Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Galatians Backstory/Christory by Phillip A. Ross

Because of my blog, I occasionally get requests from independent authors to review their books. As an aspiring independent author myself (I have a book in the works right now) I want to support others. Also, free books! The latest book is Galatians – Backstory/Christory by Phillip A Ross. Thanks for the book, Phil. Here’s my review.

Summary

Galatians – Backstory/Christory is a commentary of sorts on the book of Galatians though it differs from a traditional commentary in several key respects. The first chapter of the book is about what Ross calls “The Backstory,” or the metanarrative of Scripture that lies behind the major themes in Galatians. Ross’s goal in sharing this backstory is for us to have the right lens to read Galatians. This chapter is by far the longest and sets the foundation for the rest of the book. The rest of the book walks through Galatians section by section, applying components from the backstory as it goes. You get an interesting mix of Systematic theology and biblical exposition, where the backstory functions as Ross’s systematic theology, the lens by which he performs his biblical exposition on Galatians. In another blog post he refers to this process as “biblical discernment.”

The Backstory: Ross begins by re-telling the story of the Old and New Testaments. The principle theme here is of God bringing people and culture to a greater level of maturity and conformity to God’s law. To do this God adopts the symbols of fallen humanity to seek perfect obedience. For instance, he adopts the symbol of child-sacrifice in order to test Abraham’s faith. He adopts the symbols of sacrifice for Israel’s sacrificial system to reveal His nature to them.

On the one side, then we have God teaching humanity by using symbols and language they can understand. On the other side you have humanity confusing symbol for reality and gradually moving away from God. So, for Ross, first the Tabernacle, then the Kingdom, and then the Temple were departures from God’s original plan. Even though God worked in each of these, they represent a failure on Israel’s part to fully follow God.

There’s a similar movement with the law: The 10 commandments represent the purity of God’s speech, the standard of obedience. The Deuteronomic code represents the work of Israel’s elders – still sanctioned by God but only for a specific time and place. The Torah, which Ross describes as both the biblical material and extra-biblical material developed by the Pharisees, is yet another application. We need to apply God’s law to specific situations, but we have a problem when we attempt to apply that single application to every time and place. What we need is a fresh understanding of the law and a fresh application of it. The “calcification” of the law leads to slavery. A reformation to the original purity of God’s will leads to freedom.

This is the lens through which Ross reads Jesus’s ministry, particularly seen in his cleansing of the Temple. Jesus sees how the symbols of religion have been confused with a true relationship with God and he sees how the law has become a burden. Both are characteristics of the Temple Establishment, the religious leaders who held sway over the Temple and Israel’s religion. In clearing the Temple, Jesus was calling for prophetic reform. He was calling people past the symbolism of religion to the reality of God. In condensing God’s commandments into two: Loving God and loving neighbor he was doing something similar with the law.

The Backstory in Galatians: The primary enemy Paul faces in Galatians, then, is the Temple establishment, which stressed the importance of religious ritual and obedience to the whole of the Torah, including extrabiblical laws. Paul argues instead that that what we need is not more laws, but a new heart. We get that new heart through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. It is that same regenerating work of the Spirit which enables us to repent and believe in Jesus. That is not to say that Galatians is opposed to the law. Instead, Paul affirms that faith is what leads us to obey the law of Christ. But we’re not called to obey the Old Testament laws, but to hear Christ’s call to the original code: Love God and love your neighbor, and then figure out how to apply it (through the Spirit) to our current age.

We principally apply the law of Christ by being characterized by the virtues outlined in the fruit of the Spirit. Ross takes a unique approach in interpreting the fruit – at least one I had not heard before – where he describes the fruit as the “food for the seed.” That is, the Spirit is planted and grows where the virtues of love, joy, peace, etc. are present. So, the regenerating work of the Spirit gives us new hearts, and out of those new hearts we provide fertile ground for the Spirit to continue to grow.

How does all this relate to freedom? Ross summarizes as follows: “Paul’s point was that the laws and customs of Moses were being trumped by the laws and customs of Christ… Paul was not trying to institutionalize [the law of Christ], but to contrast the freedom in Christ to interpret and apply the Ten Commandments for a new age. They had freedom from the inherited laws and customs of Moses and the errant Second Temple establishment – not the freedom to do whatever they wanted, but the freedom to do what God originally wanted humanity to so…” (207, emphasis added) Again, “the freedom that Paul was talking about was the freedom to abandon the Second Temple in order to build the Temple of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (209)

Galatians and culture: This book is thick and covers a lot of topics and many of them can’t be covered in this review. However, I wanted to make a note on Ross’s description of culture. Culture is often seen as something that is maturing. It starts out very immature, and God had to condescend to speak a language it could understand. But culture has matured and is maturing. This maturation process primarily happens through the work of Christ in the world. Like the yeast that leavens the whole bread or like the mustard seed that grows into a large tree, so will Christ’s work be in the world. The end times are not a moment, but a process worked by the Spirit. We participate in the work by understanding God’s word for our time and providing that “fruit” for the Spirit to work: the virtues of Christ in us.

Again, quoting Ross: “God’s purpose is to put an end to sin, to reduce the destructiveness of sin, one person at a time. God’s purpose is the regeneration of humanity, and the establishment of shalom by creating a great harvest of the fruits of the Spirit… And the success of this grand plan requires planting Christ’s seed – the grace of Jesus Christ – in every culture, in every individual.” (290) Indeed, Ross insists God has made gradual but meaningful progress: “Humanity today is not the same as humanity was during previous eras… The establishment of Christian culture is a central feature of Christ’s mission.” (297)

It’s difficult to summarize such a long and multi-faceted work. Ross dealt with a wide range of topics. But the main points I pulled out of the book are these: (1) The primary lens we should view Galatians from is the conflict between the Temple establishment and the work of the Holy Spirit. (2) Old Testament laws need to be re-understood and re-applied in the light of Christ. (3) The Holy Spirit regenerates believers. (4) The work of Christ, through the Spirit, is the redemption of all human culture, a gradual but sure process.

Analysis

It is clear that Ross has spent a lot of time studying and interacting with Scripture. I really appreciate his emphasis on the metanarrative and on attempting to understand Galatians in the light of the whole story of the Bible. He weaves together Old Testament stories, passages from Galatians, and the life and work of Christ into a single work. I also appreciate his desire to be faithful to what he refers to as the “veracity” of Scripture. He holds it in high regard. On that and many other points in the book we agree.

We do, however, have a different systematic theology. My purpose in this post isn’t to argue which is right, but to highlight the consequences of those differences.

First: What is the primary conflict in Galatians? And what, then, is freedom? For Ross the enemies are those who say that you must follow the Second Temple law. Freedom is the power, through the Spirit, to re-interpret and re-apply those laws in the light of Christ. I would agree that this is a component of the conversation, but my perspective is that the real conflict goes to the question: How can we be saved? Is it by obeying the law (any law) or by grace through faith alone. Paul’s opponents argued that circumcision – a work – was necessary. Paul argued it was all grace. This question, how can one be made right with God, is at the heart of Galatians. Freedom from the law, then, is freedom from the law as a means of salvation. We’re now free to obey God from a position of gratitude.

Second: What’s happening to culture and what is the Christian’s response to culture? For Ross, the formation of culture through the Christian witness is central to Christianity. Indeed, it’s one of God’s ultimate goals. I’m not sure I agree, at least not in this age. In this age, God’s goal is the salvation and formation of a particular people: the Church. The church’s relationship with the culture is complex. Some parts of culture can be affirmed. Some should be critiqued and rejected. We should be a witness to the culture. We invite people to follow Christ. But the formation of culture isn’t our primary task.

Third: What does The End look like? My perspective on the mission of the Church and the task of Christianity is closely related to my view of the end of the world. I see in Scripture a sudden event, a time which constitutes Christ’s return, the Day of the Lord, the day of ultimate salvation and judgment. Before that time culture will get better and worse. It will show both improvement and corruption. Culture cannot be “fixed” until that point. But on that day God will make all things new and evil will be swept away in judgment. Goodness will be firmly and irrevocably established. The task of the church is to prepare people for that day, or for their own day, the day of their death when they face the judgment seat of Christ. We still try to be salt and light in our culture, of course, because we love our neighbors. For their sake we want a world with less poverty, less violence, less oppression, less greed, less hatred, etc. But our first task is declaring the good news, not just that God brings about improvement, but that He brings about rescue.

Postscript: Galatians and Christian Reconstructionism: In an email exchange with the author I learned that he was interacting specifically with what is called Christian Reconstructionism. Christian reconstructionism advocates a theonomy (not to be confused with ecclesiocracy): “A Christian form of government in which society is ruled by Divine Law” (via Wikipedia). Most atheists I come across believe that most Christians want a theonomy, even though this is actually a minority position. This is not a movement I know a lot about, but it was behind much of Ross’s thought.

Ross interacts with the Christian Reconstructionist movement on several key points. First, he shares the view of a gradual improvement and Christianization of society and he sees that as something Christians should work towards as a primary aim.

Second, though, he disagrees with many in the movement who believe that Old Testament law applies to our world today. Instead, he would say that we’re free from that law, that we should instead look to the law of Christ: love God and love neighbor, and then through the aid of the Spirit, discern how it applies to our modern world.

Third, he seems to argue for a bottom-up instead of top-down approach. The Christianization of culture/society/government happens not with a coercive approach, but through the personal regeneration of the Holy Spirit, the spreading of the seed of the gospel, and the fruit of the Spirit manifest in the lives of believers. While I’d still disagree that the Christianization of culture is a primary task of the church, I appreciate critique of the Christian Reconstructionist movement.

* For a test case in how I see the interaction between the church and one aspect of culture – particularly political engagement – see this post on refugees and immigration.

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Book Review: The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher

The “benedict option” has been an influential idea in certain sectors of Christian culture for a while now, even before Rod Dreher made it into a book. So, despite my interest in how Christianity relates to the broader world and culture, it’s a little surprising that I only now got around to it.

For those unfamiliar, the basic concept behind The Benedict Option is that America culture is becoming less Christian. Additionally, some Christian beliefs, especially regarding marriage and sexuality, are becoming especially unpopular. The question for Dreher is this: How do we respond to this trend? How can Christians be faithful to Christ in an increasingly post-Christian country?

Dreher does not give a prescription for “getting back” to the old days when Christianity dominated the culture or the political landscape. He sees the election of Donald Trump, while possibly staying the tide of more formal animosity, as ultimately a symptom of bigger cultural problems. His answers are not political, at least not in the American political sense.

Instead, Dreher’s emphasis is on forming thick communities of faith which will be able to withstand the strong winds of secular culture. This means that the church will need to get back to a more faithful version of itself, to escape the hold of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and be the church.

Dreher begins with a history lesson: Where are we and how did we get here? He paints a bleak picture of a culture increasingly post-Christian and a church increasingly influenced by secularism. The time to act is now, if we can have eyes to see and the will to act.

He then moves onto the solution, starting with the St. Benedict. Benedict is the hero of this story because, as civilization was crumbling around him, he formed a community of monks who continued both the preservation of the faith and the fruits of Western civilization. The monks, and monastic life, are featured prominently in this book. Our homes, Dreher says, can become miniature monasteries with all the practices therein: order, prayer, work, and asceticism, hospitality, and balance. The rest of the book is an expansion on this theme.

Three chapters stood out to me: “Education and Christian Formation”, “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture”, and “Man and the Machine.” Each chapter, for a certain audience, is bound to be provocative.

In “Education and Christian Formation” he argues Christians should enroll their kids in Christian schools, specifically Classical Christian Schools, or to homeschool their kids while participating with some kind of Classical Christian school partnership. He arrives at this conclusion, first, because he sees education as central to Christian formation and central to the formation of the communities he envisions. He looks to minority religious Jews in this regard. Second, he notes that right after parents, peers are the most influential group in a young person’s life. Add onto that the fact that many American schools are overtly secular and Dreher arrives at the following provocative conclusion: “The rationale [that we have to keep our kids in public schools to be a witness] begins to sound like a rationalization. It brings to mind a father who tosses his child into a whitewater river in hopes that she’ll save another drowning child” (157). So, why Classical Christian schools? Classical education approaches education from a different perspective. It focuses not on just adding a Bible class, but on integrating all disciplines of education under Christ himself (plus it has an emphasis on Western civilization, which Dreher is a fan of).

In “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture” Dreher talks about how Christian communities can respond to the sexual revolution. First, he says we shouldn’t compromise just to try to “keep” the younger generation in church. Those who are accepting the secular view of sex aren’t becoming part of liberal churches, they are leaving church altogether. Second, we need to affirm a positive and wholistic view of sexuality. Third, we need to support unmarried people. Fourth, we need to fight pornography with everything we have.

Finally, “Man and the Machine” addresses the Christian community’s response to technology. Dreher, of course, notes the negative uses of technology – such as rampant pornography among younger and younger teenagers. But he goes further and addresses the technological mindset, the mindset that judges everything by whether we can do something rather than whether we should do it. To that end he argues that technology is not morally neutral, but has the power to reinforce a scattered and impulsive life. How should we respond: Go on regular digital fasts, work with your hands, take the smartphones away from your kids.

Dreher concludes with two images of floods. In one, Christian communities are little arks, weathering the storm of a crumbling culture. In the other, the flood waters are redemptive, sweeping away the old so that when the waters recede new life can spring up. He concludes with this more positive image of the church, retaining its life and saltiness so that it can once again bring life to the world.

Review

Agree or disagree with some of Dreher’s points above, his book is worth a read and his arguments are worth considering. I agree that one of our primary strategies during this time is the formation of Christian communities, to refocus our attention and energies on faithfully being the church. I’m not sure I share as bleak a picture of the world as Dreher, but time will yet tell who is right.

I also think this book is worth balancing with another book which covers a similar set of topics: This is our Time by Trevin Wax. The thesis of Wax’s book is that we should get to know our cultures deepest desires and then show how those desires are fulfilled only in Christ. Take technology: We’re drawn to social media because we want to be known and liked. But social media only disappoints. We show ourselves, but only versions of ourselves. We are liked, but only superficially. But God knows us fully and loves us fully. Our desires – given expression in our use of technology – are only fulfilled in Christ. Wax, then, sees the same sorts of problems that Dreher does, though his book offers a more outward focused way of dealing with them.

That’s not to say these two books are mutually exclusive. Both have important things to say. There is a worthwhile balancing effect. Also, The Benedict Option is not insular. He does give a nod to the importance of hospitality and of welcoming others into the community. His emphasis, though, is primarily on preservation.

All in all, this is an important book. I hope you’ll read it and consider its arguments.
Book Recommendations
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel

Book Review: The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse

Book Recommendation

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance

Summary

I’ve been admiring Senator Ben Sasse for about a year now. He’s one of the few Senators who speaks with substance about broad principles. He’s consistently conservative, but isn’t very partisan. He doesn’t just buy the into the party line – and that’s earned him a number of enemies within his own party, but also a lot of respect in my eyes. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to read this book.

The library I got this book from categorized it as “politics”, but it’s not a policy book (and he explains why in the postscript). It’s closer to a parenting book, actually, and all the chapters in Part 2 give practical suggestions to parents. If you want to classify it as a “political” book, you should define “politics” more broadly to mean “public life”, or maybe even “culture.” Sasse sees culture as upstream from policy and partisanship and it’s the broader context of culture and shared public life that Sasse addresses.

The Problem

Sasse is specifically concerned about the “vanishing American adult.” He’s concerned that we’re failing to teach our younger generations how to be grown-ups, that we’re consigning them to perpetual adolescence. Part 1 of his book gives a more detailed account of the problem and how we got here. Part 2 provides suggestions for specific remedies. For the purposes of this summary and review I’ll focus on Part 2.

“An Active Program” 

How do we remedy the problem. The Vanishing American Adult outlines six solutions. 1) Avoid age segregation. 2) Teach hard work. 3) Embrace production over consumption. 4) Travel. 5) Read good books. 6) Embrace America as an idea.

Avoid Age Segregation: We live in a highly age-segregated culture with precious few opportunities to learn from our elders. If we only interact with people our own age we get a truncated view of life. Most importantly, we miss out on learning about the most fundamental questions that comes to us at the end of life, but that we should ask sooner: What is a life well lived? What truly matters? How can I cope with the reality and immanence of my own death and the deaths of those I love? To that end, Sasse encourages providing young people opportunities to interact with and learn from people of all generations.

Teach Hard Work: Sasse believes that, as a result of our unprecedented national wealth, we’re becoming softer and more averse to hard work. Hard work builds character and a healthy sense of self-worth. His advise? Figure out how to develop a sold work ethic in your children.

Embrace Production over Consumption: Consumption (beyond the necessities, of course) doesn’t bring us happiness, even though the marketing world would have us believe it does. Production – and knowing that our work is meaningful – does. To that end, Sasse encourages us to produce more and consume less.

Travel: Sasse makes a distinction between travel and tourism. Tourism, while it has it’s place, is just a different form of consumption. Travel, on the other hand, is about gaining wisdom, experience, and a broader perspective of the world. Sasse is after adventure. He believes that good travel doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive – or even far away – so long as it embraces that attitude of exploration. He recalls several of his own trips as a young man.

These reminded me of my own 10-day road trip I undertook with a couple of classmates immediately after high school. We took a loop through Canada and then to the East Coast, sleeping in our Jeep Wrangler, or at a friend’s house, or on a park bench in Boston Commons when we didn’t get back to the parking garage on time. This is the kind of travel Sasse is talking about, and I agree that this trip was an important “coming of age” step for me.

Read good books: Amen.

Embrace America as an Idea: The American idea is that of self-rule as opposed to external rule. Before America, the dominant idea was that governments ruled over their subjects, conferring a few limited rights to its people. The American idea flipped that around. In America, the people would rule and the government’s job would be to protect our unalienable rights. This idea has proven successful and transformed the world. But, this idea only makes sense if the people are able to self-govern. Children, though, lack that capacity. This is why it’s so critical to avoid being trapped in perpetual adolescence. America works only if it’s citizens are adults, are self-reliant, are self-governing. Without a self-governing public, we will try to hold back the chaos by ceding more and more control to the government – the path to eventual tyranny.

(Exhibit A in this discussion is the alarming trend of young people seeing the First Amendment as a dangerous thing. This most fundamental of American principles is under attack on college campuses and elsewhere. Why? Because we’re afraid of hurting people’s feelings. We’ve lost the adult ability to argue about great ideas. We’ve adopted instead the childish path of shutting down discussion, much to our detriment. Just before writing this review I read an article about BLM protesters shutting down a speech from the ACLU about free speech. Ironic. And sad.)

Review

I read this book primarily as a citizen and a parent. I’m worried both about the direction of our country, and my own ability to raise adults. I recognized, at various points, my own failure to “toughen up” my kids. I need to recapture simple tasks, like making my kids do chores before they watch TV. I also read this as a pastor – how do we encourage multi-generational interaction in the church? How do move kids in our children and youth ministries toward spiritual adulthood? How do we avoid perceptual spiritual adolescence?

I recommend this book to, well, just about anybody, but especially those who are more politically inclined, or parents who are concerned about raising self-governing adults.

Siddhartha: Buddhist Solomon

The book of Ecclesiastes records Solomon’s search for meaning. That path leads Solomon down many wrong paths and at the end of each path he finds meaninglessness. His path leads him to seek wisdom, pleasure, and accomplishment, and finally leads him back to simple and faithful obedience to God: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” Ecclesiastes 12:13

Siddhartha, my most recent companion on my commute, reminded me a lot of Ecclesiastes. It’s the story of Siddhartha’s search for meaning. Unlike Ecclesiastes, it is told from a Buddhist perspective and has a Buddhist conclusion.

Ritual, asceticism, learning, and pleasure

Siddhartha starts as a religious devotee. He had mastered all the religious rites and prayers and was on his way to becoming a successful Brahman. He was admired by his parents, his peers, and his friend Govinda. But Siddhartha was not satisfied with sacrifice to the gods. He wants to discover the divine oneness that lies within himself.

As he is praying one day and speaking the “ohm” he sees some traveling ascetics, Buddhist monks called Sramanas. He convinces his father to let him become an ascetic and he and Govinda follow that path. As a Sramana he tries to completely empty himself of himself, to lose himself, through fasting, meditation, and deprivation. His goal is enlightenment. However, he learns that he can always only lose himself for a time, after which he is always, once again, himself. This, he decides, is no better than a person who loses himself in strong drink or momentary pleasures.

He begins to make up his mind to leave the Sramanas and finds his opportunity when the Buddha Gautama arrives. He and Govinda go to hear the Buddha. Both admit that the Buddha’s teaching is very wise and clear and Govinda decides to become his disciple. But Siddhartha believes now that teaching does not provide the path to enlightenment. He believes that the Buddha really has become perfected, but that it only came through a private experience, not by learning. Siddhartha, disillusioned once again, decides to pursue his path elsewhere.

Through a private insight, he now plunges himself into the realm of personal experience. He meets a beautiful woman and learns love from her. He becomes a merchant. He even takes up gambling. For a while he experiences this with a sort of personal disconnectedness. It’s a game for him. It’s a set of goals which he is able to accomplish, but all the while he has a sort of mocking attitude towards it.

But the more he plunges himself into pleasure the more it begins to take hold of it. It begins to empty out his soul. He becomes obsessed by his possessions. He gambles heavily and wildly. And, finally, he reaches his breaking point. Metaphorically he ate until he was stuffed, then sick, and now it was time for him to vomit it all out.

He left all his possessions behind, along with his lover, and began once again to travel. He came upon a river and was about to commit suicide by plunging himself into its depths. But as he was about to do it he spoke the word “ohm” and was saved. He fell asleep and awoke refreshed.

He then became the companion of a humble ferryman and from the ferryman he learned to listen to the river’s wisdom. In this he found a life of contentment, at least for a time.

Eventually, the Buddha Gautama became ill and many of his followers flocked to see him before he died. One of those followers was Siddhartha’s past lover, now with Siddhartha’s son, who he did not know he had. They came across Siddhartha, but she died shortly after their meeting. Siddhartha loved his son and attempted to raise him, but his son did not love him, and eventually completely spurned his father and ran away.

And here Siddhartha bore his final pain, his final wound. For a long time, he could not get over the loss of his son. But in time, Siddhartha learned a final lesson from the river. He heard in the river all the voices of life together – cries of joy and pain and battle. He learned from the river that it is always moving and always progressing and yet it is at once always at its source and always at its destination.

From this he concluded that time was an allusion and that all was ultimately one. He was at once Siddhartha the religious, Siddhartha the ascetic, Siddhartha the indulgent, Siddhartha the suffering, and Siddhartha the perfected one. That he was on a journey to perfection was only an allusion since in the oneness of time and being he had already attained his goal. He also saw, then, that his son needed to go on his own journey, with all its different twists and turns, and that all those twists and turns were both necessary and caught up in the divine oneness of being. Here Siddhartha found peace.

The Search and the Destination

How does Siddhartha’s searching, and conclusion, line up with Solomon’s and the rest of the Bible’s vision?

The source of enlightenment: For Siddhartha, “One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking — a detour, an error.” Contrast this with Scripture, where we see that knowledge and fulfillment come from outside the Self, from God. God grants us knowledge of Himself within us – to all men through a sense that He exists – and in believers through the Holy Spirit. But both of these inner senses exist ultimately to point us away from ourselves to a fundamental reality apart from our selves.

The role of teaching and learning: For Siddhartha, “Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Solomon would acknowledge the limits of learning: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Knowledge can lead us to wisdom, it doesn’t necessarily make us wise.

But, Siddhartha’s critique is harsher than Solomon’s. His problem with teaching is that the teacher must make distinctions, must distinguish between real and illusion, between Nirvana and suffering, between good and evil. Siddhartha believes the world cannot be divided as such, since all things are fundamentally intertwined and interconnected. Teaching necessarily obscures the truth. The Biblical worldview disagrees. It’s sees knowledge, learned through teaching, as a necessary step towards the truth. Teaching has its limits. It cannot transform the heart. But it enlightens reality, it does not obscure it.

On time and distinction: Siddhartha finally rejects time, and with it, distinction. A stone is at once a stone and soil and a person and a god. It is not potentially those things, it is not that such a transformation will happen, but that it is simultaneously those things. Siddhartha acknowledges that such a teaching sounds ridiculous, but as noted above, this is a case where teaching obscures, not clarifies, reality.

Again, Solomon would disagree. While “there is a time for all things” under the sun, those things are distinct. There is “a time to be born and a time to die” but those are fundamentally different realities, taking place in the reality of time.

On the goal of life: What is the goal of life? For Siddhartha it is simply to ascent to what is and to the fundamental oneness of reality, it is to agree with the ever flowing river of life in all its manifestations. This means agreement with the good and the evil, the joy and the suffering, the wisdom and the foolishness. And, in that agreement, to find peace. Siddhartha’s journey is complete when he finds individual perfection, understood as an inner state of tranquility.

Solomon’s story seems to end with simple resignation, “This is the duty of man.” But the breadth of Scripture leads us beyond this. The goal of life extends beyond the inner self. For Christians, it’s also about our relation to other people and, most importantly, to God.

Consider, for instance, the ethical implications of Siddhartha’s elimination of distinctions. What happens if we begin to view good and evil, justice and injustice, joy and suffering, as all necessary and natural to the divine “ohm” of reality, distinct only in their particular manifestations?

Perhaps from a personal perspective we will then be able to make peace with all of them and find inner tranquility, but we won’t be able to fight for one side of the reality over and against the other. From an ethical perspective, if we want to fight for what is good, we first need to be able to make a distinction between good and evil. Such distinctions are essential to the Christian worldview and fit naturally with the idea that our chief end is beyond the self.

Many in our time, even if they are not Buddhists, take the same path as Siddhartha. Even secular materialists also must ultimately do away with the distinctions between good and evil, justice and injustice. The world simply exists and cannot be judged by any outside standard. All is one, all is transformation, all is cycle. The Christian worldview is fundamentally different, and, therefore, so is our ultimate goal.

Book Recommendations:

Programming note: I am going to start adding book recommendations at the end of each post. The first reason for this is purely self-seeking. My blog has reached the point where it gets about 500-1000 views per month, mostly from search results, and I’ve decided to become an Amazon Affiliate to try to turn those views into a bit of extra money (nothing so far). The second reason is that I think reading good books is really important. Each of these books is a book that I’ve either read, or has been recommended to me by a friend. Each will also relate to the post. If you want to buy the book and you do it from the below link, hey, I get a little cut. But that’s of secondary importance.

The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th Edition

Book Review: Miracles by Eric Metaxas

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life
Story:

Here’s an interesting coincidence, especially given that I was reading this book: It took me about 5 weeks to finish the audio version of this book. I listened to it on my commute to and from work. I finished the book on September 12th. On September 11th, I thought about listening to sports radio since I’m a football fan and there’s always interesting sports talk on the radio on Mondays. I decided to listen to this book instead. And what miracle story would I hear on my commute but a story of how a woman escaped from the twin towers on September 11th! I don’t know what to make of this. Was it coincidence? Was it something more? Either way, it’s an interesting story.

Overview:

 

 

There are three major sections to this book aside from the introduction and the conclusion.

The first part deals with the miracle of creation, the fact that there’s something rather than nothing. Metaxas holds to an “old earth” view of the world but that doesn’t stop him from being amazed at creation or calling it anything short of miraculous. The chances of life existing apart from some Divine intervention is impossibly small and Metaxas’s description of this is really well done.

The second part deals with miracles found in the Bible. Here he focuses on God’s purposes in giving miracles: As a sign pointing to Himself.

The third part is a list of modern miracle stories. These stories include conversion miracles, healing miracles, visions of angels, and other stories. Metaxas limited the stories shared to ones that were clearly supernatural (not mere coincidences), were from people he personally knew or got to know, and were from people that he trusted to be telling the truth. The miracle stories were truly compelling stuff.

On credibility

But were the miracle stories true? Metaxas quotes G.K. Chesterton extensively at the start of the book from Orthodoxy. Chesterton argues that it is atheists who don’t take the evidence seriously when it comes to miracle stories. These stories, on their face value, have a ring of truth unless you by faith say that miracles can’t happen. You must either believe that the people telling the stories are either lying or crazy if you want to disbelieve their stories. Certainly, there are those who lie about or imagine such things, but I don’t think it makes sense to discount them all. Furthermore, many of these stories happened in public view and could easily be corroborated. In general, then, I’m inclined to believe them.

I still found myself to be skeptical. Why?

On my own presuppositions

First, I found myself disagreeing quite strongly with Metaxas’s political positions during the 2016 election. Some of his views made me question his judgment and/or honesty. Ultimately, I know that this reasoning is mostly illogical, though. The book should be judged on its own merits.

Second, many of the miracles happened to those of a charismatic and Pentecostal theological persuasion. Maybe I’m skeptical because I’ve seen some of their positions misused. Or maybe I’m skeptical because God’s working specifically in that community could undermine some of my own assumptions. (However, the miracle stories covered happened to charismatics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, and Lutherans alike.)

Third, one of the healing stories happened at a Benny Hinn crusade. This made me cringe. When I shared this with my Sunday night bible study group they helpfully reminded me that God has shown that he can work even through a donkey.

Conclusion

I believe in miracles, especially those miracles found in Scripture. I also believe that God continues to be active in the world today. The stories included in this book are incredible – and credible. The longer-term effect of this book, I believe, is to open my eyes once again to their possibility. Like many Christians, even I can get caught in a materialistic mindset and miss out on the active work of God. This was a good reminded of his continued work, as the one Outside creation, breaking into creation to point humanity back to him.

9 Marks of a Healthy Church: Book Review

 

41Be-zFOs6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Summary:

 

In Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (3rd Edition) (9Marks)Mark Dever “describes some marks that distinguish” healthy churches from unhealthy one. His book is less like an “anatomy of the body” (an exhaustive list of what a church is/should do) but a prescription (how a church can be/become healthy.)

The Marks:

#1: Expositional Preaching: It is the Word of God that forms and gives life to the people of God. Therefore, the purpose of preaching should be to faithfully explain and apply that Word to the congregation. For Dever, this is “far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all the others should follow.”

#2: Biblical Theology: Closely related to the first, this one particularly relates to correctly understanding the character of God, namely that God is the creator, He is holy, He is loving, and He is sovereign.

#3: The Gospel: A right understanding of the Good News flows out of our understanding of God. Healthy churches understand what the gospel is (and is not) and call people to faith and repentance.

#4: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion: A right response to the gospel – faith and repentance – leads to conversion, a radical change in the new believer’s life. Dever argues that this sort of change is necessary, possible, involves further reliance on Christ, and comes about through God-given faith.

#5: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism: Dever promotes evangelism that is undertaken by the whole community of the church and not just left to the “experts.” Evangelism shouldn’t be done out of a desire to win an argument, but out of love for God and neighbor.

The first five marks are standard fare for evangelical Christians and churches, if not in execution, at least in philosophy. Marks six through nine cut against the grain of (at least older) church growth books.

#6: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership: Dever argues for a making church membership more of a priority and of having there be a higher bar for membership. Against the trend to deemphasize membership Dever says, “membership in a local church is intended to be a testimony to our membership in the universal church. Church membership does not save, but it is a reflection of salvation.” Members commit to the church and have certain obligations to the church, to the pastor, and to fellow members. A high view of church membership makes the remaining marks more intelligible.

#7: Biblical Church Discipline: For many this is a scary one (and in a later Appendix Dever argues that in churches where discipline has not been exercised, that it should only be eased into slowly.) For those unfamiliar with this concept, church discipline occurs when a member falls into unrepentant sin. The end result is either repentance and reconciliation, or exclusion from membership. The goals of church discipline are restoration of the person being discipline, to serve as a warning to other believers to see the danger of sin, to promote the overall health of the church, to serve as a corporate witness, and to reflect the holiness of God. Mark number 7 relies heavily on mark number 6.

#8: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth: Here finally Dever explains more of what he means by a “healthy church.” Healthy churches are concerned about individuals “growing” and “bearing fruit” as disciples of Jesus. By “growth” he doesn’t mean numerical growth, but spiritual growth. A church should be concerned to see “people who are growing up, maturing, and deepening in their faith.” He then goes on to show how each of the other marks contributes to this kind of growth.

#9: Biblical Church Leadership: Dever’s Baptist distinctives come through in this chapter. He argues for congregational rule, with leadership work delegated to a plurality of male elders. The task of those elders is to exercise authority, lead by example, equip the church for ministry, and serve the congregation. Dever acknowledges that often authority is abused, but that God gives authority as a gift, and when exercised in a godly way, it is ultimately life-giving.

Review:

The goal of 9 Marks of a Healthy Church is to lay a biblical foundation for healthy churches. It doesn’t get into a whole lot of particulars. That’s helpful to know going in. I found myself skimming through some of the material because I take so much of it for granted already.

For church leaders, pastors or elders, this will serve as a good rubric by which to examine the health of your church. In reviewing this list, I see some areas where we could improve. Though, I would supplement this book with other, more practical ones.

For those who attend church, I recommend reading chapter six on the importance of church membership, and if not a member of a church, to consider it, or if a member of a church, to consider how you can better serve your church.

For discussion: If you were to add a “mark” to this list, what would it be?

The deeper wisdom of Future Babble

Last week I wrote critically of the worldview underlying most of the sociology books I read using Future Babble as the prime example.

Future Babble is all about expert predictions gone horribly wrong. Daniel Gardner’s basic thesis is that a lot of experts are really bad at predicting what will happen in the future, but that people tend to keep buying into these predictions anyway.

It was an interesting book, and even though I find fault with some of the underlying assumptions, the book still has a deeper wisdom that is worth paying attention. I took two big lessons from this book.

Humble people are usually better at analyzing the future

Gardner makes a distinction between experts who he calls hedgehogs and others he calls foxes. Hedgehogs know one thing really well. They are smart and confident. They are usually the ones who appear as talking heads on cable shows. They sell lots of books. But they are often wrong. If fact, they’re no better than non-experts at making predictions about the future. Hedgehogs are also great at “explaining away” their misses. “I just got the timing wrong,” “If only this hadn’t happened,” “you misunderstood what I said to begin with,” etc.

Foxes, on the other hand, don’t focus on only one thing. They are less confident and more cautious. Because they are more nuanced, they’re less likely to be on talk shows and TV. They’re also a lot more likely to be right about the future. When they get it wrong, they’re more likely to admit it and learn from their mistakes.

Hedgehogs are marked by pride; foxes by humility. I think I remember something about pride going before the fall. We should be wary of our own overconfidence.

Be cautious of experts who are confident of what the future holds

Don’t be a hedgehog. But don’t trust a hedgehog either. They’re often wrong.

There have been many doomsayers throughout the years. The world was supposed to be way overcrowded by now, with the end of affluence, and whole sections of the earth wiped out by famine. The age of oil was supposed to be over.

There have also been those who predicted that all would be sunshine and roses, that we would be living in a Utopian age.

Neither of these predictions, confidently given, turned out to be correct. But a string of bad predictions doesn’t dissuade a new generation of confident pundits from boldly predicting the future. We should be cautious of them.

Gardner’s argument for why experts so often get it wrong is two-fold. First, we live in a complex world. Second, we’re biased in our judgments. I would agree with both of these (though for slightly different reasons than he does). I would add a third element. There’s another hand at work: the providence of God. He holds history in his hands and his ways are beyond and above our ways. Though we can expect the future to be filled with both highs and lows it’s less important for us to know exactly what those will be or when they will occur than it is to focus on our relationship with the One who holds that future. Uncertainty is a cause for worry, but God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of wisdom and self-discipline. Leave the future to God, focus on following him now.