The Wright Way for Spiritual Fruit: a book review

Chris Wright is one of my favorite authors. He is a missiologist, biblical ethicist, international ministries director for Langham Partnership, co-worker and friend to the late John Stott, and an Old Testament scholar (I sometimes refer to him as O.T. Wright). In Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Wright examines each of the nine fruits of the Spirit referenced by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 and encourages us to pursue the Spirit’s transformation in each of these areas.

4498This book began as a nine day Bible study series, and companion series of videos produced for Langham Partnership for Lent, 2013: 9-A-Day: Becoming Like Jesus. Wright, along with Jonathan Lamb and Langham leadership, was inspired to create this series from John Stott’s example. Every morning Stott prayed this prayer:

Heavenly Father, I pray that this day I may  live in your presence and please you more and more

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (quoted in Wright’s introduction, 13).

The chapters of this book examine each of the nine fruits, in turn. Wright explores each theme of each fruit is (1) evidence of God’s character, (2) exemplified in Christ, and (3) and how the presence of each demonstrates the work of the Spirit in our lives. The chapters end with questions for reflection or discussion. There is also a web link to Wright’s talk on the fruit. [ The link provided at the end of the chapter was broken but the original videos that inspired this book can be found at http://9aday.org.uk/the-9-fruits (referenced in the book’s preface) or linked from the book page on the publisher website]. Wright’s introduction and conclusion place the fruit within the frame of Paul’s message to Galatia.

The fruit of the Spirit ought to characterize the lives of followers of Jesus. Reading through this study in Lent, if you pardon the pun, has been fruitful for me. There isn’t always actionable applications in the text, but Wright encourages us to look at the example of Jesus and to pay attention to where we have seen these fruit in the lives of others.  Wright spends most of each chapters describing what each of these fruit/virtues is. The assumption is that while there are things we ought to do, ultimately the growth of the fruit is the Spirit’s work.

This can be read individually or as a group. I give this four stars.

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

 

God of Justice: a book review

International Justice Mission (IJM) is a global organization which protects the poor from violence in the developing world,  particularly in regions where the justice system is broken. While their work is in some sense secular–their primary mission is to challenge systems of injustice, rather than preach the gospel–they come to their work from Christian convictions.

God of Justicea twelve session Bible Study resource explores pertinent passages from scripture which explore God’s heart-beat for justice. Abraham George (IJM’s director of international church mobilization) and Nikki Toyama-Szeto (IJM’s senior director of biblical justice integration and mobilization) have compiled a resource for individual and group study. Each of the twelve sessions explores a passage from the Bible (or passages) of scripture, shares a contemporary story from the fight against injustice, and offers practical exercises designed to help individuals or groups do justly and love mercy.

George and Toyama-Szeto explore both Old & New Testament. They describe creation and the dignity of humanity as image-bearers of God (Genesis 1) and God’s desire for Shalom (Genesis 2). They also explore how sin corrupted God’s shalom and how this had both personal and systemic implications (Gen 3,4, 38). Through the example of Moses in the Exodus we see God’s desire to use humans to restore justice and to challenge evil systems (Exodus 3,14,15). Toyam-Setzo and George also explore New Testament passages: how Jesus came to inaugurate new creation, how the Kingdom of God embodies God’s shalom, how Christ’s cross dealt decisively with the problem of injustice, and how justice relates to the church’s mission.

Combining thoughtful reflections with probing questions, George and Toyama-Szeto push readers and study participants to engage seriously with the Bible and explore steps that God may be calling them to. While this is an IJM resource, the principles in this book are about justice more than IJM and George and Toyama-Szeto allow for broad exploration of what the fight against injustice will look like for those who engage the Bible and hear the Spirit’s call.

It is still said sometimes that conservative evangelicals talk about personal salvation through Jesus Christ, whereas liberals champion social justice. The former are armed with their list of favorite Bible verses. So are the latter. Both sides accuse one another of ignoring the heart of Christianity. Years ago I worked for a Christian community development organization where part of my responsibility was to train suburban church groups who came to work in the city about God’s heart for the poor (and how to do ministry non-paternalistically)  This would have been a helpful resource for me to draw on. I recommend this study for churches, community development organizations and Christian non-profits. This would be a good volunteer or staff training resource. I give it five stars.

Justice Awakening: a book review

Good books don’t always make you feel good. When an author takes an honest look at some real-life problems which enables you to see the world differently, you appreciate their book and their insights; yet the topic may turn your stomach and cause your heart to ache. This is how I felt reading Justice Awakening by Eddie Byun. Byun examines the very real and heart-rending topic of human trafficking. He is hopeful that the church can combat these evils, but this is not the ‘feel-good book of the year.’ It is one of the best books I’ve read lately on the topic of injustice.

Byun is the pastor of Onnuri English Ministry in Seoul, South Korea. Each year, his congregation presses into a theme which God gives them in prayer. Their theme for 2011 was “Freedom.” but in late 2010 when they chose their theme, Byun was unaware of the significance. As he began to explore “Freedom,” he was given David Batstone’s Not For Sale, a book which describes human-trafficking and the modern slave trade. That set Byun on a trajectory (he is now the founding director of Not For Sale Korea). Justice Awakening shares the insights that Byun has gained as he  and his church has worked to combat Human-Trafficking. He also gives practical advice and encouragement for churches which want to get involved in the struggle for human freedom.

This is a short book, the main text of the book is only five chapters long. The first chapter talks about God’s heart for Justice as described in the Bible. Chapter two discusses the continuing existence of Injustice between the cross and the final judgment. Chapter three looks at the modern day slave trade, and the nature of human trafficking around the globe. Byun especially focuses on statistics and stories about Korea (his context) and the United States (where this book was published). Chapter four and five layout the case for the church’s involvement in combating the evils of human  trafficking. In addition to these chapters, there are three appendices: Appendix A lists resources on Freedom and Justice, Appendix B is a sample sermon on human trafficking, and Appendix C is a case study which looks more in-depth at human trafficking in Korea.

Byun declares that the fight against injustice is part of the Church’s mission in the world. While the problem of human trafficking is extensive and ugly, Byun remains hopeful that as the church stands against it, real freedom is possible for victims and traffickers. One of the things I really appreciated was the place of privilege that Byun gives to prayer. He is not content to just attack modern slavery as a social issue, but as spiritual oppression. He has several helpful suggestions on how to pray through the issue (111-7). On the practical side, he has a number of suggestions for getting the church involved. These range from setting aside a “Freedom Sunday” preaching and organizing study groups to look deeper at the issue, and combating injustice in the community through various church ministries. There are lots of ways that people can get involved, and Byun points to creative ways for people to engage the issue.

I recommend this book, even if it evokes anger and deep sadness. Human trafficking is a global problem, but it isn’t something ‘out there.’ Very likely its effects are felt in the community where you live. Prostitution rings, migrant workers, sweatshops  are all part of human trafficking. It is impossible to look at the issues and not be heartbroken for ‘the least of these. Come Lord Jesus. I give this book five stars.

I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

 

Beyond Disembodiment: a book review.

Excarnation denotes the ancient practice of removing flesh and organs from the dead. Author Michael Frost uses this term to connote a set of practices in late modernity which cause us to life ‘disembodied lives.’ This is evident in the  problem of Internet pornography or a contemporary fascination with Zombies, but it is more widespread than even these phenomena. Our lives are increasingly transitory, screen-mediated and morally disengaged from community. We objectify others through our language (saying ‘action will be required’ rather than ‘let’s act’). Richard Sennett has claimed that the primary architectural symbol of contemporary life is the airport departure lounge–a bland, liminal space full of people who belong and long for somewhere else (15-16). There is no sense of shared community in an airport lounge!  People spend hours staring at a screen (either overhead or their own personal devices) and consciously minimize their interaction with those around them. Zygmunt Bauman says that the primary metaphor for modern living is tourism. We are marked by mobility, impermanence and loose ties with others and therefore are endlessly sampling experiences but have little firm commitments to ideology or beliefs (17).

Unfortunately the Church–the community formed around the Incarnate One–is to often shaped by our modern excarnate tendencies.  A hyper-dualistic theology which focuses on eternal reward (great pie-in-the-sky when you die) impacts our practice. We know more about God than our actions demonstrate. Our worship focuses on our private heart experience. We close our eyes, oblivious to those around us, and sing sometimes indecipherable lyrics. Ethically, our involvement with those on the margins is increasingly mediated. We give to missions organizations and charities. We engage in click-activism by signing online petitions. Yet our daily lives are disengaged from those who are suffering and we know little of what it means to give our lives sacrificially to a cause for the good of the community.

This problem is the focus of Frost’s new book, Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement.  Frost, whose previous books include Exiles and The Shaping of Things to Come is an Aussie missional guru and one of my go-to guys when I want to read something which tells me how to live a compelling, creative, missional life. Here he offers an incisive analysis of our current Western context and draws on the insights of the likes of  Charles Taylor, N.T. Wright and James A. K. Smith and a number of thoughtful missional practitioners. I read and underlined a lot, flagging many quotations and references to research further.

But the impact of this book is what Frost says for what our lives should be like. What does it mean that we follow an Incarnate Christ? What are the implications for the church’s mission? Frost suggests and prods us to a more embodied approach to life and ministry through out this book and has profound things to say about the character of our mission, the formative nature of our communal practices, and reflective re-engagement with our communities. It is clear that Frost sees the church as an alternative to our dualistic, excarnate culture. But this does not drive us remove ourselves from culture. It gives us a framework for holistic mission that infiltrates every aspect of the wider culture with an embodied spirituality which calls us all to abundant life.

As I was reading this book, I wondered if Frost was overstating the current church’s ‘hyper-dualism.’ Certainly the church culture I grew up in was guilty of the sort of theological, anthropological and religious dualism he warns of, but I feel like the conversation has changed and holistic mission is much more ‘mainstream.’ Yet dualism still pervades many contexts (and certainly the wider culture). I set this book alongside similar critiques (such as Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). Frost has lots to teach us, and writes compellingly about how excarnate we’ve become and what we need to change if we are to walk in the way of Jesus. I am still processing this book but I recommend it highly to anyone who cares about what it means for us to be in the world and not of it. Frost will help you do both! I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

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

Morrow’s Longing: a book review

Blaise Pascal said “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of ever man which cannot be filled with any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”  At times we sense the truth of these words as dissatisfaction, a dull ache, a longing. Other times we are restless and feel driven toward wonder. One moment we feel disenchanted, the next moment we are transfixed. But we carry this ‘yearning’ for transcendence with us through all of life.

Yearning For More: What Our Longings Tell Us About God and Ourselves

In Yearning For More: What Our Longings Tell Us about God and Ourselves, Barry Morrow examines the way this yearning manifests itself in our culture, in our routines, in our art and in our lives.  In nine chapters and a conclusion he surveys  the dissatisfaction we feel and where our longings take us.  The author of Ecclesiastes (Solomon or Qoheleth) articulated disappointment in investing his life in that which is fleeting. What Morrow points out in this book is that so much of what we invest ourselves in holds the promise of something bigger, greater and more lovely than we can  imagine. We feel isolated and desire connection, we have our mundane routines but long for more, we work for our daily bread but long for significance and impact and even our leisure points beyond a moment of respite from the daily grind. Literature and Film tell stories and point at another world. Our experience of pleasure and pain simultaneously causes us joy and makes us dissatisfied with temporal life.

Each of  Morrow’s chapters build on the last. This inquiry into our yearnings  opens our eyes to the ways each one of us long for something more, no matter how we invest ourselves. I really appreciate the depth and breadth of this book.  Morrow is an astute observer of  culture.  As human creatures we long for significance, community, eternity and God.  What Morrow does in this book is get us to pay attention to how these yearnings underpin how we spend our time and energy.

However this is a book which points, prods and hints. It does not ask for a plan of action. Morrow want us to examine life and find the fingerprint of God stamped there. He wants his readers to pay attention. But I couldn’t put my finger on who Morrow’s intended audience was. He does not  always articulate explicit Christian truths but hints.  In the end I decided that Morrow was speaking to all of us in the West who view the world materialistically and with a secular bias.  We reduce reality to what we can see, taste, touch and we fail to pay attention to what our longings, yearnings and desires teach us.  Morrow calls us to listen to where our yearnings ultimately take us.

I happily recommend this book and give it four stars ★★★★☆

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