Eschatology is Essential!: a book review

As I write this review the season of Advent is coming to a close. I have spent part of this season reflecting on Christ’s return. Eschatology is the study of end times. Itsignals our final hope: Christ’s return, a new heaven and new earth, and the restoration of all things. Thus the lectionary rehearses Old Testament prophecies that point to Jesus’ coming and hint at future hope: when lion lays down with lamb and we study war no more.  Part of my reflections on eschatology in this season, have been guided by a new book from one of my favorite practical theologians, John Phelan, Jr.

I have been a fan of Phelan since taking a Evangelical Covenant Orientaiton class (the denomination I am seeking a pastoral position in) where I read one of his previous books. As a former dean and president of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago (the denomination’s seminary), Phelan is an important ECC voice.  Essential Eschatology: Our Present and Future Hopeurges us to take eschatology seriously. Despite how much this season of Advent calls us to hope and long for Christ’s coming, many of us Evangelicals have an uneasy history with eschatology. There are influential fringe groups that fanatically obsess over end times, naming days and hours of Christ’s return. Others, like me at times, have claimed ambivalence. calling ourselves ‘pan-millenialists,’ because it will all pan out in the end. Phalen challenges us to see the importance of eschatology because of its practical and personal significance (13).

This is a short book (less than 200 pages), but Phelan covers a lot of ground in ten chapters. Chapter one gives an overview of Christian hope through the lens of Isaiah, the Gospels  and Revelation. Chapter two describes the urgency of reclaiming Christian eschatology. Phelan argues that the alternative to Christian hope is accommodation to the wider culture. he describes the alternative and prophetic hope of early Christians  and the later accommodation to culture by the church at large, beginning with Constantine. Thus Phelan warns against our contemporary capitulation to our contemporary culture, especially in the areas of individualism, technology and the destruction of creation (45-8) Rather than ‘buying in’ to these false and bankrupt hopes, Phelan encourages us to cling to the hope we have in Christ.

The chapters that follow make Christian hope vivid. Chapter three discusses the hope for resurrection. For Christians, our eternal hope is bound to Christ’s resurrection and our life and eternal destiny is bound up in him. We too shall rise!. Chapter four describes the hope of future judgement. In an-anything-goes, relativistic world, judgment may not  seem ‘hopeful’ at first glance; however, Phelan makes the case that we live in a ‘morally serious universe’ and that the decisions we make matter (84). He discusses the reality of hell as the natural consequences of isolating ourselves from God and sinking into misery, fear, and loss (84).

Chapter five describes the hope of the Kingdom of God–Christ’s reign on the earth. When Jesus came he proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was here. As the church awaits  the fullness of the Kingdom coming, it also inhabits the Kingdom come. The church is the sacrament of the Kingdom of God (in Moltmann’s happy phrase)!. Phelan exhorts us to live out ‘the Kingdom life’ proclaimed by Jesus even as we await its consummation (98).

In chapter six, Phelan discusses our hope for Christ’s return. He argues (along with N.T. Wright) that Jesus’ coming was the grand fulfillment of Israel’s story (107). Yet he differs from Wright in seeing eschatological implications for the Olivet discourse(Mark 13 and parallels) beyond the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.  Specifically, Phelan takes seriously Christ’s statement that no one knows the day or the hour except the Father and applies this statement to Jesus’ second coming. However, Phelan is no Hal Lindsey. He doesn’t give specifics about Christ’s return but says that it will likely be as surprising as the first (118).

Chapter seven takes a closer look at the book of Revelation, to reveal our hope in the midst of empire. John of Patmos wrote while imprisoned by the emperor to a church struggling against opposition and threat. Phelan urges us to read Revelation with an eye for how to navigate a hostile world (and not to see prophetic references to helicopters and nuclear war).

Chapters eight and nine discuss our our hope for the millennium and the hope of Israel, respectively, There are different views on the millennium–Christ’s thousand year reign. Phelan argues for a millenarian view (àla Moltmann) which posits that Jesus will rule the whole earth. This points to the redemption of our world, and also challenges the historic Christian tendency of supersessionism in regard to the Jews. A restored world, means a restored Israel and the promises to Israel are not negated by the existence of the church.

The capstone of Phelan’s reflections is chapter ten, the ‘hope for the church.’ Phelan acknowledges the past failures of the church (i.e. antisemitism, the crusades, etc). But he also has faith and hope because the church is Jesus’ vessel to help usher in the kingdom. The restoration of all things is Christ’s work but we in the church have our part to play, as ambassadors of reconciliation (187).

I loved this book. Phelan draws on the insights of N.T. Wright, Rodney Stark, Jurgen Moltmann and others in  describing out hope as Christians. I found this book both accessible and compelling (a rare combination). I appreciated that Phelan did not get bogged down in end time predictions but explored the implications of our hope within a biblical-theological framework. I recommend this book for students, for use with church small groups and for individual readers who are interested in exploring Christian eschatology. While this is published by IVP’s academic press,  ordinary readers will also be able to engage with the material that Phelan presents. He avoids theological jargon and explains his terminology. This is a book appropriate for any thinking Christian.

Christianity is by necessity eschatological. I am grateful for Phelan’s work in cataloging and describing how Jesus is our hope. I give this book 5 stars. ★★★★★

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

Turn that Frown Upside Down: a book review

Nobody wants to be depressed, but millions are, and the number is rising.  By 2020  depression will be second only to heart disease, as the cause of life debillitating illness (1). Chances are if you do not suffer from depression, someone close to you has or does. Various treatments, therapies and medications abound, which help people (or promise help) who struggle under the weight of it.   While healing will look different for different people. there is hope.

Gregory Jantz,PhD., is a psychologist and founder of  the Center for Counseling and Health Resources.  In his book, Turning Your Down into Uphe avers that theres is hope for those suffering from depression. though the journey out for each will be unique.  Jantz examines the various influences which may be the root of our depression (or  a contributing factor).  These include emotional factors, environmental factors, relational influences, physical influences (like diet or exercise), and spiritual influences. By addressing these various spheres, Jantz presents a holistic approach to healing from depression and even gives a three month plan for healing.

I appreciate Jantz approach. I am not personally someone who struggles with long-term depression. I have had sorrows related to circumstance, but I remain fairly upbeat in my approach to life. I do have family members who struggle more directly than I do. I think Jantz offers some wise guidance through depression and helps strugglers pay attention to some of the latent causes of their depression.He doesn’t offer a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to recovery.  In this book he challenges readers to overcome emotional issues through positive self talk and intentional gratitude. He helps readers overcome the detrimental effects of stress and advises they set limits on their use of technology.  By discussing they physical causes of depression, Jantz makes the case for appropriate self care.  He also addresses the underlying issues which affect us in family systems and relationships (including our relationship with God). These are all important aspects of conquering the effects of depression.

There was a lot of good information which I think will be helpful. Each chapter has a workbook section which helps readers work towards their own healing.   Jantz does not discuss in-depth the role of psychotropic medication in healing depression.  I think that most of what he says will be helpful to depressed people in general, but some may require a pharmaceutical boost in order to work through the issues.  I wished that he discussed this more directly, though I appreciate that his section on physical causes allows for a more natural approach.  I just think some people need something stronger.

I give this book four stars and recommend it to those who are wondering if they are depressed or who deal with mild depression.  Even non-strugglers like myself will be challenged to handle their emotions, set healthy limits and avoid unhealthy environments and foods.

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

Packer and Paul’s Weak Offering: a book review

J.I. Packer knows something about weakness. As a child he suffered a near fatal accident when hit by a truck. He had to wear a steel plate over a hole in his head for a year (incidentally,  the injury kept him out of World War II and sent him off to Oxford. How’s that for providence!).  Now that he is ‘well advanced in years’  he has to deal with aging, mortality, and convalescing from a hip replacement surgery.  The apostle Paul  also knew something about weakness.  He suffered his share of persecution and hardship.  In 2 Corinthians, Paul sets out to defend his apostleship from the Corinthian church who dismissed him for his weakness. Paul points the Corinthians to the fact that “weakness is the way” for those who seek to live out the Christian life.

In “Weakness is the Way: Life With Christ Our Strength,” Packer reflects on Paul’s words about weakness and what they have to say to us. In four brief chapters these meditations describe what weakness is, the Christian calling, the Christian understanding of giving, and  the Christian hope in the resurrection.  The first meditation speaks about 2 Corinthians more generally, whereas the other three chapters interact directly with particular passages from the letter.

Packer has a rare gift of packaging deep theological insights accessibly.  As he broods over this peculiar Corinthian correspondence, he challenges us to learn from Paul to not rest on our own strength, but to confidently lean on Christ to be our strength and provision.  He challenges us to trust God in and through our giving rather than trusting our own wealth and financial security. Finally Packer paints a compelling vision of the Christian hope in the resurrection which looks ahead to the good things God has in store in Christ for us.

Paul wrote, “When I am weak I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  Our spiritual state is that we are all weak and inadequate. Sin in our lives has crippled us. What Packer and Paul have to teach us is that our true strength lies not in our own resources and whatever energy we can muster.  Jesus Christ is our strength.  This of course, is not news to anyone who has walked with Christ: weakness has always been the way. But this is a message  we need to hear often.  I know I do.

 

I give this book five stars–★★★★★.

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

Hope in the face of a child, reflecting on Zechariah’s Song

When John the Baptist was born, Zechariah sang:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79).

God there are moments when we dare to hope–

as we attend a wedding and watch on as friends begin a new life together;

when we are surprised by new opportunities;

when onto us a child is born.

We hold on to the precious potentiality and wonder what will become of it.

Zechariah saw your angel and heard the news and recoiled because hope hurt too much,

But you were at work–restoring all things.

John came kicking and screaming, the voice that would cry out–

Prophet of the most high who would proclaim your Redemption.

We too hold on to Hope knowing that this world is not as it should

We wait–hope, doubt panic, trust–in your return and long for your second Advent,

even as we remember your Incarnation.

Thank you Jesus our anchor and firm Hope

Amen

What’s in a Word?: Why I’m not ‘Driven’ and You Shouldn’t Be Either

This is the first of an occasional series where I critique the words that we Christians use. I know what you’re thinking, “James you are an overly critical and cranky man who thinks you are smarter and more holy than the rest of Christendom.” Guilty. Well, not really. I admit I am a little neurotic about some of these things but I also really think words matter. Yes the Spirit of God can shoot straight arrows with the crooked arrows of our words but the metaphors by which we habitually describe God, faith and the spiritual life shape our understanding and experience. Some of the words that we use are actually damaging and do injustice to both God and ourselves. I submit that one such word is ‘driven.’

I am not sure that I can blame Rick Warren for entering driven into our spiritual lexicon but he certainly popularized it with his wildly successful books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life and various purpose-driven spin-offs. But Rick Warren with his warm smile and Hawaiian shirts is not the only offender. A search of titles with ‘driven’ in the title from Christianbook.comreveal that many are clamoring to join the herd. There are books with titles like: Family Driven Faith, Driven by Eternity: Making Your Life Count Today & Forever, The Gospel-Driven Life, A Proverbs Driven-Life, The Passion Driven Sermon, Text-Driven Preaching, Spirit-Driven Success, Values Driven Leadership, The Spirit Driven Leader, Jesus Driven Ministry, The Values Driven Family, The Market Driven Church(I think this one is a critique), Character Driven, The Wisdom Driven Life, The Passion Driven Youth Choir, The Mission Driven Parish, The Spirit Driven Church, Driven by Hope: Men & Meaning, A Love Driven Life, A Passion Driven Life and From God-Given to God-Driven.Bull Whip Cattle Drive

Without critiquing the content of these books (some I am sure have great stuff to say and others just have stuff) this list shows how pervasive the word ‘driven’ is in the Christian publishing world. But the book title doesn’t even begin to reflect how much authors use this word within their books to speak of the sort of life we all should be living. This is picked up by pastors, blogs and every tweep from here to eternity. This is where I have issues.

What does it mean to be driven? It is obvious to me that the people who use it are trying to get at what are motivation is but this is bad language to be using. The dictionary defines driven as, “being under compulsion to succeed or excel.” I understand a personal ‘drive’ towards excellence but I get worried about what we mean when something outside of ourselves is the one said to be ‘driving us.’ Are we under compulsion by our families and values? Are we ‘driven’ by our commitments? Does God, the Spirit, Jesus ‘drive’ our spiritual life? What does that say about us and God?

I think this term stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the spiritual life. Hear the good news: In a world where we are driven by the will to succeed, the will-to-knowledge and the will to power, in a world where we are under the compulsion of a thousand demands internal and external, you don’t need to be driven anymore. You are being invited by God to enjoy the good things he has stored up for you. Listen to these words From Isaiah 55:

    “Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
    and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
    Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
    Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
    Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.”

This is fundamentally different from having any sort of ‘driven life.’ What if we understood our spiritual life less in terms of its demands and more in terms of what we are being invited into? What if we didn’t speak so much of ‘being driven’ but spoke of where God is drawing us?

The reason why I am so passionate that ‘driven’ is a bad word in the spirital life is because I tend to imbibe its message. I load on myself heroic spiritual disciplines and feel guilty about where I have failed to do all I am supposed to do. When it comes to drive I’ve got it and then some. What I haven’t always understood is that my life with God is more joyful, freeing and wonderful than I can imagine.

Marva Dawn’s hymn Come Away From Rush and Hurry capture for me the reality of the post-driven life:

Come away from rush and hurry
Marva J. Dawn

    Come away from rush and hurry
    to the stillness of God’s peace;
    from our vain ambition’s worry,
    come to Christ and find release.
    Come away from noise and clamor,
    life’s demands and frenzied pace;
    come to join the people gathered
    here to seek and find God’s face.

    In the pastures of God’s goodness
    we lie down to rest our soul.
    From the waters of his mercy
    we drink deeply, are made whole.
    At the table of his presence
    all his saints are richly fed.
    With the oil of his anointing
    into service we are led.

    Come, then, children, with your burdens –
    life’s confusions, fears, and pain.
    Leave them at the cross of Jesus;
    take instead his kingdom’s reign.
    Bring your thirsts, for he will quench them –
    he alone will satisfy.
    All our longings find attainment
    when to self we gladly die.

As we enter into this season of Lent, what is God inviting you into?