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    Entries in Book Review (34)

    Monday
    Feb012010

    Brief Book Review :: Dwight J. Friesen's Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks

    In Thy Kingdom Connected: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks Dwight J. Friesen explores the power of networks and the lessons the church can learn from observing and understanding how we are bound together through common relationships.

    This book did possess some strengths, among them a treatment of Trinitarian theology, an invitation to dialogue and an openness to critique, and the important recognition that the Kingdom of God possesses an environmental component that supports an "ecological" approach to leadership.  On this last point, Friesen's chapter on "Network Ecology" was quite good.  Likening the church to a natural ecosystem, Friesen explores how the openness of such systems, the need for diversity, and the necessity of death in such systems lead to overall flourishing.  One of the most powerful metaphors I've found for "Kingdom" among emerging leaders has been this very example.  Once a leader sees oneself as an ecologist or an environmentalist, it changes how one relates and navigates various relationships, casts vision, and clears ground for growth.  Of all the contributions in this book, I think this chapter is the most valuable.

    Most of the reviewers I have read have been positive, and because of this I'll offer a couple of words of critique.  Here are two of my points of contention.

    First, is Friesen's account of networks and their applicability to the church based on a gospel dynamic?  Within the first few sentences in his introduction, Friesen states "Many are wondering why so many churches and denominations are in decline when they are proclaiming the gospel," a statement which, prima facie is easily debatable and, indeed, on this very topic much ink has been spilled (with the rise of computing, when will this idiom change?).  After making such a bold assertion at the outset, I was hoping to hear more about what this gospel might be that is failing to gain a hearing despite its proclamation.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed.  Friesen's articulation of the gospel is undergirded by the claim that in Jesus the fullness of life is found, and that the same fullness that is seen in Jesus can be realized in us.  Friesen states, "This is God's mission: that human beings like you and me would live as fully alive, fully networked human beings."

    That sounds nice.  But it needs more fullness.  More robustness.  And, it needs to be accompanied by the avenue through which such a life can re realized.  In other words, I need to know how to get plugged in to the with-God life.  I need a theology of cross and resurrection, a more detailed account of justification and sanctification.  I need something beyond a definition of life as "the relationship between chaos and order," something like "shalom," an ultimate vision of what a life of peace and reconciliation between human beings and between God might look like at the end of the ages.

    To give him the benefit of the doubt, I would think that Friesen's presentation presupposes that the reconciliation found in Christ brings about the creation of a community wherein humanity can flourish through connection.  As we come to know one another, love one another, serve one another, submit to one another, and live according to a collective vision of what constitutes new creation, the "good news" is imaged forth.  While I find such imagery compelling, as I've already stated, I find presentations like Friesen's as insufficient.  I appreciate that Friesen's "connected community" represents an embodied realization of the gospel.  But I think any such community which embodies the gospel must undergird those claims with a discourse, or a language, that goes beyond practices.  Proclamation and practice go hand in hand.  In that sense, I am "And'ing" two concepts that have often been featured as part of the division between traditional and emerging leaders.  At this point, I suspect Friesen would agree with my sentiment that proclamation or discourse is important, but I think I've made clear that I found his presentation leaning more in the other direction, and if his argument is to be strengthened a clearer and more robust articulation of the gospel is required.

    Secondly, I found that the overall idea--that networks define our life and are pivotal for the realization of the Kingdom--was not supported by consistently strong biblical and anecdotal support.  Concerning the former, like many emerging leaders Friesen relies on narratives from the Bible to illuminate his argument.  Most of these examples seemed supplemental, however, and not foundational for Friesen's account, and this is the root of my concern.  Concerning the latter, Friesen does relay a number of stories about his family, about his experiences as a church planter, and his experiences as a professor at a seminary, and his stories do relate to his central thesis, but do not add much to his argument.  

    Friesen's work here is interesting, though I wouldn't enthusiastically recommend it to friends and fellow church leaders.  I picked up a few tidbits here and there (to cite one example, I enjoyed his insights from Martin Buber's I And Thou), but finished unsatisfied for the reasons given above.  I would've liked to see more theological robustness, a clearer articulation of the gospel, and more practical and concrete examples of how his theory has been embodied by church leaders.  Philosophically, the account was fine, engaging, and compelling.  But to really draw me in, I need to see the theological import and warrant, and how these ideas move beyond our current reality to the transcendent.  I think Friesen's goal is to help us see the Kingdom as an eschatological community of connectedness, but he has to take us from here to there, and in order to do so his account must evidence more from the story of Scripture and historical theology.

    The good news, of course, is that Friesen can do so.  And if he doesn't take up the task, perhaps someone else will.  If so, in the end the church will be better off for it, maybe even more connected.

    Sunday
    Jan242010

    Book Review :: The Search for God and Guinness

    Stephen Mansfield has given us a gift. In The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World, we are told the story behind the world renowned dark stout that changed a city, a nation, and, if the subtitle is indeed true, the world. Beginning with Arthur Guinness, Mansfield relays the history of the family who gave us this famous beer, and shows how their unique character formed and shaped the culture of a company. We find the Guinness family gave much more than a quality product, but blessed their employees with a solid wage, health care opportunities, education, and improved housing. 

    This is an enjoyable book. The history of Guinness is told in clear and concise language, and the portrait of the family in their many and diverse pursuits is compelling. Mansfield tells a full-bodied tale, including stories of those family members finding themselves on the fringe. The Guinness family has had their many successes, but also challenges, and Mansfiled keeps their story both inspirational and accessible. I particularly enjoyed the story of the Guinness family and the influence of their Christian faith, for there you find both how their belief in Jesus served to propel them to goodwill and ground them during hardship. 

    The final chapter of Mansfield's work warrants my only criticism, for there the action tends to slow. The details become a bit more varied, and the narrative becomes more difficult to follow. Because of Guinness's vast diversification and change in the last century, Mansfield had no choice but to trace those developments, but the story told in the final pages was not as enjoyable as the historical portrait of Arthur Guinness and his early descendants that dominated earlier chapters. 

    I don't drink beer. But Mansfield's story made me want to try Guinness. While that is doubtful, I will drink deeply from those valuable lessons the Guinness legacy provides: Honoring God, pursuing one's calling, caring deeply for the other, and having an eye for the long term.

    Thursday
    Jan212010

    The Ancient Practices Series :: Robert Benson's In Constant Prayer

    Do you pray the hours?  I can't say that I do.  But that doesn't mean that I'm not fascinated by the practice itself, believing that the discipline of praying at appointed times and the benefit of reciting well composed, theologically sound, and carefully crafted prayers can immensely further spiritual growth.  I never have given much thought to taking up the practice of praying the hours until I read Robert Benson's In Constant Prayer, another volume in The Ancient Practices Series.  But now I've been challenged to consider it very seriously.

    With delightful prose, Benson describes the daily office.  He plainly tells us about the church's tradition of faithfully praying together, whether gathered or apart, at appointed times and hours.  He tells us how we are able to grow by disciplining ourselves to pray at designated moments, noting the subtle intersection between the daily and the divine.  And all along he adds color to his discussion of how and why we pray the words given to us at a common hour by telling delightful stories from his experiences as a writer, a speaker, and a friend.

    Some of you might be wondering, what is the daily office?  In common usage, praying the daily office simply means to pray at appointed times of day.  In many prayer books, these appointed times are Morning Prayer, Noontime Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline Prayer (Bed-time).  These prayers normally take a certain shape, beginning with a call to prayer, followed by a psalm of invitation (such as Psalm 95 or Psalm 121).  This is then followed by a collect, or gathering prayer.  Then a canticle, or a hymn of praise is read, then an appointed psalm or psalms.  Then there is the reading of Scripture, followed by a response, then the prayers of the people, confessions of sin, and finally a blessing to bring this time to a close.

    Some of you may be thinking that this would take forever.  Benson notes that it normally doesn't take that long at all.  In fact, he's found it only takes about 12 minutes.  That isn't that long to pause, read Scripture, and be in God's presence.

    Benson's book provides many more details about the daily office that are illuminating.  He also notes a number of resources that can help one establish this pattern of prayer in one's life.

    How has this book impacted my own spiritual journey?  First, I have a deeper understanding of the daily office, and how might one go about taking up that practice.  Second, I have taken up a copy of The Book of Common Prayer and have used it from time to time to guide my prayer life.  And thirdly, I've been challenged as a writer.  Benson is delightful to read.  Of the books I've read on spiritual practices as of late, this one has been the best.

    Wednesday
    Jan202010

    The Ancient Practices Series :: Scot McKnight's Fasting

    Spiritual disciplines?  The formation of souls?  Training exercises?  In recent years there seems to have been a surge in emphasis on ancient practices and their role in Christ-like growth, and I believe this is a good thing.  

    I recently wrapped up Scot McKnight's Fasting, a volume in Thomas Nelson's Ancient Practices Series.  I'll share a few brief thoughts about the book.

    First, and perhaps most importantly, McKnight challenges the common presupposition that fasting is about obtaining results, and instead offers that the Bible and the Christian tradition teaches us rather that fasting is a natural, inevitable response to a grievous sacred moment.  We do not fast to obtain something, but we fast in order to bring our bodies into contact with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He describes fasting as a movement from (A) the grievous sacred moment (death, sin, fear, threats, needs, sickness) to (B) fasting, and then finally to (C) response (life, forgiveness, safety, hope, answers, health).  But again and again, through the book, McKnight offers his readers the constant reminder that fasting is not about what some will receive in choosing to fast, as though we could control God through the exercise of discipline, but that fasting is a healthy, human expression of embodied spirituality that properly orients us toward the Divine when we are faced with hardship.

    McKnight's book is filled with numerous biblical and historical examples of how fasting has been utilized and understood.  McKnight identifies how fasting is a proper response to sinfulness, is a helpful expression of solidarity with the poor and oppressed, commonly undertaken to express grief, and can be utilized to discipline the body.  He warns against some of the common errors that can occur when one fasts, including hypocrisy, legalism, and meritoriousness.  He also directly addresses some of the health related questions and concerns that surround fasting.

    As someone who is trying to further develop an understanding of Christian spiritual disciplines both in order to teach and more faithfully practice, McKnight's book provided many helpful insights.  I'd say it is worth checking out.

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