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    Entries in Book Review (34)

    Tuesday
    Jul192011

    Book Review :: Sarah Sentilles' Breaking Up With God

    Sarah Sentilles’ memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, is an honest, forthright, and forceful account of one woman’s spiritual journey.  Sentilles chronicles her beginnings in the Catholic church, attending worship and being discipled as the daughter of a Catholic father and displaced Episcopalian mother, who taught her how to question and doubt.  Very early, Sentilles had questions that did not find satisfying answers, whether it be in her conversations with a priest, a family member, or a Sunday school teacher.  As she continued to grow and mature, Sentilles struggled with an eating disorder.  Her quest to find acceptance before god is placed alongside her difficulties in accepting herself--her perception of her own body was always lacking in some way.  As she learned self care and self acceptance, overcoming her temptations to starve her own body, she moved on to college at Yale.  While in school, she faced another type of abuse, this time at the hands of a boyfriend she calls “Canada.”  Sentilles willingness to explore this element of her past is admirable.  After first seeking self acceptance through thinness, Sentilles then seeks to establish her identity in her dating relationships; a strategy that also leads to self destruction.

    After her time at Yale, Sentilles enters the Teach for America program, eventually landing in Los Angeles.  She did so to appear brave and generous, another attempt to earn acceptance of others and of god.  After this admission, she identifies herself in a short prayer as a “doer of good deeds.”  It is no longer thinness or a relationship that will be the basis of her acceptance of self, for now it is career.  And what she finds in Los Angeles is disturbing--the system she has benefited from is incredibly unjust, and there are young people in our inner cities who are deprived of even the opportunity to succeed.  During this time in her life, Sentilles discovers a church that feeds her soul, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena.  She discovers art and writing and her own capacity for creativity. She also discovers a calling while at All Saints, explores a vocation as an Episcopal priest, and eventually leaves the west coast for Harvard Divinity School.  Her decision to pursue this vocation affirmed her sense of self.  Sentilles writes, “I wore my self on the outside, dressing it up for people to see and admire.  Saying, I’m going to be a priest was part of this costume, a badge, a mask.  Just being me wasn’t enough.  I needed props.”

    Sentilles time at Harvard Divinity School was formative, for in that context she was exposed to people of other religions or no religion, other sexualities, and other theological and philosophical perspectives.  During this time she did not attend church, but she did think, study, live and breath god every day.  Through Gordan Kaufman and other mentors, Sentilles began to discover her own theological method, and her beliefs about god began to solidify.  During this period, Sentilles began to see that religion was a tool to confront injustice.  It is something we create for our own purposes.  There is no revelation; there is no truth.  The task of theology, according to Sentilles, is to craft a narrative, or a world, wherein we can confront “injustice and environmental degradation and poverty and racism and sexism and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.”  In response to these problems, Sentilles says, “I can create a version of God that can respond to this.”  This leads to some strange assertions, such as “If you admit your understanding of God is a construction, then you won’t be willing to kill anyone over it.”  My response is simply, “Says who?”

    After Harvard Divinity, Sentilles moved to the local church, finding a position at a church just outside Boston where she would continue to pursue her vocation while aware that her sense of calling was fading.  But she needed a job. And others expected her to be a priest.  She moved in to the role, working with the church youth group, preaching inflammatory sermons, and becoming annoyed by the day to day operations of ministry.  Sentilles found that people didn’t want to talk about God.  They only wanted to be part of a group.  She says, “God was almost incidental to the whole enterprise, background noise.”  Distressed by the lack of god-talk in the congregation, Sentilles returns to the doctoral program at Harvard Divinity.

    Sentilles continues telling her story, moving from the death of a close friend, Charlie, who died young of stomach cancer.  She stops praying.  She becomes increasingly disillusioned by the church, and drops out of the discernment process.  She finds love with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity named Eric.  She is disgusted by what has taken place at Abu Ghraib prison, and becomes determined to write her dissertation on the photographs that emerged from that place of oppression.  She discovers more ethical eating practices, in part through the witness of Eric.  She moves to Idaho.  She and Eric marry.  She moves from belief in god to saying, “This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us." 

    Sentilles is the hero of her own story.  She admits as much, noting the moment in her own life when she began to view herself as the protagonist in her narrative.  This is significant for many reasons, but, considering this memoir primarily concerns the progressive unfolding of her understanding of and relationship to the divine, this admission marks a profound shift.  No longer does Sentilles look to something transcendent, or rely on some concept of Providence.  

    Sentilles looks to herself as the arbiter of morality, of purpose, and of truth.  She determines what is right and what is wrong, notably with regard to food related ethics and sexuality.  She asserts what can and cannot be known about god, suggesting that god is a useful construction, and, that if god exists at all, we cannot know what that god is like.  Any description of god we offer is something for which we must be held accountable, for none of us can speak for god.  Revelation does not exist.  Therefore, we only speak for ourselves.  Anyone who claims to speak a word from god, or on behalf of god, only does so in an effort to increase and leverage their own power.  Yet, employing such Foucauldian tactics not only serves to disarm those in power, but establishes a form of power of its own.  The oppressed become the new oppressors, as those who are able to recognize social constructions elevate themselves to a position where they, and they alone, are able to identity, establish, and create reality.

    There is a great irony throughout Sentilles’ memoir that she does not seem to recognize, that being, she decries the version of dogmatism she perceives that is present in much of modern Christianity yet, in its place, she produces a dogmatism of her own.  As someone who has jettisoned her idea of god, she replaces that concept with a god of her own making.  Jesus is a revolutionary and a political activist, not a cosmic Savior or Redeeming sacrifice.  Sentilles, too, is a revolutionary and a political activist, thus, the way of salvation is not rooted in the historical reality of the cross, but is accomplished through the denouncing of oppressive government policies and those who vocally oppose the legitimization of same-sex relationships (among other causes).  The God of her upbringing was male, demanding of human submission, and a stern judge, expecting his children (foremost here is Sentilles) to earn his acceptance through obedience to his divine commands or through expressions of righteousness.  Sentilles is a feminist, a libertine, and, ironically, a stern judge, expecting her fellow human beings to live in accordance with her standards, and therefore earning her acceptance and approval.  In order to avoid being called a bigot, you must be righteous as Sentilles is righteous.  “You must be holy, because I, the Lord, am holy.”  Not everything about the god of her childhood, it seems, was worthy of leaving behind.

    I happen to think that Sentilles' memoir is gripping and engaging.  I did spend a day with it, reading every page, every word, wrestling with her a/theological assertions, sympathizing with her journey, and identifying with her rage toward the Christian church that often appears to stand for one thing yet do another.  I appreciated, quite deeply, her engagement with highly intelligent and important scholars of theology and religion and philosophy.  She is more knowledgeable in such areas than many pastors, which I admit with some sadness.  I also think that Sentilles is honest during a time where there is much duplicity, both overt and covert.  There are many who are afraid to voice their own doubts and struggles for fear of being rejected, and thus the intellectual and emotional concerns that plague us are never brought in to the light to be faced down, dealt with, and moved past.

    In that respect, I can recommend this book.  But as a guide, I cannot recommend Sentilles.  I believe her ideas about god are quite wrong, and her characterizations of both the church, theology, the Bible, conservatives of all stripes, epistemology, method, and more should not be followed.  This, of course, is my informed opinion, one that is worthy of vigorous debate.  The ideas I have just listed are no small matter.  They are the stuff of life.  Just as Sentilles has the right to assert her own thoughts, and to justify those through argumentation, so too do those who disagree with her, yet, for Christians that might read her story and find her too bombastic or abrasive, it should be remembered that the Bible that Sentilles deconstructs commands us to provide an answer for what is believed with “gentleness and respect.”

    Tuesday
    Dec282010

    Book Review :: Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey (The Ancient Practices Series)

    Pilgrimage is a concept seldom reflected upon within modern Christian discourse, particularly for Western, evangelical, Protestant types, which represents myself and countless readers of this weblog.  With all the emphasis on journey as a metaphor for the life of faith, there isn't much of a charge for us to go anywhere.  Rather, we are told that following Jesus should result in a transformation of the heart that can be chronicled much like a choose-your-own-stay-at-home adventure, even if the setting and backdrop remain static, and the only challenges that emerge are those common to life in suburbia.  The mountains to traverse, the trails to walk, the streams to observe, and the dark monsters we face reside only in our imagination.  Wilderness wanderings, like those of the ancient Hebrews, are things we read about in the travelogue that is our Bible, not the stuff of our lived experience.

    Though rarely addressed, pilgrimage is no less important.  That is why Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey is such an insightful and helpful read.  Foster describes the practice of the transformative movement from here to there.  He invokes the importance within the Christian tradition of sacred, or thin, places, places wherein we pray or experience God more poignantly, more precisely, and that there is value in physically visiting a site possessing a history, a place imbued with spiritual significance long before we arrived on the scene that is likely to endure long after we have gone.  His book testifies powerfully to the physicality of our existence, the embodiment of our faith, and the deep connections that exist between earthly and heavenly realities.

    The final installment in The Ancient Practices Series, Foster's contribution stands above a number of the other volumes for quality of prose and readability.  It is a blessing to read a volume that delights, and this is one.  However, there were elements I found contentious; for example, if I were to sit down with Foster, I would debate with him at length God's preference for the pilgrim and disdain for those who settle.  I would point out that cities themselves serve a purpose in God's economy, and while God may do much formative work in the wilderness, refining the character of a people, God also establishes a land wherein cities might spring up, serving the purposes of government, justice, and oversight for those who reside within God's community.  Cities are places wherein culture is developed and produced, either for God's glory or for the denigration of the human race.  Cities are places where God can work just as mightily for the transformation of a people as God can in the rough and tumble of the wilderness.

    In addition to my critique of Foster's claim that God hates the city (with the exception of one reversal at the conclusion of Revelation), I also found myself unsettled by the frequent invocation of the writings and insights of other religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in his account of the pilgrimage.  While I agree with Foster that there are numerous parallels between Christian and other conceptions of the value and purpose of the journey for the life of faith, I questioned why Foster could not put those accounts aside for the sake of constructing a distinctly Christian account of formation by way of the pilgrimage.  This is an overall critique of the series, not only of Foster.  With the exception of Scot McKnight's volume on fasting, many of the works in The Ancient Practices Series made certain to demonstrate that none of these practices are exclusively Christian.  However, unlike McKnight, other contributors to the Series did not make a strong enough case for the difference practicing these disciplines or exercises (biblically, theologically, or otherwise) makes when observed in a particularly Christian way.  There was not enough done to establish what difference these practices make for the Christian in distinction from the "spiritual person."  This does not mean that I did not find the work done by Foster and others to be of value.  However, it does mean that I thought that these volumes could have offered an even greater value to the Christian community, and, thus, I think that a greater opportunity may have been lost.

    I'd recommend reading The Sacred Journey.  Even when placing my critiques aside, Foster's writings made me want to go somewhere, and wherever it was that I would be going, my desire was to go there with Jesus.

    DISCLAIMER: I received this book as a participant in the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze program, meaning, I got it for free in exchange for a review. If I love the book, I will say so. If I hate it, I will say so. Free is nice. But programs like this give books away for free to generate conversation, and I'm glad to help generate some buzz.

    Tuesday
    Aug102010

    Book Review :: Beyond Opinion by Ravi Zacharias (et al.)

    I have great appreciation for those in the Christian community who endeavor to provide reasonable arguments for Christianity.  Ravi Zacharias has long served as one of those people, and his book Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend is yet another resource Christian people can utilize to better understand and discuss Christian convictions.  I am thankful for this book.

    My interest in apologetics has surprised me.  Why?  Likely because my experience as a Christian has included few instances where intellectual arguments have been deployed successfully to remove barriers to Christian faith.  This does not mean that there have not been occasions where well reasoned arguments have proved useful.  But on the whole, other factors have been at play when seeing someone come to faith.

    However, as my life has progressed I have found an increasing need to present not only an existential reason for embracing Christianity but also an intellectually satisfying account of why Christianity might be true.  The Christian tradition does possess answers to life's greatest questions.  As I read Beyond Opinion, I found myself evaluating this resource on the basis of several criteria.  Are the essays convincing?  Are the arguments sound?  Can I anticipate the direction the author will take, and can I provide reasonable counterarguments?  Do I think that this essay, as it is written, could be helpful to a Christian person or leader seeking to make an intelligible case for Christian faith?  And, lastly, do the arguments presented apply narrowly to a specific context, or do they lead the conversation partners on to stable ground upon which understanding can be achieved regardless of economic, political, theological, or cultural location?  I'm looking for resources that can equip the reader to serve as a gentle, mature, and sophisticated apologist for the Christian faith.  And while this will require that the reader be formed as a person of Christian character before picking up this book, it is my desire to find and recommend resources that will help reinforce such formation, rather than understanding the task of apologetics as serving the ultimate goal of "winning" or "defeating" someone with an opposing viewpoint.

    Zacharias and his team meet these criteria.  The essays in this collection address specific concerns stemming from postmodern and youth culture, engage challenges presented by the problem of evil, atheism, Islam, and science, and provides an approach to apologetics that stresses conversation, genuine care for the dialogue partner, and philosophical and cultural sophistication that takes in to account context and world view.  In the final section of this book, Zacharias and his team also provide theological underpinnings for apologetics, including a robust view of the Trinity, as well as encouragement for those that endure doubt, persecution, and spiritual struggle while seeking to provide a truthful witness to Christ.  The book concludes with an essay from Zacharias on the role of the church in apologetics, which may have been my favorite.  I appreciate that Zacharias believes the church should not only be a place of emotional satisfaction, encouragement, and healing, but should be a center of intellectual vibrancy in matters of both doctrine and thinking rightly about the world.

    While I do believe this is an excellent resource, and one that touches a number of important and critical issues for apologetics, I did find one significant shortcoming.  In my lifetime I have spent a great deal of time working with children and youth, and while Zacharias and his team present arguments that proceed from sound logic, I wondered from time to time if the approach taken here would adequately connect with those of the upcoming generation.  I sense a need among those in younger generations for not only sound, water tight arguments to life's greatest questions, but also a sense of how those answers can help one to script a life that is adventuresome and true to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In other words, I think the essays could be strengthened by presenting answers in ways that inspire the imagination and ignite possibilities for the future.  That may have been beyond the scope of Zacharias's project, however, moving forward I believe there will be a great need for approaches to apologetics that not only provides answers, but that inspires action.

    I'd recommend this book for the clarity of prose, the diversity of topics that are addressed, and the simple reason that I've encountered few collections that are better.  More work needs to be done in this area, but this book is a solid start.

    DISCLAIMER: I received this book as a participant in the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze program, meaning, I got it for free in exchange for a review. If I love the book, I will say so. If I hate it, I will say so. Free is nice. But programs like this give books away for free to generate conversation, and I'm glad to help generate some buzz.

    Wednesday
    Jun302010

    True. But Wait... :: Book Review: Andrew Farley's The Naked Gospel

    Andrew Farley wants all to know that the good news is that Jesus has accomplished all things necessary for salvation.  You don't have to evangelize one more person to assure your standing with God.  You don't have to be consistent in prayer or Bible study, church attendance, or other religious activities to secure your eternal destiny.  You simply have to trust Jesus.

    Farley is a recovering legalist, someone who added a great deal to the simplicity of the gospel in order to prove his keep to the God that supposedly loves him.  In a story that has been told repeatedly with many small variations, during his high school years Farley was a popular, intelligent, athletic, and attractive young man who seemed to have everything going for him.  Yet, by his own recollection, all of those successes provided him with little sense of security, for he felt that in his spiritual life he was nothing but a failure.  He always felt as though he wasn't doing enough.  It wasn't until he discovered the heart of the gospel, a stripped down account of Christianity, "an intravenous shot that wasn't poisoned with religiosity," that he experienced freedom in Christ.  He discovered grace.

    The beauty and simplicity of this book is compelling.  Jesus plus nothing.  Those words are featured on the jacket, are prominent throughout the argument, and are the clear implication of Farley's presentation of the New Testament message.  In essence, those three words sum up the book from beginning to end.  And though many Christian preachers may betray that message with their actual presentation of what constitutes the Christian life, on the surface I believe that most in Christian circles would agree with Farley's message.  The question then becomes how Farley makes the case.  Is his argument convincing; his logic sound?  Is his exegesis true to the text on all occasions, or does he prooftext his argument?  In the words of Scripture, does Farley "rightly divide the word of truth?"

    In this regard, I submit that he does not.  It isn't that I disagree with the gospel of grace, or the magnitude of such a claim.  I disagree with Farley's use of the texts that underly his argument.  I disagree with Farley's assessment of "supercessionism" and his claim that he is most definitely not guilty of suggesting that his argument leads to such a conclusion.  I disagree with Farley's suggestion that the gospel of grace is as rare as he claims it is in Christian proclamation, and that the church today is wrought through with a rampant form of legalism that suffocates, misleads, and binds most Christians today to various forms of inaction, guilt, and works-righteousness.  I think that Farley's own testimony, which includes transparent accounts of his own struggles with guilt-ridden perfectionism and a need to prove his worth to God, is overextended in its application to most of Christendom.  Farley projects his story, in my opinion, too broadly.  And while there will be others in Christendom who resonate and identify with his testimony, I think the reality on the ground is much more complex.  His diagnosis of the malaise the church exhibits is too simplistic, focusing on one symptom of a much larger disease.

    In addition, throughout The Naked Gospel I found myself faced with eisegesis and straw-men arguments.  For example, very early in the book, Farley presents his readers with a quiz intended to expose forms of legalism that have been adopted in contemporary church practice.  The quiz itself is a farce, reducing such important ideas as repentance, confession, the Old covenant, Christian anthropology and sin, judgment, tithing, God's wrath, and imputed righteousness to simple statements, and then brushing them aside by saying that all of these things are forms of "religiosity" that the gospel has abolished.  Later, Farley tells a story of his encounter at a pastor's training event, and recounts an argument concerning the relevance of the Ten Commandments to those under the New Covenant with a group of other pastors.  In sum, Farley wins the argument by saying that because the pastors with whom he spoke said Sabbath observance was no longer mandatory, neither does the remainder of the Ten Commandments have any binding force for Christians today.  Farley lacks a sophisticated account of the relationship between the Old and New covenants.  As for eisegesis, I do not care to recount places where I would contend that Farley's interpretation of Scripture is problematic, but from my recollection my most serious concerns stemmed from his handling of Galatians, as well as his handling of Romans 7.

    I trust that Andrew Farley is a wonderful person.  He has a significant ministry in the city of Lubbock, and serves on the faculty of Texas Tech University.  He has a TV program that is an extension of his ministry as Pastor of Ecclesia: Church Without Religion.  He has a family, and I'm certain he is a loving person.  Though it is difficult to separate any assessment of a work with the person who created it, I believe I must state boldly that my review is not meant as a personal attack on Andrew Farley.  Yet I strongly disagree with his theology.  I found this book lacking in so many ways.  I found the biblical evidence lacking and even myopic, with too much focus on Hebrews and too little attention to how that book fits with the full scope of the canon.  I found the personal anecdotes tiresome, and overly sentimental.  I found the theology undergirding the doctrine of sanctification far too weak.  I also found his historical account of the early development of Christianity hollow, full of two-dimensional caricatures that opposed the "Jesus plus nothing" message, clinging to "religion," as though those who opposed early Christianity were a cast of cranks firmly committed to keeping the rules.  I think this is poor historiography, and therefore poor evangelical theology, which seeks to understand the texts as they were intended for their original audience.

    I am seldom this harsh when it comes to book reviews.  Most of what I choose to feature on my blog are works that I thoroughly enjoy.  But this book provides a sterling example of the trouble with much of contemporary theology.  This book is shallow, simplistic, at times theologically absurd, extremely selective in the application of the Bible, terribly neglectful of the significance of the Old Testament and Jesus's relationship to and significance for Israel, and, most regrettably, anemic concerning how Christians are sanctified by the work of Christ through his cross and resurrection.  For all of these reasons, I do not recommend this book.  Read something else.  There are plenty of other works that have developed a better account of the "Jesus plus nothing message."

    Thursday
    Jun242010

    Laying Brick :: Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir, by Stanley Hauerwas

    It is no secret that I am a "fan" of Stanley Hauerwas, the famous theologian who is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School.  I've read enough Hauerwas to know that he desires neither my fandom, nor the fame that has produced "fans" like myself.  He desires that I follow Jesus Christ, and that I hold to Christian convictions because they are true.  He desires that the church would live in a way that gives a truthful witness to the Lordship of the One whose love moves the sun and the stars.  His theology is wrought through with a passion for honest speech, an embodied faith, a commitment to Christian nonviolence, a love for story, and an indebtedness to the friendships that God has gifted him during his life.  He is a man who has experienced a lifelong "lover's quarrel" with the Church, yet his commitment to that love is unfailing.  His memoir reflects all of these themes.

    I've never read a book quite like Hannah's Child.  Perhaps this is because I have not read many memoirs.  Yet I found Hannah's Child delightful.  Hauerwas tells his story in compelling, clear language, and I found this book a joy because it provides a context within which to place Hauerwas's theological writings.  It is indeed true that Hauerwas has come a "long way" from his beginnings in Pleasant Grove, Texas.  But when Hauerwas's thought is placed within the frame of  his stories of family, upbringing, bricklaying, and church, books like Community of Character and Resident Aliens, to name two of my favorites, suddenly take on a more robust shape.

    As for the contents, you'll find Hauerwas's story from his humble beginnings, to his growth as a thinker at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, on to Yale Divinity School, and then forward to Yale Graduate School, earning his Ph.D.  He tells of his first marriage to his wife, Anne, who suffered from mental illness.  And he reflects on his friendship with his son, Adam, whom he considers a great blessing.  He tells of his progression from Augustana College to Notre Dame, then on to Duke, and how through the years his thought was influenced by the thought of Barth, Yoder, and Bonhoeffer, to name three theologians he mentions.  Along the way he tells of various friendships he established and enjoyed, as well as his growth as a teacher.  His telling of his relationship with Paula Gilbert, their marriage, and their involvement in the life of Duke Divinity School.  Perhaps most interestingly is Paula's influence on Hauerwas in suggesting that he should make prayer a part of his classroom experience at the Divinity School, a development Hauerwas is deeply thankful for.

    This memoir is enjoyable reading, particularly for those who are familiar with Hauerwas's theological writings.  Who knew that the life of a theologian could be so interesting?