Friday, August 29, 2014

My Review of Living the Quaker Way

Living the Quaker Way:  Timeless Wisdom for a Better Life Today is a modern classic, with lots of spiritual depth, by Quaker pastor Philip Gulley.  I've read his What If Grace is True and What If God Is Love before, and both have been a genuine inspiration in my life.  Now, with Living the Quaker Way, Gulley takes us on a spiritual journey through the essential Quaker testimonies which are easily remembered by the acronym of SPICE -- simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality.

The central focus, as Gulley points out, for Quaker life isn't growth in numbers; there are few, if any, outreach programs in Quaker fellowships across the country.  Instead, the focus is on the inner life.  That inner life, according to Living the Quaker Way, is "an antidote to the complexities and challenges of modern life".

And he's right!

I found the first chapter to be an refreshing foray into the very heart of what it means to be a Quaker.  While certain features of Quaker life have always been unsettling to me -- like "unprogrammed" services -- Gulley cuts through those features to give a very succinct description of what this book aims to do:  "My interest is not in growing the Quaker denomination. My passion is in growing a world in which peace, love, and justice reign. In the end, I am not inviting you to a church, but to a life".

That is, this book is for seekers.

The chapter on simplicity was perhaps the most impressive.  It provides a description of an alternative to the American emphasis on success and the idea that a winner is someone who has accumulated possessions and wealth.  This chapter alone is perhaps one of the best criticisms of that modern American spiritual phenomenon that is spiritually destructive -- the "prosperity gospel" preaching of Joel Oseteen.  In this chapter, Gulley discusses the hallmarks of the simple life:  Awareness, generosity, patience, persistence, and focus.  The best line of it?  True wealth comes not only from "learning to live with less but also learning to want less".

His chapter on peace, though, was the most personally challenging.  Gulley suggests that we view violence and war as diseases which we must develop cures for as soon as possible.  And I find that idea a challenge, but it poses some interesting possibilities, I think, for America, particularly in light of the recent violence that we've seen in places like Ferguson, Missouri.

He also suggests -- quite rightly, I think -- that the continued manufacture of weapons of mass destruction be considered as crimes against humanity. 

But it's the thirty-day challenge at the end of the book that make this a classic.  As I read through those questions, and answered them honestly, I found myself looking in a spiritual mirror, devoid of all the pretense.  That challenge alone makes this book a must-have.

I received this book free, from the Blogging for Books program, in exchange for my honest review. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My Review of "Angels and Saints"

Angels and Saints. 

Most of us focus so closely on "church" as the body we attend regularly for worship and spiritual fellowship. We hardly notice that we are part of a chorus of worship that extends time and space, and includes those friends we call "angels and saints".

In this popular little book, Scott Hahn -- a well-known Catholic biblical scholar -- sets out the importance and everyday relevance of the angels and saints for our everyday lives. He offers the biblical and theological foundations, and then offers meditations upon the lives of particular saints. 

The book itself "shows us the saints in heaven, they're engaged constantly in worship ... note that they are pleading with God for those who remain on earth" in Scripture, particularly the Book of Revelation" (pp. 59-60). Those are the very prayers we ask from the living faithful and from those whose lives are "hidden with Christ":  "In response to the prayers of the saints, God calls upon the heavenly priests to blow their seven trumpets, evoking the Old Testament Battle of Jericho" (p. 61).

It's the second half of the book I found most intriguing. His meditations include portions that allow these holy friends to speak for themselves. And their message about our life with Christ in God is genuinely inspirational!

I received this book free, from the Blogging for Books program, in exchange for my honest review. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review of "Recovering Redemption"

Recovering Redemption is a book with pastoral heart written to reorient and guide the church back to its central mission: The redemption of the world by God in Christ. It isn't that the message of that redemption has changed; instead, the church has floundered for lack of a vision of that redemption as its very soul. 

In that way, this book would be better titled "Reclaiming Redemption." 

But that's hardly a surprise.  Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church and president of Acts 29, knows first-hand how easily churches need this recovering, reclaimed message.  Michael Snetzer, as Groups Pastor at The Village Church, also knows the need for this message in a church's life. Together, they bring a unified voice with a strong message. 

This book hardly contains new information. Its retelling of the biblical story in the first three chapters is so beautifully clear. "Bad news is the backdrop against which good news really shines. So let there be darkness. And let there be light" (p. 12).

But they hardly leave that simple message at the level of just information. No, this book means to achieve formation, "a gospel-saturated perspective on how to change". So it's filled with personal stories; the best biblical theology is biography. "The beauty of Christ's gospel is the great 'unless' of life ... we've seen it play out in our lives" (p. 45).

This book is an ideal introduction to the Christian faith for newcomers and inquirers. 

B&H Books provided a free copy of this book for this honest review. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Review of "Truth Matters"

Truth Matters:  Confident Faith in a Confusing World is written for high school and college students, and serves as a clarion call for a "reasoned faith" that has more to offer skeptics than Sunday School platitudes.  It's an informed and informing book that looks at intelligent and biblical responses to common objections to Christian faith. 

Its unifying thrust is to look at one scholar, in this case Bart Ehrman, and offer reasonable analyses of his arguments -- as an example of the way to handle these sceptics a critics with a reasonable, biblical and loving response. 

Choosing Ehrman's work is the best choice of these renowned New Testament professors.  Because Ehrman's work is found in nearly every college classroom in one form or another.  It also pervades the popular culture on Discovery and History Channel specials.  Ehrman is a prolific scholar, whose intellect and charm can be appealing and overwhelming unless you think through his arguments closely. 

Truth Matters helps the reader do just that. 

Apologetics books these days are a dime a dozen.  So initially, I wasn't very excited about this book.  "Why another one?" I thought.  But after reading the first chapter, I realized that the wisdom here blends a rigorous learning with a pastoral sensitivity.  That's rare in apologetic books these days.  But it makes the material here that much more significant and rewarding. 

With Richard Bauckman and NT Wright as some of their conversation partners, this book brings a rich flavor for students who will find it useful.  In fact, it'll be required reading the next time I teach a New Testament introuctory class in college. 

Churches should see that every graduating high school student gets a copy of Truth Matters this year.  It also makes great material for senior high and college-age Church School classes, particularly given the discussion questions at the end of each chapter.  

I was provided a free copy of this book by B&H Academic Books for my honest review. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Girl at the End of the World

I read this book for two reasons.  First, a friend recommended the book to me.  Second, I was intrigued.  I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian background, and have struggled to find my own religious voice. 

There was a comfort here, in finding that my own path hasn't been walked alone.  Elizabeth Ester has written a book that is at once bewildering, scary and amusing. 

Girl at the End of the World is a first-hand account of a woman raised in The Assembly, a Christian "cult" (by her own admission) that lasted from the early 1970s until its implosion under scandal in the early 2000s.  The group was founded by her grandfather, George Geftakys, and so there was a lot of pressure on Elizabeth's family to be the perfect Assembly family.  The "perfect" Assembly family had Rapture readiness plans.  The "perfect" Assembly family punished its children with daily spankings to drive out rebellion.  The "perfect" Assembly family avoided becoming contaminated by "The World" and its evil ways.  The "perfect" Assembly family was a terrifying place to call home.  In the one environment where a child should find peace and love and comfort, Elizabeth found fear, anxiety, guilt and punishment.  It was nothing short of religious terrorism and torture.

I'm still haunted by the image of a young girl, squatting over a hand-dug trench, being forced to defecate, out of obedience to her elders.  Or the image of a young mother, huddled in a bathroom, trying to be obedient and spank her young baby girl because the young child wanted chocolate, after being told no.

This book was hard to read. 

But more importantly, this book was hard to put down.  I read it in one afternoon, because I found its writing that compelling, its story that relate-able. 

Girl at the End of the World also tells the story of what the life of faith looks like after fundamentalism.  She's still groping for God, but has found a haven in the Catholic Church.  It's a safe place where hearing God, hearing the Bible, has brought peace and growth. 

This is a book I'm glad I read.  It's very worth reading.  More, it's worth buying.  Because this book is worth sharing with others who have been damaged by religious extremism.

I can't recommend it too highly.

I received this book free, from the Blogging for Books program, in exchange for my honest review. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

5 theologians

My brother asked for the five most influential Christian books.  Here goes:

1.  Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
2.  Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines
3.  Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship
4.  Lesslie Weatherhead, The Will of God
5.  Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

God's will or God's work?

"Everything happens for a reason." "It just wasn't God's will." 

Pithy little sayings I've heard all my life. While they're reductionist now, I never questioned them as a kid. 

Now, though, I think if we see God's will in everything, we miss genuine despair.  We lose sight of hope.  We lose sight of God's will. 

God isn't some puppet master. If he controlled the world this way, there would be no lying, killing, or pain. Things happen to us that are contrary to God's will. Drunk drivers. Cancer. Child abuse. God never wills those. 

Instead, what we really should say: "This will be redeemed in time." Eventually, God will make it right. 

What that says is not that God is in control, but that God is with us, working, saving, transforming. 

A View from Somewhere

You gotta stand somewhere.  This is one part of the world from where I'm standing.

This blogging thing is going to be new.  It's an experiment.  So you'll find a lot of stuff here.

Mostly, you'll read about struggles.  Because I know those best.