Category Archives: Book Review

Review: Good but falls short sometimes

9781601429513Some parts I agree, some parts I disagree.

That is a good summary of my reaction after reading Brian Zahnd’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. The title of the book is, of course, a play on the famous sermon given by Jonathan Edwards preach in 1741, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Zahnd is correct in pressing the reader to rediscover God as a God of love who showed us his full nature in the person and work of Jesus. He writes, “God couldn’t say all he wanted to day in the form of a book, so he said it in the form of a human life. Jesus is what God has to say!” (50).

Zahnd is right in his acknowledgement that God’s anger and God’s wrath have become a point of morbid fascination with some denominations and sects of Christianity- especially within the United States. And while there are obviously biblical passages that speak of God’s wrath, it is appropriate to allow Jesus to have the final word on points where there appear to be tension. That is the major idea presented in the first three chapters of the book and an idea that I fully agree with. I also enjoyed his interpretation of Revelation found in the closing four chapters of the book.

However, it is the middle three chapters that caused me to pause and caused me to really consider how to judge Zahnd’s work. Two chapters deal with atonement theology and the third deals with hell. In the chapters on atonement, Zahnd essentially takes a view of atonement traditionally called the moral influence theory. Moral influence theory sees Jesus’s death as a great demonstration of God’s love that causes “a change in [the] sinners’ heart so that they are drawn to God” (Olsen, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 258-259). Zahnd says something similar: “Jesus was faithful to embody God’s will even to the point of shedding his blood as he forgave sinners. Jesus did not shed his blood to pay off God in the form of a ritual sacrifice…Jesus shed his blood in faithful obedience to his Father’s will, demonstrating divine forgiveness even as he was crucified!” (105). For Zahnd, Jesus’ death was an example of love and an example of forgiveness.

What Zahnd fails to confront are the multitude of verses and illusions that see Jesus’s death through the lens of sacrifice. He doesn’t mention Paul’s argument in Romans or the  use of “propitiation,” for example. I’m not saying that all of Zahnd’s interpretation of Jesus’s death is wrong, however, it is incomplete. For a full discussion of atonement theology, read N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright begins at the same staring point as Zahnd: Is it theologically correct to say that Jesus’s death was a punishment for sin?, however Wright is able to explore that question to much greater depths.

The third chapter that gave me pause is Zahnd’s treatment of hell. He begins the chapter by pondering if Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel is in hell. He then goes on to wonder about Anne Frank and the other victims of the Holocaust or the devote Muslim woman who shows charity and worships the best she knows how. He is right in noting that the “simplistic equation…Christians go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal bliss, while everyone else goes to hell, where they suffer eternal torment” (119-120) is more of a populist notion rather than a biblical idea. However, his main ally is C.S. Lewis who is known lean toward universalism.

I admit we get into trouble when we begin pronouncing eternal judgment on people when that judgment solely belongs to God. But Zahnd’s conclusion that hell represents “refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God” (137) again isn’t wrong it is just incomplete. He equates hell to the realm of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who refuses to come inside for the party. Which is true, but he doesn’t address passages that speak of God’s judgment. Zahnd doesn’t throw out the reality of hell but he redefines hell in a way that might make people uncomfortable because he doesn’t address some of those other biblical passages.

Overall, Zahnd writes a thought-provoking book that challenges the reader to take a fresh look at what it means when the Bible says “God is love.”

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

Gone: A story of loss and discovery

goneA book for anyone who has experienced loss. Min Kym lost a million dollar Stradivarius violin, or rather had it stolen, you might have experienced a loss or had something stolen or taken away from you. If you have you can easily relate to Kym’s story.

Min Kym was born in South Korea but grew up in London. At a very early age she exhibited a gift playing the violin and inherited the blessed/curse title of “child prodigy.” Her memoir, Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung tells the story of her discovery, growth,  and refinement of her life as a violin soloist and how it shattered right before her eyes.

The book revolves around three themes. First, the theme of musicianship. Kym is a violinist and the book sets the reader deep into the world of composers, compositions, and the feelings that come from playing and hearing specific pieces of music. To fully engage with this theme, it is helpful (although not necessary) for the reader to have a basic musical background or, at least, an appreciation for classical composers and classical music.

The second theme is of loss. The uniting of Kym and her Stradivarius is similar to finding the love of one’s life. In fact she writes, “There was no question, no doubt. It was love at first sight. love and everything else: honor, obedience, trust, everything” (84). And just like a love, Kym does an excellent job describing the indescribable: the way that a musician and an instrument discover each other and push each other to greatness. Then, in a moment, all of it stolen and Kym invites the reader into her loss, grief, anger, and despair. Her violin isn’t gone, part of herself is gone. Which brings us to the third theme: self-awareness.

Throughout the book Kym finds herself within the struggle of discovering her voice. She struggles with the traditions of her Korean family. She struggles with demanding teachers and a domineering boyfriend. Ultimately, I think Kym discovers that, not only does she have a voice, she has two: one as a person without the violin and one as a musician with her violin. She writes, “There was a person lurking somewhere inside me that didn’t need a violin to communicate with people…I did have a voice” (135). At the same time, it’s through music that she speaks to the world, with her Stradivarius gone, will she be able to awaken that voice again? I’ll let you read the book and find out.

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

Like Reading a Seven-course Meal

as kingfishersOver the last year or two I’ve come to appreciate the pastoral wisdom of Eugene Peterson. Previously I had known him as the writer of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language but I didn’t know that he was first and foremost a pastor. He was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland and lead the church for 29 years.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God is a book that is directly birthed out of Peterson’s pastoral experience. In fact, the book is built around 49 of Peterson’s sermons, preached to his church. The book reaches to dramatic heights and delves into phenomenal depths. Peterson’s words show the richness of scripture while making them accessible and able to be brought into the sermons of pastors today.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons grouped into seven sections. Each section is introduced by Peterson to invite the reader into the conversation of what it means to preach in the “company” of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul and John. By “company” Peterson means for the reader to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (xxi). Peterson achieves this goal beautifully; he speaks of story telling, praying and poetry, allowing our imaginations to be “Jesus-filled,” and preaching theologically.

There is so much good in this book that it is hard to pick just one example- but I’ll do just that. In the introduction to “Preaching in the Company of Isaiah,” Peterson says this: “The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss. The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, we have to fit into God” (116). This is such a profound and needed flip that we must do-especially within our Western culture. God cannot be something I just add into my life. As if we can add God to the plate of our already full lives. We must flip our understanding to see that we fit into God. We join God. We are found in God. We become a part of what God is doing. Peterson points out such an important point in this short paragraph- and that is just one example.

This is one of the books I will continually reference and quote within my own sermons and sermon preparation. When this book is released on May 16, 2017, it needs to be on your list to buy, read and reflect upon.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review. Find more information on the book here.

Or watch this extremely interesting short-film featuring Eugene Peterson and Bono talking together about Psalms.

Talking With God: Not deep but still refreshing

9781601429445Sometimes praying is hard. If prayer wasn’t hard, then some of our greatest theologians, scholars and pastors wouldn’t have spent the time and energy writing books about prayer. In his book Talking with God: What To Say When You Don’t Know How To Pray, Adam Weber adds his voice to many others on the subject of prayer. Weber is the lead pastor of Embrace, based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Weber writes a book that feels personal, even though it’s story-filled and light on in-depth teaching. Talking with God is theologically sound but basic. There is nothing earth-shaking in the book and, in a way, that’s refreshing. Weber doesn’t project to know a way to pray that “changes everything” or a “new” method of prayer, what he brings are simple ideas about prayer. They are ideas that the reader can put into practice no matter how long they have been a believer. This book is not for someone looking for an in-depth study on prayer, however, this book is a good introduction on prayer for a non-Christian, a new Christian or a student. But it does have good reminders on what it means to pray and how we can pray within the different circumstance in which we find ourselves.

Overall, it was a pleasant read and it is one that I’ll keep in order to pass along to someone looking for an introduction to prayer.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.

 

 

 

Half is Enough: A Review of “The Lesser Bohemians”

After 116 pages, I couldn’t read any more. Normally, I feel that it is my obligation to read the books I receive from Blogging for Books in their entirety, even if it is a book that I don’t like or have issue with, before posting a review. However, after 116 pages of The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, I simply could not persuade myself to read any more. The novel tells the story of a young woman from Ireland who moves to London to go to the university to study drama. She gets romantically involved with an older, semi-famous London actor and the novel follows their “romance.” The reason I couldn’t make myself continue reading the story are three-fold.

First, the manner in which the book is written is unique. The format isn’t like any book I’ve seen. It is written in an poetic style- almost as if the novel was one epic poem. Phrases are short, choppy and incomplete. While it has an artistic beauty, it is not very enjoyable to read- like holding a bouquet of roses with the thorns still attached. The opening lines of the book give a good example: “Lo lay London Liverpool Street I am getting to on the train. Legs fair jigged from halfway there. Dairy Milk on this Stansted Express and cannot care for stray sludge splinters in the face of England go by (7). I found that it took me several minutes to regain the flow of the text each time I picked up the book the read and this fact made me less inclined to pick up the book after each sitting.

Second, the plot of the book revolves solely on sex and a misguided sense of love. Every few pages tells of another sexual encounter either between the young woman and the actor or between the young woman and a man met at the bar or between the young woman and her married roommate. But the larger issue is the misguided sense of love. Somewhere in the Western consciousness, lust has replaced love and abuse has replaced relationship. I feel I could convincing argue that the actor engages in both emotional and physical abuse of the young woman. Ultimately this sense of love is unfulfilling and pointless. In one passage the actor tells the young woman, “Do you think I don’t understand? I know all about having a good time. Having it and having it until it’s everything turned to sh-t and you can’t believe the things you’ve done, look at me, is that what you want? (106). McBride writes true words here. What the reader sees in the characters (at least up to this point) is their emotional emptying and perhaps there is an emotional filling that takes places in the remainder of the novel but that leads me to the third critique.

Third, I’m 116 pages into the novel and instead of the story driving me forward its conclusion, I find that as a reader, I don’t care. I don’t care about the characters. Perhaps that changes in the second half of the novel- but I don’t care enough to find out. The reason I don’t care is because I feel like a don’t know them. Yes, I see their romantic encounters but the characters just do things and the reader doesn’t know why and without that connection, I find little desire to continue in their story. I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.

A Must Read: A Review

9781101906422A must read!

There have been few books that have challenged me more than Tom Krattenmaker’s Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe (Convergent, 2016). Krattenmaker currently works as the communications director at Yale Divinity School and is a columnist for USA Today where he writes about religion in public life. He is not a Christian. Yet he tries to live by the teachings of Jesus. He professes the sentiment of many in today’s culture: “One can sense a respect for Jesus, even a fascination with him, despite the decline of institutionalized Christianity” (13-14).

Krattenmaker is a self-proclaimed secularist. He confesses, “I do not believe Jesus died for the forgiveness of my sins…nor do I believe that it is literally and factually true that Jesus was, and is, God- which is not surprising when you realize I am not convinced of the existence of God either” (9). What he is, is a man who wants to “engage Jesus without being Christian” and wants to create a space where “interested nonreligious people [can] do something that society and the religious affiliation categories would apparently forbid [them] to do: seriously follow Jesus. That is to say, to attempt, as much as it’s possible, to act as he did, to treat other people as he did, to understand life as he did” (11).

In the book, Krattenmaker takes current issues- religious polarization, sexuality, worry, over-incarceration, racial tensions- and tries to show how Jesus speaks into each of these issues. If we follow the teachings of Jesus, he argues, then we will begin to examine these issues from a new perspective and hopefully discover a better way of being human.

What makes this book challenging is that I’ve read “Christian” books that failed to do what Krattenmaker successfully does- let the words of Jesus speak into contemporary issues. He is able to convincingly argue that Jesus’ words and actions still matter in the 21st century. He’s completely right when he says, “there is something in this figure of Jesus that is challenging, compelling and worth taking to heart” (206).

Now, being a person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to defeat sin and evil in his death and resurrection, I believe that Krattenmaker stands one or two steps short of fully understanding the message of Jesus. That being said, I believe he understands the message better than (sadly) many Christians. If others, through this book, discover the message of Jesus (even in a “secular” way), I am hopeful that as people try to live by the teachings of Jesus, and as they engage with the Bible (the place where those teachings are found) they will find themselves drawn to the God that Jesus represents.

Two weaknesses of the the book. First, there is some mild language throughout- somewhere between a PG and PG-13 rating. Second, Krattenmaker doesn’t fully answer the why question. Why would someone want to care about the plight of the incarcerated, love those unlike them, or care about what their sex life is doing to themselves and others? If this life is all there is, there is really no incentive for me to look out for anyone other than myself. Appealing to an altruistic side of humanity doesn’t work in the long term because there will always be those who will use it to gain power for themselves. Human beings are not inherently good, we are inherently selfish, greedy and violent. When left to ourselves, the result is always more Lord of the Flies than Shangri-La. But that reality is the message of Jesus. Jesus, God with us to do for us what we could not do for ourselves- namely, to save us from the sin and evil that are inside of us.

In the end, I’m glad that I read the book and if you are a pastor, minister, lay church leader then it is a must read. It will give you great insight into the mind of  the many people who are interested in Jesus but simply cannot understand the contradictions that appear to lay between Jesus and the Christian church. I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Lots of Good, If Not Much New: Review of “The Great Spiritual Migration”

9781601427915When I saw that Brian McLaren had come out with another book, I immediately put it on my Amazon wish list. Naturally I was excited when I saw the opportunity to read and review the book for Blogging for Books. (I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.) I’ve read a good number of McLaren’s books over the years and I enjoy them- even if I don’t agree with everything he proposes. The great thing about McLaren is, however, that I don’t think he would want that anyway.

Perhaps it is because I have read a number of his books, that I found The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian to be full of good thoughts and ideas while not being particularly novel or new. In the book, McLaren proposes that Christianity needs to change (migrate) in three areas: 1. from being centered on correct belief to being center in love 2. from seeing God as a God of exclusion to a God of reconciliation and multi-ethnic expression 3. from the church being an organized institution to an organizing movement of change. These are all good observations but not unique to McLaren alone.

The negative first. In the opening section, McLaren argues that Christianity needs to migrate from being centered on correct belief to being centered in love. The reason for this re-centering on love is because God is love (1 John 4:8) and that central focus on love should be announced and ritualized (61-62). While I agree with his argument, what McLaren is actually doing is declaring that love is the correct belief of Christianity. “God is love” is a belief and by saying that it should be central is effectively arguing that it is the correct belief. He simply trades “correct” doctrines on God, salvation, ecclesiology, or whatever for a “correct” doctrine of love. I’m not saying he’s wrong (I think he’s right) but we need to be aware of what he’s actually proposing. What Christians do need to focus on is how their beliefs (doctrines) organized in creed, confessions or statements work in practice. For example, if we believe in God, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, how do I live that out on a day to day basis?

To the positive. McLaren is right when he sites that our world is faced with a four-fold crisis: ecological, economic, sociopolitical and spiritual and religious (166). What is amazing is that the Christian message speaks to all four of them. The main takeaway that I got from the book is that, as Christians, we need to step back from our local church problems and from our denominational problems and see that “the problems we need to solve are bigger that Lutheranism, Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, or Catholicism. We have Christian problems…[and] ultimately, the problems we face are not just Christian problems, they are human problems” (145). And if the problems we face are human problems, ecological, economic, sociopolitical and religious, then Christians need to show how faith in the crucified and risen Jesus speaks to each of those problems. And how do we do that? McLaren rightly says it’s by doing to small things, the individual things and trusting that “God can get done through all of us what none of us can do alone” (198). When I do this, I’m not (and I love this line) “playing God, I’m playing with God, at play in God’s good world, where everything is holy” (198).

Overall I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to someone who was beginning to think about these issues for the first time. If you’re familiar with McLaren’s other books, The Great Spiritual Migration may not hold the wealth of new ideas that you hoped for.