Tag 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.

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.

Fight: Book Review and Response

fightA right and a wrong way to Christian non-violence

I’m often less concerned with the position a Christian takes on controversial topic than I am with the way they arrive at that position. That’s the case with pacifism – or Christian non-violence. There are two paths, often taken together, that I strongly disagree with. The first of those wrong paths is to fail to take the Old Testament seriously, or to dismiss it outright. This view essentially relegates the entire Old Testament obsolete in regards to the question of violence. And, while there is discontinuity between Old and New this view fails to see that there is also an essential unity in the whole of Scripture. The second wrong path is to remove wrath, vengeance, and retributive justice from the character of God. But this fails to recognize huge chunks of Scripture, and does serious damage to the work Jesus does on the cross.[1] Whenever I speak to a proponent of Christian non-violence, I’m often on alert to how they arrive at their position.

Preston Sprinkle (Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence) gets there the right way. He takes the entirety of Scriptures seriously and doesn’t begrudge God his right to execute righteous judgment. Therefore, while I disagree with some of Sprinkle’s conclusions, I find that we agree a lot more than we disagree.

The Thrust of Sprinkle’s argument

Sprinkle argues that Christians, following the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and following His own example of nonviolent suffering should fully embrace nonviolence. He argues that it is never right for a Christian to use violence. His book is broken down into three sections: Review of the Old Testament, Review of the New Testament, Q&A.

The Old Testament: Eden represents the ideal. In Eden, there was no violence. When sin entered the world, it became exceedingly violent. God, in establishing Israel, made provisions for them to use violence to enact capital punishment and engage in warfare. Yet, Sprinkle argues, Israel by comparison was a lot less violent and militaristic both in its laws and its warfare policy than the surrounding nations. By the time we get to the prophets, we see a continued movement away from the use of violence in order to move toward the Edenic ideal. In other words, God provided for Israel to use violence in limited circumstances for specific purposes, but this was not the ideal for God’s people.

The New Testament: Sprinkle argues that in the New Testament nonviolence is fully embraced. Jesus taught it on the Sermon on the Mount. He gave an example as he bore up under the suffering of the cross. The epistles command Christians to revoke vengeance and to follow the example of Christ. What about the violence in Revelation? Sprinkle acknowledges the violent images of God’s judgment on the earth, but he doesn’t see individual Christians taking part. Instead they conquer through their faithfulness to Christ and ultimate martyrdom.

Q & A: After reviewing the biblical material Sprinkle takes on some specific questions: What about if an intruder enters your house? (A: Find some other way to save yourself and your family) Is it right to use violence to save someone else’s life? (A: Tentatively gives voice to the lesser-of-two-evils argument) What about Christian participation in the military or the police? (A: Only if you can serve in a way that doesn’t require you to kill another person)

Response:

There’s a lot I agree with in this book: God’s people should be peace-loving and work toward achieving the Edenic ideal of nonviolence. Christians should bear up patiently under persecution following the example of Christ. Christians should not be enamored with militarism or military might. Christians should pursue other ways to resolve conflict that more closely achieve ideals of enemy love.

There’s a few areas I found interesting, but will need to reserve judgment until further study can be accomplished: I wasn’t convinced by his interpretation of the Canaan conquest, or by his interpretation of Revelation.

Then, there was the 10% I disagreed with: Sprinkle argues that it is never right for a Christian to use violence, or does he? He addresses a hypothetical question later in the book. Suppose someone is about to kill an innocent person. The only way to save the innocent person would be to kill the aggressor. Would it be permissible to kill the aggressor? Through gritted teeth Sprinkles says, “probably.” That’s because saving the innocent person is the lesser of two evils. Love for that person is a “higher” love than love for the aggressor and this allows for the action to save the innocent (and kill the aggressor). On this account I agree with Sprinkle. I just argue that doing so should not necessarily be called evil.

We live in a world marred by sin and violence. We have not yet reached the Edenic ideal. So, while we pursue it, we don’t fully live there yet. This is recognized throughout Scripture. And, throughout Scripture, God makes provisions for using violence to hold back evil. He does it through Israel in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the authority to use violence is shifted to the civil government. And it appears that it will be part of the final judgment. Violence, then, is not always evil. (Sprinkle doesn’t say that it is, only that it’s wrong for Christians to use it).

Of course, Jesus overcame evil through the cross, through non-violent action. Christians, following after Jesus, revoke vengeance and aim to love their neighbors. In this way, the Christian community embraces the Edenic ideal now even though we live in an age of not-yet. We’re the early adopters. I agree that non-violence should be a mark of the Christian community.

But what about Christians in the police and military? God has allowed for some use of violence to restrain evil through the civil government and the use of this force (if used justly) is good. If this action is good then Christians can engage in it. What would be wrong for a Christian to do as a private citizen, isn’t wrong for them to do as an agent of the State, because God has delegated to certain agents of the State a certain moral authority not available to others. Why has God done this? In order restrain evil in a violent and sinful world. Sprinkle sees this as inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount. I do not.

So, while I agree with a lot of what Sprinkle argues for in this book, I’m not ready to fully embrace non-violence as a rule with no exceptions. The pattern throughout Scripture allows for some use of violence to restrain evil. We aim for the Edenic future and we live there as much as possible, but a love for justice and a love for our neighbor sometimes makes forceful restraint a necessary though unfortunate (but not necessarily evil) response.

I’m thankful to Sprinkle for a well constructed argument and for challenging me to live a more Christ-like life.

[1] Brian Zahnd is an example of a pastor who comes to a pacifist position through these two paths (at least, based on everything of his that I have read).

Book Recommendation
Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence

Book Review: Youth Ministry in the 21st Century: Five Views

youthminMy first thought when I saw the title of this book: “I didn’t even know there were five distinct views, what could they possibly be?” Here they are, in a nutshell:

The Gospel Advancing View by Greg Stier: This view focuses on evangelism, on saving the lost. Stier believes that discipleship happens when the mission (the Great Commission, the “Cause”) is at the forefront.

The Reformed View by Brian Cosby: This view attempts to apply consistently Reformed beliefs and practices to Youth Ministry. This includes an emphasis on faithfulness instead of “success” and a emphasis on the “means of grace”: the Word, prayer, and sacraments, as the primary drivers for youth ministry.

The Adoption View by Chap Clark: Clark believes that we have erred and become too individualistic in our view of discipleship and need to focus, instead, on building up the body of Christ. This view emphasizes the need for churches to “adopt” children into “family” of God by including them more deeply within the broader church.

The Ecclesial View by Fernando Arzola: Like the Adoption view, the Ecclesial view focuses on the Church. Where the adoption view emphasizes the local church congregation, the ecclesial view focuses on the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” church. It emphasizes connecting youth with the historic church.

The D6 View by Ron Hunter: “D6” stands for Deuteronomy 6. This view argues that it’s God’s design that parents should play the primary role in discipling their children and that the church’s job is to lay the theological foundation, equip the parents for their work, and come along side the parents in a supporting role. The D6 model also emphasizes having and integrated approach to children, youth, young adult, and family ministry where ministry leaders work towards a common goal.

Analysis: In my initial estimation, the Adoption view and the D6 view made the strongest case for being the overarching philosophy for youth ministry. The others are important to keep in mind as well, though, and could provide necessary correctives when things get out of balance.

I’m curious, which of these types of youth groups did you grow up with? What worked and what didn’t?

Book Review: Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah, like the book of Lamentations of which it is is a sort of hyper-contextualized commentary, offers a counterbalance to the dominant voices of triumphalism in our culture and reminds us of the role of lament in Israel’s history, and in ours.

Prophetic Lament works through the book of Lamentations chapter by chapter and theme by theme. It is not a traditional commentary. Instead it looks primarily at the “big picture” of the book, how it is structured (acrostics in four of the chapters), its genres (funeral dirge, city lament), its voices (the narrator, the people in the city), and its major themes. Rah then applies those big picture elements to the context of the American Church, primarily to issues of racial injustice.

Prophetic Lament offers balance to the more common voices in American Evangelicalism.

Rah calls for incorporating lament into our worship, instead of only praise and triumphalism: “The loss of lament in the American church reflects a serious theological deficiency.” He encourages us to listen to voices other than just white men. He reminds us of the reality of corporate sin and the need for corporate confession, instead of only viewing sin through a hyper-individualistic lens.

Other major themes include God’s sovereignty, including his sovereignty in judgment and the need to look at the raw and uncomfortable reality of the “dead body in front of us”, the ravages of sin and injustice in the world. Applying this to racial injustice Rah states “Our nations tainted racial history reflects a serious inability to real with reality. Something has died and we refuse to participate in the funeral.”

Prophetic Lament, like Lamentations, can be bleak. But, like Lamentations, the glimmer of hope resides not in our abilities but in God’s faithfulness to his covenant. God’s judgment comes out of his faithfulness to his covenant. And so, if God is faithful, it is that same covenant faithfulness which brings about ultimate restoration. That restoration, Rah reminds us, is finally found in the saving work of Jesus.

In the mean time we lament. We have failed to live up to God’s standards and so we repent where necessary, listening to the voice of those who suffer, advocating for our brothers and sisters, moving forward in hope that is anchored in the character of God.

I’m not sure if Rah always makes all of his points. The book deals with some highly controversial topics and I was not always convinced by his arguments. His applications of the text sometimes felt contrived. But overall he offers an important perspective. I agree that, in many ways, we as an American church have a hard time entering into sustained lament. We stick a toe in, perhaps, but jump out as soon as possible. We have a hard time listening to other perspectives (particularly in regards to race!) Perhaps we ought to begin by grieving together, acknowledging the ways we have failed. Ultimately I am grateful for the voices of those like Soong-Chan Rah, challenging the status quo.