Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: Atlas of the Bible by Carl G. Rasmussen

I have always loved maps. Remember the game "Are we there yet?" as a kid? Yeah, that was my favorite game until the day I discovered I could add all the little red numbers between the cities on my parents' atlas together and find out exactly how long till we were there.

So when I got the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible by Carl Rasmussen in the mail I was like a kid in a candy store. And this isn't your grandma's Bible Atlas either. The multidimensional and three-dimensional maps add a new layer to the context of many biblical accounts. My personal favorites are the maps that detail some of the Old Testament battles; the three-dimensional maps give a new understanding of how the terrain may have played a role.

However, this is not merely an atlas. Fully half of this book is text in addition to the maps, chronological charts, full-color photos and graphics. All considered, this book is a solid Bible history book in and of itself. Some of the pictures are more relevant and helpful than others, but the whole book is so beautifully put together one can hardly blame them for including some vivid imagery of the Middle East countryside.

I foresee this book being indispensable in the near future as Redeemer Church is planning to work through the Pentateuch together in nine weeks for a series we're calling the Old Testament Challenge.

Rating: Five of five stars

Recommended for: Anyone wanting to study the history of their Bible deeper; all cartophiles

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Finding Your Unicorn of Love

I was listening to a sermon by Matt Chandler awhile back where he mentioned something about the typical young person dating mentality that says, "I'm looking for that one person out there whom I can really love to be spouse. The one person God made for me who suits me perfectly." And so on. Like trying to find a unicorn: there's one out there somewhere. You just have to find it and tame it. But no other animal will do in the mean time. Chandler says it's bogus, then says something great about his wife, Lauren: "You know how I know that Lauren is the one for me? Because I'm married to her." Exactly. Commitment is the key, not chemistry.

There are a thousand ways I could take a post like this, but the best is probably to point you to a hilarious and spot-on critique of that mentality by an Australian musical comedian named Tim Minchin. Let me note up front: while this video has no objectionable content, if you start following the links at the end of it you'll discover that most of his other stuff does.

In any case, enjoy Tim Minchin's "If I Didn't Have You".

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sermon on Jonah 3 & 4: Part 1, The Forgiven People

After being puked up on the shore near Nineveh, Jonah finally obeys God in this dreaded assignment—dreaded because Assyria is a growing superpower in the middle east that is threatening the the norther border of Israel. Dreaded because Jonah cannot imagine how this will end in his favor: either the Ninevites reject his message and kill him or they receive his message and repent.

The one consolation left for Jonah is small. His message isn't one of repentance, only judgment. His only recorded words to the Ninevites is "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

Yet the Ninevites seem to come to all the right conclusions: fasting, sackcloth, dust and ashes, calling urgently on God, and giving up evil ways. No infant sacrifices or self-mutilation which was common in many pagan practices. We see universal conviction on the part of the Ninevites. The king issues a royal decree of repentance and mourning, but the text points out that the people already "believed God" and were in the process of fasting and mourning before he said a thing. This is nothing short of the hand of God on the hearts of the people.

Biblical scholars seem to be divided about whether the Ninevites truly repented and were saved in the book of Jonah, but the argument is strong that they were for three reasons:
  1. In verse 3:5 it says they "believed" (NIV) or even that they "believed in" (NAS) God. This is the same phraseology used describing the faith that Abraham had that was reckoned to him as righteousness.
  2. Obviously their repentance was of the substance that God had compassion on them and relented.
  3. Jesus seemed to consider their repentance to be of note: "Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here." Matthew 12:38-41
Though God destroyed Nineveh just a few generations later (as chronicled in the book of Nahum), this does not rule out the true repentance and turning of heart by an earlier generation.

In summary, the Ninevites:
Respond with belief toward a God who was not a god of Assyria.
Respond with humility toward a prophet who was not a prophet of power.
Respond with repentance to a message that was not a message of repentance.

Why is this relevant? Because centuries later, one came to the Jews who was a prophet of power, who was from the God of the Jews, and with a message of repentance. And the result? The Jews rebelled and killed that prophet. And Jesus knew this would be their response. When he told the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham said to the rich man "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Luke 16:31)

What do we see through the repentance and salvation of the Ninevites? First, we see that the God of the Old Testament was not just a God of wrath, judgment and jealousy. God was a God of mercy and forgiveness. Above and beyond that, He loved, sought, and saved those outside of the covenant of Israel. Certainly this was not his normal operating procedure, but God demonstrates here (as Paul delineates later) that salvation has always been a gift from God for Jews and Gentiles alike, through faith, and not from ourselves, not by works so that no one may boast.
Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me." But of Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people."
- Rom. 10:20,21 ESV
This post is the first in the three-part series of excerpts from a sermon delivered at Redeemer Church in Omaha, NE on July 25th, 2010.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Notes from the study

"Religion tempts us to become more concerned with our pride-laced denial and self-exalting piety than with bringing delight to our heavenly Father, who takes pleasure in our pleasure—pleasure won at an inconceivably high cost . . . He delights in watching us enjoy what he has made, which is why we can so openly embrace pleasure. Even when he asks us to deny something because we have misused it, he acts out of a parental commitment of love and concern."
-Gary Thomas, Pure Pleasure (2009, Zondervan)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rounding the Bases

You just gotta love Fred Sanders, don't you? I swear, if you don't subscribe to Scriptorium, you're crazy. There really aren't many bloggers out there that for whom I feel the need to read every post, but when you read pieces like this one (actually a re-post) on Charles Simeon, well, you just have to read them all.

I can't remember if I ever mentioned that Glen Smallman moved his blog to hiddennessofblog.com, but if I didn't, well, now you know. I love Glen's blog- it's eclectic in all the right ways. Glen doesn't post as constantly as some, so I suppose it's the kind of blog that is best consumed via RSS.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Lebron Never Owed Cleveland Anything

Granting that this is a very non-Christians in Context topic, judging from last night's ESPN ratings, I thought that there might be a few others interested in the topic of Lebron James' signing with the Miami Heat over his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. So I wrote this post for the sports blog my brother and I have, Brothers Who Like Sports, and figured I would pass it on to you as well. I suppose at heart is a reflection on the nature of being a sports fan, which is relevant to many of us.

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Sports has a strange, even creepy hold on the emotional lives of fans. Every time a professional sports team wins or loses a championship and a city riots in response, we are reminded that thousands of people can only be classified as "adults" because of their age.

And now, as I read the emails from Cleveland fans in Bill Simmons' column today, more adults remind of that same truth.

Remember this, fans: your value in the eyes of professional sports teams at every level of the organization is exclusively found in your wallet. Even Dan Gilbert's raging anti-Lebron open letter, for all its talk of loyalty, can only be seen as a plea to get fans to the Lebron-less arena next year. The Cavs need some way to attract fans (I suspect Mo Williams and Antwan Jamison cannot do that on their own...) if they want to keep making money. So it was in Gilbert's best interest to reach out to the ire of a city full of people whose hearts are too tied to their failing sports teams and say, "We'll show him..." The subtext is obvious: "...and you can watch us show him by buying your season tickets to watch your hometown sub-.500 Cleveland Cavaliers."

Oh, I have my sports loyalties. I am a Dodger fan and I probably always will be. But if a homegrown talent ups and plays somewhere else, I will not for one second think, "How could you turn your back on Los Angeles?"

Because here is the reality: Lebron did not choose where to be born. He did not choose where to be drafted. He did not choose which players he could play with for the last 7 years (debatable, I know, but you get my point). So he doesn't owe Cleveland anything. It isn't like Cleveland had to stick with him through thick and thin. Allen Iverson went to watch him play in high school because he was already that good. No one ever doubted his abilities, so he didn't need a city's loyalty. He was going to have the loyalty of the fans in whatever city he played in. It just so happens that he was born in the city where he ended up playing.

The Cleveland Cavaliers had no right to keep Lebron James. Lebron James had no moral obligation to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Time to grow up folks: athletes want to win and businessmen want to make money. That's what pro sports are about.

The real problem in all of this is not with Lebron signing somewhere else. The real problem, as I mentioned yesterday, is that he went out of his way to grab an hour of prime time t.v. to do it. The right move, the non-totally-self-aggrandizing move, would have been to do what, well, every other free agent in the history of professional sports has done: go to a meeting with the general manager and your agent, sign the paper, then hold a press conference afterward. For all of the foolishness of the fans, Lebron has come off as needlessly egotistical and classless. All to promote his brand- as if that needed any more promotion.

The good that could come out of this would be for adult fans to take the lesson to heart that their heroes are in it to make money and win, not to play for fans. Realize that you are a source of income for a business and boosting for an ego. Then go and reasonably enjoy superior athleticism. Because that is all there is to being a fan.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

July Theme: Everything

Well, we took a shot.

In the beginning of June I mentioned that we would be trying out a new idea on CiC: themed months. June's theme was the cross, and we did pretty well, I'd say, at focusing on that topic.

Problem is, it didn't spark posts on our side or discussion on yours like we hoped it might. So while, admittedly, the CiC team hasn't officially put the moratorium on themed months in our own discussion, it probably won't be happening again in the near future.

For at least this writer, the idea of themed months made sense because I figured that it might get me going with new material. But the fact of the matter is that the only times I have run out of material have been when I have been lazy. If I'm up on my reading (whether that is my Bible, books, blogs, magazines, etc.) and my work as a pastor, then I've got stuff to write about. If not, then I've got nothing to say.

So for the time being, unless we get a sudden outcry of, "We loved themed months!!!!" from our readers (and yes, we'll need the extra exclamation points for it to count), then I'd say the idea was indeed a failed experiment. Which is fine enough.

Just figured I'd let you know.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What Does it Really Mean to Pray without Ceasing?

Just ask John Wesley, who wrote:
    For indeed [Methodists]* pray without ceasing. Not that they are always in the house of prayer; though they neglect no opportunity of being there. Neither are they always on their knees, although they often are, or on their face, before the Lord their God. Nor yet are they always crying aloud to God, for many times 'the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.' Their heart is ever lifted up to God, at all times and in all places. In this they are never hindered, much less interrupted, by any person or thing. In retirement or in all their thoughts; they walk with God continually, having the loving eye of their minds still fixed upon him, and everywhere seeing him that is invisible.
*By "Methodists", Wesley means that group of Christians who met in small groups to commit themselves to disciplined piety. John and Charles Wesley founded these groups in England and got the name from outsiders. Sadly, quite a few of the churches by that name now do not exemplify this kind of thinking.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Review: Wired For Intimacy by William M. Struthers

I felt compelled to write my review for this book immediately after Anatomy of the Soul because both are dealing with the areas of neuroscience, Christian spirituality and moral transformation. William M. Struthers is also a neuroscientist and his theoretical research is in the area of neuroethics, the biological bases of spirituality and personhood, and the nature of integration of psychology.

According to the latest numbers I've seen, 53% of Christian men consume pornography and 37% of pastors say it's currently a struggle (stats from xxxchurch.com). Clearly, according to the numbers, it is a much bigger problem than is being talked about, and being a pastor of a church virtually guarantees that I (and many of our readers) will deal with someone in the cross-section sooner or later. Thus William Struthers has done the entire believing body a service in writing Wired For Intimacy: How pornography hijacks the male brain.

Perhaps the most interesting and helpful information Struthers provides is on the fact that pornography acts on the male brain much like drugs (such as cocaine and heroin) do. Both cause the body to release dopamine and, with repeated use, the body develops a tolerance and needs greater stimulation to get the same dopamine high (thus the law of diminishing returns is equally true of pornography). Just as a path in the forest becomes wider and more defined as more hikers use it, so do the neural pathways with repeated pornography use until, as Struthers puts it, one has created "a neurological superhighway where a man's mental life is over-sexualized and narrowed . . . they become the automatic pathway through which interactions with women are routed".

Struthers, however, resists the temptation to color pornography use in particular and sin in general as simply a problem of the mind. He writes a book that plays to his strengths, but balances his expertise with the proper biblical picture of sin and temptation. While this book is not for everyone (obviously the subject matter is explicit), given the stats cited earlier, I cannot recommend this book enough for every Christian male, especially those in ministry.

Recommended for: Christian men; especially pastors and counselors

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Monday, July 5, 2010

Book Review: Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson, M.D.

The balance between the body and the soul—the material and immaterial—has been a perennial tension for Christianity, all the way back to the early Christians in dealing with Gnosticism. In Anatomy of the Soul, Curt Thompson is treading the same waters. However, the subtitle is a more accurate description of the book: "Surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships".

The strengths of this book are not a surprise. As a psychiatrist, Thompson shares many accounts from his counseling sessions and shows how changing how we think about certain things—or don't think about them—can change the way we live. I imagine those who might benefit from a counseling session would benefit equally from reading this book.

There are weaknesses present however. Thompson seems to overemphasize the area of neuroscience—the brain and the mind—when speaking of of the Christian life. Chapter after chapter seems to present the Christian's lack of spiritual growth as primarily knowledge-based. Sin, fallenness and human depravity are often put in the context of problems of the mind rather than the heart and then whole person.

While this book may be helpful for some, I feel the author treads dangerous waters in portraying the Christian life as one of simply overcoming misinformation with right information.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Those seeking Christian counseling

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