The Christian Story As Our Deep Longing: a book review

Christianity is good news. But how is it good news for us? Philosopher Gregory Ganssle says the Christian Story is the answer to our deepest desires. In Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations, Ganssle describes how the good news of Jesus Christ makes sense of our longings and fulfills our common, human desires. Ganssle (Ph.D., Syracuse) is professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Biola University and the author of several books of theistic philosophy and apologetics.

5182In part 1, Ganssle describes what the Christian story has to teach us about personhood, our purpose and meaning, and our capacity for relationships. In part 2, Ganssle claims that Christianity answers our deep expectation for moral goodness. Part 3 explores how beauty points us toward God. In Part 4, Ganssle delves into what the Christian Story has to offer us by way freedom (and how it relates to Christian truth and hope).

As Ganssle explores each of these longings, in turn, he contrasts how the Christian story describes reality, with atheistic and materialistic stories and ways they answer these questions of desire. He differentiates the Christian faith from materialistic Darwinism, existentialism, utilitarianism, and thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Fredrick Nietzche, the New Atheists, etc. Ganssle does this all, with an accessible conversational tone, full of personal anecdotes and pop-cultural references.

IVP Academic classified this book as “RELIGION/Christian Theology/Apologetics”(back cover).  I think the ordering of these is essentially correct. Ganssle offers thoughts about the value of Christianity which I think will be instructive and beneficial, primarily for Christians as we think through a Christian understanding of reality, and what difference this makes for our lives. Ganssle explores more the ‘why Christians believe,’ than the ‘what’ Christians believe. This doesn’t mean what Ganssle says is solely subjective, but his emphasis is on the lived benefits of the Christianity—how it gives us meaning and a purpose and the ways it illuminates the true, the good and the beautiful and brings us hope and freedom.

This emphasis on the ‘why’ more than the ‘what,’ characterizes how Ganssle handles the Christian story. Ganssle uses ‘the Christian Story’ as shorthand for what Christians believe about the nature of reality. Ganssle doesn’t explore the narrative of scripture in great detail, though he does note along the way: creation, the fall, redemption, and consummation. Most of Ganssle’s Scriptural references are drawn from the New Testament (though he does reference Genesis 1-3, and, Psalm 19:3). Missing from his Christian Story is both the story of Israel and the Church’s story.  However, he is not telling us all of the what, but why the Christian Story answers our deep desires. 

As an apologetic, Ganssle doesn’t offer any ‘knock-down arguments,’ but his contrasting of worldviews highlights the ways in which Christianity speaks meaningfully to human longing. Ganssle notes in his introduction “If you recognize your own deep values in what I discuss, you may see that, indeed, Christianity makes a good deal of sense” (13). Seekers who are interested and exploring what the Christian story has to offer may find Ganssle’s answers compelling. The committed atheist will not find these brief reflections as persuasive. But I think one of the most valuable things about apologetic works, is that they show clear thinking and a rational basis for faith for those who are drawn into the Christian story or are staring back from the other side of conversion and wonder if they thought stuff through the issues well enough. To that end, Ganssle describes cogently how the gospel is good news, fulfills our deepest longings. That is pretty valuable.

I would recommend this book for believers and seeking-unbelievers who are exploring, or at least open to, Christianity and are curious as to what the Christian faith has to offer.  I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection, I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

The Power of Presence: a book review

Neil Anderson, author of Victory Over the Darkness and The Bondage Breaker has been a passionate advocate for the freedom we have in Christ. Past hurts, spiritual commitments and brokenness have held people in bondage. Anderson has pointed Christians to the real freedom available to those who are in Christ; however this hasn’t always been an easy road (his autobiography is called Rough Road to Freedom). I haven’t always agreed with Anderson (I think his description of bondage from ‘ritual abuse’ is inaccurate and unhelpful) but I respect the ways he has opened up a way for evangelicals to experience God’s healing for their past. His newest book The Power of Presence: A Love StoryThe Power of Presence: A Love Story tells a story of freedom and struggle.

9780857217318Anderson’s wife of 50 years, Joanne, is in the midst of the long decline of agitated dementia. Her illness has necessitated that she spend her days at an assisted living facility. Neil is with her during the days.Joanne at times feels isolated and alone, longing for Neil’s presence with her. The Power of Presence tells the story of how Neil has learned to love his wife in this stage of life. Anderson also uses his wife’s struggle as a metaphor for our own desperation for God’s Presence.

This is a short, six chapter book. Chapters one and two feel the most vulnerable. Anderson describes the absence of God’s presence and the times where He feels absent (having suspended his conscious blessing).  Chapter describes coming into God’s presence and praying in the Spirit with thanksgiving. Chapter four describes ministry in God’s presence. Chapters five and six describe resting and being fully in God’s presence.

I appreciate this book for the way that Anderson shares the vulnerable and difficult journey it has been for him to internalize these lessons. There are poignant lessons that Anderson is learning in his wintering years. I give this four stars.

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



Freedom From Pornography: a book review

Heath Lambert says he did not write Finally Free to address the dangers of pornography–how it poisons relationships, isolates individuals and victimizes those in the industry. There are other books on the market which discuss this at length. Many people who struggle with pornography know the problems associated with it but still live in bondage. Leath wrote Finally Free to proclaim that real freedom is possible through grace through Jesus Christ.

Leath is the executive director of the National Association of Nouthetic Counselor (NANC). Nouthetic counseling uses biblical principles as its fundamental basis for its apprach.  Leath applies the Bible to the problem of porn first by sharing the way grace enables us to live free from this sin and secondly, he presents eight  measures to ensure that we live out that freedom. These include:

  • Using the sorrow for our sins (not just regret at getting caught!).
  • Accountability.
  • Radical measures (i.e. getting rid of TV, credit cards, internet, etc).
  • Confession.
  • utilizing your relationship with your spouse (or singleness) to fight porn.
  • Growing in humility.
  • Cultivating a dynamic relationship with Jesus

Grace is foundational to this list and Lambert points us continually to the cross.  Jesus died for you because of this (and other sins). Jesus came to set you free. In Christ, we who were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) have been set free!

I think that Lambert has many great, practical things to say. Real freedom from pornography is possible in Christ! I  appreciate that he doesn’t assume every struggler with pornography is male. In his opening chapter on grace he writes, “I know dozens of people (men and women) who struggle with pornography. Each was introduced to pornography in a different way. (17)”  One problem I have with a lot of Christian books dealing with pornography, is that they assume it is an exclusively male sin.  This compounds the isolation and shame of female strugglers.  I loved that Lambert was conscious enough of this to offer his pastoral counsel to both men and women. Unfortunately after the first page, all the examples focus on male struggle (these are mostly anecdotes drawn from Lambert’s own counseling ministry), but the intention is there.

I also think that the advice in this book is sound and applicable not only to the sin of pornography, but other vices as well. Gamblers, drug addicts and perfectionists can apply the principles in this book to their own problems. The specific topic of this book is pornography, but because Lambert roots his approach to counseling in biblical counsel, he is necessarily applying biblical principles to a specific twenty-first century context.  These principles can just as easily can be applied to other sins, and help Christians strive towards greater freedom and holiness. 

I commend this book. I think it is one of the better books on helping Christians gain freedom from pornography. There are places I want to nuance what Lambert says. For example, he tends to talk about pornography in terms of lust and adultery (which it is), but he says little about the desire for relationship and connection which both drives strugglers to pornography and causes them to feel profound shame and isolation.  I also do not share his general suspicion of psychology which drives the Nouthetic Counseling approach. I  do agree that much of the psychological literature is written from a secular and materialist bias, and that the fundamental problem humans face is Sin.  So my view is probably closer to Lambert’s than most psychology. Yet I also appreciate some psychological insights and think that it would complement this book well.

I give this book four stars and recommend it for those who are struggling with pornography, those who are ministering to others,  and other strugglers. I believe if you put these principles into practice, taking care that you are rooted in an experience of God’s grace, you will experience freedom in Christ.

Thank you to Zondervan and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.



Beyond Self-Referential Freedom: a book review

In our me-centered universe we define terms like freedom, dignity and God by looking inward. We understand freedom as our ability to act autonomously to achieve our own desires. Dignity describes our right to self-determination. Because we have made God in our own image, his freedom necessarily impinges on our own. He is like us, only more powerful and more present (more able to act with total freedom). When what he wants isn’t what we want, He is free while we are not.

Ron Highfield, the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University,  provides an incisive look at this modern me-centered culture in God, Freedom & Human DignityBuilding on the works of Alisdar MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, Highfield describes the ‘inward turn’ and the subjective self-understanding of contemporary culture. He describes our tendency to regard God as a threat to our own self-actualization. Contemporary people respond to God with defiance, subservience, or indifference (or some combination of these three attitudes).  We secretly fear that God’s omnipotence and omnipresence thwarts our own self-realization, self-determination and self-perfection. In short, God is seen as the enemy of  all human freedom and dignity.

Yet the gospel and Christian  theology tells a different tale. In part two, Highfield unfolds a picture of the triune God whose freedom consists not in His ability to achieve His every whim, but in self-giving relationship (within the Trinity and towards us in Christ). When Jesus comes in the flesh to bring salvation to humanity, He doesn’t impinge on human freedom but gives us real hope and provides the means by which we become our true selves. The love of God for provides for us the basis for all human dignity because we become secure in the fact that we are loved. As we grow in the grace of God we attain true freedom in relationship with Him. The sign that the love of God is formed in us is that we reach past our self-referential love where we love God for our own sakes but love God for God’s own sake (cf. Bernard of Clairvaux).

This brief summary does little justice to the richness of Highfield’s text. His description of the me-centered culture insightful. Too many approaches to spirituality (even Christian spirituality) devolve into self-referential naval-gazing.  And if we are honest, there is something in the water which causes us to suspect that God is out to spoil all our fun and prevent us from doing what we want when we want.  Highfield repudiates the modern vision that makes humans gods and remakes God in our own image. He calls us to experience God on God’s terms and to trust His love for us.

I found this book personally edifying and it got me to examine my self understanding, and my view of  God. I affirm Nicene Orthodoxy and believe  that God has acted decisively in Christ for our salvation, and yet if I am honest there is a part of me which doubts how much God is ‘for us.’  I wasn’t expecting such an academic book to give me such a strong and passionate picture of the love of God but this one did. Far from being a threat to human freedom and dignity, God is the ground for true freedom and dignity. Our identity is rooted in him

I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

NOTE: as I was preparing my review I noticed that my friend Elliot also reviewed this book on his blog, you can read his review here. If my review leaves you unconvinced, read Elliot’s. He’s smarter than me.

Hello Mr. Anderson (a book review)

Rough Road to Freedom: A Memoir by Neil T. Anderson

I like to read lots of kinds of books, but I think one of my favorite genres is memoir. I love to read people’s’ stories and hear the types of things that shaped them socially, intellectually and emotionally. In Christian memoirs, you also get to hear about conversion and call,  the types of things that shaped a person’s convictions, and struggles along the way. Rough Road to Freedom is the story of Neil T. Anderson, best known in the Evangelical world for writing Victory Over the Darkness and The Bondage Breaker. Freedom in Christ Ministries, the ministry Anderson founded has helped people experience victory over demonic oppression and brought healing to their lives.

Anderson grew up on a farm and went on to serve in the US Navy and became an aeronautical engineer before feeling called to the ministry. He was a pastor and seminary professor (Talbot) before starting Freedom in Christ Ministries.  Along the way, Anderson shares how his theology of God’s kingdom (and that other kingdom) develops,  and  his experience in helping people confront the power of darkness in their lives.

I enjoyed this book. Anderson is a person of  integrity who has had his own struggles with bitterness and un-love, darkness and feelings of spiritual dryness,  difficult circumstances  and he has had to deal with his fair share of opposition.  I enjoyed reading how his theology developed and of the many people he has been able to walk alongside and helped experience Christ’s freedom. I appreciated his graciousness with his opponents.

I do not necessarily agree with Anderson’s theology on every point, but I like his story.  It also helps me contextualize some of his theological commitments. If you like Christian memoirs or are just interested in knowing more about this influential figure, this is a good book for you.  Because Anderson focuses on his theological development and ministry experience, some may find this book a little less story oriented and ‘preachier’ than your typical memoir. I think that is a fair critique,  but I liked it anyway (4 stars).

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

Unless a Seed falls. . .

Today is Memorial Day and in honor of the day, the Pacific Northwest Sun retreated to her home behind the cloud. The gentle wind blows as flags fly at half mast, and the rain falls. I look out at our yard. I am losing my battle with the weeds and I am planning my next assault on their domain but for now the solemnity of the day and the wet earth brings an uneasy truce. Do they wince knowing that their days are numbered? Or do they laugh trusting the strength of their number and their subterranean strength?

I look at my garden plot.  On the advice of my aunt, I got all my seed and seedlings in the ground this weekend, with the exception of my tomato plants which I will nurse  for a couple more weeks until the warmth of the coming summer arrives and they will take their place along the side of the house.  So on a day when my country honors their dead, I look for signs of life, practicing resurrection with last year’s seed.

With a vivid metaphor, Jesus once predicted his own death, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it reproduces many seeds. Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:23-25). The image is of wheat at the end of harvest. The plant, in its death throws lets her seed fall to the ground. From that death came life. The seeds I planted over the last several weeks came from plants long dead. They came to me in tiny packages. I wrested them from these  paper bag sepulchers and laid them in the earth, and as quick as three days later, life sprang out of death.  With this image Jesus showed us how his death, would inaugurate a movement more potent and tenacious than the weeds that threaten my lawn.

But it isn’t Jesus’ death we remember today (though we remember it always) but the death of American soliders, service men and women, who gave their lives for their country. The life I live here in a little suburban town on the verge of Canada was enabled by the sacrifice of others. The  pleasures and freedoms I enjoy and take for granted as my inalienable right, are mine because someone died to purchase this freedom.  This is a fact, and it is fitting to honor those who gave their life. I may sometimes balk at the justice and justification for the wars we find ourselves in, but I also know that the way of life that is possible in America and the way of life I love, was bought by another’s sacrifce.  I say this, as someone with pacifist leanings who hates the way war kills and destroys and forces us to demonize an enemy we fail to pray for.

But it is also a mixed blessing.  What life springs from the death of a solider? Americans like me discard these dead like the husks of old seed and feel entitlement without sacrifice. Americans like me (and you) have benefit from the spoils of war–manifest destiny and fruit from other men’s fields.  We have defended capitalism in the free world by sometimes supporting despots ever bit as bad as those we depose; We have destroyed terrorist networks but alienated our friends and sympathizers.  We have exacted revenge on our enemies under the guise of peace.  We sow to the wind, and reap the whirlwind with American service men and women killed across the globe.

Now, I know some will see the above paragraph as naive and you are probably right. I have no desire to dishonor our dead or the service people who currently serve.  They have given their lives for this country and I reap the benefits. But their death did not bring us the sort of freedom we have in Christ. There death, however noble, also enables the ugly American to use and abuse this earth’s resources and believe  we are entitled to everything.  From death springs life, but whose life? What death?

So this Memorial Day I honor our fallen soldiers for the blessings they have given us and hope for the peace and brotherhood that comes through Christ.