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    Entries in Book Review (34)

    Wednesday
    Mar052014

    Future Hope, Our Horizons, and Present Holiness :: A Review of Skye Jethani's Futureville

    Our approach to eschatology has changed. Or at least it is shifting. In articles, books, sermons, and conference presentations, I have noticed that the collective future of the human race is a common theme. That future is no longer spoken of, at the popular level, with a strong emphasis on the unfolding of events running parallel to a charted assembly of Bible passages, or within the framework of a pre-, post-, or a-millennial system. Instead, there is general interest in how we move from the garden to the city, how the vision given at the conclusion of the Book of Revelation is realized, how the death and resurrection of Jesus is itself a hinge, and how the present work of Christian people takes shape in light of our future hope. Along the way, some traditional theological constructs are alluded to and set aside as necessary ground-clearing before raising a related, yet unique edifice. Skye Jethani's Futureville: Discover Your Purpose for Today by Reimagining Tomorrow runs along these lines, and is one more contribution to this conversation.

    This is a book about today, how one lives, and the reality that we all live now in light of some vision of the future. Our choices reveal our orientation. This is true for all people. As Jethani writes:

    This book is not about the future. It is about the present. It is about determining what sort of life is truly meaningful. It is about rethinking the way we relate to the world and our purpose within it. How we decide what matters today, however, cannot be separated by what we believe about tomorrow.

    This is good and right. But our orientation toward the future is complicated, the result of factors within and outside our control.

    To illustrate, Jethani begins his analysis with the narrative of his own upbringing, compared to that of his grandparents, showing how his outlook on family, relationships, marriage, career, church, and more have been absorbed. His grandparents were shaped more by the Great Depression. In 1939, people of that generation were given an alternative at the New York World's Fair. For those living today, we need something even more compelling, more robust. Jethani believes Christians already have been given such a vision, "we believe that a meaningful life is one spent participating in what God is doing--God's mission. But the scope of God's mission is defined by what we believe the future looks like, by what will endure. So we cannot begin to define how we should live in this world without exploring what we believe about the world to come."

    Once Jethani has fixed the gaze of his reader upon God's future, and set their orientation toward the fulfillment of all history, he fills in the details. He tells the story of the Bible, from garden to city, and points us toward our hope, named in Revelation and made certain in Christ, as the moment God makes his dwelling place among people. But Jethani also names the alternative narratives, or dangers, that both compete and pull us off track. He names how assumptions we carry with us after the Enlightenment, and secular applications of evolution as an all-encompassing theory, can lead us toward destruction. He names how theological pitfalls, such as the belief that God will evacuate the faithful from this Earth, and discard it as inconsequential, can lead to apathy and disengagement with our neighbors and the created order, which we are called to steward. Jethani treats the Christian doctrines of resurrection and vocation as antidotes that combat the impulse to discard our weaker members or distance ourselves from the world's hurting, and lend dignity to Christians in their present work and calling. His thoughts on order, beauty, and abundance call faithful Christians to work for the common good of all people, to love their communities, to create in ways that point to the Creator, and to share resources with all who have need.

    The final note sounded is that of ultimate hope--Christ. Christ has redeemed the world, and is working within it through his people to set it to right, until the day he comes to bind up wounds, heal the brokenhearted, give judgment on behalf of the poor, reprove the wicked, and establish peace. Until that day, "we pray for the eyes to see the evidence of the garden all around us in the lives and faithfulness of Christ's people and their works, and we seek to cultivate those glimpses for others as we listen to and obey his calling for our lives."

    Futureville is a well told, compelling theological narrative, marked by sound exegesis and clear illustration of theological truth. Jethani is also vulnerable and transparent, open concerning his own journey. Some readers may disagree with his overall framework, or take issue with his presentation of some Christian theological pitfalls. But, overall, I found this book instructive. Christian people are in need of a vision encompassing the need for personal piety and social engagement. We need a vision that inspires us to work for the good of all people--even those who do not believe like us. We need to see Christ as the redeemer of all things, including souls, yet extending to all of creation. We need to see that the world, though fallen, was created by God and named good. We need an imaginative horizon that enables us to conceive where our world might be headed--and we need this horizon to be defined by the gospel of and about Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

    Most of us doubt we have much power to shape or impact the world in a grandiose way. But Jethani's work reminds us that in our careers, families, churches, and communities, every interaction has the latent capacity to bring healing, flourishing, and a future that more keenly resembles the reality Christ will establish as normative at the end of the age. Let us be agents of hope, faithful and true, committed to Christ, and vehicles of his grace.

    Monday
    Dec032012

    Book Review :: Embracing Obscurity by Anonymous

    It isn't often that a book arrives by post penned by an anonymous author. The last time that happened? Well, never. So when I was asked to review Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God's Everything (B&H Books), I was intrigued, for we exist within a Christian subculture in which those who produce media want to be noticed, whether we are wordsmiths (written or spoken), film makers, or musicians. Bloggers are not immune. In fact, in the blogosphere, vainglory reigns supreme. Platform building, audience, click-throughs, exclusive interviews, and "first reviews" take pride of place. Everyone wants to be famous. In this respect, we aren't much different from the world, and I must confess I know these pains firsthand.

    EO begins with a strong declaration of our problem, and a little bit of math. The author writes, "We're intoxicated with a desire to be known, recognized, appreciated, and respected. We crave to be a 'somebody' and do notable things, to achieve our dreams and gain the admiration of others. To be something--anything--other than nothing." Yet, the author notes, on a planet of "Seven billion, twenty five million, four hundred twenty thousand, three hundred ninety," it is difficult to stand out. We are all relatively obscure.

    The author names up-front that remaining anonymous in publication is not a gimmick or a hoax, but is a genuine effort to live in accordance with the primary message of this book: embracing obscurity. Humility and lowliness are supreme values for the author, as well as the intention of deflecting glory to a greater source, God himself. The author writes, "It's about making Him, not ourselves, look good." Yet this is a paradox, one that can be seen in the life of Jesus himself, who in his very life gave glory to God in all things, and in succeeding, was elevated to the highest place.

    Anonymous

    Following a diagnosis of glory-seeking and a declaration of our relative unimportance concerning the broad numerical scope of humanity, EO explores our notions of identity and definition, and our understanding of Jesus as a humble, servant king. EO then expounds a liberating Christian approach to true significance, success, servanthood, and suffering. Lastly, the author examines important concerns such as the mysterious nature of Christian witness, a pastoral admonition for a humble posture if recognition does come, and a brief treatment of our ultimate hope in Christ. Throughout, EO illuminates every point through exposition of the Bible, and remains close to the text.

    The overall structure and primary theme of EO is sound and pastorally helpful. If I may borrow a medical analogy, if the diagnosis is obsessive glory-seeking and idol-worship at the altars of fame, success, financial security, beauty, or countless other false gods, this book has the ability to point to the cure of many ills. Why? Because this book points to God as the source of all we have, the one deserving all our glory, and the fount of all dignity and worth.

    God is great, and we are but bit-players in his grand drama. Granted, that is an overstatement. And perhaps this is where EO exhibits its shortcomings. In an effort to demonstrate just how obscure, how insignificant and how small we are in comparison the largesse of our world, EO whittles us down too far. When John the Baptist was approached by his disciples concerning the crowds that were leaving him and gravitating toward Jesus, he replied, "He must become greater; I must become less." Not nothing, less. And Jesus, by virtue of his "obedience unto death--even death on a cross" was not relegated to the obscure, but was instead lifted to the highest place, as Paul says in Philippians 2. These themes are explored by EO to a degree (Phil. 2 is a key text for Chapter 3), but the implications for us are not drawn out as well as they could've been.

    Human beings have dignity and worth not because of what we do or achieve, but because we are first created in God's image (Gen. 1:27) and are being restored by virtue of Christ's work on the cross (2 Cor. 5:17, amplified by the argument in 2 Cor. 1-4). We are being "made new" by virtue of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and through the power available to us through faith in him. We are, therefore, of inestimable worth.

    We may be obscure in relation to the relative population of the earth, but we are not obscure to the One who really counts (a point made in Chapter 4, "Embracing Significance", but not carried strongly enough throughout). We are being redeemed and remade in to something that exceeds all we dare imagine. Instead of "embracing obscurity," we are called to embrace Christ, in whose eyes we are already famous, not because of anything we have done, but because of what he has done so that we might be made his possession (Hebrews 12:1-2). Embracing Christ leads to a life of humility, of lowliness, of service to others, for we have first been humbled and brought low in our calling to serve Christ the King.

    Humility, hiddenness, full commitment, service to others, secrecy, peace, and contentment are all needed in greater supply for those in Christ. The writer of EO and I are in agreement that those resources are available. This book points a way, and should be read critically and with care. As I said, many admonitions here can be helpful, but need further nuance.

    It may be that my differences with the author of EO boil down to semantics and rhetorical presentation, and are therefore differences of degree, not kind. As a charitable reader, I would like to think so. But in charity, I also must say the points emphasized above were not made strongly nor consistently enough. I believe that "becoming nothing" or "embracing obscurity" are themes that depart from robust thinking on what it means for us to be redeemed and sanctified, and thus are in need of redefinition, or a different scaffolding, if they are to stand.

    This does not mean that another book must be written, but that this book must be complemented by the witness of a community, a group of friends. Pick it up and discuss it with other Christians, and you will profit.

    Sunday
    Nov252012

    Short Book Review :: Grace by Max Lucado

    If you search for a definition of grace using Google, the Christian meaning comes in fourth place, and in fifth. The Christian meaning is outpaced by elegance, courtesy and politeness. What a scandal.

    Grace, as a doctrine, stands at the center of any well developed Christian theology. In an oft-quoted remark, Dallas Willard once said that the saints "burn grace like jet-fuel." Those redeemed in Christ have encountered grace, been embraced by grace, and are empowered by grace. Grace is a word that most fully captures the posture of God towards humankind, evidenced most fully in the person and work of Jesus Christ. To understand grace is to understand the gospel, for the announcement of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection is a message of grace--God giving us more than we deserve, demonstrating more love for us "than we ever dared hope." Christians are saved by grace, and should live by grace. If more did, perhaps, the unmerited favor and love that has typified Christianity's leading lights might sooner come to mind.

    Max Lucado is one pastor who, for many years, has understood grace. His writings and his life have been permeated by the unmerited favor of God, and grace issues from every pore. His latest book, Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine, is exceptional, filled with clear Bible exposition and illuminating pastoral examples. It is an inspirational book, meant to deepen love for God, and bring clarity to an important concept for all Christians.

    Lucado is transparent in this book. He writes of health struggles and family problems with alcoholism. Lucado's broken abstinence from alcohol, and his sudden fixation on taking private drinks in convenience-store parking lots, is the most surprising story of the book. He writes of the respectability of his position as a pastor, the strange desire for alcohol that overtook his life, the confession to other leaders of sin, and the process of forgiveness, accountability, and reconciliation. Lucado understands his need for grace, and this story is but one example.

    Grace concludes with a study guide, helpful for groups or individuals who desire to reflect upon and explore the various Bible stories and illustrations Lucado weaves together to teach of God's love, the character of grace, the way of forgiveness, our release from fear, and our growth as disciples. And if Grace, as a book, does have any drawbacks, it is the relative brevity of Lucado's meditations, accompanied by the study guide, placed together to merit sale as a hardback. I read the heart of the book over the course of one day, and while I enjoyed what was offered, more could have been written.

    For those searching for a good book to discuss with others about the nature and substance of the love of God, Lucado's writings will edify and inspire. Reminders of God's grace are found here in plenty; praise be to God.

    Saturday
    Sep012012

    Short Book Review :: Crafting a Rule of Life by Stephen A. Macchia

    The Christian spiritual life, all too often, appears to be abstract, disjointed, lacking unity and cohesion. All too often, our pursuit of God is segmented from the "everyday, ordinary life," rather than encompassed within it. We regard God as something for "over there", whether "over there" happens to be a Sunday School, a church building, a soup kitchen, or a mission field. We do not think of the realm of the with-God life as being the ordinary, the routine, the normal happenstance that fill our days and hours, which is, in reality, the arena of faithfulness.

    Stephen Macchia, in his book Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way , provides a remedy for this common way of thinking, a counter-narrative for those lost, confused, and lacking direction in how best to follow after Jesus Christ. Borrowing wisdom that spans the work of the Spirit across history and searches out nuggets from various nooks and crannies of the Kingdom, this book will guide you through a step-by-step reflection that, with the help of God, can lead to the development of a comprehensive vision for growth in the Christian spiritual life.

    Here are five valuable benefits I received from this book:

    1. In crafting a rule of life, we must first look closely and carefully at the life God has given us, including our relationships, our gifts, our desires, our personal vision, and our sense of mission or ultimate purpose in life.
    2. "Time, Trust, Temple, Treasure, and Talent" are helpful categories for understanding various arenas for faithfulness to God. We must grow and develop in our spiritual, relational, physical, financial, and missional priorities in order to be good stewards of the time God has given us on earth.
    3. Community is vital for growth in the development of the Christian spiritual life. Macchia has a love and appreciation for the church, which renewed my own love for Christ's body.
    4. In developing a rule, examples of faithfulness can be found throughout history. This diversity is a beautiful evidence of the expansiveness of God's kingdom. Macchia quotes from Adoniram Judson, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Benedict of Nursia, and Phillis Wheatley.
    5. Questions are often more helpful than "how-to". Macchia does a delightful job of guiding the reader through questioning, and the book itself provides space for writing reflections.

    In addition to these five benefits, each chapter includes a biblical exploration that builds a strong foundation for the aspect of crafting a rule Macchia explores. You are never left wondering how this might connect to Scripture.

    We all long for a thriving, vibrant life with God that transcends the ethereal and invades the everyday. This book will help. Pick it up.

    Monday
    Aug132012

    Book Review :: The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield

    I must confess, I do not know much about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But in the past two months I have been asked directly if I have read certain books on Mormon religious belief, and I have had the opportunity to review two of these books directly. In the past year, I have been asked an increased number of questions by teenagers about the LDS Church. Anecdotally, it appears that interest in the Mormon religion is accelerating; this presidential election will likely push that trend.

    For this reason, I'm thankful for Stephen Mansfield's survey, The Mormonizing of America: How the Mormon Religion Became Became a Dominant Force in Politics, Entertainment, and Pop Culture. It isn't often that a book combines masterful storytelling, compelling personal narrative, religious history and academic scholarship in a prosaic style that is propulsive, driving you forward from chapter to chapter, streaking around the corner, anticipating what comes next. But this book was my constant companion, in just this way, for the first 72 hours I had it in my possession. I was eager to read, eager to learn, eager to see what Mr. Mansfield had to report. The LDS Church was, and is, interesting.

    Mansfield's book takes the reader through the history of the LDS Church. We learn of Joseph Smith, his life, times, family background, and cultural setting. We are told of the Golden Plates, their translation, and the unique American elements that contributed to the rise of the LDS movement. Mansfield then provides insight in to the modern LDS family, their beliefs, their communities, and the particularities that have caused them to thrive. Mansfield also investigates the problems modern Mormons face as a religious tradition, such as historical credibility as it relates to The Book of Mormon, LDS speculation on the origins of early American people groups, and tensions that have mounted between the LDS Church and Protestant Christian groups. Also, Mansfield provides an easy to follow Mormon chronology, and a helpful summation of basic Mormon beliefs.

    As someone who loves religious history and good writing, this book was as enjoyable and informative as any other I have read. There is much here for the layperson and the scholar, written with enough simplicity to be comprehended by a broad audience, but enough sophistication to be challenging for someone with an advanced knowledge of the LDS people.

    Very helpful. I recommend this book, strongly.

    NOTE: I received this book in exchange for a review.