Real Life: A Christianity Worth Living Out by James Choung

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I’ll admit that I was not sure whether I would like this book. This is a book on discipleship which is written as a story. There has been a number of such books written like this, most notably The Five Dysfunctions of A Team and Leadership – Self Deception. I have always thought how brave such authors are – not only have you to get across your ‘thesis’ but you have the added pressure of creativity which fictional writers wrestle with.

Of course, this is not designed to be a page turning novel, but Choung does a great job of using the genre of story telling to frame his view of discipleship. The story revolves around Stephen, a guy who trying to make it at work, which means he stays late and works longs hours, even when his boss goes home. And yet he is a christians. And one day, a young guy on Stephens team at work (Jared) realizes Stephen is a Christian and gets very excited and asks Stephen to disciple him. The novel is the out working of that request. Stephen has no idea HOW to do this and it is soon apparent that after the first couple of lunch meetings with Jared that Stephen is WAY out of his depth. So he seeks out one of his friends to help him.

The story unpacks the process and varying degrees of what discipleship is how the how it unfolds in someones life. Yet there were a number of things that really spoke to me. The first thing was that Stephen, despite being out of his depth, knew that he should be willing to disciple someone and so, even though he was out of his depth, and had no idea what to do, he said YES I WILL, and, sought out help. In other words, we should not be afraid to disciple others despite our own inadequacies. In fact, and this is the second thing that spoke to me, although Stephen was the ‘older’ ‘mature’ christian, he too was growing and learning as he meet with Jared. Being a mentor does not mean you have it all together. Mentors should, and indeed NEED to grow in the process. And thirdly, Choung very cleverly shows us that the process of being a mentor, or discipling someone, does not just change the one being discipled, but it changes the one doing the discipling. Through the process Stephen beings to see clearly some of the issues in his own life and this leads to Stephen making a radical decision.

As I said, I was not sure I would like this book, but by the end, I had enjoyed it. No, this is not the typical book on how to disciple, with the logical, linear arguments and points, backed up with many biblical passages. Yes, this will appeal to those who function more in the creativity aspect of their brain. But that said, anyone who picks this up will benefit from it, and enjoy in the process.

Short-Term Mission: An Ethnography of Christian Travel Narrative Experience by Brian Howell

This is not a ‘normal’ kind of book. This is a presentation of research which Brian Howell has done on the topic of Short Term Mission trips. At the center of his research is a mission trip which he went on to the Dominican Republic, and his observations, interviews with the team and the process of of what happens AFTER such a mission. Howell’s  goal is to examine the role, experiences and effects  of ‘STM’s’. One of the fascinating insights and areas which Howell examines is how regularized the language used to describe the experiences of people on STM’s. Were students responding to what they encountered or were the ‘narratives’ shaping their memories?

I read this with great interest. I have done MANY STM’s, both as a participant and as a leader. Over the years through my own experience I have come to regard STM’s as something far less than mission. Often the impact of a team is very minimal to an area. In fact, in my own reading and research of the effects of such mission trips, the impact can be negative upon the community being visited. One example was a team sent to build a house. The job was done so badly that when the team left the community had to re-build the entire house!

STM’s largely serve as an experience for those who go ON them rather than those who on the receiving end. This is because, as Howell rightly observes, STM’s tend to be a hybrid of mission, tourism and pilgrimage. It’s a ‘kill three birds with one stone’ or a ‘vacation with some meaning’.

What is evident is that they have become a phenomenon in their own right, with millions of people spending their own money and time to go on a STM.

Howell is not in any way attacking Short term missions, but he is asking the question of how they should be used to better serve and engage with both the team members and those whom the team serves, so that they achieve what they are able to achieve, and not to pretend to be more than they are.

I think this is a very important book for pastors and church leaders to wrestle with if they are planning or indeed, actively involved with STM’s. Howell’s suggestions towards restricting STM’s narrative towards the end of the book is a must read if you have such trips in your church!

Meditation and Communion With God: Contemplating Scripture by JJ Davisd

This review was written by Tia Gray – the Music Director of the Church I serve at.

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John Jefferson Davis is a professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published in both theological and scientific journals.  This book may be on meditation, but it is written for the theological scholar, not the lay person; the first three fourths of the book are spent in theological discussion of a highly scholarly type, and his footnoted, erudite writing style is not readily accessible to the lay person. I could only chuckle when, on page 94, he states, “…this  is a book on meditation, not a treatise on epistemology directed to academic philosophers…”.

That said, if you can persevere through the professorial apologetics, and you are armed with a working knowledge of words like hermeneutics, logopneumatic, teleology, and soteriology, there are many fascinating concepts to be gleaned. And Davis states that a deep knowledge of the bible and Christian theology is essential ‘background information’ for true understanding of the nature of the Trinitarian God, which will lead us to a richer communion with God when we meditate on Scripture.

Christians who are wary of incorporating Eastern meditation practices should be aware that there is a rich history of Protestant biblical meditation, especially by the Puritan fathers in the 1600s. Davis states that in the Puritan view, without meditation, “preaching won’t benefit us, our prayers won’t be effective, and we will be unable to defend the truth.”  He assures the reader that in Christian meditation, the goal is to be filled with the Holy Spirit during meditation on Scripture, as opposed to the Eastern practice of ‘emptying oneself’ during meditation.

I was fascinated by a snippet Davis includes from a study by the Center for Biblical Engagement in Lincoln, Nebraska: the study found that those who read the Bible at least four times a week were less likely to engage in behaviors such as gambling, pornography, alcohol abuse and extramarital affairs. “Time spent in the Word correlates with an individual’s spiritual growth.”

The basic point Davis strives to make is that we approach meditation on Scripture from a very real understanding of 3 foundational truths:

  • Trinitarian theology
  • Inaugurated eschatology
  • Union with Christ

Union with Christ: God’s plan from before creation, promised by Christ during his earthly ministry, and fulfilled by the Holy Spirit during Pentecost. It is not achieved only by saints, but is accessible to every Christian, and it is accessible now, while we still live on earth, not only in heaven. This was Paul’s understanding when he spoke of being ‘in Christ’, or ‘seated with Christ in the heavenly realms.”

Davis is a strong believer in John’s doctrine of ‘realized escatology,’ which he calls inaugurated eschatology: (the doctrine that we are currently living in the’ end times’). We should be more fully alive to the fact that since Christ’s resurrection we have been living in the end times; Paul states in Ephesians 2:6 that we are already in heaven, that we have ‘experiential access to the new creation.’ He meant this literally 2000 years ago, and it is still true today: the new Jerusalem already exists and we have already arrived in it. As Davis quotes from N. T. Wright: It is not we who go to heaven; it is heaven that comes down to earth.

The Trinity: Davis feels that this vital aspect of Christianity had fallen into unimportance in previous years and is now experiencing a ‘renaissance’ in a broad spectrum of the church: Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The Trinitarian God is inherently relational, and we were created to be inherently relational, not only with God but with each other. Our very salvation is a call, through Christ’s redemption and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, to be invited into the Trinitarian circle of love, joy and peace.

As Christians, we must approach the Scriptures as part of our personal identity: the stories of the bible are stories of our family: part of our genealogical narrative. The words of our ancestor, brother and savior, Jesus, inform us (give us knowledge of God), form us (change us into faithful disciples,) and transform us (open us up to the indwelling of the Spirit, which brings us into true communion with God).

Davis also points out that according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” And if glorifying and enjoying God is the main purpose for which you were created, then worship and biblical meditation are high priorities, not something you might get to if you have a few spare moments.

In Chapter 7, when we finally begin to discuss actual meditation techniques and processes, Davis uses and adapts the meditation process of M. Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This brief section gives a good outline for how to approach biblical meditation in a prayerful, open way, pointing out how important it is to be open to the insights that might come as you read and reread a portion of Scripture, and to be thankful and joyful for the time spent in communion with Christ. He also cautions that even if we might not feel as if God has been present during this time of meditation and study, he is there even when we do not feel his presence. Davis also suggests that we continue, throughout our day, to call to mind the insights received during our meditation, so that our lives may be suffused with spiritual growth.  In this way our spiritual journey can become part of our personal identity, and begin to affect how we perceive and react to the world and those around us–and how they perceive and react to us.

Davis briefly discusses three levels of meditation: beginning, intermediate (or whole brain), and worldview. In discussing beginning meditation, he mostly concentrates on keeping the mind focused through the use of centering prayer, since distraction and loss of focus is a universal problem with beginning meditators. In whole brain meditation, he discusses engaging both the right brain (visual) and the left brain (linguistic) by pairing bible passages that discuss concepts with passages that give us a visual reference for that concept, in much the same way Jesus used parables about seed, coins, and lamps as concrete, visual symbols of spiritual truths. Davis’ worldview meditation is probably the most enriching, as he suggests meditating on cycles of Scripture using five ‘practices of right comprehension’: our view of God, our view of reality, our view of ourselves, our view of the purpose of human life, and our view of worship.  Approaching scripture through the lens of these viewpoints keeps one focused on the ‘big picture’ of how we live a Christian life.

The chapter on actual meditation techniques is of course the most readily accessible to those truly interested in getting started on bible meditation, and the paired scriptural passages he uses as examples and suggestions are a wonderful introduction to the depth of insight that can be obtained using these thoughtful methods. A lay person might begin—and end– with this chapter. Anyone seeking a deeper knowledge of the foundation of our faith should struggle through the first 6 chapters, dictionary in hand; it will, ultimately, be worth the effort.

Ashamed No More: A Pastors Journey through Sex Addiction by T C Ryan

The problem with the title of this book is that there will be people who will read it and think that the book will not apply to them. Wrong! This is far more than just a moving, heartbreaking warning about sex addiction and pornography – it is about the struggles and frustrations pastors face in the midst of their sin, any sin.

While this book looks at the cost paid by a pastor who struggled with sex addiction for decades and the unhealthy elevation of ‘sexual’ sin above all other ‘sin’, the book will challenge and remind you that all pastors, indeed all christians, struggle with something and T Ryan’s story of his struggle while married and pastoring a large and growing church, should resonate with all who read it.

A sub-theme of this book examines what the church is to do with pastors who need healing. He writes that the church needs to expect failure in her leaders and lovingly go to every length possible to help them deal with their own brokenness. All pastors are broken to some extent – pastors are not perfect people. And with regards to sex addictions one survey has said that 60% of clergy struggle with some form of compulsive sexual behavior.

The hope of this book is that God’s grace is always available. It is the great lesson that, in the midst of his struggles and pain, Ryan recognizes and grasps onto. God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, His presence can be found even in the darkest of times.

It would indeed be a mistake to pass by this book because you feel it does not relate to you. It does.

Highly Recommended.

Delighting In The Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves

While almost every Christian knows the word ‘Trinity’ few Christians can articulate what the Trinity is and WHY it is a vital aspect of the Christian faith.

In the midst of the lofty erudite works which few Christians wrestle through on the trinity Michael Reeves has produced a great little book which provides a down to earth introduction to not only what the trinity is but it’s importance in the Christian life.

For Reeves, understanding the Trinity relates to the type of God we know and worship; which God we will proclaim and serve.

This is going to be a very good resource for pastors to give away for people who are interested in starting to explore the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Highly Recommended!

Gregory of Nyssa: Sermons On The Beatitudes: A Paraphrase by Michael Glerup

 

I am a firm believer that Christians should engage with the early church fathers. However, both the size of their writings and the language can be be a barrier to many. And while the purists will probably not like Michael Glerup’s paraphrase, I think this is a great idea.

 

Whether we like it or not we are living in a culture whereby language, reading habits, reading levels have changed. That does not mean we should not attempt to raise those standards, but giving people access to the essence of Gregory of Nyssa’s teaching, when in all probability they would never seek it out or have the patience to wrestle through it, is in my opinion a very good thing.

 

Glerup’s paraphrase is easy to read and easy to understand. He does a very good job of taking the essence of these sermons on the Beatitudes and transporting them into the 21st century. And the sermons themselves are just wonderful.

 

This book is so accessible that you could give this to a senior high Youth Group as a discussion book and have an amazing time talking through the meaning and application of the Beatitudes.

 

Highly Recommended.

Some Books Recently Read

Of course vacation means a little more reading – although with three children (and three boys at that – 2,5 & 9 years of age) the ‘peace and quiet’ aspect is somewhat lacking! However some of the books I managed to get to read are:

A really interesting read. When Gordon McDonald was taken aback at the mood at the yearly church meeting (and especially a comment from a parishioner whoa sked Who Stole My Church), McDonald began a Monday night meeting with some of those who were opposed to change in the church. The meetings were meant to be discussions based on scripture on why the changes were proposed as well as a forum for McDonald to hear from parishioners who were upset. The book is an account of those meetings. It shows some of the dynamics of confronting those who are opposed to change – even good change, as well as a lesson in awareness for leaders to be aware of those with opposing views and the need to listen. A good book.

This is Hillary Mantels follow up novel to Wolf Hall.This is a fascinating look at a man who has been largely neglected by biographers – Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Secretary of State. Mantel has a very distinctive way of writing but the story was fun. She puts a face to Cromwell, as he navigates the dangerous course of Tudor England and Henry VIII’s court.

This was a fascinating insight into the world of the President of the United States. Living in Washington DC I have become more aware of US politics. This book looks at the role of the former Presidents and their input / influence into their successors policies. Really enjoyed this one.

I was late to this party. Hunger Games has been out for a while but I thought I would read it. Nothing special. Somewhat dark and brutal view of post-apocalyptic America. Bog standard fair!

Knowing we were going to spend 6 days in the mountains of North Carolina I decided to read this book which was set in North Carolina. A true story, this depicts the brutal and longstanding feud in the 1800’s between the Hatfields and McCoys. Apparently The History Channel has done a film with Kevin Costner as Devil Anse Hatfield. I have not seen this but the book is a fabulous read.

I have been reading ALOT of Jewish Roots material and it has been wonderful. This is a great book. Bivin leads the reader through the process of understanding Jesus’ words from a Jewish perspective – something we have neglected in out interpretative process in the west.

Another Jewish roots book. This is a good introduction to the issue of Jewish Roots Christianity. The insights and understanding that Juster opens up when one looks at the NT through the prism of Hebrew thought is so refreshing and exciting!

This is probably the most shocking book I have read this year. I read it on Tim Challies’ recommendation. This is a true story, written by the daughter, of a pastor who is confronted by insane opposition from the man who sits in pew number seven. When I say insane opposition, I am not exaggerating. The fact that this pastor remained in his church as long as he did is remarkable (or maybe some would see it as stupid). There is a massive lesson in this book.

Go and Do: Becoming A Missional Christian by Don Everts

Which would you prefer to be? A safe Christian? A happy Christian? A successful christian? Don Everts opts for none of them. He wants to be a missional christian!

Go and Do: Becoming a Missional Christian is based on Jesus’ words to Go and do likewise, which ended the parable of the Good Samaritan. But what does it mean to go and do likewise? This is Everts goal – to put practical and theological flesh to this phrase.

The thing we must remember, and it is something I hold to wholeheartedly, is that Jesus has called us – every christian – to participate in God’s mission to the world. Therefore the issue for each of us is to discover how we are called to do this in our own context.

What a missional christian looks like is the focus of part one. He mentions five areas that should be indicative in the ‘anatomy’ of a missional christian – seeing a world in need; being a servant; willing to go; compassion and deep, inward joy.

And the outworking of such an anatomy? Where does such gifts find their outlet? Wherever you are; that is the place you live, work, play and exist. This is the focus of part two – Geography. The misnomer of the term ‘missional christian’ has assumed one who travels to another culture or country. Not so for Everts. It is where you are – the here and now. In fact, for Everts, there is no real difference in being a disciple and being missional.

This is a timely and needed call to the church to enter into the purposes of God. Everts writes in a clear, honest and compelling way on a topic I believe the church needs to get a grip on. I said at the being of this review, what would you prefer to be? A safe, happy or successful christian? The irony is that only by entering into the call to be a missional christian will we be ‘safe’ ‘happy’ and ‘successful.’

Protégé: Developing Your Next Generation of Church Leaders by Steve Saccone

Leadership development. Ministry training. we have more resources than at any other time in history – more training material, more seminaries, more courses than ever before.

Yet for Saccone, the most effective way to train future leaders is one which has been used for centuries – being in a close, one to one, mentoring relationship engaging in real life situations. This is not just a matter of a few hours a week engagement – but close, day to day, hour to hour interaction. Saccone acknowledges that many have ministered without ever having a mentor – but Saccone would argue that the lack of a close mentor means that there are depths and nuances of a person that will never mature or become fully actualized without having a mentor.

Saccone gives a call to leaders to take up the challenge to be mentors and coaches to the countless proteges around them. Today, we think and expect that 3 years of academic seminary prepares people for the ministry – of course it does not. but what kind of church would we have today if leaders stepped up and were willing to engage in taking a protege under their wing – to train, to mentor, to model and invest into the future leaders.

This is a needed book today.

Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults: Life-Giving Rhythms for Spiritual Transformation by Richard R. Dunn

The church lacks 20 year olds. They need 20 plus year olds. It is the most desired age to reach and yet it is the hardest age to reach. In the introduction, the authors affirm 5 distinguishing features that characterize post adolescence:

1. it is the age of identity exploration
2. it is the age of instability
3. It is the most self-focused age of life.
4. It is the age of feeling in-between, in transition.
5. It is the age of possibilities, when hope flourishes, when people have an unparalleled opportunity to transform their lives.

These 5 points are what stirred the authors to consider what can be done in this generation to empower, equip and energize them to reach their God designed potential for spiritual transformation.

Dunn and Sundene attempt to transfer their passion to reach emerging adults to the reader. Their thesis is that reaching such people is rooted in a willingness from Christians, leaders and lay, to invest intentionally, to get involved, to reach out and be willing to enter into the life in an emerging adult. It is effectively a call to the church to be involved with mentoring 20 plus young people.

Of course, the word ‘invest’ is important. It requires time, energy and availability.

Dunn and Sundene ask are we willing? If the church is to grow – it must!

Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton

One of the challenges church leaders have faced is the idea that a business model of leadership works in the church.

Quite simply it does not.

To choose leaders based on their ability as a secular or business leader is erroneous. A secular or business leader does not make a good spiritual leader. To sit down at a table as part of a church leadership requires a completely different set of gifts and a different approach. One very important gift required in spiritual leaders is that of spiritual discernment.

This is what Ruth Haley Barton attempts to navigate leaders towards in Pursuing God’s Will Together.

Her basic thesis is that we must regain a view that church leadership is spiritual and that leaders must therefore be spiritual. It may sound obvious, but in many churches and denominations people have lost sight of this truth. What does spiritual leadership look like? It begins with leaders actively and deliberately seeking God and leading from a position of godliness and a desire to DO God’s will, both in their own lives and the life of the church.

There are no major ‘new’ revelations in Barton’s book. What the book does well is to frame the issue of spiritual leadership and discernment within the context of community. While you can read this book and benefit from it as an individual,the most effective way for the insights of this book to be mined is through group interaction, reflection and discussion. Barton’s purpose is to bring leadership teams together. She does it well.

When Life Goes Dark: Finding Hope in the Midst of Depression by Richard Winter

The combination of theology and psychotherapeutic methods have been uneasy bedfellows in the church. Some pastors reject any move to use secular therapy / counseling methods claiming that they have no place in the church. A pastor, they say, is neither qualified nor called to be a therapist to his congregation. Others argue that it is imperative for pastors to be aware of the counseling methods available in order to effectively carry out their role as pastoral counselors.

This makes Richard Winter’s book very interesting. Winter makes a distinction between the christian understanding of reality and that of science and psychotherapy. He walks well, and effectively, the tight rope between the spiritual and the physical – the causes of sorrow which are rooted in the fall and sin, and the causes of sorrow which may be medically induced and lead to anxiety, worry, guilt, shame and even suicide.

Regardless of your view of the place of therapeutic methods within the church, pastors, leaders and others must be discerning of patterns of behavior which, while rooted in rebellion to God, might lead to something physically dangerous, both for the suffer and for others around them.

As a professional psychotherapist, counselor and christian professor of practical theology, Dr Winter helps the reader navigate the issue of depression both from a concrete spiritual reality and from a medical, psychotherapist position.

I believe pastors will find this book valuable in their role as shepherds to their people who may have family members or even spouses battling depression.

The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in Our Fine Tuned World by Karl Giberson

Karl Giberson has really written two books here. The first, which is the first half of this book, is a wonderful overview of science and some of the great scientists of history. Giberson looks at the major discoveries, the evolution of understanding about our world, the universe and space; the smallness of earth in comparison to the vastness of space and much more. Giberson’s overview is extremely well written both in terms of content and information.

The second half of the book looks at the argument of design in the universe. Giberson does this very well. He is both a scientist and a Christian but he does not make exaggerated claims either way but seeks to navigate a very sensible, logical process. He writes “I have tried in this book to be cautious but not timid in drawing connections between the wonder of the world and belief in God. I don’t think the profound character of mathematics proves that God exists. But I do think it makes belief in a reality that transcends the physical world entirely reasonable and, I would argue, necessary.”

Giberson is not a theologian trying to find a theology – but a scientist who obviously loves science and the process of discovering information, looking at the process of science through the lens of a believer in God.

I have a non-existent background in science – but I found this book more than just readable, but enjoyable as well as informative.

Recommended!

Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians by Kenneth Bailey


There are some authors whom you should quite simply read everything they have ever written. Kenneth Bailey is one such author, He is a superb scholar who writes beyond the normal genre of many christian scholars.

This book, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes is quite stunning. Although Bailey examines 1 Corinthians, this is not a normal commentary – which Bailey himself says in his introduction. Bailey is aiming once again to explore depths not explored by the traditional commentaries. Bailey seeks to uncover the rhetorical method used by Paul in this epistle. Unlike other scholars, Bailey sees 1 Corinthians as a carefully crafted response to issues not just for the Corinthians, but for the whole Church. For Bailey, Paul wrote this letter based around 5 essays, (The Cross and Christian Unity, Men and Women in the human family, Food offered to idols, Men and women in worship & The Resurrection). Each essay is also carefully constructed. Using all his skills and relying on middle eastern writing techniques and metaphorical language Paul sets the agenda of this letter both for the church in Corinth and the wider church. In this book Bailey unpacks HOW Paul does this – and in the midst of this comes a huge amount of information and wonderful insights.

Here you have decades of study, contemplation and understanding coming together in this volume.

This is not a book you pick up from you night stand 20 mins before planning to sleep. This is a book you plan to carve out 40 mins each time, with a pen and paper and sitting down to mine some real gems. Time extremely well spent!

Very Highly Recommended.

Mark: The Gospel of Passion by Michael Card


A while back I reviewed Michael Card’s volume on Luke’s gospel. In that review I commented that I did not expect a ‘worship’ leader to write a good commentary on Luke. Yet Card’s book on Luke really did astound me its combination of depth, accessibility and scholarship.

His volume on Mark does exactly the same thing. Card writes with wonderful insight. It has exactly the right amount of ‘information’ , comment and application.

On a practical note, the layout of this work is very good. Each chapter is broken into sections and each section is anything between 1-3 pages. This makes it ideal for devotional reading. And this is something which has impressed me about these books; they are equally good as a devotional book and as a resource for preaching and study – and that is rare.

I will be recommending these books to members of my congregation and to others as a wonderful way to read, ,mark learn and grow in the scriptures.

Very Highly recommended!!

Introducing Early Christianity by Laurie Guy


I am a big advocate of Christians reading the Church Fathers. These early Christians living in the aftermath of the Apostles and working through Church practice, theology, discipleship and christian witness are an important source for us. Sadly too few Christians take the time to read the ‘Fathers’ or to look seriously into the beginnings of the church. Admittedly the combined works of the ‘Fathers’ at 30 plus volumes can be somewhat daunting. This is why Laurie Guy’s work is so good. As an introduction to BOTH the early Church and it’s practices, and the writings of the early church fathers this book is an excellent resource. At 300 plus pages Guy manages to cover all the major bases of the early church in an engaging and fascinating way. Covering the first 500 years of the church you will be informed, challenged and even surprised. And most importantly you will understand the context of how some of the major traditions in the church developed.

An excellent work, and one which should be used by all christians.

Highly Recommended.

The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith

I liked this book. I know that in many quarters it has been panned, but equally so it has received good reviews from people I admire and respect. The reason for why it was panned by some was the perceived ‘attack’ Smith makes on the Biblicist position. What is the Biblicist positions? Well, why don’t we let Smith define it for himself:

By “biblicism” I mean a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.

The basic thesis of this book is that the biblicist position is untenable and Smith attempts to show why.

What I liked about this book is that Smith is not afraid to face some of the issues that many liberals attack conservatives about head on – and in doing so he has no fear that by saying “this theory does not hold up” that the rest of his theology becomes suspect. Smith is no liberal. He clearly says this:

I view the program of liberalism as an unworthy corrosion of historically orthodox, evangelical (again, in the best sense of that word) Christianity. I view theological liberalism—despite its good intentions—as naive intellectually, problematic in its typical ecclesial expression, and susceptible to unfortunate and sometimes reprehensible social and political expressions.

Smith sees the problem as one of pervasive interpretive pluralism. What does this mean. Smith defines it thus:

If the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches? I know of no good, honest answer to that question. If the Bible is all that biblicism claims it to be, then Christians—especially those who share biblicist beliefs—ought to be able to come to a solid consensus about what it teaches, at least on most matters of importance. But they do not and apparently cannot.

Some examples are: Church Polity: Does the Bible teach a free-church congregational system, a Presbyterian church government, an Episcopal church polity, or something else?

Free Will and Predestination: Christians, especially Protestants, with any awareness of church history and theology know about the apparently irresolvable debate between believers over human free will versus the bondage of the will.

The Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” All Christians agree that this is one of the Ten Commandments. What does the command mean? What practically does it require? And, for that matter, which day of the week actually is this day to be kept holy?

The Morality of Slavery: The bloodiest and one of the most tragic episodes in all of American history was a civil war fought by myriad Bible-believing Christians on both sides, many of whom were equally convinced that the scriptures taught the rightness of slavery, on the one hand, and the imperative of abolition, on the other.

War, Peace, and Nonviolence; Charismatic gifts; atonement and justification.

On all these issues biblical christians disagree – and sometimes very strongly.

It is for this reason that Smith rejects the biblicists position. It is important to note that Smith is not ANTI Biblicist, just that it does not hold up to scrutiny:

“Biblicism is thus not so much directly “proved wrong” as a theory, as it is simply never achieved in real life. It is therefore self-defeated in relevance.”

One of Smith’s responses to the Biblicist position, and the one I think is most important and a good response, is to encourage evangelicals to make clearer distinctions between Dogma, Doctrine and opinion. He says:

“The problem is that Christians have an extremely strong tendency to inflate the centrality, sureness, and importance of their doctrines so as to turn them into dogmas. They also tend to do the same thing with their opinions by elevating them to the level of doctrine.”

“What I am suggesting here, then, is this: Christians, including evangelicals, need to learn better, first, how to put and keep their dogmas, doctrines, and opinions in their proper places, and then, second, to stop excluding, dismissing, discounting, and ignoring other Christians who do not deserve that kind of treatment. Everyone needs to take a hard look at their own rankings of their own beliefs and work on pulling down to their proper levels the doctrines that they tend to treat as dogmas and opinions that they tend to treat as doctrines or dogmas.”

This was a very helpful and useful discussion. Below I will give Smith’s other responses to the Biblicist position, but I will not comment on them – read the book to see his arguments:

1. The Centrality of Jesus. Here he takes Barth’s position – the Bible is God’s written Word but Jesus is THE Word. Everything has to be read in a Christological focus.

2. Embracing the Bible for what it Obviously Is:

3. Living with Spiritual Ambiguities – i.e. there are some tough things in Scripture which we may not be able to solve and that’s OK.

4. Dropping the Compulsion to Harmonize

Apart from (1), the Centrality of Jesus in the Scriptures – which is obviously right and paramount to any biblical reading of the Bible, Smith’s last three responses are not necessarily more superior to the biblicist position. However, I think this is a valuable book to read because it does face important issues which we need to understand head on and this book gives a great framework in tackling some of these issues.

I actually came to this book a Biblicist and I have come away a biblicist. But because of Smith I am now a biblicist which understands the weakness in my position and it has challenged me to not be too dogmatic, obnoxious and inflexible in defending a ‘theology’ when instead we should be defending a person – Jesus Christ the Creator of the Universe and Lord of All!

The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry by David Rohrer

I read quite a lot of books, and to be frank, there is a lot of mediocrity out there. I understand that reading and books is a very subjective activity and what is mediocre to one is wonderful to another and vice verser.

David Rohrer’s book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry is quite simply wonderful. For me it is the best book I have read this year, and in my humble opinion should be read by every single person in pastoral ministry, regardless of denomination or structure.

Rohrer tackles the issues of being in pastoral ministry with what I can only call a spirit enabled wisdom. He consistently hits the nail on the head. There is no condemnation in this book. There ARE, however, plenty of challenges. There is also a wonderful dose of encouragement.

Here is an example of both:

“We are often our own worst enemies when it comes to seeding things into our lives that destroy our confidence. The narcism that sends us looking for congregational affirmation also sows the seeds of self-doubt and insecurity. When these seeds begin to germinate, the sound of our own voice commands more of our attention than the voice of God. In the face of criticism, fatigue and failure, it is easy to forget that our ministry fits into the greater reality of God’s story. It is easy to forget that we do our work in response to God’s call in the name of Jesus. Instead of seeing ourselves as participants in the work of God by the mercy of God, we myopically fixate on all that we are not, all that we might have been and all that we should be. The abstractions of our fears displace the concrete reality of God’s love and grace, and like Elijah after his bout with the prophets of Baal, we are left with nothing but fatigue and the sinking feeling that we are alone.”

Much of the book revolves around the ministry lens of John the Baptist. Rohrer points out that the Baptist called for both personal renewal and institutional reform. He spoke into a religious world that was disconnected from authentic relationship with God. He addressed the emptiness of religious institutions that did little more than anesthetize people through empty ritual. He preached about the integration of faith and life.

Rohrer does a fantastic job of re-centering the pastor’s focus. Perhaps my favorite quote is towards the end of the book, when he says:

“We are not here to save the church. Our work is catalytic. Like a catalyst, it has value in that is fosters a reaction. Yet people will not remember what we said so much as they will remember what God did when we said it. Our delivery of the message has a shelf life. But if we don’t deliver it, who will? If we don’t take up the call God places on our hearts to invite people to consider truth that is bigger than themselves, then we miss out. We miss out on the incredible blessing and affirmation of participating in what God is doing.”

AMEN!

Maybe that Rohrer’s book hit me just where I needed to be hit. But my guess is that it would also hit the exact place for many in pastoral ministry.

I rarely say this – but this is a MUST READ.

Very highly recommended!

The Shaping Of An Effective Leader by Gayle Beebe

Gayle Beebe correctly says there is a leadership crisis in America today. Beebe’s book is an attempt to put under the microscope WHY there is a crisis in leadership and what can be done to change this.

The book is based around 8 principles: 1. the necessity of character, 2. The importance of competence, 3. The advantage of team chemistry, 4. The interplay of culture and context, 5. The strength of compatibility and coherence, 6. The guidance of convictions, 7. The significance of maintaining our connections, 8. The opportunity to make an ultimate contribution.

Much of the book comes from Peter Drucker’s philosophy (Beebe was a student under Drucker) and there are many quotes and pointers to Drucker’s thinking. As a former banker I can see much in this book that would be helpful for those within the cut and thrust of the business world. The eight principles are, generally, useful and Beebe’s comment that character in a person is often not enough to succeed is true in business. But I read this book through the eyes of a Church leader – a pastor. And from this perspective, I did not find a lot to help me. The eight principles are interesting, but they are presented without any spiritual dimension and therefore as a Christian they alone cannot be foundational.

Also, there is almost no mention of God or of any biblical principles that I noticed (I may have missed them). This is important because the Apostle Paul – one of the greatest leaders ever says that we must never lead from or through the wisdom of the world, but through the wisdom of God (1 Cor 2) – and that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom. Paul effectively says do not apply the world’s wisdom into leadership. The probability is that Paul’s resume in 1 Cor 2 would mean he would not be hired by any corporation or business as their leader.

Beebe quotes Plato, Aristotle and Drucker – but not Christ, Paul or the Bible.

If the book is directed only for those in the corporate / business world, Beebe has given some interesting thoughts for Executives and CEO’s. But for the Christian and the Church pastor there are better, and more useful books on leadership.

The Shepherd Leader by Timothy Witmer

For Witmer, the art of Shepherding is becoming a lost one in the Church. Surprising? Maybe, especially as the word Pastor comes from the latin to shepherd.

In a conservative Christian culture whereby the focus is preaching, shepherding has been left on the side lines. For most pastors, the time and effort that visiting and looking after people take away from the ‘preaching’ preparation means that shepherding is neglected.

Witmer challenges leaders to plan and implement a Shepherds ministry.

The pastors role is far more than just preaching and teaching. Alongside feeding the sheep a Shepherd also should know his sheep; lead his sheep and protects his sheep.

Witmer is also very practical. In chp 9 he gives 7 Essential Elements of an effective shepherding ministry (1. Must be biblical; 2. Must be systematic; 3. Comprehensive; 4. Relational; 5. Include the four shepherding functions of knowing, feeding, leading and protecting; 6. Accountability; 7. Prayer) as well as suggestions for beginning to implement one.

Witmer wisely forms his theology around the idea that the shepherd ministry is not just a pastor responsibility but a leadership responsibility. It should be flowing OUT from the eldership and elders must be involved with this process. Witmer’s book definitely espouses team ministry – which is a great thing.

This is a very practical book and one which will be useful in forming your approaching to making sure that all people in your church are indeed shepherded.

Spirituality According To Paul: Imitating The Apostle Of Christ by Rodney Reeves

I like Rodney Reeves. Not that I have met him. But as I read this book I knew that if I were to meet him I would like him.  Reeves writes in such a way that you feel at home with him. I just thoroughly enjoyed the way he writes. This is not a frivolous book. Yet he approaches Paul and his spirituality in a winsome, at times fun, often down to earth way while retaining deep and frequent challenging applications for you to chew on – and chew on you will (such as Paul’s view of tithing and how a Church should  be generous). Some books on Paul can be ‘painfully’ heavy to read. This is such a joy to read that even when you are blind sided by one of the many, many, many powerful and potentially life changing, practical insights, it doesn’t hurt!!

All frivolity aside, this is a tremendous book and a valuable one for the church as a whole. With all the ‘controversy’ over Pauline thinking and theology over the past few years this is a breath of fresh air.

Highly recommended!

Christ or Therapy by Dr ES Williams

This is a very fascinating book, as well as one which goes completely against the grain of current thinking. While Dr Williams does not dismiss or reject the fact that people and Christians can have depression which requires medical treatment, his thesis is that too much of what is called depression (and thus treated as depression with drugs and ‘christian’ therapy) is not truly depression, but a cast down soul. Using scripture and the Psalms in particularly he shows that a cast down soul is to be expected as a believer but, the remedy is to trust in the promises of God and to be encouraged with the help of fellow believers. Dr Williams is very disdainful of current Christian ‘Counseling’ practices that draw from the ‘world’ rather than biblically based encouragement. The bottom line for Williams is that the first port of call for someone thinking they are depressed is the scriptures, the promise of God, prayer and the encouragement of other believers. A truly fascinating read.

 

 

Worship In The Melting Pot by Dr Peter Masters

Dr Peter Masters has been the pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London for the past 40 years. The Met Tab (as it is affectionally known) was the home of Charles Spurgeon in the 1800′s. It is a strict Baptist church which hold very strong calvinist doctrines and extremely traditional views on worship – but its preaching is very biblical and its book store (which I visited FAR too often) has the finest calvinist / reformed collection of books, commentaries and systematic theologies anywhere in the UK and at the very cheapest prices!!

I like reading Dr Masters books because while I do not always agree with him his passion for the Lord Jesus and for the Gospel is unquestionable and he challenges me to think through why I believe something. I find the extremism of his ultra reformed position fascinating.

This book is Dr Masters treatise on the modern worship scene. Dr Masters view is that only certain hymns should be sung in church and that the current ‘modern’ worship scene is undignified and irrevarent to the Lord; that the raising of hands, or dancing or loud music, or bands are not biblical. Also, he argues that worship is about WORDS – and that music is not the core of worship, only a tool. He makes a case from scripture to that effect

While most of you will not agree with him, you should really engage with his exegesis – his view of 1 Corinthians 14 is very interesting and he will challenge you to think through [biblically] your view of what is reverent worship to God.

On the Way to the Cross: 40 Days with the Church Fathers

This is a wonderful way to start to read some of the Church Fathers. Who are the Church Fathers? These are the christians and theologians of the second, third and fourth centuries whose writings survive. They give a wonderful insight into the life of the early Church and they are often neglected by Christians. This book is laid out very simply, with a prayer, confession, Bible reading and then some reflections by a wide variety of Church Fathers. This is indeed an ideal Lenten Devotional and, as I have said, is a wonderful introduction to the Church Fathers. Don’t be surprised if after using this book you find yourself wanting to read more of the Fathers.

Highly Recommended

Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case For Biblical Truth by Douglas Groothuis

There are a plethora of books on apologetics – just type Christian Apologetics into Amazon and you get over 8000 results! It can be hard to make a distinction between many of the works, both in content and style. Not so with Douglas Groothuis’ contribution. At over 670 pages Groothuis does not attempt to pack too much into this volume – only 26 chapters – but what what he does focus on makes this a wonderfully concise book on Christian Apologetics. Laid out in three parts, you are taken through the biblical basis of apologetics and christian worldview; the distortions which have been made again the Christian worldview and why truth matters. Part two takes you through the defenses of Christian theism while part three tackles the objections of Christian theism. This is an easy book to read in terms of following Groothuis’ thesis and discussions. It is also a thoroughly biblical and, most importantly, Christ centered book. Probably the smallest chapter in the book, the conclusion, reveals Groothuis’ real heart – Take To The Streets – Apologetics is not about head knowledge, but about evangelism and sharing the gospel. This is what makes Groothuis’ book not just a worthy addition to the topic of Christian Apologetics, but one which should be used widely.

Highly recommended.