O is for Obedience (an alphabet for penitents)

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

-Matthew 7:13-14.

“To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

-1 Samuel 15:22

One of my favorite movies, The Joyluck Club has a scene where the little girl version of June (the main protagonist) refuses to keep up her piano lessons.  Her mother is livid and shouts, “There are only two kinds of daughters. Obedient and those who follow own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient kind!”[This quote is from memory and may not be exact.] As a father, I have quoted that line to my own daughters (to their general consternation and confusion and my amusement), but whatever we think of June’s mother and her parenting, she does note something profoundly true. There are two kinds of [people].

In the spiritual life, there are those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Jesus contrasted the wide way that leads to destruction and the narrow road that leads to life. In the Old Testament, the prophets warned that “to obey was better than sacrifice.” Many children of Israel (and Saul in 1 Samuel 15) thought that religion was a tool to garner personal prosperity (pray the right way, perform the right ritual and God would bless the land, the crops, and bring peace). This didn’t transform their lifestyles. They did what they wanted but expected blood on the altar would absolve them and bring blessing into their lives.

What kind of people are we? Obedient or those who follows our own minds? The question becomes poignant in Lent. This is after all the season of self-sacrifice. We keep our little fast and observe our little rule and expect that God will bless us. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” What good is our little rule if we aren’t being transformed into the image of Christ?

I have kept vegan during Lent and used the time to reflect on injustice in our food system and my own eating habits. I was asked recently about my reflections on this, but I don’t really have any. I know the first couple weeks were difficult and it got easier as Lent progressed. Now in the home stretch, I feel like it has been really good for me. I lost a bunch of weight and I feel good. It has its challenges and I will feast on Easter. I know that is possible that I can make this kind of liminal commitment with no lasting change in my life.

But if Lent is about more than our little sacrifices but learning to walk in obedience to Jesus, there is lasting fruit. I have tried to make space for prayer and Bible reading, to walk humbly with God and act where he tells me. I have tried to learn graciousness and act kindly. Jesus modeled obedience for us, in life and in death. The call on his life is the call to us as well.

How about you? How are you learning obedience in this season? What are the things God is calling you to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Happy Church for Grumpy Gus: a book review

Joy is an essential characteristic of the Christian life. However happy Christians are in short supply. Author and pastor Tim McConnell wrote Happy Church to call Christians to reclaim happiness as our birth right. This happiness is not dependent on ‘happenings.’ McConnell has in mind a “thicker happy than the superficial sentimentality of the moment”  (20).  The happiness he is talking about is rooted in the joy of the Lord and being glad in Christ.

9780830844562McConnell describes the radical joy available to us as the people of God. This means the joy found in Christian community, in being satisfied by the Word,  entering into worship and praise of God, having a joyful prayer life, knowing the role of laughter in the life of faith, being filled with ‘limitless hope’, participating in the mission of joy among the suffering, and anticipating the future feast that awaits us (and we taste some now!).  The theological realities that McConnell describes (i.e. our access to God in prayer and praise, our sharing in God’s life and mission, our hope amd confidence in God’s Word) are all causes for deep wells of gladness. God has given us Life abundantly and we share it with Him forever!

So this is a good book; however when I see the title ‘Happy Church,’ it makes me feel like a grumpy Gus. I have been in too many churches where in the name of Christian joy a happy face was painted on circumstances that weren’t too chipper. I say yes to joy,  but I worry about how an emphasis on happiness obscures authenticity and our willingness to enter into the pain of others; I say yes to gladness, but I also think we need to name grief and provide space for lament. I say yes to happiness and contentment if it doesn’t hide anger at injustice and a holy discontent with a world where hope is too often deferred.

Thankfully I think McConnell’s call to happiness is not a call to painted smileys and emotional dishonesty. The happiness he describes is rooted in a deep confidence in God, his word, and the hope of Christ’s coming kingdom but he never pretends pain isn’t real. In these pages he describes the experience of joy in the midst of difficult circumstances. McConnell writes:

To celebrate happiness is not to discount sadness. To take up the mission of joy is not to dismiss the reality of suffering. We need to talk about the happiness that mourns. We need to talk about the smiles and the laughter at the bedside of the dying. WE need to know the happiness we are seeking and finding in Christ doesn’t burn off like a mist when hardships come. There is a kind of happiness that mourns, but at the very same time it has the power to overcome mourning (133).

So there is no need to be a grumpy Gus. Though sorrow may last for a night, joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5)! I recommend this book for anyone that needs to remind their face that the gospel is good news all the way through and that Jesus desired that our joy would be complete (John 15:11). I give this four stars.

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

A Slow Study Guide a Comin’: a study-guide review

It has been almost two years since I plowed through Slow Church — a book critiquing the fast-food-like-franchising of the church, suggesting instead a more local, organic and inclusive vision of Christian community. I devoured the book. I didn’t read it slow. I swallowed it whole. I was (and am) sympathetic to the vision that C.Christopher Smith and John Pattison painted. The franchise model emphasizes efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. A slow church model seeks out  sustainable practices and the cultivatation deep relationships (to people and places).

4130IVP has recently released the Slow Church Study Guide which invites small groups and communities to participate in an 11 week discussion of the book. Each session is made up of six components:

  1.  Readings of Slow Church (the book) for participants to do prior to each meeting
  2. resources for facilitators to prepare, including videos, audio clips and blog posts (all linked at http://guide.slowchurch.com)
  3. a welcome (usually a poem or a quotation to center group members and help them to be present with one another
  4. Lectio Divina on a relevant portion of scripture
  5. Conversation starter questions
  6. closing thoughts

Ideally each sesson take about an hour and half to go through as a group.

The study guide is a chance to chew on the concepts and practices suggested by the book and press into its implications in the context of community. I did it wrong. My wife and I did the sessions together. I did go back and re-read the relevant sections of the book, but I doubt Smith and Pattison envisioned this as a “couple’s devotional.” We did read slow and follow the format of the book. We shared about the theological vision for slow church with our fifteen month old beside us and our toes in the sand overlooking Tampa Bay. We discussed the terroir (taste of place) over the finest Pinot Noir we could find (that came in a box). We discussed our church community and churches we’ve been apart of. We explored the character of our neighborhood and community and what we could do to embody God’s reconciling love and welcoming mission to our peculiar place.

This is a great guide and would be a wonderful small group study or a framework for church plant teams, or church lead teams to dream up possibilities for their community. I  resonate with both the book and the guide; however I have one small critique. One of the things I appreciate most about the vision for Slow Church is how inclusive it is. Franchised churches  commodify the gospel exclude the marginalized. In contrast, the theological vision for slow church emphasizes the inclusion of everyone (see the Lectio Divina on 2 Cor 5:14-21 in session one, the session/chapter on hospitality, etc). However I am not sure how inclusive the study guide is..The resources and welcomes are drawn from mostly white males. Ethnic and immigrant communities have a lot to teach us about local expressions of church (i.e. local theologies). It would have been nice to see more diverse voices included in the facilitator preparation especially. Also the focus on this as a book study caters to the more literary, thinkers and bookish types.  That describes me and I love it, but I am not sure that everyone I ever sat in a small group with would feel engaged by the material. I know a study guide can’t be all things, so put these critiques in the FWIW category. I liked it and overall give this study guide four stars.

Note: I received this study guide from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

The Fullness of Christ in the Early Church: a book review

One of the theology profs at my grad school used to say something like, “All the new heresies are the old heresies with fresh make up and a mini skirt.” Leaving aside his troubling gendered association of apostasy, his point is a good one: there is nothing new under the sun, there are simply variations of an old theme.

9780830851270This is demonstrated in The Earliest Christologies: Five images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age James Papandrea, associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary,  explores the various views of Christ in the second and third centuries (before Constantine and councils). Some thinkers in the area were Adoptionists, denying the divinity of Jesus; Others were Docetists, denying  Christ’s humanity. The middle position was Logos Christology—affirming Jesus Christ’s full  divinity and humanity and paving the way for Nicea and Chalcedon.

Papandrea explores five images of Christ in the early church. He distinguishes two different types of adoptionists: Angel Adoptionists and Spirit Adoptionists. The Angel Adoptionists held that the human Jesus was rewarded by God for his perfect obedience and given an indwelling angel. This happened proactively at the moment of his conception because of God’s foreknowledge (25-26).  Thus they accepted the Virgin Birth but neither the man (Jesus) or the indwelling angel (the Christ) were considered divine (27). They accepted the gospel of Matthew as canon and prominent teachers include the author of The Shepherd of Hermas and Lucian of Antioch (Arius’ teacher) (29-30). With this Christology, salvation is based on merit and human effort (31). Little is known about the actual lifestyle of the Angel Adoptionists (31).

Most adoptionists were Spirit Adoptionists, believing that Jesus became the Christ through the anointing of the Spirit at his Baptism (35). This gave Jesus power to perform miracles in his ministry; however the Spirit withdrew at Jesus’ passion (35). Thus the union of human to God was temporary, focused on the concept of anointing rather than indwelling (35-36). They likely used an edited form of Matthew’s gospel, excising the birth narratives (39)  The Spirit Adoptionists affirmed the preexistence of the Spirit, safegarding Jewish monotheism by removing Jesus from the realm of divinity (42). Jesus was just a man filled by the Spirit, and as such not unique (36).  Adherents of Spirit Adoptionism included Theodutus the Elder, Theodutus the Younger and Paul of Samasota (36-37). As with the Angel Adoptionists, Spirit Adoptionists were ‘optimistic about human nature’ advocating strict  adherence to the Jewish law (41). This manifested itself as a strict asceticism among adherents, vegetarianism and the use of water at the Eucharist (43).

The Docetists were also (broadly) of two types: those that denied that Jesus had a body at all (Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism),  and those that thought Jesus had a “ethereal” body which appeared human (Hybrid Gnosticsm. Hybrid Gnosticism (or quasi-docetism)  developed somewhat later, possibly in conversation with the mainstream church and a concession that Jesus did seem to actually have a body (70)  Both forms of gGnosticism demeaned matter in favor of the ‘spiritual,’ though in practice it manifested itself differently. Those who thought that Jesus’ body was an illusion, denigrated their bodies as evil and practiced asceticism (64). The Hybrids were more hedonistic, though possibly no-more than Roman society at large (82-83).  Neither type of docetist believe in Jesus humanity. Thus he has no birth,  or resurrection. Jesus was simply the offspring of gods in a polytheistic pantheon.

Papandrea presents Logos Christology as ‘the middle way’ between adoptionism and docetism:

Logos Christology, as the middle way between these alternatives, refused to allow either of Jesus Christ’s two natures to be diminished. Logos Christology embraces a full divinity that is preexistant and a true humanity with a real human body. This is a hristology of descent because the divine Logos starts out in the dine realm as equal to the Father and descends to humanity to take on our human condition (Phil 2:6-8). Furthermore Logos Christology refuses to separate Jesus from “the Christ” as though they were two separate entities, but rather consider the whole incarnate Jesus Christ as one person. (88-89).

Thus Logos Christology affirms Jesus humanity and that he is the divine Son of God, his bodily resurrection, his virgin birth, his incarnation. The practical payoff of this view is a belief in the doctrine of grace, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice, resurrection and the dignity of creation. Rather than legalism or a strict asceticism, Christians could have a more balanced approach to their bodies and matter (104).

Papandrea’s final chapter explores why Logos Christianity won, instead of these other alternatives. But he also show how these early heresies had a legacy. Adoptionism evolved into Arianism in the forth century (119). Docetic Gnosticism paved the way for modalism (120). In his final pages he observes the modern forms of Adoptionism and Doceticism (125-127). Modern day modalists and practical docetists in the church, continue to deny the dignity of embodied life. Adoptionism is seen in contemporary scholarship that draws a strong distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith” (125). Old heresies remade for today.

Papandrea has produced an accessible guide to these early Christologies. It is an introductory overview, so could certainly be more detailed at points; yet Papandrea does give a good analysis of the controversies and the implications for sotierology and anthropology. This would be a good supplementary text for a systematic or historical theology course. It also has the advantage of describing the significance of these histories for today. As a pastoral leader, this book clarified my understanding of the roots of contemporary issues facing Christology in the church.  I give this four-and-a-half stars.

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

 

 

The Post-Consumer Bible: a ★★★★★ book review

Glenn Paauw observes that the Bible is not only the best selling book of all time, it is also the best selling book every single year (13). There are Study Bibles with shiny new notes and cross references; there are patriotic Bibles, ‘wilderness’ Bible’s, and a host of other Bibles for every variety of our Chicken Soup souls. Yet despite the ubiquity of the Bible, there is not a ‘deep awareness of the themes, stories and truths of the Bible’ (ibid). We tend to read the Bible in increasingly atomistic ways—mining the text for timeless truths totally disconnected from biblical history, canon and context. Scripture Mcnuggets™.

5124In Saving the Bible From Ourselves, Paauw aims at a recovering a “big reading” of Scripture:

My core argument is  that for most of us, most of the time, small readings prevail over big readings. “Small” and “big” refer to more than the length of the passage we take in. I define small readings as those diminished samplings of Scripture in which individuals take in fragmentary bits outside of the Bible’s literary, historical, and dramatic contexts. Also implicated here is a corresponding meager soteriology—that narrow, individualistic, and escapists view of salvation so common among Christians. (11).

In contrast, big readings result when “communities engage natural segments of text, or whole books , taking full account of the Bible’s various contexts” resulting in an “apprehension of the story’s goal in a majestic regeneration that is as wide as God’s good creation”(12).  Paauw aims at moving us beyond our highly individualized consumption of ‘Scripture Mcnuggets,’ and welcomes us to the feast of Scripture.

Paauw presents his argument in the form of a chiasm (making this book one long chiastic utterance). Here is a look at the overall structure:

The Elegant Bible (chapters 1-2)

The Feasting Bible (chapters 3-4)

The Historical Bible (chapter 5-6)

The Storiented Bible (chapters 7-9)

The Earthy Bible ( chapters 10-11)

The Synagogue Bible (chapters 12-13)

The Iconic Bible (chapters 14-15) (p.19).

Chapters one and two describe the ‘Elegant Bible.’ Paauw traces how Study Bibles and Chain Reference Bibles, and the like, suffer from biblio-clutter, distracting readers from the words of Scripture in favor of  the commentary. Even chapter numbers and headings divide the text and distract us from engaging the world of Scripture. Paauw argues for an  “extreme Bible makeover”—a Bible excised of distractions, highlighting the words and message of the text.

Chapters three and four describe the need to move beyond our tendency to snack on the Bible (i.e. ripping positive, encouraging verses from context to apply them to our own individual lives). Paauw warns:

Modern consumers are individuals first and foremost, centered on their ability to make choices as independent, self-determining entities. Since most people don’t buy what they don’t want to hear, this filter prevents our constant search for pleasant verses and favorite passages from ever introducing us to the real Bible. We too easily end up seeing a Cheshire-cat-Bible—all smiles and no body. We find encouragement, but no correction, we heap blessing on blessing and promise on promise but fail to be challenged. This fragmented Snacking Bible fails us, because we have prevented the Bible from being what it is, and turned the Bible into something it is not. How can the Bible possibly do its work? (61).

Against fast-food- Bible-conumption, Paauw invites us to feast on the totality of Scripture. In chapters five and six, Paauw tackles how our dualistic  search for ‘timeless truths’  obscures the ‘time-full’ historicized Bible which speaks to our past, present and future and God’s actions in the lives of His people.

The centerpiece of the book is “The Storiented Bible” described in chapters seven to nine. Paauw urges us towards a historical and genre sensitive reading of scripture which has an eye on the Big Story, and our place in it. This involves a canonical sensitivity to the big picture,  reading whole books of the Bible and a commitment to live in creative fidelity to Scripture’s grand narrative.

Paauw revisits his earlier themes in the latter half of the book. The historicized Bible is “the Earthly Bible” immersed in the particularities of earthy life (chapters ten and eleven). The privatized “Snacking Bible” gives way to the communal engagement of the Synogogue Bible (chapters twelve and thirteen). The cluttered ugly and over-complicated TMI Bible, gives way to the elegant Iconic Bible (chapters fourteen and fifteen). Paauw makes a strong case for us to recover the particularlity of the Bible,  the communal context of Bible reading, and to make the words of Scripture beautiful again.

Paauw is not alone in his call for us to revolutionize our engagement with the Bible. He draws on the work of N.T. Wright, Christopher Smith, Peter Enns to help us move beyond our atomized biblicism to the big story. He has given us an engaging, well written case for enlarging the Biblical frame and offers a strong critique of ‘biblical aids’ (i.e. Study Bibles, devotionals, cross references) which distract us from the Word of God itself. I highly recommend this book for anyone. Students of the Bible in Bible College or seminary would do well to imbibe Paauw’s perspective. As would pastors and regular lay folk. This is a popular level biblical hermeneutic An enthusiastic five stars. ★★★★★

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

Revealing the Hidden Things: a book review

Christian films, books and TV preachers give their take on the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Speculation about end times is a Christian cottage industry with theories bandied about on things like the identity of the beast, the rapture, the role of Israel, or the nature of the judgments poured out on the earth. Revelation is written in highly metaphorical language, so there are tons of speculations. Other Christians read through Revelation once or twice but unsure of what to do with it, so they ignore it.  In The Heart of Revelation,  J.Scott Duvall offers a third way of of reading revelation. He attends to the vision of hope in the book without devolving into personal speculation about what we may or may not suffer.

TheHeartOfRevelation_hires+spine.inddAfter a brief introduction discussing the cultural context, Duvall explores the book’s message through the lens of ten themes: God, Worship, the People of God, the Holy Spirit, our enemies, our mission, Jesus Christ, judgment, new creation, and perseverance. By attending to Revelation thematically, Duvall provides a overview of the book rather than a detailed walk through the text (elsewhere he has published a commentary on revelation in the ‘Teach the Text Commentary Series).

In his introduction Duvall offers these guidelines for understanding the book: (1) attend to the meaning of the book to its original hearers in Asia Minor, (2)  Be aware of the symbolic nature of its language and (3) a focus on the main theological message of each vision (9-10).  The result is a historical-literary sensitive reading which doesn’t get caught up in theorizing about locust in smoke or Russia’s role in Armageddon (Sorry Hal). This isn’t to say that what Duvall says isn’t compatible with various eschatological options. He allows for the book’s future orientation without speculating about the minutia. His focus remains on the major themes through out the book and I think that mild Preterists, Millennialists and Dispensationalists can all read this book profitably.

The picture he paints is of a loving God who is the true center and source of life, a worshipping community drawn from every tongue, tribe and nation, a Holy Spirit who is living and active among us, an oppressor who is defeated by the cross and enemies we will overcome as we take up our cross and suffer. We also see our calling to be faithful witnesses to Jesus, the coming judgment against sin which takes seriously God’s holiness and  our human freedom, a new heaven and new earth where God will dwell with his people,  and the challenge and promise for those who persevere until the end.

If Revelation mystifies you and you want a book that helps you see the meaning and purpose of the book, this is a great place to start. Each chapter ends with a list of key texts, a reading plan and community group questions for exploring Revelation in a small group setting (or personal study).  I give this book four stars.

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