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    Entries in IVP (8)

    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.

    Thursday
    Dec222011

    Book Review :: Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

    Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken desire to lead a church where people are becoming like Jesus. As co-pastors of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California, Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson have been on a journey. After founding Oak Hills in 1984, Mr. Carlson adopted many of the principles of Willow Creek in leading his church to become a growing, seeker-sensitive congregation. But over time, Mr. Carlson and his staff began to become uncomfortable with the witness, methodology, and philosophy of ministry that prevailed at their church. A change was needed. Rather than being consumer driven and seeker oriented, the leadership felt called to be Kingdom driven and discipleship oriented, and as a result of this new vision, everything changed. The authors describe this as a transition to making "spiritual formation", rather than numerical growth, their primary orientation.

    And while this may sound inspiring, this reshaping of vision came with a cost. Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken recast worship, abandoned the "show", and watched the church dwindle numerically. After being held up as a beacon of success as a Willow Creek style congregation, the bright perception that came with high numbers began to dim. Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson tell their story in this book of making a radical shift in philosophy of ministry--one that they believe in--and invite other leaders to reconsider their models, their language, their discourse, and their method for making disciples of Jesus Christ.

    As a leadership tale, this sounds good.

    But then why three stars?* This may strike some as odd. Why would you assign a book a three star rating if the book is confusing, at best?

    Simple. This book contains very high highs and very low lows. And as both take root, the ensuing result is a mudding of the waters. Christianity, being a deep well, contains a rich, nourishing tradition that delivers salvation, nurtures the soul, and fosters union with God. The church is called to present the water contained within that deep well, the Water of Life, Jesus Christ himself, in a manner that is compelling and clear and faithful to the biblical witness. I contend that Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken, while well intentioned, do not describe a church that accomplishes this aim. The gospel of the Kingdom, which they strive to announce, is muddled and unclear. The switch from consumer, seeker sensitive church to contemplative, spiritual formation church is strange. And the tale of their move from a numerically thriving church to a church with dwindling attendance and paring back to establish a culture that better forms people to actually follow Jesus is puzzling--in many aspects I found it to be more tragic than heroic--and this is not because I do not agree with the aim of helping people to follow Jesus, it is because of the method employed to get there. I found myself wondering if there was any other way to move the church from here to there without crushing the spirit of so many people, without altering worship so radically as to drive so many people away, and without having to rail against the congregation for their consumer mentality in such forthright and grating ways. Is slowness not an aspect of spiritual formation and growth? Is patience not a primary Christian virtue?

    I offer two additional critiques.

    First, in this book Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson fail to make clear distinctions between "the church" and "the staff and elders" when they tell their tale of change. In describing their reorientation of the church around notions of Kingdom and spiritual formation, they should be saying, "the staff and elders". If the church was truly moving that direction, then they would not have lost so many members upon making their shift. This is a top down change, not a bottom up change, and should be read as such.

    Secondly, it is disturbing to read Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken describe the loss of clarity that "spiritual formation" brought to the church concerning how to invite others to participate in the life of the church, and to come a saving faith in Jesus Christ. In critiquing consumer driven gospel proclamations, they offer no alternative that can be grasped and taught to others. In my view, they have no gospel. They have Jesus as moral example, as spiritual teacher, and giver of life, but they do not have a concise and transmittable piece of "good news". 

    I am passionate about spiritual formation. I am passionate about the Kingdom of God. I am also passionate about seeing persons who do not believe Christianity is true discover that it is reasonable, compelling, and persuasive, and that the gospel announcement of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection contains the power to awaken the soul to a converting and transformative faith. The gospel--the announcement of the present Kingdom as evidenced in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ--itself is spiritually forming. It is the beginning of a new work. And the church is the crucible wherein the transformative results of that news are brought to bear on the life of the disciple, who is then commissioned both to go forth and serve as one changed, as well as to announce that same news that radically altered their own life.

    This book is important and valuable. But I do not think Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken have provided a model to follow. I do believe they have given us a conversation piece. They have given us an example of a church that has attempted to be serious about discipleship and thoughtful regarding our cultural situation, rooted as we are in consumer America.

    Read it, debate it, and learn from it. Just don't treat it as a gospel of the definite new way of being church. Otherwise, you will have swung the pendulum too far.

    *I assigned this book three of five stars at Amazon.com.

    Monday
    Dec192011

    Book Review :: Adele Calhoun's Invitations From God

    Adele Calhoun is right in observing that "The things we say yes to and the things we say no to determine the terrain of our future", and is most certainly correct in saying of God, "As the first and great Inviter, God devotes himself to sending out invitations to come join his divine community." There is a God who desires fellowship with his creatures and close communion with human beings, who are created in the divine image. That God knows that we exist within a fallen world, but loves us enough to be at work to bring about our redemption, our restoration, and our healing so that we might be commissioned in turn to be agents of redemption, restoration, and healing. God desires to equip us so that we might be heralds of Jesus Christ, announcing his life, death, and resurrection, and inviting all people to know, love, and serve him. Calhoun's book, Invitations from God: Accepting God's Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More, gives us a foundation from which to work as we open ourselves to God and respond to those divine invitations that can bring about progress in our spiritual journey.

    For those familiar with much of the current literature on spiritual formation, Calhoun is typical in her emphasis on participating in the work of God in our own lives. Thus, for those coming from strongly Calvinistic or Reformed traditions, the synergism that underlies Calhoun's approach may be disconcerting. Calhoun's opening chapter is titled, "An Invitation to Participate In Your Own Healing", stressing our part and God's part in our restoration. She is certain to stress that this invitation "does not mean we earn our salvation; it simply means we taste the fruit of it through participation." This restorative or healing dynamic is illustrated through an appeal to John 5, where Jesus asks the sick man by the pool of Bethesda, "Do you want to get well?" After expanding on the sick man's qualifications, she states, "Transformation and healing always begin in a deep place of desire. There needs to be some deep inner willingness to take a risk on Jesus and begin again and again." 

    In principle I am in agreement with Calhoun. But I wish she spent more energy and effort delving in to the source of that desire to be healed, to be transformed, to experience rest in God's presence. In other words, I wish she would've spent more time explaining how that desire is itself a witness to God's grace at work in our lives, a preemptive movement by the Spirit of God to place within us a will and a want to be made new. While embracing a notion of participation, or synergism, we must continually stress grace, and God's movement toward us that precedes any movement we make toward him.

    The other chapters in Calhoun's work flow from the first. Once one has accepted the invitation to be healed, specific avenues through which that healing comes are expounded. She writes soundly concerning the biblical invitations to follow Jesus, trusting him for divine guidance and leadership above and before all other competing masters. She writes of the invitation to be present with community, learning to love other people. She provides sound wisdom concerning our need for rest, for mourning, for admitting the limits of our own knowledge (or the possibility we might be wrong), how to forgive, how to patiently wait, pray, remember who we are and who God is, and finally an invitation to "the most excellent way", discovered in Christ, witnessed to by the church, and captured within the stories of the Bible.

    This book is a good spiritual formation resource. Calhoun touches on a number of subjects that are critical for our growth in Christlikeness, and does so with biblical wisdom and easily grasped pastoral illustrations. I'd recommend this book for use with small groups who can discuss its contents, applying what they find to their context. I'd also recommend it for individuals who are seeking a guide to help them learn to rest in God's presence, to forgive, to grow in humility, to pray, and to grow in love for God and neighbor.

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