book  and the biblical passages it alludes to:

  • With Job I reflected on how life is a gift and God’s spirit sustains us all (yes, all).  Job is confident that though he is on the verge of death, he still has life from the spirit-breath of God is in him.
  • From Daniel we learn that the gift of the spirit’s wisdom comes from a lifetime of decisions and habits (i.e. Daniel’s resistance to royal rations, his repudiation of royal ambition, his rejection of power, practice of prayer and simplicity, etc.).
  • Simeon‘s spirit-inspired-song was not just ejaculatory praise but bears the evidence of someone who has studied and searched the scriptures for a lifetime. Simeon unfolds for us Isaiah’s expansive and inclusive vision.
  • Joel‘s dream (the one that is  recounted by Peter at Pentecost) speaks of a day when the spirit is not poured into individuals only but is poured out on all flesh and all societies. It is a radically inclusive vision that is not fully realized in Acts.
  • Chloe‘s complaint to Paul (reported in 1 Cor. 3) was of the divisiveness in the Corinthian church.  Paul’s tells the Corinthians about the way that the spirit inhabits communities.
  • Levison takes us to Ezekiel‘s valley of dried bones and discusses the spirit’s promise of restoration for the exiled and broken community of Israel. He contrasts this with the Spirit’s work in the healthy thriving church of Antioch (who sent Paul and Barnabas out) where the Christians exhibited a love of learning, an ear for prophecy, were nurtured by the practices of worship and fasting, were extremely generous, had multicultural leadership and in all these things, were a source of grace. The spirit is at work in communities which feel dead and lifeless as well as in lively ones.
  • The spirit is not always gentle. The same spirit that descended like a dove on Jesus at his baptism, propelled him into the wilderness for a time of testing.  Levison also notes that in Mark’s gospel, the only time that Jesus promises the spirit to the disciples was so that they could testify when facing severe persecution (but not escape!). The spirit will lead us to the heart of our vocation (just like it did Jesus) but this doesn’t mean that what the spirit brings is always easy.
  • Levison talks about Peter‘s Pentecost sermon and Paul’s passages on spiritual gifts and tongues in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 (this is where many treatments on the Spirit begin). In this chapter he contrasts the craziness of revivalism and snake handlers with the somewhat subdued mainline perspective and the book of Common Prayer. He concludes that there is no evidence in the Bible that we should avoid spiritual experiences but that the thrust of these passages also compels us to engage the Biblical text so that we could see more clearly the ways the spirit is moving in us. Levison’s vision of the spirit makes room for both spontaneity and serious study.

I loved the solid exegesis and the many insightful gems I found in this book (I didn’t share all of them, Elihu plays the foil for the first three chapters). My one small complaint is that Levison never got around to treating my own ‘go to’ passages on the Holy Spirit (John 14-16, 20). But I do love that the passages he chose to focus on are often neglected ones (and he put a fresh spin on some old favorites).

I would recommend this book for anyone who want to understand more of the spirit (or Spirit). This is a popular level book and is accessible for most people (he has an earlier  scholarly volume  called Filled With the Spirit). Levison is an great teacher and opens up these passages in exciting ways (often sharing stories of his own family life to illustrate his points). In each chapter you read several passages of scripture so I read this devotionally and really found that it helped nourish my spirit during a busy week. This one gets a high recommendation from me.

I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for this review. This is my fair and honest review.

When Life Gives You a Ferocious Beast, Jump in a Pit With It: a book review

When I pick up a book and discover that it is entirely based on a few obscure verses from the Old Testament, I generally want to run screaming from the room faster than you can say, “The Prayer of Jabez.”  And usually when I read a ‘self help’ book reportedly based on ‘biblical principles’ I am much too suspicious and agitated to get much of anything out of it.  But I like this book, like what it says and  I like Mark Batterson.  Despite myself, I found myself challenged and inspired. This is the sort of book that I needed to read right now.

Mark Batterson wrote In a Pit with A Lion on a Snowy Day about six years ago (Published 2006). The title comes from an event in the life of Benaiah, one of David’s Mighty men,  in charge of his bodyguards, renowned hero and later commander-in-chief of Israel’s army (replacing Joab). Benaiah had some pretty great exploits. He struck down Moab’s greatest heroes, bested an Egyptian giant with his own spear and one day he chased a lion into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion (hence this title). Benaiah goes down in history as one of David’s greatest and bravest of warriors.

Batterson is on to something. If  Benaiah were alive today, he’d be a superstar. A video clip of him talking about the lion story would likely go viral on Youtube and he  would be greater than any motivational speaker in any high school assembly. Anywhere. I mean, you’d want to hear this guy’s story. He jumped into a pit with a lion and lived to tell about it. Amazing stuff.

Batterson uses the story of Benaiah and the lion (as well as his other heroic exploits) to talk about our need to chase lions and face our fears if we want to do something significant and if we want to grow in our faith. In fact, Batterson contends that growing in our faith entails us letting go of our irrational fears and taking risks.  Of course he isn’t advocating we jump in the Lion cage at the zoo (he is speaking metaphorically people). He wants to challenge people to step out in risky faith. If you never take any risks but crave security and certainty, chances are you will never do anything great, significant or interesting.  Too often people pray for security or safety when they should be praying risky prayers and acting big and seeing what God will do with it. That is a picture of faith!

I don’t think for a minute that the story of Benaiah carries all the weight that Batterson puts on it, but his message is  a good one (in seminary speak: this book is better homiletics than it is exegesis).  I loved hearing Batterson’s own story of learning to take risks (he was a church planter and currently pastors a multi-campus mega church) and the other risk-takers he profiles (some biblical, some contemporary). My own prayer while reading this book was for God to reveal what risks he wants me to take and ways that I can step out of my comfort zone. Certainly it rings true for me, that my greatest  accomplishments  are those where I took the greatest risks.  In my own pastoral job hunt  and my smarting under rejection has made me somewhat reserved about putting myself out there. But I want to make a big impact for God’s kingdom and that means rising to the challenge and trusting God with the reults. Really what I needed to hear. Thanks Mark!

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

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.

Unashamedly Bearable: a Book Review.

R. T. Kendall, former senior minister of Westminster Chapel is a Charismatic-friendly old school Evangelical from Kentucky. On all counts he’s felt the public stigma for being who he is, living out his faith, and holding the convictions he has. Being a Christian does not win favor in business, in academia or in the wider-culture (but it could get you elected). Kendall wrote this book to get Christians to embrace the stigma that comes from living lives faithful to the Gospel. To this end, I commend much of what he says here.

I think most people reading this would find points of disagreement with Kendall. I name two. I think his summary of the gospel is reduces the truth, and I think he is too instrumental in his discussion of suffering for the sake the of gospel.

Kendall defines gospel as “the good news that Jesus died and that His death turned God’s wrath away from our sins and satisfied His justice. (43).” Beyond overemphasizing penal elements of the atonement, this summary of gospel reduces it to Christ’s death with no mention of his incarnation, his fulfillment of Israel’s story, his resurrection, the political implications that Jesus was King and Caesar is not, etc. While I certainly agree with Kendall that Christ died to affect our salvation (and personally trust in that fact), reducing the gospel to questions of eternal destination obscures the implications of the gospel for our earthly life. The good news is that Jesus is King and has a kingdom and this calls into question all other powers, principalities and dominions. By embracing a richer and fuller view of the gospel, the stigma of following Christ actually increases. People are not as upset by my assurance of salvation as they are by my contention that America is not, nor ever was, a Christian nation (Canadian readers substitute province for nation and Alberta for America).

Concerning Kendall’s instrumental view of suffering, Kendall says, “The greater the suffering the greater the anointing; the greater the anointing, the greater the suffering. By this I simply mean the promise of a greater anointing is on offer when you suffer for the shame of Jesus’ Name (78).” In the Bible anointing indicates a setting a part for special office, such as priest or King; in charismatic circles anointing is short-hand for some combination of spiritual power, authority, blessing or giftedness. While I think it is certainly true that God blesses those who willingly suffer to remain faithful to him, I am wary of pointing to suffering for the gospel as a means of gaining ‘anointing.’ Certainly I like the way Kendall exhorts us to suffer for Christ and not chase the comfort of the prosperity gospel, but I am skeptical of suffering to get God’s blessing.

But perhaps Kendall mediates against the wrong appropriation of his message, by insisting that we should suffer ‘for the gospel’ and not for our idiosyncrasies. At one point he says:

If I offend anybody I pray it will only be because of the sheer word of God in an atmosphere of love–the Gospel, the person and work of Jesus Christ and all that encourages us to true godliness. I do not like to offend at all, but if I do cause offense I do not want it to be because of my weird personality, my eccentric habits, my foolish points of view that have nothing to do with sound theology, my unguarded comments in the pulpit, my political opinions, the color of my shirt, my insensitive comments to you about your lifestyle or my being nosy regarding your personal life. (99)

He exhorts us to let the Gospel and our convictions regarding the Word of God offend and not our own abrasiveness.

I appreciate Kendall’s pastoral and practical insights and appreciate the thoughtfulness he brings to his writing (sometimes missing among fellow charismatics). I have friends that would enjoy and find this book challenging and helpful, and other friends who would find this book quaint and reductionist. I think it’s a little of both.

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