Read One (other) Book: a book Review

On this blog I review a number of books from a broad range of Christian perspectives. Charismatics, Reformed, Dispensationalists and mega church pastors have all been reviewed favorably here. While I am as opinionated as anyone, I also try to make sure I listen well to the book I’m reviewing and affirm whatever I can. I’m not out to slam any author and I try to communicate my criticisms in a way which is respectful if the author reads this blog.

One: The Gospel According to Mike by Michael Williams

I find One challenging to review because, well, I just didn’t like it. That isn’t to say that Michael Williams doesn’t have some interesting and challenging stuff to say. It could be that Williams storyjust  doesn’t resonate with me. He spent the early part of his Christian life in a Christian cult, became a Baptist, and then a charismatic Bible teacher in the Word of Faith movement. Coupled with this history, he also has come out as a homosexual (a sin he was once ‘delivered’ from). He has had to face the legalism, and spiritual manipulation of his past. My own religious experience (as a moderate, evangelical heterosexual male) has given me a healthier perspective on aspects of evangelicalism  than Williams has experienced. Along the way I have had my struggle with legalism and beating myself up for personal sins; yet I have not felt the need, as Williams has, to jettison the Evangelical convictions which formed me in the faith.

The best part of this book is the way that Williams articulates the gospel of grace in a way that is remarkably Christocentric.  For Williams, the cross of Christ put to death the need for any of us to earn, or achieve our own salvation. In Christ, ALL are saved (whether they’ve had the psychological event of having their ‘slate wiped clean.’ This is an impassioned presentation of Christian universalism. Unlike Rob Bell, he doesn’t present this in a series of ‘what ifs’ but states it clearly. Although he also resorts to awkward ALL CAPS in his prose to make his points.  This gets tedious.

But Williams big axe to grind is religion. He posits that ‘Christianity’ represents a perversion of Christ’s (and Paul’s) teaching and that if we are to experience the gospel we need to move beyond the institutional church. ‘Christians’ focus on morality, and water down the grace of God by requiring each other to do things like ‘confess sin,’  become righteous and ‘pray for forgiveness’ (God has already given us forgiveness through the cross).

Much of this is rooted in Williams own frustration with once trying to ‘pray away the gay.’  His botched attempts at walking the straight and narrow path led to severe depression, suicidal tendencies and a lengthy stay in a mental institution. He now looks askance at any religious attempt to change orientation. Instead he wants to articulate a vision of the gospel that is both Christocentric and radically self-affirming. I have no doubt that Williams’s faith is now much healthier than his former Christian self, but I found myself disagreeing with him in a number of respects.

And he makes some good points along the way. However, the gospel according to Mike lacks an ethical vision. This is intentional. Williams tries to separate the Gospel (The One Jesus becoming the righteousness for all humanity) from morality.  I honestly think  this is at best a truncated gospel. Paul follows his gospel indicatives with imperative therefores. The gospel is nothing less than the Kingdom of God come near, and that implies a social program and an ethic.  I do think he is right to emphasize salvation through grace but I felt he didn’t say enough about what this meant about how we should then live (although he does have good things to say about our ‘identity’ in Christ).

Does that mean that we shouldn’t heed Williams warning about legalism among evangelicals, protestants, and Catholics? No, we have enough legalists in the church, and certainly we can all be tempted to forsake the grace of God for a religious system. We need to know that we are delivered from the law of sin and death and that we are held in the grace of God. But if you read One book this year, make it the other one.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Why us Good People Don’t Like Bad Christians (Especially When We Are One): a book review

When Bad Christians Happen to Good People: Where WE Have Failed Each Other and How to Reverse the Damage by Dave Burchett

We all know people who used to go to church but quit going because of the way we Christians treat each other. Likewise, we know Christians who are back-biters, gossips and bitter people. We have seen these people use the gospel of Grace to make people feel like guilty, lowly sinners. We’ve seen volunteers get used up and spit out while those with special needs often are isolated and forgotten. Christians can be really big jerks and there are a lot of wounded people because of it. This is exceptionally heartbreaking because too often ‘good people’ like me, also fit the profile of the bad Christian.

David Burchett is also no stranger to bad Christians. When he and his wife Joni had their daughter Katie they knew that she was terminal, could not open her eyes and she  had a deformity which left tissue exposed at the back of her skull (which they covered with a dressing). The church that they attended informed them that Katie would no longer be welcome in the nursery because of the risk she posed to other kids and the trauma it would inflict on nursery workers if Katie died on their watch. The Burchetts were not consulted about this and no concerns were ever communicated to them until they were told that their daughter was not welcome in the Nursery.

And so Burchett wrote this book exploring all the ways we Christians do damage to each other and fail to communicate God’s love to those outside of the church. The book divides into three parts. In part one Burchett discusses the way we Christians treat one another (i.e. unfriendliness, schism, fear-based Christianity). In part two he explores how we interact with the wider culture (i.e. hypocrisy, Christianese, Jesus-Junk and ‘the culture wars.’ Part three suggests how we Christians are to be in the world (gracious, humble, well-versed in the Bible and what we believe).

I never read the first edition of this book but it is refreshing to hear how Burchett feels he’s grown since when he first wrote this book (this edition came out in 2011; the original edition is copyrighted, 2002).  As Burchett describes it, writing this book was cathartic for him because he could err his grievances about all the ways we Christians hurt one another. His own book called him to hold himself to the same standards, but something was missing.  He didn’t yet know the meaning of grace–at least as an experiential reality.  At a conference put on  by an organization called TrueFaced (also a book authored by  Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol,  and John Lynch) he  was transformed by the notion that God has already wired us to be the saints he’s making us into and is calling us to inhabit that reality. He was blown away by the reality of God’s grace.

So if you chose to read this book, you will hear stories and critiques of the way we Christians have often been saints behaving badly. You will also read suggestions and exhortations to step out and be Christians who serve the world, love one another and give their lives sacrificially for God’s mission.  But you also will hear a testimony of God’s grace–that it is the Spirit at work in us, transforming us into what we already have become in Christ.

This  book has an eight week discussion guide making it usable for small groups. The chapters are short and pithy with good humor and could be good springboards for discussion.  But when I read Burchett say, “If you only have the budget to buy one in the near future,  I would tell you to buy TrueFaced (205),” I wonder if I should recommend this book or tell you to just get the book Burchett likes. I haven’t read TrueFaced, so you get no recommendation from me, but I liked this book and am grateful for Burchett’s exhortations and practical challenges.

Readers of my blog may notice that this book covers similar ground to another of my recent reviews, Accidental Pharisee by Larry Osborne. Osborne’s book is more narrowly focused on how we become Pharisees (albeit unwittingly) with our pride, attitudes, exclusivity etc. This book does address the problem of hypocrisy but also talks about how we can be better at communicating the gospel to the wider culture. Both authors have good things to say and are challenging. I think Osborne was more personally helpful in taking stock of personal attitudes where I got off track, but Burchett offers good critique of Christian culture and the ways in which we hurt (or exclude) others.

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

Because They’re Not Fair You See!: A Book Review

Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of OverZealous Faith by Larry Osborne

A Christian camp song I loved as a child, I Just Want to Be a Sheep, had a verse with these words:

I don’t want to be a Pharisee

I don’t want to be a Pharisee

Because they’re not Fair You See,

I don’t want to be a Pharisee.

And indeed, nobody wants to be a Pharisee. And yet, for those of us who take the Bible and our Christian duty seriously, it is so easy to become one.  When we become overzealous and ‘biblically unaligned,’  our fervent desire to follow God makes us ‘jerks for Jesus.’  We become legalists, hypocrites and we hoist impossible standards on our neighbors.  We might not mean to do it, but we do. We are “Accidental Pharisees.”

Author and Pastor Larry Osborne has written this book to help us stop being Pharisees. The thing is the Pharisees themselves didn’t start out trying to be ‘Pharisees’ in the sense we use the term today. These were people who cared about following the Bible and moral formation.  They had lots of rules and regulations because they wanted to make sure their behavior was pleasing to God, but along the way they lost sight of God’s grace.  Osborne examines the  ways that we too can get ourselves offtrack by emphasizing having right behavior or right theology. Not that these things aren’t important, but when you look at the type of people Jesus loved, accepted, justified and restored, it wasn’t because of what they did, but because of his  mercy and love. Osborne helps us cut through our own attempts to justify ourselves.

The book is divided into seven parts. In part one, Osborne introduces the concept of ‘accidental pharisees’ and provides a case study of Joseph of Arimathia (the guy whose tomb Jesus was buried in, a Pharisee and ‘secret disciple’).  While we would be tempted to not number Joseph among the disciples for his failure to stand up for Christ before the Sanhedrin, he is described as a disciple in the gospels.

In the rest of the book Osborne describes the characteristics of of our pharisee-ism. In part two he describes the sin of pride.  We are all tempted to compare ourselves to others, and see their faults more clearly than we see our own (Log-Eye disease).  In  part three, he discusses exclusivity and the way that we want to ‘thin the heard’ and call people to greater commitment is antithetical to the gospel of grace. In part four, Osborne shows how our desire to have ‘litmus tests’ to prove that we are ‘real Christians’ shows how we are legalists who rely on our own righteousness (rather than God’s mercy).  Part five discusses our tendency to ‘idolize the past’ and the ways in which our idealism distorts reality. In part six, Osborne shows how we confuse unity with uniformity and demand other Christians conform with our theology and peculiar cultural distinctives.  In part seven, Osborne discusses how the way we compare ourselves to others cause us to either feel arrogant because we got it together and other people don’t or guilty because other people are gifted in ways that we are not. He also discusses the ways in which we Christians have a tendency to judge one another for the ways we handle money (not being good stewards, not being generous enough, etc).

Each of the seven parts of this book concludes with discussion questions which would be useful in a small group discussion (over seven weeks) or for personal reflection. This is the sort of book that demands that you ask hard questions about the condition of your own heart and attitude. More than once I felt that Osborne had rightly named my sin–my self justification and judgmental attitudes.  This is a book that you should read prayerfully, and with a willingness to engage in some self examination.

In a couple of places I felt like Osborne overstates his case and marginalizes Biblical texts which exhort us to our Christian duty. However, what he writes here is a good corrective and I loved the ways in which he commends us to rest in God’s grace rather than the burden of obedience. There is something right about what Osborne is saying even if he runs the risk of minimizing some of the Christian call to action. We are recipients of God’s grace before we are missional activists. I like that Osborne challenges me to make sure my gospel presentation rests on the mercy of God and that everyone is included. Still part of me worries that he doesn’t emphasize enough the need to ‘count the cost’ and take up our cross and following Jesus.’ Certainly, I am a pharisee and I need to be called to account for it. There is a such thing as the scandal of grace and I can’t earn my salvation. On the other hand, I am called to a life of discipleship which demands something from me.  In several places in this book, I wrote in the margins, “Yes, but . . .”.

None of this is to say I didn’t like the book, or that I don’t warmly commend it. I think this is the sort of book which we all need to read and we need to watch out for the ways in which we can fall into exclusivity, pride and legalism. This book is well worth reading. May God use it to make us disciples who are humble, hospitable and gracious to one another.

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



God in the Other (and beer): A book review

Neighbors & Wise Men: Sacred Encounters in a Portland Pub and Other Unexpected Places by Tony Kriz

Tony Kriz was a good evangelical Christian. Because he was confident and had a sense of adventure, he signed up as a missionary to Albania. While he was there, he lost his faith and his soul died.  He was sent to seminary to heal and rebuild. Ultimately, Tony finds his faith again, but it wasn’t on the mission field or in the walls of Christian academia. It was in a Turkish bathhouse and a smoke-filled-pub.  It was in a New York homeless mission and on the campus of  ‘America’s most secular university.’  Ultimately the thing that heals Tony’s soul is not a place, not an act of volition or getting his theology right (though it doesn’t seem that bad).  It was his encounter with ‘the other’–those neighbors and wise people along the way (despite the gender exclusive title, some of the ‘wise men’ are women!).

This isn’t a book which touts a narrow evangelicalism. The people who speak life back into Kriz’s faith are often people on the margins or religious outsiders–a  friend from the bar named Pope, a Jewish woman,  a bartender,  Reed students, a crazy(?) homeless man,  activists and organic farmers, and other neighbors.  The conviction underlying this book is that the Spirit of God is at work in the world and speaks to us in surprising and unexpected ways through surprising and unexpected people. Kriz has the humility to learn from these ‘Samaritan’ strangers.

Fans of Donald Miller, will be familiar with Kriz as ‘Tony the Beat Poet’ in the pages of Blue Like Jazz. He was the guy whom Donald Miller worked with on the campus of Reed College.  I think Kriz brings a similar sort of introspection to his writing, but is more reflective on the nature of spiritual formation (Blue Like Jazz, focuses more on a slice of the journey; the stories in this book span about 20 years).

I recommend this book highly. It is an engaging read and Kriz has great stuff to say. This is hands down the best religious memoir I’ve read in a while.  Well worth it (provided they never turn it into a movie).  I really appreciated Kriz’s humility and grace as he describes his neighbors and internal attitudes he had to face in himself.  I also like that in his introduction, he invites me to pour myself a chewy IPA.  A guy with great taste in beer is obviously worth reading.

I received this book from Thomas Nelson Publishing in exchange for this review.  I was not asked to write a positive review, just an honest one.

My Life As a Hypocrite

I am a hypocrite and have been one all my life. I console myself with the fact that likely you are too. I mean, it is only natural. We live in a culture of pretense and self justification and me being in job interview mode I feel like I am always  covering over  my weaknesses and extolling my strengths, puffing myself up like a peacock to make me seem more beautiful than I really am.  Maybe some of this is more insecurity but hypocrisy is there too. I’ll prove it.

Yesterday, as I sat and listened to the sermon at my church I caught myself praying a Pharisaical prayer. It was abstract and not really directed at anyone but there was a smug self congratulatory feel about it which is kind of embarassing (so I’m blogging about it).  My pastor was preaching from Ephesians 5 and talking about the need to run from immorality, sexual sin, greed of every kind, and as he used certain examples I found myself saying in my heart, “I’m glad that isn’t my struggle” And then I thought of the Pharisee in Luke 18 who prays,”God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12).” This Pharisee and I did the same thing. Instead of coming before the altar to come clean and be made right before God and others, I used my time in church to extol my own  devotion and to tell myself (and God) that I’m not that bad. The truth is I’m every bit as proud and petty as the next guy(or girl).

The tax collector for his part prayed simply, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Nopretense, no pretend holiness or self justification. The tax collector knew his sin and collusion with the powers. He did not look around or congratulate himself for showing up for worship but confessed sin and reached for God.

So I am a hypocrite in the house of God, offering pretense instead of praise. I don’t think I’m alone.  Insecurity, pride  and need to paint myself in the best light is something  others feel too. But I am not a COMPLETE hypocrite. I caught myself and confessed it. I share this with you not to congratulate myself but to illustrate something I have learned: To the extent that I am not a hypocrite it is because I have experienced the Grace of God.

I am not thumbing my nose at fellow hypocrites declaring, “There but by the grace of God go I.” I am exclaiming a lived reality! When you know the grace of God, his full acceptance and love for us, you don’t have to pretend anymore.  I don’t need to trust my own virtue and devotion or prove myself to God. I need only come and throw myself at God’s mercy.  My worth is not bound up with being better than my fellow sinner; I am loved extravagantly by the God of love.