Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review: Evil and the Justce of God by N.T. Wright

In Evil and the Justice of God, N.T. Wright enters the conversation of the problem and origin of evil traditionally dominated by the philosophers. However, by offering a fresh—and, at times, unorthodox—approach, Wright brings an offering that makes a reasonable contribution to the conversation.

Wright doesn't seem to approach anything head-on, which is at the same time this book's greatest strength and greatest weakness. He seems often to talk around the subject, but in this way he does cover material that doesn't always get included in the traditional conversation. In this way, the train of thought does go somewhere, even if it feels meandering at times, and the journey is often worthwhile.

On occasion the vagueness can be distracting and even confusing. While he believes evil is a very real thing, it is unclear whether Wright believes the Devil (or "the satan" with a lower-case "s" as he says) or demons are real beings. Not that this idea is integral to the understanding of either the problem or the origin of evil, but as often as "the satan" comes up, it is confusing in such impersonal terms.

InterVarsity Press was kind enough to send me the new Special Edition of the book that includes the DVD on the back cover simply entitled Evil. While the DVD is a good supplement to the book and certainly an excellent tool for a small group discussion, I am glad it accompanies the book because it moves through the material too quickly to standing alone.

In both the book and DVD, the main solution to the problem of evil offered is this: "Forgiveness, then—including God's forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of one another and our forgiveness even of ourselves—is a central part of the deliverance of evil". While this conclusion may be incomplete as a full answer, this was never what Wright set out to accomplish in the first place.

In the end, while Evil and the Justice of God may be less intellectually satisfying than it's more philosophical/theological counterparts, it is at times more existentially satisfying. Wright succeeds in joining the conversation and covering territory that has largely gone unexplored.

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Animated Parables: "I Love Elvis" and "Wild Thing"

Back in March of last year I pointed out a great video called "The Sea Parable" that addresses the church's failure to stay focused on our mission to the lost.  If you never watched it, do yourself a favor and go do so now.

Well, today I came across two more videos made by ilovepinatas (check out their website for more), the same folks who animated "The Sea Parable." I thank God that there are folks who can create such thoughtful, poignant, well-produced media.  Hopefully you'll enjoy these two as much as I did.

I Love Elvis

Wild Thing

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book Review: When a Nation Forgets God by Erwin W. Lutzer

This book was not always an easy one to read. I imagine it was an even harder one to write. But when your subject matter details the parallels between the political and social climates of Nazi Germany and modern-day America—and when you bring up hot button topics like abortion, censorship, homosexuality and hate speech—author and reader alike would do well to not expect an easy ride. Though I didn't agree with every comparison, Erwin Lutzer made some poignant insights in When a Nation Forgets God.

As Lutzer explains, "Nazism did not arise in a vacuum. There were cultural streams that made it possible for this ideology to emerge and gain a wide acceptance by the popular culture." In particular, it was disturbing to read how inept the majority of the church was during the rise of Nazism. While this is a short book, he deals with some heavy material as the chapters headings suggest:
  1. When God Is Separated from Government, Judgment Follows
  2. It's Always the Economy
  3. That Which Is Legal Might Also Be Evil
  4. Propaganda Can Change a Nation
  5. Parents—Not the State—Are Responsible for a Child's Training
  6. Ordinary Heroes Can Make a Difference
  7. We Must Exalt the Cross in the Gathering Darkness
At times I felt he pressed his comparisons too far, but he was close enough to the mark often enough that the ideas must be dealt with whether one agrees with his conclusions or not. This book would not be one I would loan to my non-Christian friends, but every Christian should read and pray that our hearts would be softened and our spines would be strengthened.

This book was a free review copy provided by Moody Publishers.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Evalutating the Charismatic Movement in its 50th Year

My Father is an insider in the charismatic movement.  He originally became a Christian in the Jesus movement and has pastored Vineyard churches for over 20 years.  This experience on top of his general intelligence and godliness combine to make him a credible voice for his last two blog posts, "What Now, Charismatics?" and, more to the point of this post, "Charismatic Boons and Busts", where he evaluates, as the title suggests, the good and the bad of the charismatic movement.

By way of summary, he offers the following mirrored commendations and critiques:
  1. Boon: More focus, both theological and practical, on the person and work of the Holy Spirit; Bust: A lot of bad theology of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Boon: An outburst in compassion ministry; Bust: Personality cults.
  3. Boon: An increase in "lay ministry"; Bust: The "Prophetic Movement", where certain people are always prophesying/projecting "the next big thing".
  4. Boon: Worship music; Bust: Worship music.
I am quite in agreement with these points, but I thought it may be worth offering a few others.  I do not have  my Dad's charismatic credentials, but I was raised in the Vineyard and still consider myself a charismatic, so know that this all comes from one who is generally in agreement with the basic premises of the movement.

Boon: Emphasis on the place of emotions and experience in the life of a Christian.

Christianity is more than mental assent to a series of beliefs.  We believe that the central glory of salvation is that Christians can actually know God in Christ.  Charismatic churches work this assumed truth into their meetings more fluidly and regularly than any other churches I have been to without exception.  This experience includes emotional overflow, which charismatics are glad for.  And why shouldn't they be?  If God is really with us- if we can really know Him- then shouldn't we expect that we will feel our responses deeply?

I wonder, by the way, if this explains the recent convergence of charismatics and Reformed types (e.g. Piper, Mahaney, Storms).  The theological approach to Christian living popularized most recently and widely by Piper in Desiring God (wherein Christians glorify God by enjoying Him) really does go hand in hand with the charismatic emphasis on experiencing God.  It has been a fruitful combination for at least this Reformed charismatic.

Bust: The steadfast refusal to validate the importance of the life of the mind in Christian living.

In my experience, the best, most serious Bible teachers and thinkers have not been charismatics.  By contrast, charismatics seem to wrap up experience of God so much in emotions that intellectual response is generally considered "less spiritual".  It is as if folks are saying, "Why bother with all your heady theology when I can feel God here and now?"  The result has been much of the bad worship songs, bad preaching, and shallow practice that many consider synonymous with charismaticism.  There are exceptions, of course (e.g. Wayne Grudem and Gordon Fee), but in my experience, most charismatics would rather sing "In the Secret" than "Before the Throne of God Above".  And the lay people themselves are normally not to blame: it is the leaders who have not trained their churches to be thoughtful who are at fault.

I am glad for the indications that this tide is turning.  The Vineyard, for example, has created "The Society of Vineyard Scholars", which held its inaugural theological conference this year.  Also, the aforementioned convergence of charismaticism with Reformed theology will hopefully have positive effects on all of this.  In any case, this is one of the largest oversights in charismaticism at large.

Boon: The recovery of the priesthood of all believers.

OK, I'm cheating here because my Dad already mentioned something quite like this.  But I really am convinced that nothing can do more to get everyday Christians ministering than emphasizing that spiritual gifts are for everyone.  Most evangelical worship services have basically two people doing the talking/leading: the pastor who is preaching and the worship pastor.  This communicates week in and week out that these are the only ones who really minister.  But they are not.  When my old Vineyard church allowed space every week for any believer in the congregation to prophesy, read Scripture, give words of knowledge, pray for others, or ask for prayer, it was clear that every Christian could and should minister.  I love this about the charismatic movement.

Bust: Charismatic excess and bad theology of spiritual gifts.

Nothing has done more to turn people off from charismaticism than the excess of charismatics.  The steadfast refusal of charismatics to heed the clear teachings of 1 Cor. 12 & 14 consistently flabbergasts me.  Why- I beg you, charismatic leaders, why- why do you allow people to speak in tongues publicly without interpreting?  Why will you not weigh prophecy against the Bible more rigorously?  Why do you push people down when you want to pray for them to heal them?  Charismatic gatherings have so much that is patently unbiblical (even if it really is the Holy Spirit who is at work!) that I cannot blame many for their skepticism.

Right in line with this is the influx of garbage teaching about the nature and practice of spiritual gifts themselves.  The "spiritual gifts test" in all its ugly forms is the clearest example of this, but it goes beyond that.  CiC has posted plenty on this issue in the past (go here and follow the links), so I'll leave it at that.  Charismatics are not the only ones to blame, but of course, they have propagated it with the most vigor.

I should close by reiterating that I love the Vineyard movement in particular (I am a charismatic, yes, but I am no Pentecostal).  I am glad to see when it flourishes, and I pray that it only will more.  And for those who are not cessationists but who are also not charismatics, may I ask why not?  If the "charismatic" gifts are still for the church today, who are you not quenching the Spirit when you do not pursue them intently?

Update: My Dad added another "boons and busts" post with four more.  Check it out.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Notes from my Bible study

This is the first in more years than I'm willing to admit that I am reading through a Through the Bible in a Year plan. I think I avoid those plans because there are certain parts of Scripture that should be read multiple times throughout the year, and I am less likely to do so if I have my whole reading for the year mapped out. But this was a challenge Pastor Lee put forth for the whole church, and so I and my wife decided to participate as well.

So yesterday I was reading through Leviticus (not one of those "multiple times throughout the year" books) and I came to chapters 4 and 5. These two chapters cover the sacrificial processes for those sins committed unintentionally or unknowingly. But as I read these chapters and tried to put myself in the mindset of an Old Testament Jew, a sense of futility began to creep in.

"If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, they are guilty. When they become aware of the sin they committed, the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering and present it before the Tent of Meeting." Leviticus 4:13,14

"If a member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands, he is guilty. When he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring as his offering for the sin he committed a female goat without defect." Leviticus 4:27,28

"Or if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean—whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the groundeven though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty." Leviticus 5:2

If a person sins and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands, even though he does not know it, he is guilty and will be held responsible." Leviticus 5:17

Now I don't know about you, but when I read this I am glad I was not an Old Testament Jew. I imagine I would go broke making "just in case" sacrifices for all the sins I may have committed unaware (kind of like the extra salvation prayers I made as a kid to make sure I was covered, and those didn't cost me a goat or a ram). But as I read this, the point was really driven home that one could not just have confidence in your system of sacrifices. There were still too many holes. Salvation still had to come by faith in the God who would see imperfect sacrifices by imperfect persons as faith and hope in the One who was to come and fulfill the law. Perfect the system.

Or as Paul put it:
"Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." Romans 3:20

"However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness." Romans 4:5

I pray this dropped home for more than a few Old Testament Jews, as Paul says it did for Abraham and David. (Rom. 4)

Salvation is not in the law for we cannot keep it perfectly.

Salvation is not in the sacrifices we make at the altar for we cannot sacrifice perfectly.

Salvation is only in God, who justifies the wicked and credits faith as righteousness.

Salvation is only in the Messiah, the perfect High Priest, the perfect sacrifice, the perfect fulfillment of the law.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saturdays with C. S. Lewis - Why People Try to Be Good

Some Saturday C. S. Lewis" was introduced and explained here.  The following quote is from Mere Christianity

The Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or — if they think there is not — at least they hope to deserve approval from good men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Call to Holiness In My Own Personal Sanctification

Whatever thing I have denied my selfish desires, Christ denied more to condescend in human likeness and perfect humility.

Whatever temptation I have had to overcome, Christ overcame more on my behalf that he might present a perfect substitute for me before God.

Whatever pain I have endured—whether physical or emotional—in denying the longings of my body and mind, Christ endured more under the just wrath of God on the cross in my place.

Whatever loneliness I feel (imagine: the pathetic loneliness of one who is a temple of the Holy Spirit and a child of God), Christ felt more when the Father turned his back on him because of my sin.

Christ has made a way. He has given me his Spirit. Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.

So grow up. Be a man. After all, "you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin" (Heb. 12:4).

For a deeper treatment, read The Mortification of Sin by John Owen.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Smoking CCM Radio Unfiltered

I should stop listening to Christian radio (the music, not the talk). I tune in to sing to some familiar music or maybe even find a good worship song to use in church that I haven't heard before, and instead I wind up getting mad. If I'm alone in the car, I am literally yelling at the radio. I'm fairly certain, if people have seen me as they drive by, they consider calling the authorities (or the white wagon with the bars on the windows).

Now this is a partial exaggeration (though I am embarrassed at the portion that is not). But I have, on more than one occasion, come home from work to rant to my wife about what I heard on the radio. At this point, if anyone is a diehard CCM fan, you may want to stop reading before I challenge one of your sacred cows.

It all started when, during a promo between songs, a chipper, female voice said "I like listening to K____ because I don't have to worry about what I'm going to hear". Now I try to give "Christian culture" the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the motives behind our entertainment and marketing, but I could not get this line out of my head. I try to give the benefit of the doubt, but all I hear is "When I turn this station on, I turn my brain off and just set to automatic intake". This flies in the face of the model we have in the Bereans who were commended in the book of Acts for "examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so".

I am making such a big stink for this reason (hear thesis statement): I would suggest that listening to mainstream radio with your guard up and your worldview filter on is safer than listening to Christian radio with your guard down. Subtle, bad theology is more dangerous to unsuspecting Christians than is blatant bad theology.

I don't walk into a Christian bookstore assuming that everything that I read therein will be biblically faithful and theologically true. Yet my impression is (and the radio spot would further suggest) that many people turn on the radio assuming that very thing. Let me give you just two examples of the subtle bad theology I'm talking about by citing two songs currently getting lots of play on the radio.

Brandon Heath has a song ready-made for the lighting of the unity candle at your next wedding in "Love Never Fails", borrowing heavily from 1 Corinthians 13. My gripe however, is that the song never mentions God or Jesus and contains the line "Love is the way, the truth, the life". Now I know, being generous in artistic freedom and theology, one could make an argument for that lyric. However we live in a culture where people already make the one to one assumption that "God is love" is equal to "love is God". This lyric, in my estimation, is at best a shaky artistic blending of theological ideas and at worst more fodder for the fires of "all we need is love, love is all we need". Far too many people already believe that love is the way, the truth, the life. Just watch any romantic comedy in the theaters today, love is their functional savior.

I have a similar complaint of my second example. Kutless is owning the airwaves with their song "What Faith Can Do", but the song never once answers "Faith in whom?" Indeed, at multiple points where they could have given the object of the faith, they seem to make faith itself or even the person with the faith as the key component:

"You think it's more than you can take, but you're stronger than you know"

"You will find your way, if you keep believing"

"When the world says you can't, it'll tell you that you can"

I want to give these artists and songwriters the benefit of the doubt, I really do. Kutless and other bands like them carried me through my teenage years and played a vital role in my brief musical career after college. I confess that I am probably overly critical and more than a little biased being a songwriter myself. I know that scrutinizing every line of these songs as I am doing comes across as bitter jealousy from one who failed to "make it" in a Christian rock band. One will say that, in the artists' defense, these songs should be heard in the context of the entire album. The problem is that CCM radio pulls them out of that context.

Where's the line between artistic freedom and good theology? The line between being faithful to a rhyming pattern and being faithful to the Bible? The line between writing a song that is catchy and subversive enough that it might just influence mainstream culture and writing a song that's just a spiritual sell-out? Does being artistically free excuse one from being theologically careful? And would the Bereans ever say we "don't have to worry about what I'm going to hear"? I don't have the answers to any of these questions, but they do reflect my concerns.

For those with itching fingers, gear your responses towards these two issues: the theology in Christian music and our seemingly unfiltered intake of it.

I know this is coming across as more critical than I intend. I still love Christian music, still partially make my living at it, and will definitely not stop listening to the radio any time soon. I know I am holding most CCM artists and writers to a higher theological standard than they are intending (when they write and record) or expecting (when we listen). I am not making judgments about their hearts, in fact I have the highest of respect for many in the industry. I believe Christian music stands to make a bigger impact in many lives than any book or preacher ever will. This is precisely why my concern for the theology in the music remains.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Book Review: A Million Miles In a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

I had my first Donald Miller experience in early 2009 with Blue Like Jazz (I know, I know, a little behind the curve, Jared). I loved the narrative-style theology that was described as "non-religious thoughts about Christian spirituality". There was enough depth and orthodoxy that I could loan the book to my mom, but not so much that I couldn't loan it to my coworkers.

The same could not be said of Searching For God Knows What and Through Painted Deserts. While the narrative was still there, the theology and simple, deep humanity was markedly absent. And while the story-telling was good, it was not strong enough to carry the books alone. So I ended 2009 one for three in the Donald Miller book category and looking for redemption.

And I found that redemption in A Million Miles In a Thousand Years. The book takes shape as Miller is approached to make a movie out of his stories in Blue Like Jazz. So as they try to craft the slightly disjointed chapters into a more linear story arc for a movie, Don begins to see the life he has lived in the common elements of storytelling.

While Miller's primary point seems to be that we should stop being mere observers and start taking steps to write a story worth living, I was struck with other thoughts that he perhaps did not intend. Like the fact that a steady, faithful life is as good a story (if not so glamorous) as a bike ride across America or hiking the Inca ruins. Or that our stories are written for us as much as they are written by us.

Don't expect the same theological depth as Blue Like Jazz. I have a sneaking suspicion that Donald Miller would feel like that was cheating, like he was using the same angle. But A Million Miles is a satisfying offering and a worthy shelfmate by Donald's first opus.

This book was a free review copy generously provided by Thomas Nelson.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Existence = Freedom? Discuss.

Every Christmas in the UK we have a highly publicised competition for the Christmas Number One (equivalent to the Billboard Number One). The winners have traditionally been saccharine but perfectly pleasant. Then a couple of years ago along came Simon Cowell and his tedious creation 'The X-Factor', which has changed British music into a vacuous talent contest, the final of which coincides with the Christmas charts. The unwritten rule was that to win 'The X-Factor' you would be assured the Christmas number one. That changed in 2009.

A Facebook group was established which recruited hundreds of thousands of people to buy ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against The Machine. It was designed as a protest against the manner in which the marketing men actually ruled the charts and who better to carry that message than RATM? The movement was branded as cynical and pathetic by Cowell, who egocentrically viewed it as an attack on himself and appealed to the nation’s heartstrings that to be Christmas number one had been his stable boy’s dream forever and a day. RATM won and it was declared a massive triumph for freedom – a great moral victory had been won against the man. Then it turns out the real winner was Sony Music who own both artists which made me wonder what is freedom? Does it exist?

Clearly I won’t answer this question given the Copenhagan’s protestor’s nightmare that is the great swathes of trees culled for the answer but some thoughts have entered my head recently. Neuroscience is rapidly approaching the deterministic conclusion-du-jour that that there is no such thing as free will or choice. Our neurophysiological mechanisms determine our actions and behaviours in a long causal chain of which we have no control. Now this is a very broad stroke and I hope to be able to get into this subject a bit more in the future, but the triumphal harrumph from some parts of neuroscience is “Forget freedom. There is no such thing.”

Logically this does make sense: freedom as we know it is limited and therefore no freedom at all – please stay with me on this one! The issue these statements raise is that of ontological freedom – what does it mean to be an entirely free being, absent from any constraint? We are part of creation, yet we are limited by it. We cannot perform any action we choose as we are limited by the laws of nature. Think about it on the most fundamental level: we did not choose to be, that decision was made for us! Even the very nature of creation is limited: it relied on something outside of itself for its existence. Now this is not an appeal to God, this is fact. Dennett speaks of how the universe existed in a half-existent-half-not state prior to the big bang ignoring the fact that matter either exists or does not (from 'Breaking the Spell' quoted from 'The Future of Atheism' page 75); cosmologists offer multiverse’s and never-ending sequences of expansion and contraction. Either way the universe does not seem to exist as an ontologically free substance and because of this it imputes its rules to us we therefore are not free either.

Ontological freedom requires therefore a being that exists outside creation, one who is free from contingency. God is such a being. He exists eternally and entirely free, choosing to create or to not. He is not limited by nature and demonstrates true freedom in His love: His love gives rise to Creation and of course mercy through Christ. True ontological freedom may therefore be found in God’s love – through Christ – which we may share. The interesting practical point that comes from this is that to love other Christians as God and Christ do is to transcend nature itself. So perhaps existence does not equal freedom, but God and His love does: freedom from our created selves and the sin that brings. Ever see Christian brothers and sisters as key to our ontological freedom? Nor did I.