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  1. An Introduction to C.S. Lewis…

    November 22, 2013 by Jeff Wright

    face

    … on the 50th anniversary of his death:  Today will be given largely to remembering the awful events of the assassination of the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

    This space, however, will be devoted to remembering the death of another man: C.S. Lewis.

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    Hopefully the name is thoroughly familiar.  If not you may have heard from Lewis without knowing Lewis himself.  The man is exceedingly quotable, as three selections from Mere Christianity will show.

    I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

    If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

    True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

    Clives Staples Lewis (1898–1963) was a man of peculiar intellectual ability and one of the most influential writers of of the twentieth century.   His influence has only grown in the years following his death, so much so that he has been referred to as the patron saint of American Evangelicalism. 1  His academic career was spent as a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was unanimously elected as the first occupant of the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement.

    Lewis is simply fascinating (you can find an excellent short biography-tributes here and here).  He is perhaps the most popular Christian apologist in modern times, yet he approached the task reluctantly, feeling there were others better qualified for the task.  His academic credentials were of the first order yet he became famous for his accessibility by the ordinary fellow.  Lewis never had children yet wrote an undisputed classic aimed at and featuring children.  All this and I’ve not mentioned his close friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  Really, everyone who can be should be familiar with and read C.S. Lewis.  Toward that end…

    As a writer Lewis is as approachable as a fairy tale, instructive as an expert’s lecture, and provocative as a multilayered metaphor.  His published efforts spans more than thirty books on a vast range of subjects.  These writings have served to spread his influence far and wide.  Most notable amongst his books are those in The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters.  It is in this first set of works, The Chronicles of Narnia, that Lewis delivers one of the most delightful characters in modern English literature – Aslan, the Great Lion.

    Lewis has many wonderful and profitable writings beyond those mentioned above.  A selection: a thoughtful examination of life in a broken world in The Problem of Pain, a thorough record of experiencing that pain in A Grief Observed, a defense of the supernatural activity of God in Miraclesthought provoking reflections on destructive ideas in The Abolition of Man, and better understanding of the nature of love in The Four Loves.

    His fiction provides both engaging entertainment and thought-provoking insight in titles like The Great Divorce (Genre: Supposal), The Space Trilogy, (Sci-Fi; written to counter the promotion of Eugenics in the fiction of H.G. Wells) and ‘Till We Have Faces (Modern Myth).  All are more than worth the time invested in reading.

    Thankfully a number of his writings (books, articles, and sermons) are available online for free.

    Mere Christianity
    The Screwtape Letters
    The Weight of Glory
    The Abolition of Man

    The most recent Desiring God National Conference was dedicated to Lewis, the audio of which is available freely online.  I recommend most highly the talks given by Doug Wilson (Undragoned: C.S. Lewis on the Gift of Salvation) and Randy Alcorn (C.S. Lewis on Heaven and the New Earth: God’s Eternal Remedy to the Problem of Evil and Suffering).

    Earlier this year Alister McGrath published a wonderful new biography of Lewis entitled C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric, Genius, Reluctant Prophet.  I couldn’t recommend it more highly.  You can also find a lecture from McGrath on Lewis entitled A Prophet for Contemporary Christianity on Youtube.

    Youtube has several gems centering on Lewis.

    The first is audio from the original war-time broadcasts that became Mere Christianity.  Jack, as Lewis’ friends called him, comes through clear and British.

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    A new documentary centering on Lewis’ conversion from aggressive atheist to committed Christian has made its debut on Youtube.

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    Another strong video in the genre of documentary focuses on why Lewis matters today.

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    Interested but don’t know where to start?  I recommend beginning with his sermon The Weight of Glory.  From there move to Mere Christianity (if you prefer non-fiction; work through it slowly and highlight/underline all the good quotes) and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from The Chronicles of Narnia (if you prefer fiction).  The Screwtape Letters should follow shortly.  If you prefer a guided tour you can check out Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: The Companion and Guide.

    I trust you will enjoy and profit from getting to know C.S. Lewis!

    Notes:

    1. Philip Graham Ryken. “Lewis as the Patron Saint of American Evangelicalism.” Pages 174–85 in C. S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper. Edited by Judith Wolfe and Brendan N. Wolfe. London: T&T Clark, 2011.

  2. Book Review: Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll

    January 24, 2012 by Jeff Wright

    It turns out that writing about Mark and Grace Driscoll’s Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together ends up being very similar to talking about Mark Driscoll’s ministry.

    Here’s what I mean by that: when Driscoll became nationally prominent (or at least in the circles I run in) I started getting cautious questions from acquaintances that were some variation on “So… what do you think about this Mark Driscoll guy?”  I’m sure my little corner of the world wasn’t the only one filled with people who had heard Mark be clearly and winsomely faithful to what the Bible actually says and then heard about him doing something that appeared to be controversial just for controversy’s sake or plain foolish.

    My answer then about Driscoll’s ministry is pretty close to my current take on Real Marriage: taken on the whole it’s largely a good thing.  Yes, there are parts I’m uncomfortable with.  There are certainly some things that I think are clearly not consistent with scripture (more on that in a bit).  However, most of what I find in Driscoll’s ministry or his latest book is really faithful and helpful Biblical teaching.  When one views Driscoll through they eye Christian charity – namely that none of us get it all right – I’m ultimately very thankful for what Driscoll is doing.  That qualified endorsement obviously doesn’t equate to wholehearted embrace across the spectrum of what Driscoll produces but it also means a wholesale dismissal of Driscoll is a serious case throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    To specifically deal with Real Marriage I’ll say that the criticism coming at Driscoll’s latest book is something I can understand and appreciate.  I cannot imagine any scenario where I would need to discuss specific sex acts from the pulpit.  However, I realize that what I will or will not touch on in the pulpit does not mean that questions like the ones answered in Real Marriage won’t arise among Christians.  (In fairness I should also say that I certainly disagree with the ridiculous idea that reading this book is somewhat akin to drinking out of a toilet.)

    The truth of the matter is that not only do these questions arise (dare I say often) as people think through marriage and sex as Christians but also – and this is central to the value of Real Marriage – they will go somewhere for the answer.  In our sex-saturated culture there are no end to sources for answers to questions like “What can a married man and woman do within in the context of their marriage.”  Very few of those sources are intentionally connected to God’s self revelation of Himself.

    I was working on this review before Driscoll issued this post on why Real Marriage is taking such heat in Christian circles but he hits on exactly this same issue:

    Many Christians, because of upbringing and past church experiences, view sex as gross and something that should not be talked about in public.

    Unfortunately, this view is pervasive in the church. Many couples have honest questions about sex and various sexual acts but struggle to find a pastor willing to teach on these topics.

    With nowhere else to turn, these couples find wrong and damaging answers in magazines, television, movies, porn and more.

    The practical result is that couples divorce their sex from their spirituality, talking to their pastors about “spiritual” issues and ordering their love life around advice from “secular” sources.

    Next time you’re in line at the grocery store, read the headlines on the women’s magazines that are shouting at little kids standing in line with their parents. Our culture has made the wrong answers about sex far easier to find than the church has made the right answers to find.

    This book is largely pastoral.  While I bemoan the fact that a lot of people who reach out to this book will be doing so as a means to avoid having these conversations within the context of a local church I am thankful a Biblically-informed voice is available for them to hear.

    That isn’t the only reason to commend Real Marriage.  The book does a good job of modeling for readers the necessity of taking every issue of life to the Word of God in order to find God’s revealed will.  It also does a pretty good job of walking readers through how to apply the clear teaching of  scripture to areas of human experience that aren’t explicitly addressed in Scripture.  These are all very good things.

    Of course, there is a pervasive form of legalism that sees Christian morality as a line and approaches the subject of ethics from a desire to see just how much wickedness someone can participate in without crossing that line into sin.  That mentality will seize on the “Can We…?” chapter with delight and bend it to sinful ends.  I would argue that rather than accusing the Driscolls of feeding that mentality we should acknowledge that good things can be turned to wicked ends.

    The major weakness I see in Real Marriage is directly connected to an element that should be a strength.  The key model for marriage presented by the Driscolls is friendship.  At first blush that is great: marriage is in fact friendship.  It’s just that marriage isn’t only friendship and the Driscolls door a poor job of letting their readers know that.  There is only a passing glance given to Ephesians 5, a text that should be central to any Christian book on marriage.  To leave readers thinking that marriage is just about friendship rather than presenting friendship as one component of the way marriage models for humanity the Christ’s love for His church is to strip marriage of the lion’s share of it’s dignity.  If I can illustrate my point I would say this reduction of marriage to friendship is akin to reducing Jesus to merely a good teacher – calling someone a good teacher is only an insult to someone who is infinitely more than that.  In similar fashion reducing marriage to being mostly about friendship is an insult to an institution that is so much more than that.  This failure to put the beauty of Ephesians 5 in front of its readers is a much more grievous fault on the part of Real Marriage than the “Can we…?” chapter, at least to my mind.

    At the end of my book reviews I like to make a recommendation (either to read or stay away) to any who read the review.  Would I recommend Real Marriage? Sure, with some qualifications.  One – anyone who isn’t at least engaged has no need to read this book.  In fact, I would strongly recommend they stay away.  Two – if this will be the first book you’ve read on marriage then I recommend you pass Real Marriage until you read some more foundational treatments of this subject (to be named in just a moment).  Three – if direct talk of a sexual nature will scandalize or offend you  then stay away.

    I will still recommend When Sinners Say ‘I Do’ by Dave Harvey as the first book about marriage anyone should read.  The second that should be read is The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller.  For most people reading those two titles will make reading Real Marriage superfluous.  However, for those who want to supplement what they’ve read about marriage after reading Harvey and Keller then Real Marriage would be a fine option.

     

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    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  3. Book Review: Desiring God 25th Anniversary Reference Edition

    January 16, 2012 by Jeff Wright

    I honestly feel intimidated sitting down to review Desiring God by John Piper.  I am convinced there is no more powerful presentation of the correct paradigm for understanding the Christian life than the one laid out by Piper in this book.  As such I’ve been recommending the work for years to anyone who would listen.  I truly believe it is must read in a way few other books are.  Of course the value of this book falls short of the value of reading Scripture.  I wouldn’t want to be unclear about that.  However, the value of Desiring God is seen in the way in which it guides it’s reader to understand the framework of Scripture as pertains to what God desires from and for those who He created.

    I don’t know that I felt the same weight of impact Piper felt when I became convinced that God had created me for the express purpose of enjoying Him but I certainly understand the idea.  Having been reared in the Evangelical world I was certainly convinced that God loved me and was infinitely worthy of being loved.  However, I thought that honoring God meant obeying Him for His pleasure.  To see from Scripture that God was intending that I reap pleasure from what brought Him pleasure was revolutionary to my mind, so revolutionary it felt like a smaller conversion. This new edition of Desiring God (the 25th Anniversary Reference Edition) has features that make it worthwhile to pick up even if you (like I) have a copy of the previous edition.  One, it’s a good reason to give the old copy to someone who hasn’t read it.  Two, there is a new chapter on suffering that Piper wisely presents as necessary to establishing the merits of Christian Hedonism.  Can Christian Hedonism withstand the furnace of suffering?  The new chapter on suffering gives convincing proof that it can in fact.  This is little surprise, considering that Christian Hedonism is so thoroughly wedding to the truth of God’s self-revelation.  A smaller change is the switch from using the New International Version to the English Standard Version for Scripture citations.  The ESV exceeds the NIV in integrity and distances Desiring God from the drift from Orthodoxy being seen in Zondervan.  There is one more change in this new edition of Desiring God that I’m excited about and which constitutes the third reason you should consider picking up a new copy of this work.

    I hate to go total book nerd but I couldn’t be happier that the citation style in Desiring God has moved from endnotes to footnotes.  I’m the kind of reader that wants to read the citations and explanatory notes.  Doing so with endnotes detracts greatly from the experience of reading a book, particularly a paperback that doesn’t lay open flatly.  Using endnotes leaves you with one finger where you are reading and another where the notes are for the section you are reading – the whole process is an unnecessary exercise in finger gymnastics.  I’ve said for years that an author who makes use of endnotes doesn’t want his reader to actually read his notes.  Having now read through this text which I have loved so much with the explanatory notes readily accessible at the bottom of the page I feel like I’ve read a substantially different and improved version.[1]  The footnotes give significant additional depth to Piper’s main text that I really regret not having been more diligent to read the endnotes before.

    So do I recommend this book to you as a reader?  Absolutely, in the highest degree, and without reservation.  If that reads like cheerleading to you I freely admit it is.  However, it is cheerleading based on what I believe to be the objective value of this book.  I truly believe every Christian ought to read it and that scores of non-Christians would benefit from it as well in that after reading it they would have at least the opportunity to reject the most compelling vision of Christianity I’ve encountered.  By all means get this book.  In fact, get two.  Give one to a friend and read it together.


    [1] For example see footnote 4 on page 60 on  “the judicial sentiment.”  Priceless.  See how fun footnotes are!

  4. Book Review: The Harry Potter Bible Study

    December 15, 2011 by Jeff Wright

    To be quite honest I don’t really care about Harry Potter. Note that I didn’t say for but rather about. The distinction is important for me because I feel, as someone who is indifferent to the Harry Potter phenomenon, like a man without a people. I don’t think Potter is an agent of the devil and that leaves me alienated from Evangelical circles but I also don’t find Rowling a particularly compelling writer and that leaves me alienated from just about everyone else.

    What I do care deeply about in all things connected to Harry Potter is Jared Moore’s The Harry Potter Bible Study: Enjoying God through the Final Four Harry Potter Movies. Despite my ambivalence to Potter I will enthusiastically recommend this book to any Christian I know. There are two reasons for my exuberance. The first flows from the Christian necessity of engaging the people and culture we live alongside. The second (and most important) is the skillful and approachable way this book models engaging media as a Christian.

    In his article on the cultural relevance of Harry Potter author John Granger calls the Harry Potter saga “the shared text of our time.” Much as I might bemoan that reality I confess that Granger is correct; exceeding 400 million in sales ensures cultural relevance and near complete cultural saturation. As such the church must be prepared to discuss the Potter series in an intelligent and engaging fashion (or, you know, in any way other than screaming HARRY POTTER IS OF THE DEVIL!!! and running away). The Harry Potter Bible Study will guide its reader in doing just that very thing. Moore manages to respectfully interact with the Potter narrative while not glossing over its faults. This is a rare example of dealing with a controversial topic by providing more light instead of just more heat.

    The lasting value of this study transcends cultural engagement, as important as that task is. The reason I would recommend this book to any Christian is that it does such a great job of leading the reader through the process of evaluating media from a Christian worldview. I am one who advocates appropriately interacting with media as a means of speaking truth to culture from within culture. Said another way, I believe we have an obligation to use the truth built into fallen culture by the Creator to lead those around us to the saving truth of God’s revelation. Engaging media and making use of what gold we find there is the closest most of us can come to what Paul does in Titus 1:12 and Acts 17.

    The sad reality is that while the world “worldview” has become very familiar in our churches we Christians don’t tend to do much close-range viewing of the world. Avoidance is still carrying the day and that mentality contributes to the unhealthy ghettoizing of the church. We have received much in terms of worldview instruction. We greatly need more modeling on how to employ our instruction and Moore’s book gives just that.

    You should get this book. In fact, you should get this book, get the last four Harry Potter movies, and work through them. Once you do that you should work through the material with your family and (*gasp) maybe even people in your church. That kind of study will inculcate within you the habit of doing what Moore models with every message you receive via media, be it text, film, music, art, or speech. I don’t so much care that anyone become a more skillful Potter expert or critic. I do care that the church become better able to think Christianly about the world around us and use that ability to present the gospel in a compellingly truthful fashion. Moore will help you do that. No, you won’t agree with every conclusion he draws. That isn’t the point. You’ll learn how to draw Biblically informed conclusions for yourself and employ that knowledge in the cause of the Kingdom.

    Like I said: Get this book.


  5. Book Review: Galileo by Mitch Stokes

    December 5, 2011 by Jeff Wright

    This work functions as a readable introduction to an important figure in history which informs without overwhelming. This issue alone justifies the publication of the title and the time it takes to read the work. The author does a good job of introducing the important ideas and personalities that shaped the intellectual world Galileo existed in. While the interested reader might wish for a lengthier treatment in this section the purposes of the work limit the attention that can be paid. However, fertile seeds for further reading are planted. The biography proceeds to paint a picture of Galileo as a devout man who was both firmly a product of his time and yet able to see beyond it in order to shape the future. I recommend this book for anyone wanting an introduction to this important figure, particularly if one wants to develop a taste for Galileo studies that go beyond this title. I believe the work would be appropriate for younger high school students and above.

    Disclosure: I received this title as part of Thomas Nelson’s review solicitation program.


  6. Book Review – Pujols: More Than the Game

    March 3, 2011 by Jeff Wright

    I approach the topic of baseball like Charlie Sheen approaches self-restratint: the subject doesn’t hold much interest for me and thus I’d rather not spend my time considering it. The one exception to my baseball rule has been Albert Pujols. See, my disdain for baseball doesn’t mean I don’t like sports. I’m a passionate fan of both basketball, football, and mixed martial arts. I also can appreciate athletic talent and skill outside of those sports – can anyone see a clip like this and not gape, even if the sport context isn’t a personal favorite – from a perspective of aesthetics. That brings me to Pujols, obviously this generation’s singularly transcendent baseball player, (a reality clear to even a baseball agnostic like myself) and one that can draw in fans like myself who can’t even be considered “casual.”

    Aside from appreciating excellence in athletics I also share an interest in the narratives of sport and I suspect these narratives are largely responsible creating fans out of normal people. If it is the eye-catching achievements that draw us in it is the stories of the athletes themselves that keep us there. Michael Jordon was cut from his High School basketball team. Larry Bird once entered a locker room filled with fellow competitors in a 3 point shooting contest and asked which one of them wanted to finish second. On October 1, 1932 at Wrigley Field in Chicago Babe Ruth told the opposing pitcher where he was going to land the home run he would hit on the next pitch. These stories strike a chord within the human framework that loves narrative and, more importantly, loves the heroic figure around which the narrative is centered. If you are similarly a fan of stories then More Than the Game is a book for you. While I’m disappointed the subject of the book didn’t grant an interview to the authors (I’m assuming he didn’t as I expect anyone writing a biography would love to have an interview with their subjects) the authors compensate for that lack with a trove of anecdotes from the people who were at ground zero as the Pujols phenomenon developed and detonated. I won’t spoil them but I will tell you much of it has the sound of awe, like people standing on the ground when a tornado touches down within site.

    Of the major sports in this the United States baseball is unique in at least two ways: the first are baseball stories. A sport that has been with us this long develops a canon that is captivating even if only for historical purposes. The second is its ability to provide its fans the means to compare players from all generations against one another in a highly objective sense. Baseball, at least to my eyes, is a highly individualized sport, perhaps the most individualized “team sport” being played today. Thus passionate baseball fans – inventors of advanced metrics like PECOTA and VORP – experience the real possibility of determining in an objective sense who the best shortstop ever is in a way that basketball fans just can’t do on the subject of, say, Larry Bird vs. Magic. I’m sure that if you pay attention to athletics to even the most superficial degree you won’t need a baseball naïf like myself to tell you that Pujols wins the evaluation war on almost all fronts.

    More Than the Game shows us that advanced metrics aren’t the only means of measurement in which Albert Pujols stands out from the crowd. This tome reveals an athlete – more than any other athlete I can remember – that captures the potential of a creature to glorify his Creator by doing exactly what he was designed to do. Of course, all athletes do this to some degree; even the most staunch atheist midfielder or epicurean Power Forward gives evidence of the creative power of God to construct a body able to accomplish mesmerizingly skillful combinations of grace and coordination and power. Pujols is in on this reality in a way few other athletes are. The impression the reader is left with is that he is intentionally and willfully committed to displaying this reality and, by all appearances, draws on that opportunity to glorify the One who created him to spur himself on to greater and greater heights of accomplishment.

    One final comment: Albert Pujols is singularly unique in that he offers us a legitimate hero, at least in an earthly sense. Our age knows well how to expose hypocrisy and undercut frauds. We suspect everyone we encounter and take a perverse pleasure in finding out the worst about them. In some sense we’ve all become Holden Caulfield; everyone around us is a phony and we hate them for it. What we we don’t know is what to do with authentic heroes. Maybe that’s because experience has taught us to expect that every shining light amongst us has a dark closet buried within. Is any sport more saturated by this particular type of cynicism than baseball? Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemmons – those names should (and perhaps some yet might) adorn bronze busts in Cooperstown but instead we view them as film-flam men and snake oil salesmen, people we believed in that ultimately betrayed us as fans. By all accounts Pujols stands a great deal apart from this crowd. Here is a man who – in the harshest of spotlights – continues to demonstrate the kind of character that made us all fans in the first place. I don’t deny that there are other heroes in the sporting landscape. I’m simply pointing out that with the rest of the candidates you have to give up something. This one, perhaps, displays incredible character but is an afterthought in terms of ability. The next could be the opposite – a physical dynamo but one even his entourage must dread being alone with. There’s no compromise with Pujols. He’s a phenomenal player by all measurement and by all accounts the kind of man the rest of us aspire to be.

    Is More Than the Game worth reading? Absolutely. Baseball is something of a Johnny-come-lately in world history (despite its longevity to our eyes). What this book offers is something much more timeless: the story of a hero, his journey, and his conquests. Who doesn’t love those stories? That More Than the Game and its subject point so clearly to a Greater Hero exponential increases the joys of immersing oneself in a story of transcendence.


  7. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: A Review

    May 19, 2010 by Chase

    Guest Blogger: Chase Vaughn

    Wilken, Robert Louis. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 368 pp. $19.00.

    Robert Louis Wilken holds the chair of William R. Kenan Professor of Christianity at the University of Virginia.  He has written many important works in early Christian history, including The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, and he has proven himself to be an eminent guide in the area of early Christian thought.  Wilken’s original intention was to write a sequel to The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, which looked closely at the arguments of early critics of Christianity.  This sequel was going to focus in turn on the works of the early Christian apologists, but Wilken decided that elucidating Christian thought independently of the questions posed by early critics and in light of early Christianity’s inner resources provided a more insightful presentation of early Christianity thinking (xvi).

    Summary

    The Spirit of Early Christian Thought intends to describe the way in which early Christians thought about their faith in the Hellenistic milieu, or as the title expresses: to examine the spirit of early Christian thinking.  The work does not seek to trace out the specific teachings or ideas of early Christianity, as many other works have done; it instead traces out the uniqueness of how early Christians thought about their faith.  Exploring the deeper currents of thought instead of the ideas that bubbled to the surface allows Wilken to connect the intellectual labor of the early church to its ultimate goal, a goal greater than intellectual precision: to “win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives” (xiv).

    A subsidiary purpose is to challenge the thesis of Harnack: that biblical thought was translated into Greek philosophy, resulting in the “Hellenization of Christianity.”  Wilken, instead, wants to demonstrate that early Christian thinking was rooted in biblical history, Scriptural language, and Christian worship, so that, while laboring in the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, the result was not Hellenism but Hellenism transformed by the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ (xvi-xvii).

    The first three chapters explore the sources that engendered the Christian intellectual tradition.  Chapter one explores how the revelation of God in history, culminating in the life of Jesus Christ, transformed Christian thinking about God vis-à-vis Greek philosophical traditions.  Instead of reasoning to God, early Christians began with the reality of God’s revelation, a divine factum having its own intrinsic proof that did not necessitate submission to Greek philosophy.  Chapter two explains how early Christian thought took place in the context of liturgy, where Christian thinkers participated in the res of biblical history.  Chapter three shows the centrality of Scripture in the thinking of early Christians.

    Chapters four through six canvass Christian thinking vis-à-vis specific doctrines.  The intention of the chapters is not to provide a full historical development of these doctrines, but it is to explore the way Christians thought about specific doctrines.  Chapter four explores thinking on the Trinity, grounded in the previously mentioned sources of biblical history, liturgy, and Scripture.  Wilken argues forcefully that Trinitarian thinking was not engendered by rational speculation, but that it was an effort to rethink the nature of God in light of the reality of the divine economy (89).  Chapter five examines Christological thinking, focusing mostly on the thinking of Maximus the Confessor in the context of the monothelite controversy.  The doctrines of creation and humanity are addressed in chapter six.

    The interrelation of faith and knowledge is examined in chapter seven.  The early church sought to understand the limitations of mathematical and detached knowledge.  All knowledge begins with belief in authority, and this faith opens up other avenues of knowing.  Early Christians also recognized that genuine belief in Jesus goes beyond the intellect to the heart which is turned toward God.  Chapter eight explores Christian thought on the relation of the communion of saints to societal and political institutions of this present age.

    Chapters nine and ten look at how early Christians expressed their belief in art.  The rise of Christian poetry is discussed in chapter nine, and iconography with its theological ground in creation and incarnation is explored in chapter ten.  The last two chapters of the book deal with Christian spirituality and moral philosophy.  Intellectual labor was not an end in itself; its goal was transformation before the face of God.  The moral virtues inherited from the Greco-Roman tradition, while recognized as valuable to a limited degree, were seen as deficient in the light of Christian revelation, resulting in the traditional virtues being taken up into a grander moral vision of life: love of God and neighbor.

    Critical Evaluation

    Wilken treads a different path from other major works on early Christian thought, focusing not on ideas but on patterns of thought, and his work is very successful at remaining faithful to this task.  The work is helpfully organized, dynamically expressed, and does not get bogged down in minor debates and nuances of historical interpretation.  Such characteristics could be criticized in other works of history, but in light of the book’s purpose and general audience, they are salutary.

    Harnack’s thesis is contradicted very clearly throughout the work as well.  Wilken moves beyond the surface level polarity of Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianity and probes more deeply into the sources which engendered the Christian intellectual tradition, so that the book more accurately presents early Christianity as a transformation of Greek thought, not a capitulation to Greek thought.[1] James Payton rightly notes that Wilken’s work documents how Scripture opened up new possibilities of thought within the Greek milieu.[2]

    The transformation of Hellenism is documented by Wilken clearly in every chapter.  Early Christian thought was not driven by speculative reason; instead, as Wilken argues, it was driven by the reality of revelation in the person of Jesus Christ and the participation in that reality in worship.  Thus, in contrast to detached reasoning, Christian reasoning was highly involved and grounded in the reality of faith.  Contrary to Greek thought, God is known according to Christians through events of God’s revelation, not through the ascent of the mind beyond sensual encumbrances (7).  This placed knowledge in a historical community of worship which was birthed from the resurrection event, so that faith involved more than physical historical knowledge but manifestation through the physical world to the affections of the believer.  In other words, Wilken shows clearly that Christian knowledge is participatory and relational (18-22).  This devotional intellectual setting makes clear that the goal of reasoning is the praise of God in Christ.  The goal was not abstract knowledge but instead love of God.  And the path toward this goal was not neutral but was grounded in belief in the reality of God’s revelation in Christ.  Christianity’s reasoning, in contrast to Greek thought, was done in the context of worship and prayer.[3]

    Wilken also provides an implicit and helpful dogmatic challenge throughout the work.  Though never stated explicitly, Wilken implies that there are very helpful things to be learned by modern theologians from the early church.  Specifically, Wilken contrasts modern standards of critical exegesis and the exegesis of the fathers (314-15).  The critical point made against modern exegesis is that it is pursued in a detached manner, whereas the fathers understood exegesis within a broader theological context, so that exegesis extended beyond the historical words to an inner reality grounded in Jesus Christ.  Though one could dispute using this Christological ground of Scripture to support allegory (69-77), the challenge to Enlightenment exegetical methodology is salubrious.  Secondly, another area where modern theology is helpfully challenged is in the modern tendency to dichotomize faith and reason.  Wilken shows decidely that there is a better way.  The spirit of early Christian thought was not neatly compartmentalized into faith and reason, piety and intellectual labor, and passion and moral virtue.  Early Christianity rightly challenged such dichotomies, and Wilken provides a refreshing alternative in the intellectual labors of the early fathers.

    While one might criticize the work for glazing over particular problems of interpretation, such glazing is required in order to succeed in painting a picture of Christian thinking from the second to the seventh century.  Wilken, by focusing on a limited number of thinkers and issues, has succeeded in very clearly presenting the basic spirit of the early Christian intellectual tradition, and the book also succeeds in being a excellent introduction for laypeople to the patterns of early Christian thinking, showing that early Christian thought, though using tools of the Greco-Roman tradition, was thoroughly rooted in the transforming event of God’s revelation.


    [1] E. Glenn Hinson, review of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, by Robert Louis Wilken, Review & Expositor 100 (2003): 290.

    [2] James R. Payton Jr., review of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, by Robert Louis Wilken, St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 47 (2003): 442.

    [3] Bryan Hollon, review of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, by Robert Louis Wilken, Perspectives in Religious Studies 31 (2004): 497.


  8. Book Review: What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert

    May 6, 2010 by Jeff Wright

    [Note: if you found this post wanting to know what the Christian gospel is please click here. If you are interested in the book review continue reading.]

    According to Amazon.com Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Gospel? measures a diminutive 7.1×5.1×0.6” and weighs in a 7.2 ounces.

    I’m not a fan of little books.

    I don’t pretend that my disdain for little books is anything reasonable. As a matter of fact I think this is probably an unhealthy reaction to the dinky little super-Christian books that started popping up when I was younger. You probably know them yourself: The Prayer of Jabez, Secret of the Vine, or something of the like. As a result I came to equate small books, particularly those accompanied by a great deal of hype, with all that is wrong in contemporary Evangelicalism.

    Now, as a rule I devour any publication by the 9 Marks organization so when I first saw online that this particular book was being released I rushed to add it to my Wish List. I’m a Christian and thus a big fan of the Gospel; any book dedicated to examining this subject is going to grab my interest. My interest went a bit further also as a few years back I had conducted a blog project (gone now) on the very subject “What is the Gospel?” I had participated in one too many online “debates” (read: throw-downs) that assumed we all meant the same thing when using the term “gospel” which I was convinced is anything but accurate. At the time I often thought to myself how much I wished someone in Reformed circles would release a contemporary work on the gospel so that, even if not definitively defining the gospel, we’d at least have some common ground to work from. As a result I saw Gilbert’s book as a title that couldn’t get published fast enough. We needed this kind of book. So yes, I was excited.

    Remember that I said I added it to my Wish List as soon as I heard that it was coming out? Thing is, I didn’t check the dims. Thus it was with a paradoxical combination of glee and disgust that I found Gilbert’s book amongst the first pile given away at Together for the Gospel 2010. It’s always exciting when you get a Wish List book for free (or greatly reduced cost) but there was this measly little tome lying atop a stack of what was quite obviously (by their size, natch) more significant writings. Mentally I shuffled What is the Gospel? to the back of my mental To Read list.

    Thankfully I ended up reading this book more quickly than I anticipated.

    What is the Gospel? made its way with me to work one Monday and I vowed to read at least one chapter a day. I figured at that pace I’d knock it out quickly (remember: little book, itty bitty pages) and could move on to bigger and better – weightier – volumes.

    I was gratefully surprised to find that Gilbert’s book has a significance that far exceeds its physical dimensions. I don’t say that because Gilbert covers any radically new ground. As a matter of fact one of the strongest aspects of the book is that the author stays so tightly focused on a Biblically-established course. In remarkably concise fashion Gilbert moves from categories familiar to most Christians: What Does the Bible Say to God the Creator to Fall of Man to Jesus the Savior to The Appropriate Response (you can see the Creation > Fall > Redemption categories clearly here, a fact Gilbert acknowledges).

    What I find remarkable is that Gilbert can cover fairly well-worn grown in a way that doesn’t seem derivative or copy-cat yet still communicate grand truths in a very conversational way. (As I have always admired Mark Dever’s ability to do this very thing I was not surprised to read at the end of the book that Gilbert considers Dever his mentor. I’m more than a little jealous, by the way.) I would be very comfortable putting this book in the hand of unbelievers, young Christians, and mature believers – as a matter of fact I plan to do that very thing. Again, the text is very accessible and direct yet covers all the ground that I would hope would be contained in a book bearing the title What is the Gospel?

    After walking us through the categories mentioned above Gilbert takes a minute to touch on what it means to live as a Christian (the Kingdom), why it is important to say Cross-centered in our thinking and speaking about the Gospel, and finally a closing word about the power of the Gospel. These elements too are not novel but do present some of the fundamental implications of the gospel in a fresh way.

    So who do I recommend this book to? Honestly, anyone who speaks English. I read an unfavorable review on Amazon (note: the only one) that accused Gilbert of taking too long to get to the gospel and assuming a church context that is not readily understandable. I wonder if this reviewer read the same book I did. From beginning to end there is rich, gospel-centered truth that is as accessible (actually, more so) than the local newspaper. Yes, there is a discussion of the church (what do you expect from a 9 Marks book, particularly one about the Gospel) but nothing that is foreign or strange to a reader even remotely familiar with Western culture.

    For the Pastor please take a minute to read this. It will remind and confirm and refresh you in the truths of the Gospel, a renewal we all need. Then, pastor, go buy a bunch to give out to your church. The Bible clearly indicates that the gospel isn’t the introductory course in discipleship, one to be learned then set aside to go to deeper topics. We need to hear the gospel regularly and repeatedly. We need to think about the gospel and its implications. We need to talk about the gospel with believer and unbeliever alike. This book will contribute to all those things. Furthermore, putting it in the hands of your congregation will not only encourage thought and conversation on the gospel but I dare say that if your membership roll isn’t as regenerate as it should be you will see fruit in conversion as well. What I just wrote is entirely applicable to the lay Christian as well. As for me I find myself sometimes the object of curiosity when someone, whether family or new acquaintance, asks about my job as a minister. From now on when someone asks me what it is that I believe as a minister guess which book I’ll put in their hands first?

    So now all that remains for me is to figure out the best way to get a bulk discount on these. Surely that won’t be too hard; there can’t be much production cost in a piddling little book like this…


  9. Book Review: Four Views on Hell

    April 3, 2010 by Jeff Wright

    Introduction

    The book Four Views on Hell centers on the eternal destiny of those who die outside of the grace of God in Christ.  The writers’ four positions defended in the book are “The Literal View” (John F. Walvoord, former President of Dallas Theological Seminary and author of some 30 books on Christian theology, including The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit and Every Prophecy of the Bible[1]), “The Metaphorical View” (William V. Crockett, professor of New Testament at Alliance Theological Seminary[2]),  “The Purgatorial View” (Zachary J. Hayes, retired teacher of theology at the Catholic Theological Union[3]), and “The Conditional View” (Chark H. Pinnock, Professor of Systematic Theology at McMaster Divinity College and author of  more than a dozen books, including A Wideness in God’s Mercy: the Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions and Unbounded Love: a Good News Theology for the 21st Century[4]).  The book is arranged so that each author is allowed to present his view in as compelling a fashion as he is able to achieve, after which the other authors are allowed to respond critically to the presentation.  Ultimately, Walvoord’s presentation of a literal interpretation of the Biblical data regarding Hell is most compelling although Crockett raises several persuasive points for his own position.

    Summary of the Book

    Perhaps a more appropriate title for this book would have been, “Three Views on Hell plus One View on Purgatory,” as Walvoord, Crockett, and Pinnock exhaust their efforts in discussing the traditional view of Hell while Hayes puts forth a defense for the idea of Purgatory found in Roman Catholic theology.  John Walvoord takes center stage and his defense of the traditional evangelical view of Hell forms the foundation for the book as the remaining authors’ writing on Hell attempt to either modify (Crockett) or refute and update (Pinnock).  Walvoord presents a straightforward defense of a literal view of Hell filled with the unredeemed who are perpetually and eternally tormented in a burning flame.

    William Crockett is largely in agreement with Walvoord regarding the eternal timeframe of Hell as well as Hell’s population.  His position diverges from Walvoord’s on the nature of the torment that those in Hell will receive.  For Crockett the Biblical images of flame and darkness are best understood as images or symbols most familiar to the original Biblical audience that would communicate agony and torment, and thus we should understand the flames and darkness not as literal components of Hell but rather metaphors for the anguish experienced by those in Hell.

    Zachary Hayes, while still in some ways discussing the eternal fate of those outside of God’s grace, diverges from the other three authors’ discussion of Hell.  Hayes’ focus is on Purgatory as a place where penitent humans are gathered after death in order to have their sins expiated.  His defense focuses on an apology for Roman Catholic theological method and, while quite thorough on this subject, never really alights on the subject of Hell.

    Clark Pinnock’s position is the biggest divergence from the traditional view contained in the book.  While agreeing with Walvoord and Crockett that some will ultimately leave mortal life unreconciled to God, Pinnock finds the idea of eternal torment in a literal lake of fire both inconsistent with the Biblical text (in some places mirroring Crockett’s understanding of Biblical hellfire as metaphor) and the character of God as understood by the rational mind.  For Pinnock the final fate of the damned is not eternal conscious torment but rather final extermination in non-existence (although he speculates that this dissolution of being might very well be proceeded by an undefined period of torment).

    Critical Interaction with Each Author’s Work

    Position 1: The Literal View

    John Walvoord presents the case for a literal understanding of Biblical data regarding Hell in a logical and direct fashion.  For Walvoord the Biblical exegesis is the supreme and only standard of theological information.  Furthermore, the Bible makes the reality of an eternal literally burning and darkened Hell so clear that to question the traditional doctrine amounts to questioning the authority of the Word of God (pg. 37).  Any objections to the traditional position arise, in Walvoord’s thinking, from either a sentimental reluctance to embrace the clear Biblical teaching or a theological commitment not arising from the text itself (11-12).Walvoord understands the Hebrew word sheol to be the most common reference to Hell in the Old Testament.  Sheol is, at least, a reference to the grave (14-15) and is a place of darkness and punishment for the wicked (16).  The Greek word hades, generally speaking, is the New Testament equivalent of sheol and leaves room for ambiguity in regards to duration and condition for those departed souls contained therein (19).  Walvoord sees a much clearer description of the state of the wicked in the afterlife in the Greek word gehenna which, according to Walvoord, references eternal torment (as does the equivalent word tartaros) (19).  Gehenna references the Valley of Hinnom where criminals were buried and refuse burned during the days of Christ’s life (20).  Gehenna thus directly references a perpetual burning, for Walvoord the precise reason that Christ drew so heavily on this word to describe the tormented state of the wicked.

    Walvoord’s defense of Hell as eternal torment centers on the text of Revelation 20:15 (26).  In verse 10 of this passage the devil, the beast, and the false prophet are consigned to a lake of fire where they will be tormented continually, forever and ever.  Since this same location is put forth as the place into which the wicked deceased are cast in verses 12-15 the duration for the unredeemed humans who join the devil, beast, and false prophet must necessarily be the same as well.  Walvoord thus contends, “Scripture never challenges the concept that eternal punishment is by literal fire” (26).  Any objection to this clear truth is sourced not in exegesis but rather in sentimental theological argumentation.

    Position 2: The Metaphorical View

    William Crockett contends that while the Bible does indicate that the unredeemed dead will suffer eternally there is no justification for a literal view of a “burning abyss” because the Biblical data uses the fire motif as a means of communicating a warning of eschatological doom (44).  Crockett encourages his reader to not get caught up in the specific images of fire and darkness but rather to in a sense look behind the images to the reality they point to, namely eternal torment of the worst kind.

    Where Walvoord consciously relied only on the text of Scripture to demonstrate the validity of his position Crockett is much more comfortable citing notable theologians and Christian figures like J.I. Packer and Billy Graham to make his case (45).  He also makes much of the history of interpretation regarding the Biblical data, proposing that there was “no uniform view” amongst the early church regarding the specifics of Hell (46) with a commitment to a literal interpretation becoming dominant only in the 18th and 19th centuries (48).

    Crockett’s case is strongest where he points out that Biblical imagery is often used to describe that which is beyond human comprehensions and thus beyond being captured in human language, specifically in regards to Heaven (55).  The absence of widespread defense of the literal physical dimensions of heaven (Revelation 21:12) or physical properties like streets of gold (vs. 21) most likely indicates that Christians are more aware of the potential symbolism of these descriptions (55).[5] Furthermore, Crockett rightly points out that rabbis made use of hyperbole to drive home important points in their teaching leaves room for the possibility that the Bible’s descriptions on Hell are similarly hyperbolic (50).  Conversely, Crockett’s case is weakened by his reliance on theological debate from the ages, particularly when he cites Jewish rabbinical contradictions regarding Hell (59).  His assertion that the Biblical imagery of flame in Hell conflicts with the Biblical teaching about Hell as a place of darkness is also simplistic and ignores the radical difference between the age to come and the present age.

    Position 3: The Purgatorial View

    Zachary Hayes’ presentation of the Purgatorial View is the oddball aspect of this particular book.  It stands alone as a presentation of an intermediate and ultimately cleansing state of those who die in imperfect relationship to God, as opposed to presenting anything on the topic of Hell.

    Hayes operates on an entirely different soteriology than any of the other three authors.  While Walvoord, Crockett, and Pinnock assume two categories for all of humanity – saved or unsaved; redeemed or damned – Hayes works off a third category that occupies something of a middle ground.  To his mind those in Purgatory are those who have died and “still in need of…purification” (93).  This category of people is not condemned to Hell, though not quite fit for heaven, and thus in need of refinement through suffering before being admitted to Heaven.

    Hayes also operates on a unique theological methodology, at least unique to Four Views on Hell.  Whereas the other three authors give at least preference to Biblical revelation Hayes considers Biblical revelation a peer to human reason and the historical development of thought in the church.  Interestingly, Hayes cites Cardinal Ratzinger in defense of the idea that a purging suffering after mortal death is needed to expiate sin (99).  That Ratzinger was elevated to the Papacy after the publication of this book speaks to the power of the voice of Catholic theologians in not only the development, but also continuation, of uniquely Catholic purgatorial doctrine.

    Hayes sees the need for Purgatory in the gap that exists between fallen man and Holy God.  To Hayes’ mind this gap requires purification in the creature, but purification is not always accomplished perfectly before the mortal life ends.  Thus, the deceased have need for not only suffering beyond this life to cleanse from sin but also the involvement of believers still alive acting on behalf of those who have already passed away (96-98).  Hayes concedes that this purgatorial view is without clear affirmation in scripture (104) but makes the claim that there is nothing contrary to the doctrine of Purgatory in the scriptures (107).  These two claims represent the most fatal weaknesses in Hayes’ presentation, destructively eroding his prior attempts to build a convincing case for the existence of Purgatory.

    Position 4: The Conditional View

    Clark Pinnock’s presentation of what he calls the Conditional View can also accurately be described as annihilationism. Furthermore, his position represents the greatest departure from the traditional position amongst the three authors who address the subject of Hell. According to Pinnock the early church embraced too much Hellenistic philosophy, an embrace that has done more to shape the traditional view of Hell than the actual text of Scripture.

    Pinnock makes much of a supposed contradiction between the Bible’s presentation of a loving God and the traditional idea of a literally burning Hell where sinners are tormented forever (140).   Pinnock also makes much of his argument on the basis of his assertion that the Bible is largely unclear as to the specific details regarding the final destiny of the damned (144).  In this point Pinnock comes into the same orbit as Crockett in their mutual belief that scripture is largely ambiguous in presenting details regarding the specific elements of Hell.  Finally, Pinnock relies heavily on human rationality as an accurate tool in evaluating God’s plan for history.  In Pinnock’s presentation God must conform to a contemporary understanding of what is and is not just.

    Pinnock gives much attention to the early church’s embrace of Hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul (147).  However, he never appears to consider whether or not he has also absorbed his own day’s philosophy regarding moral absolutes and their resulting consequences.  His position is also weakened by his reliance on metaphysical ideas of harmony in the universe as if God is obligated to conform to a contemporary metaphysical definition of what constitutes harmony (151).  Pinnock also acknowledges his position’s inability to address texts that suggest degrees of punishment in Hell like Matthew 10:15 and Luke 12:47-48 (154).

    Conclusions

    Walvoord’s initial presentation of Hell as a place of eternal torment for the unredeemed, literally burning and literally dark, is the strongest and most compelling contained in Four Views on Hell.  Walvoord steams straight ahead in laying out a clear and logically ordered presentation of Biblical data in defense of his position.  While he sometimes attempts to force certain texts (like Ecclesiastes 9:4-6 and Isaiah 14:9-10) into service to his cause overall he acquits himself well as an able defender of the traditional view of Hell.

    Crockett’s presentation, although overly reliant on theological arguments (to the detriment of exegetical work), raises significant questions regarding the intention of the imagery employed by Biblical writers to describe Hell.  That the images of Heaven are perhaps symbolic in what they attempt to present about Heaven appears to be reasonable justification for questioning whether or not the images of Hell should also be understood symbolically.

    Hayes’ presentation is flawed in its understanding of the nature of man, the potential of man’s works – be it in acquiring righteousness or working off sinfulness – to accomplish salvation, and what was accomplished by Christ’s righteous life, vicarious suffering, and triumphant resurrection.  Further exacerbating the problem is his willingness to allow the voice of man credibility equal to God’s revelation.  It is no surprise then that his conclusions go so far beyond anything exegetically justifiable.

    Clark Pinnock’s position is a similar exaltation of man within the theological method.  His confident and condescending surety of his own position’s accuracy and objectivity repeats many of the errors he ascribes to the early church.  His presentation is a thinly veiled attempt to repurpose God’s revelation as a theological source secondary to human reasoning.  Ultimately Pinnock’s attempt to camouflage himself as an orthodox theological explorer comes up far short of his goal.


    [1] “John F. Walvoord,” Website name, http://www.walvoord.com/author_bio.php?author_id=1 (accessed February 28, 2010).

    [2] “William Crockett,” Zondervan.com, http://www.zondervan.com/Cultures/en-US/Authors/Author.htm?ContributorID=CrockettW&QueryStringSite=Zondervan (accessed February 28, 2010).

    [3] “Zachary J. Hayes,” Zondervan.com, http://www.zondervan.com/Cultures/en-US/Authors/Author.htm?ContributorID=HayesZ&QueryStringSite=Zondervan (accessed February 28, 2010).

    [4] “Clark H. Pinnock.” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry. http://www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/bio1-3.htm (accessed February 28, 2010).

    [5] Although, in fairness, this absence could also be because there has been no widespread attack on the descriptions of Heaven similar to the attacks on the Biblical descriptions of Hell.


  10. Book Review: Breaking the Missional Code

    May 16, 2007 by Jeff Wright

    Breaking the Missional Code

    Breaking the Missional Code

    Ed Stetzer and David Putman

    “Evangelistic community.”  That phrase isn’t quite an oxymoron and is perhaps more than a misnomer. By definition, communities are defined, limited. How do you know who is and who isn’t part of the community without the boundaries that distinguish one community from another? Churches are, amongst other things, communities. The Church is also called to be evangelistic, to bring others within her community. So here is the challenge: the set nature of the church community must be expressed in such a way that it is regularly and intentionally drawing those from without in. Add in the fact that the church exists in a culture no longer familiar with, let alone friendly to, her ways and the challenge begins to appear Herculean. Breaking the Missional Code seeks to guide pastors, believers and churches seeking to be faithful to their calling to this task. More specifically, BTMC seeks to help North American churches apply principles used by overseas missionaries to their local context, becoming missionaries to the communities they live, work, and recreate in.

    The major principles of BTMC can be summarized in the following points:

    1. Western culture is changing in such a way that many different ethnic, national, and affinity groups exist in the same geographic area in a manner not seen previously on such a broad scale. This situation is described in the term “glocal community” as opposed to “local community.” (glocal = global + local) Therefore we can no longer attempt to understand communities in a given area as basically uniform but rather must viewed as layers of differing cultures existing together.

    2. The Church (speaking universally but applied locally) must seek to meet these new conditions with new strategies customized to the culture they are attempting to reach rather than seeking to apply blanket approaches to any arising situation.

    3. There is hope of success; churches have arisen which “have the ability to read the culture and translate biblically faithful and culturally appropriate expressions of church” [pg. 21] from which transferable principles (not methods) might be gleaned.

    4. The processes used to reach the targeted culture will, by and large, involve (a) forms of worship that connect with pre-existing elements in the target culture and (b) intentionally developing relationships which provide natural grounds for evangelism and discipleship.

    5. On a broader scale the planting of new churches has become the means by which new communities are reached with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    6. These new churches will form networks (not necessarily in the form of denominations) which enable them to be more effective in their efforts. These new churches will also intentionally seek to develop their form from a theological and culturally aware perspective.

    The methodology central to BTMC compromise Chapter 15 in my copy of the book, found on pages 211-223:

    1. Understand [Your] Self
    (a) Confirm God’s Call upon Your Life
    (b) Fall in Love with the People [That You are Called to Reach]
    (c) Die to Yourself and Your Preferences
    (d) Examine Your Leadership Readiness

    2. Understanding Community
    (a) Get Counselors from the Context [You are Seeking to Reach]
    (b) Identify Natural Barriers of Your [Targeted] Community
    (c) Review the Census Information
    (d) Study Demographic Information
    (e) Talk to the Experts [Those Who Know Your Targeted Community]
    (f) Move Beyond Demographics and Anecdotal Conversations
    (g) Do Prayer Walks
    (h) Identify Spiritual Strongholds
    (i) Review the History [Of Your Targeted Community]; Become the Expert

    3. Understanding Networks
    (a) Find Out where God is Already Working [In the Targeted Community]
    (b) Determine Who Influences the People that God has Called You to Reach
    (c) Find “Bridge People” from the Context

    4. Understanding Where God Is Working in Churches and in Cultures
    (a) Find All the Churches in Your Area and Map Them Out
    (b) Research Indigenous Churches
    (c) Determine Their Musical Preferences
    (d) Determine Their Dress
    (e) Determine Their Leadership Systems
    (f) Determine How They Learn
    (g) Identify the People Groups in the Area that Are Within Your [Targeted] Mission Context

    Having read the book I offer the following as the strengths and weaknesses of approach taken by BTMC and the solutions it offers.

    The Good

    1. Offers Helpful Insight into Problems with Contemporary Church Culture

    (a) Let me show you what I’m talking about with some of my favorite quotes.

    “…evangelicals have obtained political power but exercise little moral influence. For many, evangelicals have become a voting block rather than a spiritual force.” (pg. 9)

    “In other words, there is no just one white, young, emerging cultural code to be broken. The gospel needs to penetrate every culture and every culture needs to be exegeted for the gospel.” (pg. 12)

    “Many evangelicals live in a ‘Christianized’ world where people listen to James Dobson tell us how to raise our children, consult Ron Blue to understand our finances, sing along with Third Day for musical inspiration, choose political candidates based upon Christian Coalition voting guides, and read Tim Lahaye to enjoy some good Christian fiction. We live in this evangelical subculture. Some call this the ‘herding effect'” (pg. 33)

    “Take a moment and look at Acts 1:6: Here they are two thousand years ago, and they’re saying,  ‘Lord, is this it? Is the rapture coming? Are you going to restore your kingdom to Israel?’ Two thousand years later and evangelicals are still obsessed with the question.  Nothing is wrong with speculative fiction, but here is the point…When the disciples had an inordinate interest in the end times, much like we do today in North America among evangelicals, Jesus said “Do not get focused on that!” (pg.40)

    “In churches that move to Christian maturity, satisfied church people often miss the point. Instead, they often want to go ‘deeper’ with ‘meat.’ Ironically that ‘deep meat’ is often a focus on the obscure or unclear in Scripture rather than on the life-changing nature of what is clear. The irony is that most people crying for ‘meat’ are really crying for minutia. They want to learn the deeper truths about the times of the rapture rather than how to live the Christian life. True meat teaches people how to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.” (pg. 80)

    “…quit trying to trick guests to wear special name tags, to stand up for greeting, or even to remain seated while people stand ‘in their honor.’ People are not stupid; they know you want their name and number for follow-up. If you make them feel welcome and they connect, they will give you that information.” (pg. 147)

    “Any church with a membership twice its attendance is not and cannot be living up to its responsibility to care for, nurture, watch over, and disciple its church members.” (pg. 150)

    (b) BTMC informs believers that we can’t assume Biblical vocabulary, categories, or understanding in the people we’re seeking to reach

    On page 125 the authors make this point unambiguous:

    “Those outside the church most often begin their journey toward Christ with their backs toward the gospel’ they either have a neutral or hostile attitude toward the church.  Over a decade ago, George Hunter began informing us that secular people had ‘no Christian memory’ and that the church no longer enjoyed a ‘home court advantage.’ He went on to define those with no Christian memory as ‘ignostics.’  We can no longer assume that people understand some of the basics of the Christian message. In most cases, secular people are ignorant of the gospel. Some are offended by it. Those who are not offended are often neutral because they have no basic understanding of Christianity. Many, and in some communities most, people have never walked into a church, they have no familiarity with Scripture, and they have no relationships with authentic followers of Christ. Any perception they might have are skewed by the media.”

    This is a point which needs to be made often. One of the things that continues to surprise me, regardless of how often I encounter it, is the failure of believers to expect the lost to think and act like lost people. I’m sure it comes from a lack of understanding in regards to the fundamental change brought by the new birth. That does not make it excusable. I would only quibble with BTMC’s assertion that “some” people are offended by the Gospel. The Bible says that everyone (including you and me before Christ intervened in our lives) is offended by the Gospel. I will concede that some manifest that offense to a greater degree. However, we should expect that which the Bible says is offensive to everyone to provoke an offended response. Furthermore, based on the scriptural revelation that no one seeks God as well as continually skews what they do know of Him, we shouldn’t be surprised that our lost culture can’t speak the language of God’s wisdom revealed in His Word. Not only should we not be surprised but we should also anticipate such a response.

    2. Encourages Helpful Attitudes in Christians and Churches

    (a) The “sent” nature of the church

    BTMC offers the reader a healthy does of Great Commission imperative. The third chapter of the book focuses in with laser-like precision on the non-negotiable command to believers and churches to be about the business of going and winning lost people to the Kingdom of Christ. In this sense, every church is a Missionary Church. From page 31:

    “The church is, and you are individually, God’s missionary to the world. Your church is God’s instrument to reach the world, and it includes reaching your community. We are sent on mission by God. We are to be a missional church by calling, nature, and choice. We are called to be on mission in our community. We have been sent to be on mission in our context, and we must accept that call, that directive to be on mission where God has placed us.”

    (b) The imperative to minimalize preference in light of the church’s calling

    The danger of allowing our preferences to take preferred status in our decision making is a subtle one indeed. We tend to think what we prefer is right (and vice versa I suppose), thus we are often blind to unscriptural standards we enforce on others around us as non-negotiable. This is a battle to be vigilant in and BTMC offers helpful encouragement in this area. The one caveat is that through right practice we can train ourselves to prefer that which God has commanded but rarely do these types of preferences interfere with our call and, in regards to our call, the Lordship of Christ leaves little room for making me comfortable. BTMC is also helpful in remind us that the early church struggled with these same issues as they moved beyond Jerusalem.

    (c) Brings evangelistic imperative into the individual’s personal life

    I don’t have one salient quote to provide on this point. I’m speaking to the general tone of the book, one which compels the reader to continually be thinking about what is going on in one’s own life and church to reach the lost. In a time where many churches use programs and institutional activities to provoke evangelism it is refreshing to read a reminder that one can be a faithful evangelist simply by talking about Jesus with those you interact with on a daily basis.

    (d) Encourages love for one’s community

    I think this is one of the strongest points that BTMC makes in its encouragement to be intentional about ministry. Perhaps this point resonates with me so strongly because I so strongly dislike the thought of picking a ministry position based on something other than an awareness of God’s call on your life. I’ve heard of plenty of people who hop from position to position seeing a bigger church, more prestige, more pay, etc. I’d like to see a return to a marriage/covenant perspective between the minister and his people. I can understand this can be a challenge. I hope it is a fight that more ministers are willing to engage in. I understand that churches can loose touch with the changing communities around them as well. This too is a fight worth fighting. From pages 214 and 215:

    “For many churches, particularly in areas that some people consider undesirable, this is a hard step. Once they loved the people who lived around their church but somehow, somewhere along the way, things changed and they have not yet fallen in love with the community that is around them now. We can never reach a community that we don’t love. We will never reach people whom we are unwilling to love. If you are having a difficult time loving the community, pray. You must ask God to change your heart and the hearts of the people in your church! Once God softens our hearts toward the community, then we can begin to live as aliens who love the community where God made us sojourners.”

    The Bad

    1. Overlooks the significance of the new, transcendent community formed in redemption.

    The last helpful attitude that I listed above was BTMC’s strong encouragement to the reader and the Church to love the community which they are called to reach. This helpful attitude, when expressed in practical “how to” format in BTMC, ends up being an unhealthy emphasis on adopting the culture of the targeted group. I call this unhelpful because this effectively eliminates the opportunity for a new, transcendent culture which is based on the redeemed new life in Christ to develop.

    The book is ripe with language of the best “method” to reach a particular group and encouragements to “design the church” (pg. 158) in a manner that will serve the purpose of reaching people. I’m entirely uncomfortable with using ecclesiology in such a utilitarian manner but that is not why I reference this language. I reference because the need to mold the church to fit the purpose of reaching people is often met in BTMC by taking the values already present in the “focus group” (pg 76) and mold the church around them. Therefore you have a church that not only apes secular culture but, from the get go, fails to show that there is anything unique to the church that compels these people together. Rather, the church ends up looking like any other affinity group with no factor readily apparent which explains why this group is different from a sewing club or 4×4 riding club save for what the group does.

    This is culture-centric church development model is illustrated in an analogy on pages 32-34 and 42:

    “In generations past this [glocal culture] was less of an issue. Most Americans (at least of the Anglo variety) looked and thought somewhat alike. Similar to a pancake, the surface of North American culture was flat and similar. Today, North American is like a waffle. If you hold a waffle flat, it looks like many evangelical churches; everything looks the same.

    When we turn up the waffle, we see a different picture. We see that the waffle is made up of multiple divots. These divots represent customs, cultures, and communities, and contexts where people live out their lives with different perspectives and worldviews-right next to mine.”

    On page 42 the author describes a church that had their community change around them. What did they do? “The church moved to a new divot in the waffle” and this is presented in a positive light.

    This divot hopping fails to communicate the life altering change brought by Christ which compels people of vastly different cultures and worldviews uniting together despite their differences to worship the One who brought them together and into a church. If this molding of a church based around pre-existent cultural cues is a significant part of “breaking the code” then I join the author when he says “Where this code has been broken it is not unusual to see cowboy churches, biker churches, recovery churches, and the likes emerge.” (pg. 13) I am not, however, as sure this is a good thing as the author seems to be.

    2. Overly reliant on technique and personality when discussing the development of a church

    On pages 46 through 48 the authors of BTMC attempt to differentiate the methods of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels from the category of “Church Growth” strategies. I disagree with their distinction and suspect that if one were to ask the average evangelical pastor to name the 3 most prominent church growth gurus both those names would most often find themselves in the list offered. From the first reference to Warren and Saddleback Church on page 18 the reader finds the flavor of Rick Warren throughout the remainder of the book, both in name and in borrowed technique.

    In fact, Warren is described on page 23 as “perhaps the most famous missional code breaker”, thus tying missional thinking/methodology to the most famous of the church growth experts. This of course ruins BTMC’‘s attempt (Chapter 4) to present the missional concept as distinct from the church growth movement. Regardless, as already mentioned, Warren’s influence is felt throughout the book in various ways. One of the more egregious examples is found on pages 23 through 24:

    “Warren surveyed his community and found why people in his community did not go to church.  Warren [then] developed his strategy from an analysis of the community.  Warren’s process, not his letter, is the key. He asked the unchurched about their values, needs, and preferences and then developed his outreach accordingly. We need to exegete our communities as well.”

    Finer minds than mine have communicated very well why there is a significant problem with seeking the mind of the unchurched to determine how the church does what God alone should direct so I won’t go back over that ground here. I simply offer this as an example of how the unhealthy elements of The Purpose Driven Church and other church growth methodologies come through almost unfiltered in BTMC, the only difference being that they are aimed at the glocal culture as opposed to baby boomers.

    Furthermore, the reliance in BTMC on technique and personality leaves no room for a consideration of Biblical methodology. So much attention is given to the techniques of churches who are “breaking the code” that the reader is left wondering whether the authors believe the Bible only provides the content of the Church’s mission while saying nothing about its methodology. In fact, it seems to me that BTMC assumes that the goal determines the path free from any revelation from God beyond what to do. This is particularly troubling when one comes across statements like “Proclamation evangelism has decreased in effectiveness” [pg 84] or (In regards to a church plant’s potential for success) “everything rises and falls on the planter’s readiness.” In BTMC’s system there is no room for a scriptural catch that says “proclamation evangelism” will always be effective because God has chosen for it to be so or that the future of any church is dependent upon Christ and not the person who plants, pastors, or mows the yard.

    3. Presents a feeble ecclesiology

    On page 114 BTMC presents this definition of a church (quoting from the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message):

    “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

    This is a fine definition, if a bit truncated. The problem here is not that a short definition was presented but rather that it comes 114 pages into the book, approximately ½ of the way through. Up until this point there has been much discussion of what a church should be doing. Several entities described by BTMC dare referenced as exemplary churches to draw lessons from. However, without a definition the reader is left without any idea whether or not these examples are actually churches or not. Furthermore, definition necessarily informs direction in regards to the church which would be helpful to the previous 114 pages.

    This feeble ecclesiological perspective comes across in several areas. One, BTMC tends to reduce the “job” of the church to evangelism (pg. 39) and leave out the fact that the central purpose of the church is to glorify God. Again, to be fair, BTMC does at least once reference the glory of God as a central purpose of the church. However, when the details of how to do what the church should do from BTMC’s perspective the central task is always evangelism, even bending corporate worship to the task of evangelism. On page 139 Kevin Hamm of Valley View Church in Louisville, KY is cited positively when he says that “We have worked from the premise that worship is the front door of the church.” This utilitarian definition of worship as primarily an evangelistic opportunity fails to account for the primary purpose of corporate worship, namely the adoration of the Redeemer by the Redeemed. Considering that the lost cannot worship a God they hate trying to bend corporate worship to that end is wrong headed at best and blasphemous at worst. Other examples of this utilitarian approach to worship can be found on pages 41-42, 64, 100, and 210.

    Related to a previous point, the lack of a well formed Biblical ecclesiology throws open the door to a church that is little more than an expression of the culture it targets to reach. From page 50:

    “Being missional] means to take the gospel into the context where we have been called…and to some degree, to let the church take the best shape that it can in order to reach a specific culture.”

    Again, we have no reference to the form given to the local church by scripture as if scripture were silent on the issue. In fairness, the authors do allocate space to the need for theological foundations sourced from scripture, particularly in Chapter 13. However, the book never comes down on specifically how these theological issue effect the practical issues of the church.

    In conclusion, I’m left unsatisfied by Breaking the Missional Code. After my conversation with Dr. Ed Stetzer I found myself genuinely excited to read this book and hoping that it would be a boon to my ministry. What I found was engaging and to some degree thought provoking but the problems with the book compromised the good it offered significantly. I suppose the most simply summary that I can offer is that I found that while BTMC presents itself as a guide to a new paradigm for whole church life (Chapter 4) I found it to be, by and large, a repackaging of familiar church growth ideology aimed at a new target group. Basically, if you took The Purpose Driven Church and inserted “Missional” for “Purpose Driven” and aimed the book at the glocal community instead of baby boomers you would have Breaking the Missional Code. Being thoroughly dissatisfied with The Purpose Driven Church and wary of almost everything related to Warren I was finally disappointed in Breaking the Missional Code.

    That is not to say the book is without merit. The authors communicate helpful material as I’ve mentioned above. My reservation in recommending this book comes from the fact that I cannot anticipate that each reader who takes up BTMC will have a robust commitment to Biblical ecclesiology and thus be able to avoid some of the dangerously weak parts of BTMC. However, in supplement to other works on the nature and purpose of the church I would recommend BTMC to the seminary student or pastor who is looking for an understanding of what direction church culture will, most likely, be heading. It will also offer the helpful methodology outlines in Chapter 15.

    However, if you want to read one or two books on the subject of the nature and purpose of the church I would recommend you pick up a copy of Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church or Phillip Ryken’s City on a Hill. Once those books (or others like them) have been thoroughly digested the reader would be in a position to better benefit from what Breaking the Missional Code offers.