Almost Christian

More posts will almost assuredly follow from this book I am currently reading.  After reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s Practicing Passion,   I will read anything Dr. Dean writes. The evening earlier this month I heard she had a new book out, I bought it and started in.

Here’s the thought from Almost Christian I share with you today: “Christ sends us into the world as translations of God’s love.”

Consider yourself, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, a translation of God’s love.  What kind of translation are you?

There are, for example, dozens of translations of the Bible in the English language.  It doesn’t take long with any of them to realize some are more readable than others.

Some Christians spend (or waste) a lot of time arguing over which translation is best, or why some are better or worse than others.  There are even still a considerable number of Christians who claim that the King James Version is the only true translation.

Consider, though, what a translation, not of the bible necessarily, is supposed to do.  A translation is affective if, and only if, it conveys the message from one to the other for whom the message is intended.

If your life is to be lived as a translation of God’s love, is that what your life is communicating to those to whom God’s message is intended?

Book Review: Who Really Goes to Hell: The Gospel You’ve Never Heard

This is the latest in a series of book reviews I do for the Viral Blogger’s Network.  Free books if I will read and review them – yeah, I’m in!

David Rudel’s Who Really Goes to Hell? The Gospel You’ve Never Heard is an interesting read, though I don’t recall that it ever gets around to answering the title question. Don’t let that get you down, however; Rudel offers at least this answer to his question: according to the Bible, it is not as cut-and-dried” as typical American Evangelicals would have us believe.

I found the argumentation and discussion of Rudel’s perspective enticing and adventurous; having also come up with some conservative-evangelicalism of my own, I know how much of a challenge he is up against to re-frame questions as well as scripture.

Here is Rudel’s main point: Jesus doesn’t teach the “modern Gospel” of salvation by faith alone.  His solution, as far as I can figure it, is to differentiate between salvation and judgment.  Salvation is renewing of life available through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Judgment is an accounting at the end of time for what one has done with one’s life.

I found the book provocative but was only able to read it comfortably with an open bible along side.  Most of his citations encouraged me to look at the context.

If you have ever thought the Gospel was as clear as Four Spiritual Laws, this is an excellent book for you to read and wrestle with.

Christmas Treat

I just finished Bruce David Forbes’ Christmas: A Candid History.

Forbes is a religious studies professor at Morningisde College and serves with Rachel (my wife) on the Board of Alternatives for Simple Living.

I found a good, more complete review than I will be offering here. This is a well-written, scholarly yet accessible read about Christmas. I highly recommend it.

The reason I write this today is that I read a letter to the editor in this morning’s Waco Tribune-Herald. Here is one paragraph to give you the idea:

Somewhere along the way during the past century, the central figure of the Christmas season was changed to Santa Claus. The Christmas season became the holiday season, and instead of the expression “merry Christmas,” it has been changed to “happy holidays.”

I want to share this from Forbes’ study.  Christmas as a holiday has never, in the history of humankind, been first and foremost about Jesus.  There is no record of Christmas being observed during the first 3 centuries after Jesus’ birth.

Ever since the fourth century, Christmas observation has risen and fallen, but has, broadly, never had much to do with the celebration of Jesus.  It has always been more about celebration (earlier, this was mostly partying, eating, and drinking, and only relatively recently been about gift-giving).

Lamenting the way society, or anyone else, for that matter, treats Christmas is likely a waste of energy that could better be used elsewhere.  One such better use for this energy might be directed toward the Christ:

  1. Jesus’ birth was God’s way of coming into our world, onto our level, to communicate God’s love for us. What can you and I do over these next two weeks to communicate God’s love to those around us?
  2. Increasing numbers of Christians and non-Christians alike are concerned about the growing commercialism of Christmas.  What can you and I do to spend less and love more this Christmas season?
  3. Instead of arguing with non-Christians about Christian, pagan, and secular history behind various aspects of Christmas celebration, why don’t we practice civility in celebrating how all these various heritages can come together, as they do in the US?

Will God Save Every Person?

I just started into Gulley & Mulholland’s book If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person.  I have to tell you, I’m skeptical.  I have borrowed a copy of this book.  My mother-in-law asked me a couple of months ago what I thought of this book, and then she offered me a copy to read.

This post is less about the topic of this book than it is about my reading habits.  As I said, I am skeptical with the author’s thesis.  Yet I am reading it anyway.  In fact, I am eager to read it. I hope to get pulled and prodded; to have my thinking challenged.

Sometimes I like to read things I fully expect to agree with.  Even in these cases, however, I hope to encounter something that stretches me.

Will God save every person?  I’ll have to get back to you on that one.  I have spent a lot of years thinking that God kept a pretty short list, and that I was always on the clock to get names added to it.  I’ve come, over the years, to expect that the fact that God, not I, is responsible for such a list, and to be thankful for this.

Will God save every person?  I still don’t know, but I know I am going to read this book to get the authors’ perspectives.

Do you read books you do not expect to agree with? Why or why not?

Book Review: Through the River

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Yesterday I found myself thinking I might share this book I’ve just finished with someone. I thought it might help.  I was immediately confused because my first impressions of Through the River weren’t good.

The book is Through the River: Understanding your assumptions about the truth. It is my latest read for review for the Viral Bloggers Network.

The book is about “truth lenses,” Which is a shorthand term Jon and Mindy Hirst use for epistemology.  There are, in River Town (a mythical community metaphor used throughout the book), three truth lenses: Positivist, Instrumentalist, and Critical Realist.  The Hirsts take the reader through the history of Western Philosophy to describe the progression that has brought us these three truth lenses.

The Positivists represent, generally, conservatives and fundamentalists, and the Instrumentalists represent (again, generally) liberals and progressives. Both these truth lenses are described in detail yet are found lacking.

Like anyone who tries to figure out where a story is going before he gets there, I had the positivists and instrumentalists pegged early in the story as positions the authors do not respect very much.  Characters from either of these perspectives are, in the book’s portrayal, hopeless; they are stuck in their epistemology.  It is only the Critical Realists who have hope, life, and healthy relationships.  I was, at points, surprised not to find the Critical Realists described as wearing capes, masks, and tights.

This methodology strikes me as both counterproductive and typical for evangelicals.  Setting up the opposition, or alternative, points of views as straw men, then knocking them down with one’s superior point of view is, truthfully, neither fair nor generous.

But, alas, for a primer on the history of the development of Western Philosophy, the Hirsts are more generous with what is left out than they are with the sadly lacking “truth lenses” they hope to present.

Case in point: the explanation of philosophy in the West jumps from Plato to Copernicus to Einstein, only the first of whom was actually a philosopher.  For the Hirsts, philosophy is a progressive, building development through history. However, their only source for citing Copernicus as a significant player is Thomas Kuhn, who is perhaps best known for his role in dismantling the progressive, building development way of understanding history, philosophy, and science.

So, in other words, Jon and Mindy cite Thomas Kuhn (a philosopher) as their only source on Copernicus (not a philosopher) to support their use of Copernicus as playing a major role in modern philosophy.  In doing so, they show that they don’t understand Kuhn.

What the Hirsts want is for people, especially Christians, I think, to consider two things: first, that though there is objective, real truth, you don’t have a monopoly on it; and second, through communication and community we can all better come to know the truth and life that God offers us.

Book Review: The Diversity Culture

diversityI am finally writing my review of Matthew Raley’s The Diversity Culture for the Viral Bloggers Network.  I received two books at once and freaked briefly over the thought of reading and reviewing both within a month.  I had them both read on a three day vacation I took, but have let this one languish for a couple weeks before reviewing it.

I liked the book, then again, I didn’t.  I have always thought I come from evangelical roots, by Raley and others are convincing me that I was always a mainline person, with fundamentalist, then evangelical affinities.

Raley’s story, flowing out of his own story, is about “healing relationships as a way f showing Jesus Christ to Contemporary America.” (p. 16) Diversity Culture is set in Café Siddhartha, where each one  is several stereotype rolled into one.

Using the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4), Raley makes some interesting and valid points for evangelicals who “have difficulty penetrating this culture’s ways, and seem to feel it was designed to exclude them.”

Raley does a respectable job of trying to draw evangelicals out of their absolute, fact-driven world into the world where everyone else lives – the world of relationships and brokenness and community.  Is this relativism?  “Is it relativistic,” Raley asks, “to hear someone out, or to participate in discussions that may not resolve neatly?”

My hesitation to recommending the book strongly is about what seems to me to lie beneath the surface.  The Diversity Culture reads to me as if Raley is hanging onto the assumptions that the evangelical worldview is the one true and accurate worldview, but that evangelicals ought to loosen their grip on it for the sake of building relationships and thereby bringing others to Christ. This worldview is from the Reformation and its progeny, not from Jesus or the New Testament era. We don’t need another book calling us backward to Calvin, Luther, and Locke.

Overall, it is a good read.  At only 166 pages, it is written well enough to be worth the time it takes you to read it.  Raley raises good questions, and is, I believe, headed in the right direction.

Book Review: A Prayer to Our Father

prayergordonjohnsonA Prayer to our Father by Nehemia Gordon and Keith Johnson was one of my two recent reads for viralbloggers.  I very much enjoyed pouring through this book in a couple of days.

I deeply appreciate that this book is co-authored by a Jew and a Christian. I further appreciate that they acknowledge in the introduction that this is significant.   The camaraderie they share makes the story they tell even more powerful.  The shared respect for each other, for texts, for tradition, for the process, and for the pursuit of Truth is admirable.

Gordon and Johnson devote 6 chapters to their quest to find the most probable location of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7.  I was skeptical that this was off point for discovering meaning in the Avinu Prayer (as they call the Lord’s Prayer, based on the first word of the Hebrew version),  yet I was drawn into this quest along with them, and enjoyed the rich history of the region.  This quest, or the way they narrate it, draws together the 20 centuries that have passed since Jesus walked there.

I read two other books on this prayer earlier this year, for the season of Lent(this one by Willimon and this one by Claiborne & Wilson-Hartgrove). I would place A Prayer to Our Father along side these on matters of information and insight.  I would, however, recommend it ahead of either of these as a single source because of the way they tell the story. This book is worth reading for the experience of having read it.

If you pray the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, the Avinu Prayer, you should read this book.

Lover’s Quarrel with “A Lover’s Quarrel”?

Viral Blogger Book Review no. 2:

Warren Cole Smith’s “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church.”

loversquarrelYou are a backslider! You’re the worst kind of “Christian;” a lukewarm, liberal Christian.  You probably don’t’ even believe in the Bible!

So I can imagine the 18 year old Steve Heyduck saying, were he to meet the 45 year old Steve Heyduck.

I’m not nearly so sure what that 18 year old might have said to Warren Cole Smith after reading this book.

Smith identifies the problem early; on page 4 he states: “The evangelical church has spawned the megachurch. It had become about power buidling, not power sharing. And it certainly was not about power sacrificing.”  But he still identifies himself as evangelical, so continues the book from the perspective of wanting to identify the prolems and issues with the intent of being part of the solution.

Smith’s work is very helpful in identifying a couple of trends within evangelicalism.  First, he charts the history of the modern evangelical movement flowing from the Second Great Awakening rather than the first.  This is significant because the Second Great Awakening was marked much more by emotional experience of conversion than by actual transformation of individuals and then society around them.

Second, I think Smith is dead-on in characterizing much of evangelicalism as caught up in the “Christian-Industrial Complex.” But are there really any coherent arguments out there today that would disagree that the church as a whole, and the evangelical church included, has drunk too deeply from the waters of consumerism and market capitalism?

I have already posted my concern over Smith’s chapter on “the Great Stereopticon.” Let me summarize it this way.  Smith is grieved at the priority given to technology in worship-chiefly the overwhelming move towards the use if electronic image-making in worship.  Smith concludes: “Words-and not pictures, drama, or any other medium-seem to be the preferred strategy fo God, of Jesus, and of scripture.” (p.179)

His problem is that the example he gives of the use of words is Jonathan Edwards – lead theologian of the First Great Awakening.  Edwards is perhaps most famous for “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

This is not the “word” to which Jesus had access, however.  Jesus lived 1500 years before the printing press, Edwards more than a century after. Shane Hipps does a fine job explaining the difference the printing press made in Christendom in his The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture.

To summarize my contention against Smith’s assertion that God’s preferred medium of communication is the word is that the “Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  God’s preferred medium was the Incarnation, not the printed word!

I like Smith’s suggestions for the evangelical church:

  1. focus on church planting rather than mega-church building
  2. regain a perspective on vocation
  3. disciple for depth as opposed to numerical gain.

Read this book.  Engage Smith’s arguments.  The tone is conciliatory and encouraging.

Much as I wonder hypothetical conversations with an earlier, far less mature version of myself, most of my growth has been connected with the milieu that is Smith’s focus; for this connection and history I am grateful.

Word of the Ancestors

loversquarrelI’m reading Warren Cole Smith’s A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, the second book I’ve received for review as a Viral Blogger.

In the chapter I just finished, Smith has critiqued the image-driven, multi-media hungry “stereopticon” tragedy of the modern evangelical church.  He concludes:

…dependence on the great stereopticon and rejection of the “foolishness of preaching” deny the Word of God itself…. When the Word of God is faithfully preached, as in Jonathan Edwards’s day, it bears fruit.”

The point Smith misses is that if we are to be historically accurate to the Biblical tradition, we cannot merely go back to the Reformation fervor aided by the printing press.  To be faithful to the Word of God to which he refers, we would have to go back to the first century, when even the literate had very limited access to reading materials.

The printed word, so prominent in Jonathan Edward’sday, was not at all the same printed word as in Jesus’ time.  Perhaps I’ll learn differently by reading the rest of the book, but thus far I haven’t found Smith recognize that Jesus lived not only before video on demand, but also almost 1500 years before Gutenberg.

Just Read

I read Pete’s newest book, The Orthodox Heretic and other Impossible Tales on the trip home yesterday from Poets, Prophets, Preachers.

orthodox_hereticIt’s a great collection, a fast read, and really, really, good for generating questions and discussion, both within your own soul, and in groups.

Peter Rollins raises the kinds of questions and opens door to discussion that Christians need to ask and be involved in, and that non-Christians would appreciate our being in.

Thanks, Pete!