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.

Our Redemption in Ruins: a ★★★★★ book review

What does God’s redemption look like?  God’s kingdom comes in fullness and all that is wrong is set right. But what about  in the meantime? How is the gospel hope for broken? The oppressed? The abused?  Matt Bays observes that many modern Christians have this working definition of redemption:

Redemption n.—A state of existence in which the faithful to God receive what they expect to receive out of life (and out of God), and what ails them is converted to something fresh and new. (Getting the desires of one’s heart.) (26).

135468lgBut the reality is that the faithful suffer: miscarriages, mental illness, bankruptcy, loss of jobs, doubt, grief, etc. Sometimes God doesn’t seem to come through and even the redeemed carry the scars of the past. In Finding God in the Ruins Bays opens up his own hard journey and shares this experience of hope and redemption. God didn’t remove the brokenness and the pain but stepped into it with him.

The impetus behind the book came when Becky, a cat-loving-coworker succumbed to a deep depression and committed suicide, taking too many pills and leaving a note. Bays wrote in his journal I hope they saved the pen she used—that the leftover ink inside will be used to write words of love and hope (32). At her funeral, Becky’s husband John gave Bays the pen and told him to ‘write beautiful hope-filled words’ (34). In the pages which follow, Bays weaves his own painful journey with the tales of other broken doubters and beat-down saints.

At the age of twenty-eight, Bays was several years a pastor, but the pain of his childhood caught up with him. He had been abused by the Step-Dad from Hell. Beyond the physical and emotional turmoil he experienced, he also experienced the confusion of incest.  He turned to alcohol. When it didn’t anesthetize the pain, he found a counselor and began to work through his issues. Bays also shares of his doubt and struggle watching his sister Trina fight stage-four breast cancer.

Bays story is hopeful. He experiences real healing in his life and he points to the unlikely places  God met him through broken people (i.e affirmations from a pedophile band teacher). But this is a raw account of what it means to have faith in the midst of some pretty blankety-blanked-up-stuff. Bays rages against God, talks about the ways that Jesus felt distant from him— i.e “When God was thirteen, he never faced any kind of trial” (63). Ultimately Bays experiences the grace of God through family, through learning to face his pain and share vulnerably,  learning to tell his story and seeing how much God-in-Christ truly experiences and enters into the pain and struggle we face:

God wasn’t staring on in the brothels of Mumbai; he was stuck on the dirty floor with a pedophile on top of him. And he wasn’t leaning against the laundry machine in my basement; he was being pierced, crushed, bruised and wounded so eventually I could be healed. It happened to him every time it happened to me.  It was him, the same as it was me. (197).

This is not Hallmark-Channel-Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ride into an unbeliever’s life with a saccharine sweet ending, tying off all loose ends and making it all work out. The kind of redemption that Bays points to is more personal. Jesus steps our heartaches and experiences all the horrors we do. He brings  us to redemption by going through the pain with us.

This is a great book, but emotionally heavy. At a different stage, I wouldn’t have been ready for it. Bays lie story allows him to speak empathetically to those of us who likewise struggle. I appreciate the radical honesty he advocates. Bays helps us face ourselves (all of us), face our pain, and be honest to God about our struggles. This doesn’t give our doubt the final word, but allows for real faith to grow. I give this book five stars. ★★★★★

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

 

 

Anglo-Catholic Evangelical Ethics: a ★★★★★ book review

In seminary I read about deontological, consequentialist and virtue ethics; however, I didn’t read much in the way of Catholic moral teaching. Aquinas was mentioned and footnoted, but not engaged with in any substantial way. My understanding of virtue ethics was mostly meted out to me by Hauerwas. Daniel Westberg’s Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character and Grace delves deeply into the moral heritage of the Catholic and Anglican tradition exploring the nature of character formation, practical reason and ethical living.

9780830824601Westberg wrote this book as an attempt “to breath new life into [the] Anglican tradition, with the immediate aim of providing a systematic presentation of Christian ethics that builds on the Thomistic foundation with Catholic moral theology” (9). His wider, and more inclusive, purpose is to “provide  for the general Christian public a blending of the strengths of the Catholic tradition with evangelical emphases and convictions” (10). This combination of Catholic and evangelical insights, is designed to help readers from both traditions, to see the strengths offered by each (28). Westberg explores Thomist ethics in an evangelical key, sighting scripture and attending to the nature of conversion. His book divides into two parts. In part one Westberg describes and advances the components for a renewed moral theology. Part two looks in-depth at the seven classic virtues.

Part 1.

In chapter one, he argues for renewal of moral theology with a: (1) renewed biblical basis, (2) a sound moral psychology, (3) an understanding of the proper place for law in ethics, and (4) and thoughtfulness about the spirituality of virtue/character formation (25-26). In chapter two, Westberg discusses the relationship between purpose, reason and action and describes the ‘Thomistic Practical Syllogism.’ It is composed of an operating principle (‘Do this’ or ‘avoid this’), a minor premise evaluating a proposed action, and a conclusion (a commitment to do or not do something) (39-44).

Chapter three looks in more detail at Aquinas’s view of practical reasoning. Whereas the traditional reading of Aquinas identifies  a twleve stages in the process of human action, alternating between reason and will, Westberg sees the intellect and volition working in concert, and describes Aquinas’s reasoning as a four stage process comprised of: (1) Intention  → (2) Deliberation(if required) → (3)Decision → (4) Execution (51).  This model  describes the components of reasoning that birth  to an action; however a person’s intentions are shaped by  a person’s desires and history. “One simply has desire sand attitudes that have been adopted, shaped and instilled by past experience. One deliberates about and decides on the actions that are judged as means to the purposes one already has” (54). This means a persons formation determines where her reasoning takes her. Chapter four discusses how to evaluate good and bad actions based on their object, their end, and the circumstance (62-65). This ethical framework takes into account the situations in which ethical actions occur without capitulating to relativism (68). Westberg also observes the role of consequences in Aquinas’ theology. (69)

Chapter five describes  the relationship  between actions, disposition and character. Developing our capacity toward virtuous living involves moderating emotions, coordinating reason and will, and developing a habitus which imparts the skill and disposition that enable the virtuous life (80). This involves intentional practice, “We develop self control by understanding the reasons for it, desiring it and actually making decisions that incorporate moderation and self control in, for example, eating or sexual pleasure” (84).  Yet Westberg  argues that within this schema, faith, hope, and love are theological virtues gifted to us by the Spirit. We are unable to develop them by ourselves. The final three chapters of part one, explore the reality of sin (chapter six), the nature of conversion to Christ(chapter seven), and the role of the Law in Christian formation (chapter eight).

Part 2

Part two begins with an overview of the virtues, discussing their interrelationship and the central role of prudence. In chapter ten, Westberg walks through the seven classic virtues assigning a chapter to each of them. The four cardinal virtues discussed are ‘wisdom in action’ (prudence or practical wisdom); justice, fortitude, and self control (or temperance)(discussed in chaptets ten through thirteen). The theological virtues are faith, love and hope (chapters fourteen through sixteen).

Westberg’s treatment of the cardinal virtues offers practical insight for character development. In discussing practical wisdom (prudence) he observes the intellectual character of this virtue and discusses its relationship with other virtues, “The moral virtues depend on practical wisdom, but practical wisdom cannot be developed without the simultaneous development of the other moral virtues” (175). The virtue of justice has to do with how we relate to other persons (i.e. righting wrongs, restitution, gratitude to others, truth telling, etc). Fortitude is moral courage and commitment. Temperance is the ‘one virtue directed purely toward oneself'(209). It involves mastering appetites and living in moderation. Each of these virtues are shared by Christians and non-Christians alike, and Westberg correlates the exercise of virtues in Christian and secular settings (i.e.  the virtue of justice based in the dignity of human beings created in the image of God is in some sense related  to contemporary secular discussions of human rights).

The theological virtues have God as its source and focus (221). Westberg treat faith as an intellectual virtue, our belief in the God of the gospel. Love and hope are virtues of ‘the will. Westberg describes love as friendship with God—unselfish love (239-240). “Hope perfects the will by directing our desire to what God offers in the age to come” (259). Westberg takes on the notion that agape love is purely non-preferential. He show the biblical evidence doesn’t warrant the strong a divide between phileo and agape often argued by evangelicals influenced by the Lutheran tradition (238-40). Instead he views God’s love as inherently unselfish (instead of selfless, self sacrifice).  The telos of new creation gives us Hope and enables us to work for justice with fortitude. The content of of our hope helps us avoid both a liberal activism or an escapist quietism (270).


 

Virtue Ethics is sometimes criticized for an overemphasis on character—’being’ is seen as  more significant than ‘doing’  or ‘decision-making’ Because Westberg roots his exploration in Thomas Aquinas’s moral theology, he gives significant space to both virtue formation and moral decision-making. In fact, his discussion of practical reason, precedes his exploration of the virtues (though he hints at their strong relationship to one another). This means Westberg (or Thomas) is not guilty of some of the reductionisms that virtue ethicists are accused of (neither are many virtue ethicists). Action and character both come into sharp focus.

Westberg wrote this book as a seminary textbook and it is well suited for that purpose.Students will find  solid engagement with Catholic moral theology and theological ethics. But does it have any practical import outside the classroom? Put another way: is practical reasoning, practical? Yes it is. Pastors can utilize this framework to encourage ethical reasoning in congregants. The discussion of the seven classic virtues is fruitful for personal use, or for anyone responsible for Christian spiritual formation. Westberg is theologically rigorous, so the typical lay person may find it difficult to wade in, but certainly the framework Westberg presents is applicable more broadly in the lives of ordinary Christians. I recommend this for Christian leaders and educators concerned about spiritual formation. Westberg  doesn’t provide a ‘practical how-to,’ but a way of ‘thinking through’ moral decisions’ and actions. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

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

 

The Sour-Faced Evangelists of Lent?

It is Ash Wednesday. Today many us will attend a service to receive the imposition of ashes–a dark smudge across our foreheads. This is just the first thing imposed on us in Lent, a season of self-imposed discipline. We give up chocolate, meat, coffee, alcohol, smoking–or anything that makes us happy.  Jesus suffered in the wilderness and on his long, winding road to Calvary. The Church has deemed that appropriately, we should suffer too. We wander through today our faces marked with soot and scowls. Fasting makes us hangry. Our head throbs from caffeine withdrawal. We snap at others because all our go-to-coping mechanisms are declared off limits.

Is this what Lent is about? Here are excerpts for the top three Google hits answering the question, “What is Lent?”:

What is Lent? Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. (from UpperRoom.org -Lent 101)

Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. (from umc.org- “What is Lent and Why does it Last Forty Days?”)

Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. It’s not uncommon for people to give up smoking during Lent, or to swear off watching television or eating candy or telling lies. It’s six weeks of self-discipline. ( from gotquestions.org – “What is the meaning of Lent?)

These definitions augment one another. Lent is a season of self-denial leading up Easter for the purpose of our growing close to God.  Lent is one of the two great preparatory seasons of the church. But whereas Advent is full of announcement of the in-breaking of the Kingdom, Lent reminds us that on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem  suffering and death await.

I am guided by the conviction that Christianity is Good News.  Christians are God’s Good News People.  We believe that this good news culminates at Calvary where Jesus set us free from sin, death and spiritual oppression. This isn’t just a season of self-imposed suffering, self denial and sour-faces. Here we mark Christ’s confrontation and ultimate victory over the Powers.

So we can take up our cross and follow Jesus because this isn’t just a death march. Jesus wins and on his way to be crucified, he exposes the lies that propped up the political and religious hegemony of his day. Jesus died for us so that we would die to ourselves and rise again with our life in him.  We participate in Lent because we know despite the hard road Jesus walked, the brokenness and violence he suffered, he would bring wholeness and shalom to all who trust in him.

Give up coffee. Give up meat. Give up pleasure and lay aside vice. But don’t do it with a sour face. Don’t do it with the shallow hope of becoming a better you. Do so in the strong confidence that Jesus suffered every shame, every pain, every hurt at Calvary because he had something better for you–abundant life, peace with God, reconciliation and justice for all. Fasting is an appropriate response both to prepare and to mark the sacred moment of what Jesus may be doing in you. He didn’t avoid pain, we shouldn’t either. But in the midst of sorrow we have joy because our salvation awaits.

Jesus is on the road, his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. Whatever holds you in bondage Christ has come to set you free. This is good news.

a-23e

2015: a gratitude.

This year didn’t end the way I had hoped. Maybe it didn’t for you either.  We had high hopes for 2015. A year ago the African American community was still reeling from the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings and the failure to bring an indictment. Black Lives Matter but the violence and injustice continued. We hoped that a recognition of systematic injustice would bring sweeping changes but 2015 closed with the failure to indict the police officers that shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice for brandishing a toy-gun (in an open-carry state). Lord Have Mercy.  

And the rest of our world is as troubled as ever: Isis, Paris terror, dead children washed up on the beach, Syrian refugees and those that don’t want them, politicians on both sides of the aisle who trade principles for pragmatism. Lord Have Mercy. 

Personally, this has been one of the hardest years. It began with me settling into my first pastorate and ended with me in a vocational crisis.  I face 2016 with a great deal of uncertainty (and needing a job). Despite this, as I look back on this year, I see much to be thankful for:

  • My eight-year-old is excelling in  the third grade–reading and writing well,  great at math and making friends. Her teacher tells us that having her in her class is a gift. This makes me so proud, particularly since we had our struggles with her in kindergarten and first grade. Nice to see her find her stride.
  • My six-year-old is funny and smart. She reads well and does her homework without asking for help. She likes knock-knock jokes and long walks on the beach. She is a doting older sister, occaisionally helpful and always a pleasure.
  • My almost five-year-old is in preschool. What a fun kid–imaginative and kind. He is our ‘grumpy old man’ with his stubborn strong opinions and lecturing tone (which makes us laugh). He is also the most likely of our children to declare their love for us, “Dad, I really love you.” Melt my heart,  love this kid.
  • In February my youngest son was born. We named him Benedict Asher because he is a blessing (Benedict) and happy(Asher). He has proved to be both of these and I have enjoyed watching the wonder in his eyes as he gets into things he shouldn’t and takes his first faltering steps. I know parents aren’t supposed to have favorites but I have four favorites. For all of these I give thanks.
  • And I am thankful for Sarah. She has been my encouragement and strength in hard times. She is a good mom and wife and a great friend. I am so glad she is in my life.
  • I am thankful for family and friends far and near. In the past months I have had conversations with people, some I reconnected with after years apart. They have prayed for me and been a listening ear. They are a gift to me in the moments when I am discouraged.
  • I am grateful for ministry colleagues who affirmed me in my sense of call and keep me from giving up.
  • I am grateful for turning forty. I’m no longer a young man but one who can showcase a lifestyle of faithfulness by living more fully into the long obedience in the same direction.
  • I am thankful for grace–the gospel of Jesus Christ–which reminds me I am not my accomplishments and successes but God’s own beloved. Christ died for me, I live my life in and through him. This is the ground I stand on, my purpose and hope.
  • I am thankful that God is not done with me yet.
  • I am thankful that our King and his Kingdom is not like other kings. He is the King of kings, presiding over presidents and trumping all Trumps. He reigns with justice, with mercy and grace. He is not a fearmonger with hateful rhetoric but a God of love who reigns with justice and mercy.
  • I am grateful for my plot at the community garden and conversations with neighbors, coffee and good books, running trails, and Florida beaches.

My life is a gift. I live under God’s generous, providential care. I feel this more and more. I don’t know what tomorrow brings but I know the Bringer and my trust in Him is growing. In this moment that is enough. And I look to 2016 with renewed hope, wonder and expectation. God has been good. God is good. God will be good.

Are you ready to see what God will do in 2016?

The Pathways to Christ-likeness: a book review

Those saints which are most like Jesus are the ones that have learned to walk with Him through all of life. They are secure in God’s love, they persevere in faith and are sustained by a strong hope. Helen Cepero, spiritual director and adjunct professor at North Park Seminary and Multnomah School of the Bible writes a rich meditation on the pathways to God. Christ-Shaped Character: Choosing Love, Faith and Hope shares the story of Cepero’s faith journey and the practices which have nurtured her spirit, as well as those to whom she has ministered with. But this is not a cookie-cutter approach to Christian spirituality. Cepero eschews formulas and detailed road maps. Instead she shares pieces of her own narrative and invites us to reflect on our own pathways to God.

In Christian theology, Faith, Hope and Love are called the theological virtues and are explored in much of the literature on Christian character formation (they come out of 1 Cor. 13:13). These virtues form the outline of Cepero’s book (here  Love, Faith and Hope) and frame her reflections on the spiritual Life. Each section is comprised of three chapters. Part one,  ‘Choosing Love,’ explores our identity as God’s beloved, and the practice of hospitality and forgiveness. As we cultivate our awareness of God and his love for us, this frees us up to welcome others and forgive just as we ourselves are forgiven and welcomed. Part two, ‘Choosing Faith’ helps us to cultivate our friendship with Jesus, embrace our vulnerabilities, and live life with integrity. Part three, ‘Choosing Hope,’ shows us how to cultivate attentiveness to God (through Sabbath), our ability to see God’s blessing in us and to trust God with our whole beings as we live improvisationally. Cepero is a Spiritual director and here, she helps us train our spiritual senses on where God is at work in our lives.

Cepero weaves together personal stories from her life and ministry with suggested spiritual practices, buried in the middle of each chapter rather than tagged on at the end. She is a perceptive writer on the spiritual life and quite the story teller. She begins her book by describing watching her ten-year-old daughter at a Beginners’ Band concert and then uses this an apt metaphor to describe how we begin our spiritual lives with the same sort of clumsy joy (as in art, so in life). The exercises she commends throughout her book include different types of prayer, meditation, Sabbath, various exercises in self examination, and Spiritual direction. These are rich reflections. well worth reading. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars and recommend it for anyone seeking to grow in intimacy with God: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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