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    Entries in IVP (7)

    Saturday
    Jun072014

    Book Review :: Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero

    The clenching line in St. Paul’s great meditation in 1 Corinthians 13 is this: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Faith, hope, and love are determinative virtues for those who choose them as guides. But even beyond our choice to live according to these virtues is their inherent gifted-ness. Faith, hope, and love can be our possession because God has offered them to us as gifts, made accessible through the Son.

    Helen Cepero wants us to choose the path of love, faith, and hope. Her inversion of the virtues is intentional, for she recognizes that faith and hope are made possible through  love, “the greatest of these.” In Christ-Shaped Character: Choosing Love, Faith and Hope (IVP Formatio, 2014), she outlines a vision of discipleship to Christ that is narrative shaped and grounded in practice. Her writing is personal and welcoming in tone.

    The book has a three-fold structure, identified in the subtitle. Underneath the heading of love, Cepero tells the reader of our status in Christ as God’s beloved, the practice of hospitality, and the challenge of forgiveness. In her section on faith, she focuses attention on our greatest desires, and how every true desires finds its satisfaction in discipleship to Jesus. She also explores vulnerability as a vital posture for the disciple, and the need for sustained commitment if one is to move toward holiness. Lastly, Cepero expounds on hope through the practices of watching for God, assuming an anticipatory posture of infinite possibility, and using improvisation as a means to learn how to trust God.

    Each chapter begins with a story, develops a central theme, identifies an application, and recommends a practice. In her chapter on vulnerability, Cepero tells of her terrifying experience of nearly losing her son to sudden illness. After handing her child over to an emergency medical personnel, Cepero recounts her uncertainty, anxiety, and guilt. Surprisingly, she was met with grace. She had to be vulnerable in handing over her child, who recovered, and she had to be vulnerable in telling her story.

    Through this story, Cepero explains how the willingness to be vulnerable allows us to release our fears and enter an unexpected grace, whether from a neighbor or from God. In order to help us personalize this truth, Cepero introduces the practice of surrendering prayer, where we turn our desires and worries over to God, release them, and then choose to embrace a deeper faith.

    Cepero’s story is representative of what I take to be the journey of many Christians. She has sought to faithfully follow after Jesus, but not without struggle. She has matured throughout the years, and been amazed by the work of the Holy Spirit in ordinary moments. She has grown more compassionate towards those on the margins, and worked for justice. Her narrative approach, which I expect many readers will embrace, is this book’s greatest strength.

    But perhaps the strength of this book may also be its weakness. In her final chapter, Cepero writes, “Perhaps you reach the end of this book disappointed there is no road map, no prescriptive path, no global positioning system for guidance to a destination. Instead, there are only stories—my story, your story, the world’s story.” Some readers will reach this conclusion.

    However, Cepero also notes, “All of our stories are meant to be lived in the larger story of God’s love in Jesus Christ.” Among the many things that this means is that our stories are not our own, nor is our story’s resolution. Our world is addicted to self-help literature and quick solutions to our problems. Cepero refuses to assume it is her role or responsibility to set us straight and “fix us up good, ” as is said in my neighborhood. Instead, she offers her friendship, a cure to our ills that does not always lead directly to the dissolution of our problems, but instead provides us with companions to bear the load.

    Some books are doctrinaire in theological focus, others determined to exposit an array of biblical texts. I think there is a place for those kinds of books. But there is also a place for Christians to tell their story, and to do so within the context of their working theologies and understandings of the biblical narrative. Cepero’s work is that kind of book. She offers her life and understandings, and invites others to follow Christ alongside her, experiencing the kind of transformation and change that he can bring. It is not always linear or clear, but it is certain and good. And the path we are invited to travel is not only well trodden by those who have come before us, but is meant to be shared by those now with us.

    That is the invitation. Walk the path.

    Tuesday
    Feb192013

    Book Review :: Hess and Arnold's The Life of the Body

    James William McClendon, in volume one of his Systematic Theology, observes that a certain "biblical materialism" is essential for the formation of ethics. God is the creator of all organic matter, including our bodies. The church, as the people of God, is a bodily fellowship--the body of Christ. Therefore, determining how we are to live, and why, is predicated on certain assumptions regarding our physical nature and constitution in the world.

    Knowing this, Valerie Hess and Lane M. Arnold focus on the body in their book, The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation (Renovare Resources) (IVP Books; Formatio). Hess and Arnold explore the intersection of Christian spiritual formation and physical health, carefully examining the interrelationship between body and soul.

    First, they reflect on the significance of the incarnation, asking what it meant, and now means, that Jesus has a body. Second, they consider the bodily nature of the church, noting the implications for communal life and for the individuals who together comprise the whole.

    Next, Hess and Arnold guide the reader to reflect on just how we offer our worship to God with our bodies. We take steps to enter a worship space. We behold the beauty of the created order with our eyes. We feel water on our skin in baptism. We "taste and see that the Lord" is good as we celebrate the Lord's Meal. We move our tongues to sing and pray to God. We listen to the Word of God proclaimed in Scripture. We use our hands to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Engagement with God is a physical reality, not only a mental or ethereal phenomenon.

    The incarnation, church, and worship of God are the soil from which the remainder of the book flowers forth. Hess and Arnold help the reader to envision a balanced life, and what that means for diet, food choices, and exercise. The authors examine cultural messages about the body and warn against dangerous extremes. They also consider illness, bodily deterioration, suffering, and dying, and what those experiences signify for discipleship. Additionally, they turn an eye to the future and help us consider what we are teaching the next generation, and how we might care for the created order as part of a life well lived in the body.

    The basic message of The Life of the Body is better self-care--a better diet, exercise, sleep, enjoying the created order, and glorifying God in our bodies--which leads to better care for others and for God's good world. Hess and Arnold structure that message in a way that is easy to comprehend and understand. Much of what they say is intuitive, stating truths that most of us have considered but not applied. Most of us know, for instance, that food served at potluck dinners is not always healthy, or that the cultural messages about the body we are saturated with are often idolatrous. Nevertheless, these reminders are helpful, and the practical instruction in this book is notable not because of its profundity, but its simplicity.

    Hess and Arnold are right to argue that care of the body is absolutely essential for spiritual formation and Christian ethics. Life in the Kingdom of Jesus entails placing all things under his Lordship, including who we interact with, what we eat, how we exercise, rest, and how those practices, in turn, lead us to care for our neighbors through the care of our world. Books like this one are rare, though not unprecedented (John Wesley's Primitive Physick comes to mind), primarily because many of the truths given are assumed, and because they are convicting. We often neglect our physical well-being due to busyness, overwork, or apathy, and thus fail in an area that is foundational for the overall stewardship of our lives. Hess and Arnold offer a corrective, and provide a solid trajectory for those who seek to be spiritually formed in Christ, body and soul.

    If you found this review helpful, please head to Amazon and tell others.

    Thursday
    Feb142013

    Book Review :: Dallas Willard's Hearing God

    Dallas Willard’s Hearing God, Updated and Expanded: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God is the most practical, straightforward, and helpful theological resource on communicating with God I have ever encountered. Communicating with God may very well be the most pressing and least understood aspect of the Christian spiritual life today, and too often, I have worked with people who do not expect to hear from God, or who believe hearing from God is a spiritual experience reserved only for select holy men and women. This is despite the fact they have been invited to enter a “personal relationship with God.”

    Moving methodically and with precision, Willard introduces the reader to the “paradox in the contemporary experience and understanding of hearing God.” On the one hand, “we have massive testimony to and widespread faith in God’s personal, guiding communication with us,” and on the other we “find a pervasive and often painful uncertainty about how hearing God’s voice actually works.” Willard then gives guidelines for hearing from God, assurance that God is with us, an examination of God’s speaking in the created order, and the nature of God’s voice as “still and small” amidst competing voices. Then, Willard examines God’s Word and God’s rule, the transformation that comes through hearing and believing the gospel about Jesus, the ongoing role of Scripture in furthering that transformation in the life of the disciple, wisdom in how we discern God’s voice, and, lastly, how we listen for God in the everyday, beyond matters of simple guidance, growing in friendship with him. This book is narrowly focused but incredibly deep, laser-like but possessing a unique breadth. It is a treasure.

    Willard writes with a pastoral tone, expressing concern for those who have, so often, shared with him their difficulties in hearing God. Very gently, Willard reminds those who believe their prayers do not pass the ceiling that “God is beneath the ceiling.” God is near. God hears you. God has spoken, and his Word still rings out. God wants you to listen, and to discern God’s voice. Countless examples from Scripture, and the testimony of many Christians known and obscure confirm that God is a God who has spoken, and who speaks. God is good, and will teach all who are willing to learn to communicate with him “as a friend.”

    Willard is also a Christian philosopher. In my view, this is a strength. The author has given this matter careful thought, and has surveyed a broad range of theological and autobiographical writings on the subject of hearing God. He moves the reader through the finer points of hearing the divine voice, discerning God’s will, and living life before God in “the kingdom of the heavens.” Patient and thoughtful readers will be rewarded in considering the book as a whole, not only in reading those portions considered “practical.” We don’t “get to the point” when learning to hear God, we get to the person. God is a person, not a machine that can be manipulated through our own power. When we meet the Person and are initiated in to the life of the kingdom Jesus announced and enacted, the adventure begins, the conversation broadens, the world takes on a new shape. We do not control God’s speaking by mastering a “hearing technique.” That’s good news.

    If God is personal, and we enter a relationship to God, wouldn’t it make sense to communicate with this person who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? As Willard notes, a brief biblical survey of ordinary people like Abraham, Moses, Miriam, David, or Mary reveals that God is certainly an awe-inspiring figure, but near enough to befriend his human creatures. In one of the more profound insights explored in this book, Willard argues God’s greatness is amplified by his lowliness. If God desires to establish friendship with those who seek communion in his presence, he most certainly can bring it to pass.

    Once the premise that God can, and does, communicate with us is accepted, all that is left is to establish the ways and means we might experience such communication. That is no small task. How, exactly, does one discern God’s speaking? What role does Scripture play? What pitfalls exist, and how might we avoid them? What about those who abuse others through the claim they have heard from God? To what degree does God communicate his will for our lives, and to what extent do we possess a freedom to choose that which we believe is best? Willard addresses these questions, and others.

    A unique feature of the Updated & Expanded edition is the incorporation of lectio divina, or “sacred reading.” A bugaboo for some due to association with Catholic spirituality or mysticism (unfounded, in my opinion), lectio can be helpful when regarded as a means by which to discern God’s voice, and not as a means to some esoteric experience of God. Six familiar passages of Scripture are highlighted, complementing material in six of the chapters. The reader is invited to read, reflect, respond, and rest in the text. The inclusion of this type of Bible reading trains us  with regard to how God has spoken in the past, and in hearing God’s voice today.

    For those reading this book with others, each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions that review content and broaden the conversation. As noted on the back cover, a companion DVD resource is also available as a separate purchase. Taking on this topic with others isn’t a bad idea; you will find that a community of others learning to communicate with God is an immense help in understanding and applying the truths contained in this book.

    Lastly, I have read many books on Christian spiritual formation, and specifically on learning to hear God’s voice. Hearing God is unparalleled. It is a complex, sophisticated book, but it is incredibly clear and direct, immensely edifying for the diligent. Don’t let other reviewers dissuade you by describing this book as one “for seminarians.” I have read this book twice, and missed many key aspects on my first reading.

    But great books are worth rereading. They continue to teach us, as we change, grow, and develop. This is just such a book.

    If you found this review helpful, head over to Amazon and tell others.

    Thursday
    Feb232012

    Book Review :: Awaken Your Senses by J. Brent Bill & Beth A. Boorman

    J. Brent Bill and Beth A. Boorman, in their book Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God, invite us to think differently concerning our experience in the world, and to make new and fresh connections in how those experiences shape our understanding of and relationship to God.  This book is extremely practical and filled with earnest illustrations.  For many, it may be a welcome introduction to a different way of considering the seamlessness between Christian faith and physical experience.

    Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman cover each of the senses, taking each in turn.  The major divisions are Taste, See, Touch, Hear, and Smell.  Underneath each subheading, Bill and Boorman alternate meditations, offering at the conclusion a practical exercise that can be undergone in light of their meditation.  For example, Mrs. Boorman directs the reader in an exercise called "Tasting Words".  The reader is instructed to reflect on their day, and the words chosen in each conversation.  By carefully considering what has been offered and consumed, Boorman connects the sense of taste with the concrete nature of our words.  She then offers questions, "How do these words taste?" and more.  Bitter, or sweet?  Healthy, or debilitating?  Quite simply, this is another way of evaluating our speech-acts in light of Christian discipleship.  In addition to the practices, each section is front-lined by a work of art depicting each sense, and accompanying questions that serve to guide the viewer as they contemplate the work.

    Charity is a personal policy.  When I review books, I always try to strike the balance between honest critique and careful encouragement.  There are books that I enjoy I am certain others would not, and there are books that I do not enjoy I am sure others most definitely would.  This book is the latter.  The aim of Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman is clear--they wish for their readers to engage their world with all of their senses, and learn from these experiences something new regarding the God who made all things, including the faculties by which we perceive our world.  Through their sensory experiments, they also hope to instill in the reader a sense of an embodied faith.

    My disappointments, personally, had to do with the depth of biblical and theological engagement.  Though Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman do make connections to Scripture and to certain elements within the Christian tradition, I would describe those interactions as cursory, not substantive.  The primary thrust of this book was personal narrative, as is the case with a number of resources on offer in the area of Christian spiritual formation.

    It may be the case, then, that I am asking too much.  Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman are dealing in the gentle avenues of grace, and that may be exactly what the bulk of their readers will need--a soft introduction to a new way of thinking, or a gentle invitation to a more embodied way of thinking about life as a child of God in this world.  I have no doubt that such people will be helped by reading this book.

    Monday
    Jan302012

    Book Review :: The Fire of the Word by Chris Webb

    The Bible is a difficult, complex, and multi-layered book. It consists of two testaments, the Old and New, and was penned by numerous authors, with a long history of interpretation, and a longer history of transformation. It has been pondered by scholars and laypersons alike, and the resulting fruit has ranged from profound to commonplace holiness. It is regarded by faithful Christians as the inspired and authoritative Word of God, making wise for salvation and good for equipping every man and woman to live in accordance with righteousness.

    There is no greater book than the Bible. But how do we read? How do we read this great, difficult, complex, and multi-layered book? To read it well we are in need of reliable guides. We are in need of the church, the communion of saints. Chris Webb is one such voice, and in his book, The Fire of the Word, we encounter a companion for our journey, a reliable guide who can help us to read the Bible for transformation.

    Chris Webb's prose is tremendous. I have rarely encountered someone who has written so lucidly on the Bible and its role in spiritual formation. He takes the text seriously, and punctuates his grand claims for the transformative nature of its contents with illustrations that range the centuries in accessible, powerful language. Webb's book is designed to be devoured slowly, much like Scripture itself, for each chapter concludes with recommended readings from the Bible that illuminate the concepts and ideas Webb desires to impart. The design is practical, allowing for a multi-level impact on the reader.

    As a Renovare resource, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Renovare is dedicated to pulling together diverse streams within Christianity, taking the best from each in order to bring about spiritual renewal. This book is intended to help the reader think about the Bible in terms of theory and practice at diverse levels, though skewing contemplative. Webb offers varying meditations on how we best listen to God through the reading of Scripture, whether it be through lectio divina or other ancient practices. And he provides excellent examples that enlighten the reader, helping them to see that Scripture is always intended to lead us to the knowledge and worship of God. The Bible always points beyond itself, intending to bring us in to contact with the one who inspired it, so that we might be transformed to become like him.

    For those seeking a treatise on the doctrine of Scripture, or an exposition of the exact manner we may speak of the Bible as being inspired, you will not find such an account here. You will have to turn elsewhere for such a treatment. There is only a gloss given to the concerns surrounding the doctrine of biblical inspiration as it is articulated from both the right and the left. Webb isn't concerned with that war. He is concerned with our souls, and the manner by which the words of Scripture take root in our bodies, transforming us, renewing our minds, directing our hands. While some may consider this a point of weakness, I would brand it a strength. That discussion can be more profitably had elsewhere. Webb's business is different.

    As someone who loves the Bible, I thoroughly loved this book. It has inspired my love for God. I believe, therefore, that Webb accomplished his intention, to help his reader gain a passion for the Written Word in such a way that inspires greater love for the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Mr. Webb writes, "As you open the Bible, Jesus is present. If your reading leads you to him, you're doing it right."

    Amen.