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    Entries in Theology (12)

    Friday
    Aug182017

    Book Review: James Bryan Smith's The Magnificent Story

    James Bryan Smith is one of my favorite contemporary writers on Christian spiritual formation. His latest book, The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is another fine contribution to the field. Professor Smith’s writing is pastoral, warm, and intelligent, and this book presents a helpful approach to thinking about God, getting to know Jesus, and living as a disciple in the world. Smith helps us think theologically through the lens of the transcendentals: beauty, goodness, and truth.

    Professor Smith’s book addresses the human longing for a great and magnificent story, one that matches up with our deep desire to be part of a narrative that is rich with beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith believes that the good news of and about Jesus is that story, revealed to us in the life, person, and work of Christ. But Smith argues that the fullness of the Jesus story has been shrunken or reduced in ways that get things all out of balance, emphasizing God's wrath over God's grace, judgement over love, being right over being compassionate, and eternal life in the future over eternal life now. Smith addresses those imbalances throughout the book, offering a different way of seeing and understanding God that aligns more closely with a vision of the beautiful, good, and true.

    Smith focuses on practices in addition to offering counternarratives and alternative ways of thinking about the Christian story. Each chapter ends with a prescribed exercise that helps the reader begin to notice ways God is at work in the world. This approach is similar to what Smith offered in The Apprentice Series: Common Narrative, Counter Narrative, and Practice. In this book, narratives about God are examined in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and Smith tests these narratives in light of beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith also encourages his readers to join with others in community as they explore the ideas presented, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide group conversation and to work by grace through the practices he suggests.

    Professor Smith engages theologically with several ideas that are open to debate, and some readers may find themselves in disagreement. Smith challenges penal substitutionary atonement, for instance, as an example of a problematic doctrine. He argues that this representation of the Father pitted against the Son for our benefit does not accord with the idea of a merciful and loving God, nor does it take into account the full story given in Scripture. According to Smith, penal substitution is a shrunken story. Smith argues that we need forgiveness, our sins are real, and that the cross does defeat our sin. However, Smith argues that there is a different way of understanding atonement that better represents God. Smith’s approach is known as the Christus Victor model.

    On this point of doctrine, and perhaps on other points as well, some readers will have quibbles and even deep disagreements. The Christian community is no stranger to disagreement. Our perpetual challenge is to disagree in love while maintaining a firm commitment to unity under Christ, the head of the church. Smith’s critiques are charitable, I believe, and worthy of discussion among Christians. As Smith notes, some beliefs are harmful. Therefore, Christians must always be as clear as possible concerning what we believe, and undertake the challenging work of theology in a manner that is truthful, attractive, and good.

    Smith’s invitation to intimacy with God, knowing the loving kindness of Jesus as Savior, experiencing the availability of grace, and growth in sanctification is clearly explained, compelling, and attractive. This book rings with beauty, goodness, and truth. There may be points of disagreement among Christians that can be discussed in good faith. But the allegiance to Jesus is foremost. In him the church is united.

    I’m always on the lookout for resources that will help people draw near to God, experience the grace of Jesus, and engage seriously with discipleship. This book fits the bill. I recommend it. I appreciate the witness of James Bryan Smith. And I am glad to share with him in the magnificent story of Jesus Christ.

    Monday
    Dec282015

    2015 End of Year Book Notes

    In past years, I have shared my list of books read, highlighting titles I really enjoyed. I’ve also taken the time to link those titles to Amazon.com. If you click a title from my website and purchase that book as a result, and if this happens enough, I receive a credit to Amazon.com that allows me to buy more books, which I, of course, delight in doing. As Erasmus remarked, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."

    This year, I won’t list all of the titles. Instead, I want to highlight a few themes. I’ve read some challenging academic theology this year, but much more fiction. I have spent time with a number of authors focused on the pastoral task. Among my favorite authors this year were C. J. Sansom and Rowan Williams.

    The first book I finished reading this year was Thomas C. Oden’s A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir. This book was a gift from my sister and brother-in-law, given last year. Soon thereafter, I finished reading John Wesley’s Works, Vol. 5. That was the culmination of work spanning several years. This volume features Wesley’s sermons. In contrast, one of the last books I finished was John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1. I’ll move on to the second volume of the Institutes in the year to come. I also plan to read Barth’s Dogmatics.

    The above is preface, here are the themes. And I’ll include a short bonus on how I keep track of titles.

    Academic Theology

    C. S. Lewis once wrote, "I believe that many who find that 'nothing happens' when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.” I have not spent time with a pipe this year. But I have held a pencil, and a few works of challenging theology.

    Stanley Hauerwas’s The Work of Theology was my most anticipated read. I have attempted to read everything he has written. I also read The Holy Spirit, which Hauerwas co-authored with William Willimon. Both books released this year.

    I mentioned Wesley and Calvin above, and I will continue to read them both. Other notables this year were Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God, and George Eldon Ladd’s Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. I read Ladd, in part, because of my reading of Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church early in 2015.

    Fiction

    Reviewing my reading list, this is where I am most surprised. I read a lot of fiction this year. The authors: Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, John Irving, C. J. Sansom, Willa Cather, Alan Patton, Andrew Klavan, and Sue Monk Kidd.

    Since I read a number of titles by Michael Connelly, both from the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer series, crime fiction dominated my imagination. Connelly’s pacing, dialogue, and realism make for enjoyable reading.

    Reading novels has been shown to increase empathy (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/), a needed skill in pastoral ministry. Empathy is also a really good skill to have in life.

    Pastoral Theology

    Thomas C. Oden’s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry is the headliner. I consider this book indispensable for those in ministry. I bought a used copy a few years ago, and I’m glad I finally committed myself to reading it, for the rewards were many. If you are serving in ministry, or discerning a call, this book provides an excellent overview and theological foundation for the pastoral task.

    My favorite books this year that encouraged my heart: Dallas Willard’s The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God, and Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. I enjoyed reading Rowan Williams’s books Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent and Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another. And from a practical ministry angle, I was challenged by Andrew Root’s little books, Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry and Taking Theology to Youth Ministry.

    The best book I read on youth ministry this year was by Mark DeVries, called Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn't Last and What Your Church Can Do About It. I got to hear from him at the National Youth Workers Convention in Louisville, which was an added blessing. DeVries has written a youth ministry model book I actually enjoyed reading, which is rare.

    One Other Book

    Early in 2015, the world lost David Carr, a writer best known for his work with The New York Times. Carr’s death was unexpected. Many offered their remembrances of Carr on Twitter. Which led me to watch the documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times (http://www.magpictures.com/pageone/). I was then led to read Carr’s book The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.

    While I can’t say everyone should read David Carr, I’m glad that I did.

    How I Keep Track of Titles

    According to my record, this year I read 78 books, along with countless articles, blog posts, and what I’ll call online fodder. I would do well to spend less time flitting between Twitter and Facebook, and more time with classic literature and works of theology, with a pencil in hand.

    I’m not the best at annotation, and while I own a book journal, I do not use it regularly. I have one notebook that I have numbered and sectioned, according to my needs. I have tabs for notes, quotes, ideas, lists, goals, and books. My book tab is last, and I work from the last page of my journal, backwards and toward the front. I number my list by fives, and record the author and the title. If I think a book is exceptionally well written and impactful, I place a star by the title.

    Here’s a picture:

    I love to read. I have a few titles, primed and ready, on my nightstand, at my desk, and in my office.

    I can’t wait to see what next year shall bring.

    Tuesday
    Sep092014

    A Warming

    Soul awakes.
    Heart aflame.
    Love flows.
    Sin fades.
    Christ reigns.
    Kingdom, near.
    Call, clear.
    Good news.
    Favor, all.
    Blind, see.
    Jubilee.

    Originally posted to Twitter. Connect there: @bsimpson.

    Thursday
    Jun122014

    Book Review :: Yawning at Tigers by Drew Dyck

    Next time you sit down for a conversation with a friend, old or new, ask them what they think about God. You'll likely hear that God is loving and forgiving, though you might also hear about God's wrath or anger. Maybe your friend thinks that God is distant and disengaged from our lives, if they believe God exists at all. There's a range of opinions about God.

    Within my tribe, however, the popular view of God is a bit fuzzy. God loves us, and it is a syrupy sweet kind of love. We mess up, sure, but God is right there to pick us up, dust us off, pat us on the butt, and urge us on. God wants us to have our best life, and if we spend time in the Word and claim the promises found therein, this loving, sweet God will deliver us everything we desire. God is here to wait on us, or to push the right buttons when we need things to fall our way.

    But that's not how God works, or is.

    Drew Dyck, in his book Yawning at Tigers: You Can't Tame God, So Stop Trying, challenges this soft notion of God. He claims that our deepest desire is to "know and love a transcendent God," and to encounter a God worth worshipping. Dyck has caught on to the fact that our polar swing away from distorted depictions of God majoring on judgment and wrath have led to a different form of misrepresentation--a God we can control and confine to a cage.

    I happen to really like Dyck's approach and overall tone, not only in YaT, but in his work at Leadership Journal and in Christianity Today. He's open and honest, inquisitive and opinionated, and has a deep concern for the world. That's why I was excited to read this book. In his acknowledgements, Dyck concedes the immensity of the challenge of writing anything about God, and candidly admits that he has never felt so out of his depth. This spirit shines through in YaT. Claims about God are made with confidence and humility. That kind of attitude, I think, give testimony to a knowledge of the true God.

    YaT explores God's person, human beings, and how the two have been brought together in Christ. Dyck challenges us through story, the examination of Scripture, and through the work of astute theologians, pastors, and scholars like Eugene Peterson, Matt Chandler, Miroslav Volf, and many others. He launches salvos toward those flippant in prayer or shallow in their representations of the Christian way, and calls us toward holiness. Dyck's thoughts on holiness, woven throughout the book, were particularly encouraging to me. We are called to be holy because God is holy (a truth woven throughout the Scripture), yet many today seem content with a lax spirituality that is as boring as it is feckless, a far cry from the eternal type of life Jesus has made possible.

    Dyck's writing in YaT will draw you to reconsider your own notions about God. You may find yourself disagreeing with some of his claims. But don't miss his message. God is wild and free, far grander than we have imagined. But God has also revealed himself to be trustworthy, wise, and good. God is love, and is loving, of course. But the meaning of that love is more earth-shattering and awe-inspiring than we have let on.

    Through relationship to this God, you will find that life is a grand adventure, lived in the company of the Redeemer of all things, who brings about his purposes through his people. Once you have beheld God, revealed in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you won't even be tempted to yawn. You might find your mouth agape, oh yes, but for far different reasons. It will be due to the glory you encounter, a glory that is yet to be fully revealed.

    Read this book, find encouragement, and recheck your theology.

    Set God in your sights, and worship.

    Friday
    Jul062012

    75 Books That Have Propelled Me Forward

    Dear Sarah, Lindsey, and Countless Friends:

    As I have cultivated a life of reading, I have learned a few lessons. For now, I will expound upon three. Then, you will find a list of 75 books that have helped me on my journey chasing after Jesus.

    First, what C. S. Lewis wrote concerning the reading of old books is true, in that the ancient texts show us the biases and shortsightedness of our own age, as well as underscore where we have found solid footing. Don't read the prominent titles in the Christian Living section of the bookstores; dig deeper. Dare yourself to read Calvin and Wesley and Luther, and beyond them Augustine and Athanasius, the Didache and the Church Fathers.

    Secondly, it is wise to keep a notebook handy when you read, and mark a page "to explore later", wherein you can record all the titles to which great authors make passing references, or those works buried within the footnotes that scream your name and ask for you to chase. I have become accustomed to following the breadcrumbs, and while on occasion I've found the trail fade and have turned back, more often I have found the morsels more satisfying the further down the path I'm led.

    This second bit of advice led me to works like Watership Down and Saint Maybe, books I read because they were referenced within theological essays. It also led me to Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, a play I never explored in high school, after it was referenced in a compelling way within the context of a sermon. Books seem to work their way in to my life, and I am always searching for great titles. Bibliographies have become great friends, and as time has passed, more and more names I find there are familiar.

    Thirdly, I would recommend aligning yourself with others who read great books, preferably those who you may see from time to time, so that the great ideas can enter in to conversation, and the truths of any book, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, can be wrestled with in community. As much as I love the realm of ideas, I have never lost sight of the reality that it is the life that counts. A great scholar is not necessarily a great saint. Let what you learn transform your life, with love of God and neighbor being your highest aspiration. 

    These lessons are not exhaustive; more could be said. But they make for an adequate beginning. The life of study, I believe, is necessary for every Christian. Scripture is our foundation, but the Great Tradition also serves to build us up, as other Christians throughout history have sought to know and serve Jesus faithfully, and have left behind wisdom for us to explore and apply and take back to Scripture as we prayerfully discern what aligns and what stands askew. Learning is a constant wrestling with God; we are all like Jacob.

    Since you asked me about the "great books" I have read, I have listed Christian books and others that are not explicitly so, but have taught me lessons or given me some insight in to our world. I'd rather not remain in the Christian ghetto. Like other evangelicals, I have attempted to maintain an "engaged orthodoxy", pursuing sound doctrine and a greater understanding of the truths of the faith, all while remaining cognizant of the world we live in.

    Finally, if this list is too overwhelming, you may want to begin by browsing my recommendations for "Practical Approaches to Christian Spiritual Growth." You may also want to consult Renovare's 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, some of which are available for download, for free.

    Blessings as you chase after Jesus. Hopefully some of these books will help you on the way. And of course, if you ever wish to discuss any of these titles, you know where to find me.

    In Christ,

    BAS

    The Five Most Important Books I Have Read Apart from Holy Scripture

    1. Thomas A’Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Dover Thrift Editions)
    2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
    3. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic
    4. John Wesley, John Wesley's 'A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.'
    5. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God

    Theological and Philosophical Works That Have Shaped Me 

    1. The Desert Fathers, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics)
    2. William Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism
    3. William Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism
    4. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford World's Classics)
    5. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
    6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
    7. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
    8. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
    9. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
    10. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
    11. C. S. Lewis, Miracles
    12. Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition
    13. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace
    14. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd Edition (7 Volumes) 
    15. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

    Historical and Sociological Works that Have Been Invaluable 

    1. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
    2. Alister McGrath, Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution--A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
    3. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
    4. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) [Vol. 2-5, also.]
    5. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force ....

    Practical Approaches to Christian Spiritual Growth

    1. The Rule of Saint Benedict
    2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community
    3. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth
    4. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home
    5. Reuben Job, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living
    6. Joshua Choonmin Kang, Scripture by Heart: Devotional Practices for Memorizing God's Word
    7. Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion
    8. Scot McKnight, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow
    9. Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society
    10. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology [Vol. 1 in his Spiritual Theology Series, five volumes total.]
    11. James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (Apprentice (IVP Books))
    12. James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ (Apprentice (IVP Books))
    13. James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love (Apprentice (IVP Books))
    14. Dallas Willard, Hearing God, Updated and Expanded: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God
    15. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives
    16. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture
    17. N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (with DVD)
    18. N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters
    19. N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters
    20. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

    Contemporary Works That I Have Enjoyed

    1. Jon Acuff, Stuff Christians Like
    2. Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
    3. Tom Conover, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
    4. Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work
    5. Ian Morgan Cron, Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir. . . of Sorts
    6. Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling
    7. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
    8. Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
    9. Bob Goff, Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World
    10. Timothy J. Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
    11. Timothy J. Keller, The Prodigal God
    12. Timothy J. Keller, Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just
    13. Timothy J. Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters
    14. Timothy J. Keller, King's Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus
    15. Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith
    16. Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
    17. John Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development
    18. Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
    19. Avi Steinberg, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian
    20. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

    Provocative Fiction and Short Stories

    1. David James Duncan, The Brothers K
    2. C. S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia Box Set
    3. Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
    4. Charles Porter, True Grit
    5. J. R. R. Tolkein, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

    Books on Creativity and the Work I Do

    1. Jon Acuff, Quitter
    2. Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us
    3. Stephen King, On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
    4. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
    5. Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles