Crouching Corriedale, Christian Dragon: a ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ book review.

 Christians are supposed to be different. They are supposed to be in the world but not of it and reflect Christ’s coming kingdom more than the prince of this age. Yet too often we are indistinguishable from the wider culture, with the same dysfunctions and proclivities.  Nowhere is this felt so acutely as in the realm of power. The ongoing Christian fetish with leadership means the church often mines the corporate world and politics to discover how to lead churches and impact communities. The results are something effective but not without cost. Too often our leadership doesn’t reflect the character of Christ or challenge the power structures.

9780718022358_3Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel are two guys who grew up in a church and wanted to probe what the Christian approach to power and leadership should look like. They observe, “Over time we have come to see the way of power commended in Scripture is not the way of power we have seen in evangelicalism”(xxi). They describe examples of unhealthy power dynamics in the church.For example, Goggin relates visiting a church with a model of a ziggurat in the lobby, the church’s accomplishments on plaques on the side. There was apparently no sense of irony that the church had reconstructed the Tower of Babel in their foyer. Years later the church leadership melted down due to lack of financial accountability, fear and intimidating leadership and divisiveness (59-60).

They delinate other aspects of flawed and toxic leadership in the church:

Leadership of any kind will always be alearning to unhealthy, domineering and narcissistic individuals. The church is not immune to this, because the church can provide a context for power. A toxic leader is someone who maintains power and significance by manipulating followers through their own fundamental drive to be powerful and significant. Toxic leaders dominate and control. Toxic leaders weild their personalities to cement their power, relegating their followers to a position of dependence on them rather than on Christ. Toxic leaders do not develop other leaders, because they pose a threat to their own power. Toxic leaders create an unhealthy symbiosis between themselves and the organizations they lead, such that their absence would equal the collapse of the organization. In other words, a leader is toxic if he ceases to live according to the way of Jesus—the way of love, humanization, and truth, giving himself instead to the way of manipulation, dehumanization and deception (147).

If you have been part of a church, you likely have experienced and seen these dynamics (and maybe caused a few of them?). So, in The Way of Dragon or the Way of the Lamb they take a journey through the landscape of Christian culture to gain wisdom from some Christian sages. They intentionally sought out people who did not use their power for their own sake (16). They interview J.I Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, Jean Vanier and John Perkins.

These sages have a lot to say to Goggin and Strobel! From Packer, they learn that in “Christian life and in ministry, weakness is the way” (23). In their conversation with Jim Houston and his wife Rita, they probe how the quest for power in the church has revealed the quest for self-redemption. In contrast, Christian spirituality points to dependence on Christ and his example of self emptying as the key to human flourishing (43-44). Marva Dawn,  a theologian plagued by a lifetime of physical infirmity, is well acquainted with weakness, but also aware of the need to stand against the powers—insitutional and systemic evil. She points out the power of weakness and standing with the weak.  Perkins reveals the power of love in overcoming racism, xenophobia, and hate. Vanier speaks of the power in shared vulnerability and weakness in community. Peterson describes how to pastor a church in the way of the lamb. Willard described the importance of faithfulness over the value of success (152-53)And they said lots of other things too.

Because this book was fashioned around a series of conversations, it isn’t strictly linear, but cycles around similar themes. I think it is significant that the people profiled here are lions in winter, leaders at the end of their lives reflecting on what it has meant to live a lifestyle that is both faithful to Jesus and reflects the way of the lamb. Since their interviews both Dallas Willard and Rita Houston have gone to be with the Lord.

This is the second book that Goggin and Strobel wrote together (their previous book is Beloved Dust). I loved their first book and I couldn’t help but like this one too. It didn’t hurt that they literally interviewed all my favorite authors. As a Regent College guy, I have been strongly impacted by Peterson, Packer, Houston and Dawn. Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy shaped my understanding of Christian formation. I met Perkins in the midst of urban ministry and found someone who loved more, suffered more and had more wisdom than my (at the time)twenty-something heart could hold. I’ve long admired Vanier and the work of L’Arche and Peterson shaped my entire understanding of what it means to be a pastor. My admiration for each of these folks continues to grow. If evangelicals sainted people, each of these sages would make the short list.

I appreciate the insights that Goggins and Strobel draw from their interviews and their encouragement to lead different and wield power differntly from the world. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. -★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Power Through Weakness (or Community, Rest & Mission): a book review

The Christian life is the empowered life.  In Christ we are set free to live life and face the challenges that come our way. But sometimes we feel powerless in the face of life’s obstacles. Kevin Harney, author of Reckless Faith and the Organic Outreach books has written a month-long daily devotional exploring how God’s presence empowers believers. Each week of Empowered By His Presence explores a different God-given source of strength which reveal God’s empowering presence. These include:

  • Suffering, loss & pain.
  • Community
  • Sabbath and rest
  • Mission

The daily devotional entires profiles a character from the Bible which explores their experience of God. Each week has a reading on Paul and Jesus, but the rest of the entries take you across the Old and New Testaments. At the end of each section in the book are a daily reading plan (which parallels the daily devotionals, suggestions for prayer, personal reflection questions and action steps. There is a discussion guide at the back of the book, designed to accompany a small-group DVD also available from Baker Books.

I really liked this book for a several reasons. First, this is a book about God’s empowering presence, but it isn’t esoteric or strange. Harney starts with the experience of grief and loss in Job, the persecution of Paul, Hannah’s sorrow, Joseph’s betrayal at the hands of his brothers, Peter leaving his nets and Jesus’ cry of dereliction.  Each of these people were met by God, but they came to experience his power through loss, grief and weakness. This isn’t a book about the ‘power of God’ that never enters into human suffering. Rather Harney posits that we meet God there!

The other sections are similarly thoughtful. Community is a Christian buzzword, but Harney draws attention to the ways we mediate Christ to one another. The chapter on the four friends and the paralytic is pure gold (chapter seven). He has good stuff to say about Sabbath and Mission as well.

Second, I think the format is perfect for a small group. I am suggesting it for a small group study at my church and will  likely be ordering the DVD.

Third, I appreciate the breadth of Biblical people profiled. Harney isn’t stuck in the New Testament or Old but gives us a nice cross-section of the communion of saints.

Finally, I loved how solid this is. Harney has keen pastoral insights and is judicious in his reading of the Bible. I don’t remember any specific passages where I felt like he fudged it

I give this book four stars and recommend it especially for use in small groups. It may also be read profitably as a small group resource. ★★★★☆

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.

Bringing the Broken and Disabled Good News: a book review

Disability and the Gospel: How God Uses Our Brokenness to Display His Grace by Michael Beates

For all the talk we Christians make about the church being a community of mutual care, churches are often remarkably inhospitable to the disabled. We prize those who are strong, gifted, and well put together. We don’t mean to exclude the weak and the vulnerable, but they often disrupt the order of service  and the flow of worship. And so in subtle ways we push those with disabilities away.

In Disability & the Gospel, Michael Beates helps us come to grips with disability and our response to it and he lays out a Biblical theology of disability. Beates is on the board for  Joni and Friends (the ministry of Joni Eareckson Tada) and is also the father of  seven children (one who is profoundly disabled and two others who face challenges).   Beates interacts with much of the theological literature on disability and helps us understand the ways disability (and the disabled) challenge us to greater dependence on God in all circumstances.

The book divides into four parts. In part one, Beates surveys relevant texts in the Old and New Testament which speak either directly or indirectly to the issue of disability. Part two provides a historical perspective on the issue, examining the issue of  disability in Greek and Rabbinic literature, the early church, the Reformation era, and in the early modern era.  The attitudes towards the disabled throughout church history is not always a pretty tale. In part three, Beates discusses what current secular and Christian voices are contributing to the discussion and in part four he provides some suggestions for Christian leaders and lay people on how to grow in our capacity to minister effectively to those with disabilities. There are also two appendices which offer a look at how God’s sovereignty relates to genetic anomalies and an example sermon from Beates on God’s love for the broken.

What I appreciate most about this book is that it challenges us not only to include the disabled in our faith community and be intentional about ministering to (and with) the disabled, but also to see disability and brokenness through a theological lens. We are all broken, weak and vulnerable people who are dependent on other’s and God’s care. The disabled among us hold profound lessons for us all about our common humanity, and we should not so easily shunt them away.  Beates also makes a strong case that God shows particular care for the weak and disabled and challenges us to do the same (though in an organic, holistic and communal way). I also really liked the biblical and historical data. I think there are other thoughtful authors (i.e. Amos Yong, Thomas Reynolds, Jean Vanier, Stanley Hauerwas, Marva Dawn, etc) who are wrestling with looking at disability through a theological lens,but what Beates brings to the table is attention to the Biblical text. This is an appropriate focus, well needed and grounds his theology in something more solid than the often contradictory and troublesome theological tradition reflecting on this issue or subjective experience.  Beates articulates a biblical vision of disability which emphasizes both God’s care for the weak and broken and God’s sovereignty.

So I think this would be a good book for anyone interested in getting involved with ministry to those with disabilities, either as ministry leaders or as a concerned lay person. Sometimes our inhospitality towards the disabled stems from fear of how to approach them. Beates offers good advice on that score. I don’t hesitate in recommending this one! It pushed me to think of the people who have taught me the most about depending on God and trusting in Him. For me, these weren’t the strong, talented, gifted and wise mentors but I can think of several friends who faced physical or mental challenges who learned dependence on God in their circumstances, providing a prophetic challenge for the rest of us.

I received this book from Crossway Books in exchange for this review.