Thursday, November 21, 2013

It's Good That Jesus Didn't Leave Behind Artifacts

As I watched episode two of Bible Secrets Revealed (History Channel) last night, what really struck me was how much we humans want tangible, physical artifacts of what we believe in. This could be a location - a Holy Land, a Temple, a burial site. It could be something significant to the founder - the Holy Grail, a Shroud, a piece of the Cross. Or it could be writings that connect the present generation to the past - like the Bible.

I've thought from time to time how much better it might have been if some of the writings could be shown conclusively to have come from Jesus. Or if some artifact could be shown undoubtedly to be from Jesus, how that can prove to the world that the claims of Christianity are true.

But as I watched the show last night, I realized possibly why Jesus left no artifacts and left no command to write down his words. It was for the best. Conflicts and wars have erupted over the so-called artifacts we have today. Battles continue to rage over holy places and lands. Controversy and strife continue over interpretations of words.

How much worse might all this be if these things could be shown to trace directly back to Jesus - his words, his possessions? They would consist of the ultimate proof a sect needed to establish itself over all others. Humans are always tempted by magic and magical religions. Literal words of Jesus would soon become magical incantations that must be spoken exactly (in Aramaic, of course). Artifacts would soon turn into implements for performing magic and as proof of divine authority. Conflicts, controversies and wars would never cease as one sect battled to gain control over the relics.

Which is why what we have from Jesus is that he said that locations would no longer be considered "holy" (John 4:16-26), that Jesus himself is the new Temple (John 2:18-21), and that the only artifacts he left were the command to love one another (John 13:34-35) and the Holy Spirit (John 15) - both nonmaterial and mystical.

Jesus didn't want his people to become attached to places, things, words, and rituals. Yet that's what we've done and continue to do. Jesus wants the only attachment of his people to be to him, through the Holy Spirit and by love for one another.

I wonder if this is part of what Paul intended when he wrote "flee from idolatry" (1 Corinthians 10:14)? It seems that Paul was writing to a group of believers who were becoming attached to a tangible, magical form of Christianity. Paul writes to call them back to a mystical (not magical) Christianity - where the Temple isn't a place but the body of believers; where Communion is not a magical ritual but a reminder of Christ; where spiritual gifts aren't an end but a means; where loving relationships, not words, is the Law; and where the Cross and Resurrection are events, not an object and a place.

In ABC's Once Upon a Time TV series, there is a saying, "Magic always comes with a price." In what ways does the modern church employ or teach "magic"? What price are we paying?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: Satisfied

Satisfied: Discovering Contentment in a World of ConsumptionSatisfied: Discovering Contentment in a World of Consumption by Jeff Manion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Financial freedom begins with knowing your identity in Christ.

A great many books and seminars on Christian financial topics deal with the nuts and bolts: spending, budgeting, financial planning, investing. Jeff Manion, in Satisfied: Discovering Contentment in a World of Consumption, takes a different approach. He gives the readers an exposition on the theology of Christian contentment. His thesis is that true financial freedom is a function of learning contentment and satisfaction. However it isn't all theoretical and abstract: with each set of chapters (the book is divided into six parts) Jeff provides questions and activities to help the reader learn and develop the concepts discussed in the corresponding chapters. Activities include practical projects that reinforce learning.

The chapters are short and easy to read. Jeff includes numerous anecdotes from his life and from people he has interacted with to introduce and illustrate his points. He draws from six major scriptural passages (plus several more minor discussions) to develop his thesis. I appreciate his taking time to discuss the historical and cultural context of the scriptural passages used, to show that economic concerns and the problem of contentment are timeless concerns.

According to Jeff, one of the major reasons why we have such a difficult time with contentment is because we compare ourselves to those who appear to have more. And we compare because we have false ideas about where we derive our identity. We are culturally conditioned to look at externals, our possessions, and our spending to determine our worth. The key to financial freedom is to free ourselves from looking for our sense of worth in finances. To do this, Jeff writes, is to discover, learn, and internalize Christ as the true source of identity and worth. Jeff brings in the Epistle to the Ephesians as his theological basis. He writes how Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus about their new identity through the concepts of adoption, redemption, and sealing.

The second half of the book is about the challenges of affluence. This is a topic that I haven't heard or seen addressed very often. Jeff clearly writes for those who reside in well-to-do societies. He writes that even those who see themselves as "poor" in these societies are usually rich compared to most of the rest of the world. When one considers assets that people have access to outside of strict financial ones -- education, community and government support, families -- those of us who live in the developed societies are quite "rich." The challenge for those of us who are rich, who have found genuine financial freedom, is how to resist succumbing to the temptations to diminish our reliance upon God and to return to valuing ourselves according to what we've accomplished. Jeff writes that trust in God is an ongoing challenge. He provides a number of suggestions as to how Christians can keep focus on Christ when things are going well.

The gospel message is a message of freedom from fear. One of those fears is the fear of the future which includes issues around finances. Satisfied speaks to this segment of the gospel. This book is great by itself, and it will make an excellent companion material to more nuts-and-bolts financial instruction materials.

(This review is based on an advance review copy supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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Thursday, November 07, 2013

Review: How to Talk to a Skeptic

How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-To-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective ApologeticsHow to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-To-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics by Donald J. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remain skeptical.

Donald J. Johnson defines a skeptic rather broadly: from militant atheists to someone who is just beginning to question their (Christian) faith. Turning it around a non-skeptic, then, can only include those who have no questions about their faith… someone who is absolutely certain about matters of faith. Johnson is schooled in the field of apologetics so it is not surprising that he values certainty and holds in suspicion questioning, doubt, and skepticism. It is not surprising that he wants Christians to be certain about their faith and beliefs, to be confident that they really do hold answers to questions of ultimate reality and life meaning, and that apologetics is a highly effective mode of evangelism.

There was a time that I, too, was enamored with apologetics. I devoured books by Josh McDowell, David A. Noebel, Lee Strobel, etc. Then I started to critically engage other points of view and realized that certainty and answers were overrated. I saw how apologetics, even when presenting correct answers, destroys relationships because it communicates, usually unintentionally and subconsciously, arrogance, superiority, and patronization of the apologist toward those he is arguing. It's been quite a number of years since I've seriously taken a look at Christian apologetics and I was curious if How to Talk to a Skeptic approached the topic any differently.

First, I came away with the sense that Johnson's approach is a "softer" form of apologetics than . He reminds readers throughout the book that it does little good, and possibly harm, to react to objections from skeptics. He writes of the importance of first listening to understand where the skeptic is coming from, what he knows about his own worldview, and what he thinks he knows about Christianity.

Johnson then writes that apologists should not try to defend or "sell" religion, but to ask questions of the skeptic to guide them toward an understanding of worldviews. He writes that what is important is not about establishing which worldview is most useful or helpful, but which one best reflects reality. For Johnson, the Christian worldview is the one that best explains ultimate reality and is, obviously, the one he shows how to defend in this book.

Johnson spends a few chapters seeking to deal with some of the areas of Christianity with which skeptics have trouble. These include issues such as the nature of God (vindictive, capricious, or loving?), why so much (apparent) focus on rules and behaviors, why isn't ethics and morality enough, heaven and hell, the use and misuse of the Bible, parallels to pagan mythologies, hypocrisy, etc. In my opinion some of the arguments were better than others. There were some areas where his reasoning failed to convince me in any way. What I did appreciate is that in a few of the chapters at least, he began by acknowledging that traditional Christian positions and arguments were flawed, and that Christians bore at least some responsibility for contributing to skepticism.

On the positive side then, Johnson presents a framework of Christian apologetics that recognizes there is no one-size-fits-all approach in responding to skeptics, that Christians need to humbly acknowledge areas of failure, that the apologist must first learn before responding, and that she needs to argue worldviews rather than religions.

However, I encountered problems with Johnson's approaches. The main problem that I had is that it is based on the assumption that the Christian worldview has the answers. I don't object to this assumption, per se, but what leads out of it -- that is, it is possible for Christians to know the answers, and that there is a singular "Christian worldview" that can be apprehended by humans. Ask a representative sample of Christians from different denominations, cultures, and times, and there is no way a single "Christian worldview" will emerge. According to Johnson, only one worldview can be "right" meaning all the others are wrong. So who decides which one is right? His?

I also had issues with what to me seemed like circular reasoning. For example Johnson argues that it is God who provides meaning to life, so a person cannot really have life meaning without believing in (the Christian) God. But this reasoning only stands up if one first accepts that there is a God; ergo, circular reasoning. By this argument, Johnson also minimizes and dismisses all who so have a sense of meaning and purpose in life apart from the Christian God. He defends his position by stating that everyone has an emptiness, whether they realize it or not - again, another circular reasoning position.

Johnson takes a similar position with ethics and altruism, that it is not possible to be truly ethical and altruistic without a belief in God. He writes that humans are all born selfish and sinful. This may be in agreement with traditional Christian theology, but recent scientific data offers some contradictory evidence. Throughout the book Johnson repeats steps for engaging the skeptic: examine the data, offer the Christian explanation of the data, evaluate alternate explanations. He would do well to follow his own advice in some of these cases where science offers viable alternate views.

Johnson also suggests that subjective experience is a viable apologetics tool. He argues that the divine and supernatural can only be explained through subjective experience. Where I have a problem is that he then reaches the conclusion that all unexplainable phenomena must be of divine origin. He does not necessarily say so in direct words, but it is implied by his interpretation of the observation that people frequently ascribe unexplainable phenomena to Chance and Luck.

A statement that Johnson makes that really raised questions in my mind was when he writes that he thinks that sexual immorality (and for him this is defines as fornication, adultery, and homosexuality) is the major cause of skepticism today (chapter 13). He suggests that one of the main reasons people reject all kinds of theism is because they really want to live in immorality.

I felt that Johnson started out well in his book. He started out with the ideas that Christians need to listen better, to understand why people have objections to Christianity, before responding. His admission to problems and faults of Christianity is also a good start. But by the end it all seems to fall apart because of the underlying assumption and attitude that the Christian worldview has the answers and that Christians can know and articulate them. It ends up placing the apologist in a position of superiority above everyone who doesn't "know" exactly as she does, and treats everyone else in a patronizing manner, however unintentionally.

Johnson fails to engage the possibility that this very idolization of certainty and answers may be part of the reason why skepticism is increasing. I personally value uncertainty, skepticism, and cynicism. It offers an important counterbalance to unhealthy veneration of certainty and knowledge.

Overall, How to Talk to a Skeptic didn't excite me one way or the other. It has some interesting ideas that are worth thinking about, but for me there were some significant problems with it.

(This review is based on an advance review copy supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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Review: Now You’re Speaking My Language

Now You're Speaking My Language: Honest Communication and Deeper Intimacy for a Stronger MarriageNow You're Speaking My Language: Honest Communication and Deeper Intimacy for a Stronger Marriage by Gary Chapman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Much helpful advice, but marred by a few significant and dangerous flaws.

In Now You're Speaking My Language, when Gary Chapman writes about ways couples can improve their communications skills, there is much helpful and useful advice. And this forms the bulk of the book. However, there is one significant issue (and a few smaller ones) that I came away with that I find troublesome and even dangerous.

Chapman's thesis revolves around the concept of covenant marriage. This is in contrast to a contract marriage. According to Chapman, a contract typically is of a limited period of time, often deals with specific actions, based on "if… then…" mentality, is motivated by desire to get something we want, and it is sometimes unspoken and implicit. On the other hand a covenant is initiated for the benefit of the other person, is unconditional in its promises, based on steadfast love, views commitments as permanent, and requires confrontation and forgiveness.

It is on this last point, "requires confrontation and forgiveness," that I have strong reservations. In my reading of Chapman's words in this book, he raises covenant marriage as an ideal to which every marriage can aspire and reach. He fails to address the realities of some marriages that involve spousal abuse (physical, emotional, spiritual) and domestic violence. Where he does touch on the possibility of abuse, he dismisses it lightly as mainly a communications issue; i.e., he writes that if the abused partner simply confronts her or his partner in an attitude of love and forgiveness, the abusive partner will recognize his or her sin, confess it, and come around to a healthy relationship. This is dangerous and harmful advice. It implicitly places the blame on the victim, making her or him share responsibility for the abuse. For this reason alone, I hesitate to recommend this book.

There are a few other quibbles I had with the book. Where Chapman employs examples of household tasks, nearly in every case the wives are given domestic duties such as cleaning, cooking, and childcare, and the husbands are given yard work and mechanical work. Can he at least mix it up a bit and break the stereotyping?

Chapman never comes around to address the case where one of the partners doesn't want to work with the idea of a covenant marriage. What then? He does not offer any advice.

This book is clearly intended for a certain segment of the Christian audience. Due to its strong basis in covenant theology derived from the Christian Bible, I suspect it will not find much appeal to the non-Christian audience. Because of certain interpretive biases, it will not appeal to many Christians, either.

There is a conspicuous lack of endnotes and references. From this I conclude that much of what Chapman writes is from his own experience. I am not dismissing the validity of his experience, but how applicable is it to the broader population that is not representative of his work? He bases this book on a statistic that 86% of all divorced couples report that "deficient communication" was the primary factor in the divorce. There is not attribution to this statistic. Is it from his practice, or does it come from somewhere else? Is it from a representative sample?

Each chapter ends with questions that the reader is encouraged to answer for himself or herself. This is followed by activities that Chapman encourages each couple to take part in together.

As I stated at the beginning, Chapman offers some very good advice when he is dealing strictly in the areas of communication. If he kept to those things, I could recommend this book. But as I have detailed, although the flaws are few, at least one is too dangerous for me to recommend this book. I don't say a person shouldn't read it, but to be fully aware of the problems and to go through it with a critical mind.

(This review is based on an advance review copy supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Review: When We Were on Fire

When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting OverWhen We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over by Addie Zierman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Balancing devotion and cynicism (both required!)

When preparing charcoal for cooking in an outdoor grill, you can light it by pouring lighter fluid all over it, starting with a flaming inferno (more fluid, more excitement!). Often some pieces are better lit than others. Or you can use a chimney starter and light the charcoal in a "less exciting" fashion but more controlled and even manner. The goal for both methods is to eventually get the coals to a glowing phase, when they're actually useful to cook over. The chimney starter is generally considered the superior method.

The beginning of a Christian life (especially in youth ministry) often resembles the lighter fluid method rather than a chimney starter. Programs and events are designed to get participants excited, "on fire" for God, and pumped up to evangelize the world. But as statistics show to church leaders' dismay, churches are more often shrinking than growing and young people don't "stay in the faith."

In When We Were on Fire, Addie Zierman recounts her faith journey from childhood to motherhood; from an on-fire youth, to a disillusioned young adult, to a wife, mother, and writer who is tentatively rediscovering the joy of faith in Jesus; from the certainty of conservative evangelicalism, to rebellion against it, to living in the tension between devotion and cynicism.

I am about a half-generation ahead of Addie. Which means the specifics of my religious experiences and her experiences aren't exactly the same. But there are familiar themes: rigidness, absolute certainty, keeping rules and maintaining standards, subtle idolization of suffering and persecution, emphasis on overseas missions, emphasis on practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer and bible studies… Like Addie, by the end of college I found myself nearly burnt out from religion. And like Addie with the arrival of my first child, I began my slow, cautious, tentative steps back toward God. And like Addie, I still continue to try to live on the razor's edge between devotion and cynicism.

Like Addie, I went through a period of intense depression and anxiety. That's why for me, chapter 16 was the most powerful in this book. In this chapter Addie opens up to the descent into depression, becoming overwhelmed by it, seeking treatment, and making the slow ascent out of the pit of darkness. This book is worth just this chapter alone. I read a recent statistic that 60% of all Americans believe prayer alone can solve depression. The number is higher for Christians. This chapter is a wakeup call to Christians that prayer alone is usually not enough, that God works his healing through mental health counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

This book is also a memoir about friendships. A handful of individuals make their way into Addie's stories as important parts of her life. Some leave somewhere along the way. Others enter midway. A couple of them stand by her from beginning to end, through all her ups and downs, and through all the changes she has undergone. The relationship of these three was "church" as it was meant to be. "Everything had been changed. But they were still my best friends: Kim. Alissa. They were my deepest community. My church… We didn't talk directly about our faith as much anymore, but it was always there. It was the thing we were really discussing when we asked about one another's lives" (Kindle ed., location 3236).

I recommend this book to all pastors and youth leaders. Yes, it is the story of just one person, but judging from the responses to it, I think it is representative of the many things that can go wrong in teaching, mentoring, and discipling Christians. Addie writes, "… Even the best goals and intentions can be corrupted" (location 3262). What we want is devotion that is sustainable and helpful, not flashy and harmful. Effective ministry does less telling about what is right or wrong, and more about how to evaluate something and whether or not it is true. Effective ministry is less about teaching faith and more about loving people. Effective ministry is less about scheduled services and programs and more about simply getting together to share in one another's lives.

This book will appeal to anyone who has been burned by Christianity. You will find that you are not alone in your struggles. For some it may be just an interesting read with which they can identify and see themselves. For other it may be one of the steps toward healing and recovery from spiritual burnout and/or abuse.

"Cults don't have to be groups necessarily. There is such a thing as a 'cultic relationship.' And it's not about beliefs or values; it's about the method they use to convince you to follow" (location 3079).
This book is Addie's testimony. It's far more than 3-minutes long. It's mostly about the messiness that happens after coming to Christ. And that's why I believe it is so powerful. Too many Christian testimonies seem to be about "How my life was before I accepted Christ, how I came to him, and now things are great." We need more testimonies that say, "I accepted Christ, (my life got worse) and here are my struggles that I am working through with him."

"The future will be a mix of both of these things: the devotion and the cynicism. You have to find a way for them to coexist within you. Let them destroy each other, and your fragile faith may shatter entirely" (location 3334).
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