Imagine True Religion: a book review

Most of us don’t like religion. Instead of having religious vocations like monks and nuns, we are the nones-and-dones. The ranks of exvangelicals swell as people leave churches marked too often by unhealthy power structures, patriarchy, prejudice, and a near lack of inclusion. But even among those of us still in the Evangelical Christian sub-culture, there is little enthusiasm about religion, as such. Evangelicals decry “Religion” as a human attempt to please God which had very-little-to-do with the Jesus revealed in the Bible. Religion, we say, is spelled D-O; Christianity was spelled D-O-N-E. Religion is a set of rules. We have a relationship. But for all our religious handwringing and bad spoken word poetry about how we aren’t in any way whatsoever religious, we had just as many rites, rituals, and dogma as everyone else.

978-1-63146-666-3Greg Paul doesn’t buy this evangelical antireligious rhetoric.  In his introduction to Resurrecting Religion, he recounts listening to a speaker at a large missional Christian conference rage against religion and thinking, “What is it we’re doing here? Isn’t all this, umm, religion? Wouldn’t anybody else say this is religious activity? Simply saying that we’re not religious doesn’t make it so. Are we fooling ourselves?” (xiii).  Rather than rail against religion, Greg Paul sees bad religion as our real problem: combative, legalistic, hierarchical, soul-numbing and functionally irrelevant, bad religion.

In the book, Greg probes how true religion calls us to care for the widows and orphans and keep ourselves from corruption(James 1:27). In retooling religion, he makes use of the book of James to show us how true religion compels us to care for those on the margins (not the center and the status quo). As a pastor, and therefore career ‘religious guy,’ he has plentiful examples of how he has tried to live this out within the context of the urban church he pastors in Toronto, Sanctuary.

I first became aware of Greg Paul’s work through his book God in the Alley (Shaw, 2004). That book described Paul’s seeing Christ’s presence among Toronto’s inner-city homeless population. Simply Open (Thomas Nelson, 2015) and Close Enough to Hear God Breathe (Thomas Nelson 2011) were about the cultivating our awareness of God in pray and in all of life. These all point to a contemplative awareness. In this sense, Greg Paul is kind of what I would call an evangelical mystic. The religious spirituality he describes in Resurrecting Religion is a spirituality of the Beatitudes—one that makes space for the oppressed and the vulnerable in the life the faith community, a spirituality of listening and a spirituality of submission to God in the face of life’s trials.

Greg Paul calls us not to throw off our religious chains, but toward a new reformation where our ideas of religion are overhauled and renewed as we seek to care for the vulnerable, show equal regard for all people regardless of their socioeconomic status, and follow Jesus. Because the epistle of James is G. Paul’s guide, he doesn’t focus on liturgy and ritual like other pro-religion books might (such as James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). His focus, and in large part people’s problem with religion, is how we are to relate to one another. His closing chapter, “a twenty-first-century reformation” sets the trajectory he thinks our religiosity ought to take:

  •  Following Jesus away from the place of power, privilege, and security to the margins and the vulnerable.
  • An integrative approach to the gospel that holds up both a comprehensive theology of the Kingdom of God and pursues a vibrant, living relationship with Jesus.
  • The pursuit of justice and speaking up on behalf of the oppressed.
  • Directing our energies and resources outward not on our own church building and culture.
  • Commitment to community and to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven beyond our own economic interests, political affiliations.

Greg argues for a recovery of a religious, prophetic witness:

We would not keep silent when people who are poor are blamed for their poverty; when another young black man is unjustly shot and killed by police; when another First Nations woman goes missing and no investigation is begun; when supports for people who are addicted, mentally ill, or homeless are slashed again,; when unjust laws that target the poor are passed .We would claim those people as our brothers and sisters and raise our voices in support. We would abandon political-party allegiances and vote according to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those of us who are politicians or police officers or social workers or employees of banks and large corporations or military personnel or church workers would stand and speak loudly, if necessary as ones crying in the wilderness, about the injustice that infects the cultures within which we work and spreads to the world around us. (200).

When I picked up this book I expected it to be a sort of apologia for religion for our spiritual-but-not-religious age. Instead, this book is more of a manifesto for Christians to pursue True Religion in the way of Jesus. There are lots of stories from Greg’s ministry and the community of Sanctuary. I give this four stars and recommend it for pastors and ordinary readers who are tired of the same old bad religion and long for something more life-giving. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from NavPress and the TyndaleBlogNetwork in exchange for my honest review.

Effortless Grace?: a book review

My spiritual life is guided by two firm convictions. First, I believe in the gospel grammar is indicative-imperative. That is, the gospel–the good news–is first proclaimed and received before we are told how to walk in it. In contrast, I also believe the way is made by walking and some truth is not apprehended by us until it is enacted. It gets into your bones before it enters your brain. This is one of the reasons that the sacraments are such a powerful component to the spiritual life. We are told “eat this . . .drink this” and in our eating and drinking we come to a deeper knowledge of our life in Christ. Grace precedes effort, but effort will sometimes yield a deeper understanding of God’s grace.

A new book from Brian Hedges called Active Spirituality explores the relationship of Grace and effort. Writing from a Reformed, Baptist perspective, Hedges labors to show that though Christians are recipients of God’s unmerited Grace, we are not ‘saved’ to sit on our laurels (as though we saved ourselves). Hedges demonstrates that the Reformed doctrine of  the ‘Perseverance of Saints’  doesn’t mean you can sin all you want and still be saved. Instead it means that true believers will persevere in the faith–continuing on the way to sanctification and union with Christ. So in an epistolary style, Hedges crafts thirty-one letters to “Chris,” a young Christian he counsels to keep pursuing God and maturing in his Christian faith. An opening letter to the reader serves as an introduction to this collection.

The letter writing format ensures that each chapter is brief (about three or four pages long). But while the chapters are short, Hedges is not short on content. He discusses  at length acedia, that spiritual malaise which zaps our spiritual energy. He also talks about the nature of grace, the importance of participating in church life, the need to be attentive to your own spiritual health, the assurance of salvation, the dangers of self-trust, and how to run the race set before us (and yes, more). These letters to a young Christian, allow Hedges to encapsulate theological truths with pastoral sensitivity and he draws on examples from film, music, literature (especially C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan) as he makes his appeal. Drawing on the Reformed heritage, Hedges has a special love for the Puritans.

I appreciate this book for it’s practical and pastoral advice. I  am not quite a Calvinist. I call myself a .5 Calvinist, meaning I am only half way there. Though I think that point five, of TULIP which enshrines the ‘Perseverance of the Saints’ described here is a encouraging theology and I like what Hedges does here. Those coming from a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective, will find occasion to disagree with Hedges theology in places (especially as he describes Sanctification). However this book could still be read beneficially by those (like me) outside the Reformed camp. One of the benefits of the letter format, is that Hedges presents his theology humbly. I give this four stars and recommend this book for young Christians. ★★★★

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

The E-Ministry of Uncle Eldon: a book review

Pastoring the Pastor: Emails of a Journey Through Ministry by Tim Cooper and Kelvin Gardiner

In Pastoring the Pastor Tim Cooper and Kelvin Gardiner tell the story of Daniel Donford, the new minister at Broadfield Community Church. Like many young ministers, pastor Dan begins his ministry feeling self-assured that he has the right skills and techniques to grow the church (applying the techniques of his favorite church growth guru). It doesn’t take him very long in ministry to discover that what he thinks will work and what actually works, is not necessarily the same.  Lucky for him, pastor Dan has an uncle who spent 38 years in ministry with the same church and has years of wisdom to impart. In a series of back and forth emails, Uncle Eldon guides young Dan in how to keep his priorities straight in ministry, how to care for his own spiritual health,  how to deal with conflict and difficult people in the church and power struggles,  and he encourages him  to make sure he develops a proper support network. He also guides him in how to offer pastor care to parishioners and a minister friend caught in the vice of pornography.

The entire book is made up of a series of emails, mostly between Dan and Eldon, though we also get to hear from parishioners about what they think about their new minister.  Despite my general skepticism of didactic fiction (fiction whose primary aim is to teach you something) I was engaged by the story and found that the fictional uncle Eldon had lots of wisdom to impart.  I would recommend this book for seminarians and those who are in ministry (certainly others could read it fruitfully but I think the audience who would benefit most from it are those).  The content and language of this book assumes that the pastor is male, so my ordained female friends would have to make some necessary adjustments but the advice is biblically sound and wise. As someone who is seminary trained and vocationally called to ministry, I appreciated the practical advice  even as I am still in the process of  looking for a call.  It reminded me of a couple of classes I had which warned of the pitfalls implicit in ministry. The fictional format allows Cooper and Gardiner to discuss the issues in an engaging way and makes difficult truths easy to swallow.   I do not hesitate to recommend this to any of my colleagues in ministry. I found it very encouraging and you will too. If anything this book underscores the necessity of good mentors if we are to be faithful in following our call.

I received this book through Cross Focused Reviews and Christian Focus Publications in exchange for this review.