Crouching Corriedale, Christian Dragon: a ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ book review.

 Christians are supposed to be different. They are supposed to be in the world but not of it and reflect Christ’s coming kingdom more than the prince of this age. Yet too often we are indistinguishable from the wider culture, with the same dysfunctions and proclivities.  Nowhere is this felt so acutely as in the realm of power. The ongoing Christian fetish with leadership means the church often mines the corporate world and politics to discover how to lead churches and impact communities. The results are something effective but not without cost. Too often our leadership doesn’t reflect the character of Christ or challenge the power structures.

9780718022358_3Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel are two guys who grew up in a church and wanted to probe what the Christian approach to power and leadership should look like. They observe, “Over time we have come to see the way of power commended in Scripture is not the way of power we have seen in evangelicalism”(xxi). They describe examples of unhealthy power dynamics in the church.For example, Goggin relates visiting a church with a model of a ziggurat in the lobby, the church’s accomplishments on plaques on the side. There was apparently no sense of irony that the church had reconstructed the Tower of Babel in their foyer. Years later the church leadership melted down due to lack of financial accountability, fear and intimidating leadership and divisiveness (59-60).

They delinate other aspects of flawed and toxic leadership in the church:

Leadership of any kind will always be alearning to unhealthy, domineering and narcissistic individuals. The church is not immune to this, because the church can provide a context for power. A toxic leader is someone who maintains power and significance by manipulating followers through their own fundamental drive to be powerful and significant. Toxic leaders dominate and control. Toxic leaders weild their personalities to cement their power, relegating their followers to a position of dependence on them rather than on Christ. Toxic leaders do not develop other leaders, because they pose a threat to their own power. Toxic leaders create an unhealthy symbiosis between themselves and the organizations they lead, such that their absence would equal the collapse of the organization. In other words, a leader is toxic if he ceases to live according to the way of Jesus—the way of love, humanization, and truth, giving himself instead to the way of manipulation, dehumanization and deception (147).

If you have been part of a church, you likely have experienced and seen these dynamics (and maybe caused a few of them?). So, in The Way of Dragon or the Way of the Lamb they take a journey through the landscape of Christian culture to gain wisdom from some Christian sages. They intentionally sought out people who did not use their power for their own sake (16). They interview J.I Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, Jean Vanier and John Perkins.

These sages have a lot to say to Goggin and Strobel! From Packer, they learn that in “Christian life and in ministry, weakness is the way” (23). In their conversation with Jim Houston and his wife Rita, they probe how the quest for power in the church has revealed the quest for self-redemption. In contrast, Christian spirituality points to dependence on Christ and his example of self emptying as the key to human flourishing (43-44). Marva Dawn,  a theologian plagued by a lifetime of physical infirmity, is well acquainted with weakness, but also aware of the need to stand against the powers—insitutional and systemic evil. She points out the power of weakness and standing with the weak.  Perkins reveals the power of love in overcoming racism, xenophobia, and hate. Vanier speaks of the power in shared vulnerability and weakness in community. Peterson describes how to pastor a church in the way of the lamb. Willard described the importance of faithfulness over the value of success (152-53)And they said lots of other things too.

Because this book was fashioned around a series of conversations, it isn’t strictly linear, but cycles around similar themes. I think it is significant that the people profiled here are lions in winter, leaders at the end of their lives reflecting on what it has meant to live a lifestyle that is both faithful to Jesus and reflects the way of the lamb. Since their interviews both Dallas Willard and Rita Houston have gone to be with the Lord.

This is the second book that Goggin and Strobel wrote together (their previous book is Beloved Dust). I loved their first book and I couldn’t help but like this one too. It didn’t hurt that they literally interviewed all my favorite authors. As a Regent College guy, I have been strongly impacted by Peterson, Packer, Houston and Dawn. Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy shaped my understanding of Christian formation. I met Perkins in the midst of urban ministry and found someone who loved more, suffered more and had more wisdom than my (at the time)twenty-something heart could hold. I’ve long admired Vanier and the work of L’Arche and Peterson shaped my entire understanding of what it means to be a pastor. My admiration for each of these folks continues to grow. If evangelicals sainted people, each of these sages would make the short list.

I appreciate the insights that Goggins and Strobel draw from their interviews and their encouragement to lead different and wield power differntly from the world. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. -★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Reflecting God’s glory, by living well, in the pocket of the Kingdom: a book review

The truth is we are broken people. We were created as image bearers to reflect the glory of God, but because of sin we are twisted and broken image bearers. We reflect God but are fragmented and alienated from others.

Kevin Scott’s Recreatable: How God Heals the Brokenness of Life takes an honest look at the reality of our brokenness but also offers us the Good News: we are broken people, but we are not broken beyond repair. As people created by God intended to bear his image, we are ‘recreatable.’ God is able to take the broken shards of our life and help us to live holy lives which reflect his glory to a watching world.

I really loved this book. In part, this is because it contains both what I consider the single best analogy of human brokenness and one of the best summaries of the Christian life. In the first chapter, Scott tells the story of his daughter Courtney baking brownies and dropping the glass pan that they were in. While smell of brownies was still enticing, the brownies were full of shards of glass and were dangerous to whoever dared partake of them (19-20). This seems a vivid picture of our image bearing. We humans have the scent of heaven on us, but because of our brokenness we hurt all who get close to us.]

Scott summarizes the Christian life with this ’45 second’ explication of the book’s sections (Reflecting his glory, Living well, in the pocket of the Kingdom):

“Reflecting his glory” means that God is taking  the shards of the world and our broken lives and restoring his glory to them. We become a place of intersection where people can meet God as he makes us holy.by

“Living well” means that Christ develops in our hearts a sustainable pattern of faith, hope and love. This is the essence of healing, hope, and God’s glory in us.

“In a pocket of the Kingdom” means the holy life– the attractive life–is lived with other Christians who come together around Scripture, worship, and community, and welcome other Christians into the Kingdom pocket through Christian mission.

It is through this process–this story recapitulated in every disciples life–that God heals the brokenness of life. We may be broken but we are recreatable (*13-4).

These paragraphs describe in brief the outline of the book. Part one looks at “reflecting his glory,” part two describes “living well,” and part three explores the context of ‘pocket of the Kingdom”–Scott’s description of how the church relates to the Kingdom. This forty-five second version hints at what the Christian life is about and draws on three thinkers which help Scott frame his theological vision  in reponse to three thinkers, “the scholar, the philosopher and the farmer—N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, and Wendell Berry (9).” Scott claims that the insights of these men have uniquely impacted his life. I think they helped him frame his summary of the Christian life in terms of biblical theology (Wright), spiritual formation (Willard) and local context (Berry). All three men are quoted and referenced in the text, though I think Wright and Willard’s influence (providing the biblical vision and how this is lived out) are more explicit and Berry is more implicit (i.e. how community and local communal context relates to the concept of church).

This book provides an interesting look at discipleship. I think Scott has important things to say. At times he is incisive in his conclusions (i.e. the reality of human brokenness and the gospel  news of healing and restoration). At other times he is provocative (i.e. he tells disciples that they ‘maybe’  reading the Bible daily isn’t the best way for them (153). But he is always compelling. This is the sort of book that makes me want to pursue Jesus full force. Its focus is more on ‘personal aspects’ of faith rather then social implications, but Scott is careful to situate this communally. As a book describing personal discipleship, I give this 5 stars and recommend this book for small group study and personal reading. This is an excellent resource for those seeking to deepen their spiritual life and grow beyond brokenness into holy living. This is well worth reading: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★.

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

When I saw this book I thought of you (A book review)

Our Favorite Sins Okay sinners, here is a book for you. Todd D. Hunter, author, Anglican bishop, adjunct professor, and authority on sin has written a helpful book on dealing with the problem of temptation (or dealing with the problem of ‘not dealing with temptation).

What makes this book so good is Hunter eschews strategies for handling sin that don’t go to the root of the problem. He isn’t interested in simply helping you modify your behavior; rather he want you to do the hard inner-work of looking at where your desires are disordered and are causing you to be tempted in certain ways. He writes:

Disordered desires are a tyrant. This is why we struggle against them, striving to overthrow them in our hearts like the little despots they are….Our disordered desires are ruling our hearts and minds, and we don’t know what to do about it (7)

Hunter is adamant that we can only be tempted when a desire that we already have inside matches something that comes to our attention. Thus temptation is not an outside problem; it’s a heart problem.

Using research from the Barna group, Hunter addresses the five chief areas where contemporary people are tempted: anxiety, procrastination, overeating, media addiction, and laziness. While he has some practical insights into each temptation, he primarily uses these issues as case studies to explore how various strategies do not really get at the core of our sin problem.

Hunter’s proposed plan for dealing with sin involves the recovery of ‘Ancient and Fruitful’ practices such as the abstaining disciplines of silence and solitude, retraining your desires to desire the Kingdom first, liturgical prayer & the daily office, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist and the Lectionary. He urges us to hold on to hope, carry a vision and make a plan to overcome temptation, but also to make use of the resources we have in Christ and the Holy Spirit. The bottom line is that overcoming temptation will require inner-work retraining disordered desires and cultivating a vision and hope for the Kingdom and a relationship with the triune God.

Each chapter closes with a prayer exercise taken from one of the prayers from the Book of Common Prayer or the Celtic prayer book. I really appreciated these prayers (they also feature prominently in several chapters). This made this book more formational than merely informational for me. The book is an invitation into cultivating the sort of inner life which can stand up in the time of trial. There is a lot of wisdom in Hunters words. His reliance on prayer, sacraments and spiritual practices point the way to victory from the sin that so easily entangles us.

One question I would have is what role does the community have in helping us pursue holiness? It is true that some of the practices he commends are communal (liturgical prayer, the sacraments, etc.) but the theme of mutual accountability is underdeveloped. Maybe he’s right that wrestling with sin is personal inner work but I also crave the intercession of the saints, particularly those who know me as I am (not just a general confession). I also have experienced hearing the words of absolution from those who knew my tangled heart in all its tawdry details and it broke the power of my shame. It seems like an important dimension of this.

The appendix of the book includes Barna’s survey which provides the statistic data used by Hunter in the chapters. Frankly I am not sure that the Barna study adds a whole lot. Hunter makes use of the statistical data, but on one level he’s rather ambivalent to it. He hones on the five particular areas of temptation that most of the respondents struggled with but he is clear that even if these are not your areas of struggle, the remedy of inner work, spiritual disciplines, prayer, sacraments and the larger story of redemption provides you the way to freedom.

These small caveats aside I highly recommend this book for you if you are self aware enough to know your struggle with sin and temptation. Otherwise I’m sure you know someone particularly sinful whom you could probably gift this book too. Give it to them and say, “When I saw this book, I thought of you.”

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this book. I was asked to give a fair and honest review, and that is what you just read.

Beyond a Season of Sin Management

Did you give up anything for Lent? If so, why did you? I ask this because I have been thinking about Lent and its practices. Stop Sinning

In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard indicted the church in the West for what he termed ‘the gospel of sin management.’ By this he meant a view of Christian truth which reduced the gospel to ‘just’ forgiveness for sin, making us righteous before God no matter what sort of mess we continue to make of our own life. Willard writes:

History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally. That is where we find ourselves today. (D Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Discovering Our Hidden Life in God, 41).

This has been the temptation of evangelicals: to reduce our proclamation of the good news to Christ’s work on the cross to ‘merely’ dealing with our sin so we can go to heaven when we die. Yet we have few coherent things to say about what God is doing in our life now, the ways in which God is at work in our life and sanctifying us and transforming us into the image of Christ. We focus on our forgiveness before God because of Jesus’s cross, but we fail to see the ways in which we are to enjoy the kingdom of God now, and missionally extend it.

If Willard is right that we have made the gospel simply about managing ‘wrongdoing, wrong-being and its effects,’ then what implications does this have for our Lenten practice? Do we give up chocolate or coffee in hopes of reigning in our bad habits a little more (remembering that Jesus died because of our penchant for extra dessert) and abstain for ’40 days’ because we are more likely to succeed than we were with our New Year’s resolutions? When we are finished with Lent do we go back to integrating our bad habits into our life so that we can give up the same thing next year? Is this season just a season of sin management? What do you expect to get out of Lent? Is it just to rely more on God for your eternal destiny or does it affect the way you live now?

This is a season to enter into a penitent space acknowledging our own sinfulness and weaknesses. We do this not just so that we are really thankful about how forgiven we are when we feel the pay off Easter morning and know that heaven awaits. Walking with Jesus on the way of the cross means entering into a whole new way of life with him and being transformed by it. Our hearts are penitent so that we can make space for Christ to be fully formed in us and we have the strength to turn from our lives of sin and taste more of the good things of God.

We seek not to manage our sin for a season but we fast so that we can experience more of God and the transforming power of the Spirit in our lives now. Yes Jesus came to deal with our sin and Lent is a time when we reflect on that aspect of Christ’s work but there is much more for us here.