Window on the World - A Review

Finding helpful resources for discipling children can be a challenge. It is difficult to find resources that are reasonably up to date, engaging, and avoid theologically tendentious assertions.

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In particular, teaching children about other cultures and the pressing need for a broader vision and calling to cross-cultural evangelism, especially through international missions. One helpful resource has been the Operation World concept adapted for children in the Window on the World book. That full-color volume gives an introduction to world cultures, nations, and religious ideas in a brief, engaging manner. However, due to the passage of time and shifting of political winds, many of the entries had become outdated and factually inaccurate.

Thankfully, IVP has released a revised edition of the Window on the World book. This roughly 200 page volume has been updated with new pictures, correct sociological data, and different people groups. It, too, will need to be updated before long. In the meanwhile, this is a resource that missionally minded parents would do well to invest in.

Window on the World has ninety-two entries. There are fifty-two countries discussed, thirty-four people groups, and six discussions of major world religions.

Each of the entries is visually engaging with up-to-date color pictures, maps, and informational panels that offer specific prayer topics and important statistics. The text is simply written with an emphasis of personal accounts of families or children from within the given people group or nation.

At two pages each, the topics discussed in the book are far from exhaustive. However, they provide enough information to interest a young reader or listener in the world outside his or her own experience. It personalizes the lostness of the world, the ongoing persecution of Christians in other cultures, and the importance of praying for, given to, and participating in cross-cultural missions.

This volume is organized alphabetically, which means that linear progress through the volume can sometimes be uneven. It will take a bit of planning to study particular regions of the world in sequence. However, it is just this sort of shifting between the Hui people group to the nation of Iceland to the country of India that will keep some young readers flipping the pages.

Window on the World provides a way for homeschool parents to teach their children about the lostness of the world and disciple them toward prayer and engagement in cross-cultural missions. In addition to its information, it has specific suggestions for praying for each of the entries. The length is appropriate for reading at a meal time or including as a brief topic between other academic subjects. Similarly, it may be possible to incorporate this resource into a study of geography.

Parents who do not homeschool will also find this a helpful resource, since it could be used for a family devotional activities in the evenings or on weekends. It is friendly to a wide range of theological traditions, since it focuses on the socio-political information of each entry, but could be part of a regular pattern of teaching in the home.

This is the sort of book that will intrigue many children, especially those who find encyclopedias engaging. The layout, writing style, and brevity of the entries makes this a feast for those youngsters that find Usborne or DK books so entertaining. Even absent a parental strategy of organized teaching on world missions, this volume could accomplish the same ends merely by being placed on an appropriate shelf.

The church should be thankful for IVP for updating this valuable resource. The editors, Jason Mandryk and Molly Wall, have provided a service to the body of Christ as we seek to raise up another generation with a heart for seeing people from every tribe and tongue and nation come to Christ.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Getting Jesus Wrong - A Review

Getting Jesus Wrong: Giving Up Spiritual Vitamins and Checklist Christianity is a well-meant attempt to correct common but improper understandings of the nature of Christ. Matt Johnson is attempting to communicate to a young audience his own mistakes in understanding the gospel, which he characterizes as getting Jesus wrong.

He first tackles “life coach Jesus” which is the Christological model in which Jesus’ ethical demands take the form of the contemporary culture so that the gospel leads one to become a good husband, hard worker, etc. Often this version of Jesus results from sermons that emphasize steps to a better marriage and how to exceed for Christ in the workplace.

The next chapter critiques what Johnson calls “checklist Jesus.” This version of Christ sees the Christian life as an extensive to do list. Read your Bible, pray, attend church. According to Johnson, this version of Christianity leads people to believe that these basic activities are necessary to make God happy.

In Chapter Three, Johnson wrestles with “movement leader Jesus.” This is the sort of Christianity that values leaders that are trying to get bigger faster, often in the name of mission. Often churches in this version of Christianity rely on a strong leader to further their expansion.

The fourth chapter deals with a similar version of Christianity, which Johnson calls “visionary Jesus.” It’s not entirely clear what the difference between this category and the previous one is. Though he mentions no names, here he is clearly thinking of his former pastor, Mark Driscoll, and men like former pastor Perry Noble and Steven Furtick. Similarly, the prosperity preachers would generally fall in this category.

In the next chapter Johnson explains how following one of these several false versions of Christianity lead one to pride and eventually despair. His point here is valid. When the gospel is redefined or human effort in pleasing God over-emphasized, it can lead to a sense of pride in “my church” or “my denomination.” When leaders fail or churches fail to prosper, this can lead to disappointment leading to despair. Not surprisingly, this is part of Johnson’s own story that looms heavily over the entire volume.

Chapter Six begins a separate section of the book that Johnson entitles, “The Antidote to Pride and Despair.” In Chapter Six, Johnson outlines the problem with seeking justification through the law. In this chapter Johnson briefly references the three uses of the law (judge, bridle, and lamp), but camps out on the law as judge. He attempts to show that human efforts to live a holy life leads to spiritual deadness and pride.

In chapter seven, Johnson summarizes the gospel as Christ’s work on behalf that fulfills the law, since we are unable. He rightly emphasizes that forgiveness is freely available and that salvation is not a result of human works. However, the chapter on the gospel tends to emphasize a rebuttal of the law rather than a positive presentation of the glory of the gospel.

The final chapter presents Johnson’s vision of hope in Christ’s work. In this chapter Johnson spends as much time, however, talking about his own depression and struggles, which actually overshadow the entire book. His hope seems more like a vague sense of light than a glorious joy in the gospel.

Johnson should be commended for his efforts to debunk false gospels. For some, this may be exactly the message that needs to be received. If someone is tempted to believe a works-based salvation, then Johnson’s account of his spiritual journey may jostle them out of their beliefs.

The Christianity Johnson presents is anemic, however. He is so focused on debunking the versions of false gospel he journeyed through that he leaves out any implications of the gospel. In fact, one of the tragedies of this volume is that Johnson provides no mention of sanctification and, to some readers, gives the impression that the necessary human efforts toward sanctification are exactly the sort of false gospel that he is critiquing.

In fact, this volume seems to advocate a sort of antinomianism. Johnson is so concerned to present a gospel by grace alone through faith alone that he effectively demeans the very means of grace that facilitate the process of sanctification. This is a serious deficiency of this volume. The biblical gospel is one of salvation, followed by sanctification, followed by glorification. The gospel presented here is simply salvation, with apparent effort to minimize the importance of spiritual growth in life.

This is particularly apparent when Johnson avoids talking about the role of the law as a bridle and as a lamp. He is correct to note that the law condemns us because of our sin. At the same time, it also reveals God’s character and helps us understand what it means to try to be holy as God as holy, just as God commanded. The law also functions to restrain our sinful impulses by reminding us of God’s justice. Leaving out these aspects of the law impoverishes Johnson’s vision.

Johnson does not call out Driscoll or his former church, Mars Hill in Seattle, by name. However, this volume is marked heavily by Johnson’s experience as a lay elder in that church. It is clear that the well-known problems in Driscoll’s leadership and the subsequent collapse of the network of churches has scarred Johnson. He notes that while writing this volume he has been unemployed, undergoing marital difficulties, and, by the tone of the book, struggling with some form of a mid-life crisis. Johnson has a lot of the pieces of a good book here, but the effort is marred by his joyless tone throughout the book. I walked away from the volume feeling much like the Christian life is about enduring prison camp, where release is unlikely and hope is mainly for a painless death at the end leading to eventual resurrection. That’s a bleak vision and inconsistent with the hope we have in this life as a result of the gospel.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Radical Book For Kids - A Review

The Radical Book for Kids is one of those books that makes you exclaim, “I wish I’d had this when I was a kid.” In fact, I said this so many times while reading this book, I risked annoying my wife. Turns out, one of the endorsers had the same thought I did, but I didn’t notice that until I was half way through the book.

The simplest way to explain this volume is to compare it to a basic overview of Christianity presented in the format of the Dangerous Book for Boys (or girls). The closest equivalent to this book that was around when I was a kid would have been a Boy Scout Handbook.

This description, however, risks making this sound like a Christian knock off. That wouldn’t be fair to the author, Champ Thornton. He may have been inspired by the format, but this is a book that deserves to be considered on its own merits.

The Radical Book for Kids: Exploring the Roots and Shoots of Faith is filled with brilliant colors, attractive graphic design, and oodles of information. This is the sort of book that draws you into reading it, if just to admire the pictures.

There are no chapters or clear segments in the book, though there is an order and progression to it when reading it from cover to cover. It’s the sort of book meant for opening randomly on a Sunday afternoon.

When you open the book, you might find yourself reading a summary of the biblical story line, learning how to make a sling, or reading a biography of a great Christian. At another reading, you could discover the different systems of money used in the Bible, learn why manners matter, or getting introduced to the structure of a New Testament Epistle. At a different time, you might find yourself learning the Greek alphabet, exploring images of Christ in literature, or reading tips on how to memorize something.

Thornton combines biblical survey, typological teaching, hermeneutics, systematic theology, and church history into a coherent jumble of discipleship. He’s included a few jokes, some trivia, and occasional games with eternal truths that will really help kids understand more about the Christian faith.

The whole book pitches important topics at the right level for kids to understand. If I had to give an age range, I’d say 7-140 is about right. I am confident my first graders will enjoy this as much as my preteen.

This lively book will be a great gift for the kid who has been sitting through church, Sunday school, and AWANA for years, but still hasn’t gotten the big picture. That’s the greatest strength of this volume, it continually shows how the gospel holds everything together. Even though it is filled with a variety of information, it has one consistent theme.

Once you give this to your kids, expect to be peppered with random facts about Christianity. You may also be roped into playing “Dogs and Jackals” or making a ‘clay’ pot with them. You’ll probably have to make sure all the kids get a turn with it, too, though that will likely settle down in a few weeks.

If there is one critique of the book, it is that there are some pop culture references that may seem dated in 20 years. However, none of them are critical to the book, and at that point you’re considering the value for your grandkids.

So, buy the book, give it to a kid you know, and watch them enjoy exploring the depths of it. This really is an excellent volume that deserves a place in your home.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Opposite of Spoiled - A Review

When I found the 2015 book, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids who are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money, on the shelves of my local public library, I expected a book pitched to the average, middle class U.S. citizen. The city I live in is in middle America. Certainly there are some people with some money in town, but the majority of the population is a long way away from the economic stratosphere. I was surprised, therefore, to find this book pitched to the top layer of the coastal suburban middle class on the local library's shelves. When I read it, therefore, I got a vision into the economic world of another class of people rather than much for helpful advice.

The author, Ron Lieber, is a personal finance columnist for The New York Times. That probably should have tipped me off, but I read the political commentary in NYT and the paper is supposed to be pitched to a national audience, so I picked the book up.

I didn’t gain a lot of good advice on how to help my kids be grounded, generous, and smart about money. I would have to multiply my salary by a whole number greater than two to be able to implement most of the money saving and responsibility teaching tips in my life. What I did gain, however, is a better understanding of how the rich in the United States live and the troubles that too much money can bring.

Lieber’s primary audience are the very well-compensated suburban professionals who view giving their child hundreds of dollars a month for an allowance as normal. Lieber is writing to help his readers teach their kids to be sensible while they go out to eat for lunch with their friends and live a life of socialization and recreational activity that much of America only sees on television.

The intent of the volume is very good. Lieber wants parents to raise financially savvy, realistic children. The trouble is that to those in the lower-middle and lower class, the world he describes is an impossibility. Frankly, this is the sort of volume that must have been purchased because of its title alone or as an automatic subscription, because it just doesn’t belong on the shelves of the public library of Shawnee, Oklahoma.

There is still something for the average reader to gain from Lieber, despite the fact he has significantly overshot most of our income brackets.

One key takeaway is the power of advertisement to inspire covetousness. He notes that once presented with a Madison Avenue-style vision of a particular toy, experiments show that children will choose to play with the toy-possessing kids that are anti-social jerks over nice kids that don’t have the toy. In other words, advertising works and it gets children (and probably adults) to forsake their best interests to get the advertised goods. Part of our responsibility as parents, then, is to develop a resistance to advertising in our children to keep them from getting sucked into materialism.

Another strong argument in The Opposite of Spoiled is that people like to work and earn money, but that our society continues to take away opportunities for that. One way that we have done this is by creating laws that prevent kids from working. This has been done with good intent—no one wants kids working in dangerous vocations. However, the same laws that keep kids out of mines also keep them from doing deliveries for the local store, sweeping floors, or doing other menial, but value adding labor during their spare time. (Note to any haters: No one is talking about a 12-year-old quitting school to work at JiffyMart. However, an after school job would be a completely different issue.) Lieber notes that kids look for ways to earn money, like picking up pop cans and asking for paid labor around the house. This is a good thing and Lieber rightly encourages it.

A third strength of this volume is that Lieber encourages talking about finances with kids. We are too secretive as parents about how we spend, save, and give. Lieber encourages bringing kids into the conversation about which charities to give to. Of course, Lieber’s framework for what generosity is is very low (he calls one family charitable for giving about 3% of their sizeable income). However, the process of talking through giving has been good for my own family and is a good practice that others might benefit from.

In short, there is some good advice in this book. However, Lieber has pitched it for an audience that lives so far in the stratosphere that most of the people in my circle will be unlikely to benefit from reading it.

Note: I checked this one out from the library, so there is no need for me to make any claims in this space.

Passing Along Thick Christianity

Most people try to pass along their beliefs to their children. Even the atheists that claim that all religious education is child abuse are, by virtue of making such a claim, demonstrating a dominant worldview claim that they hope their children will latch onto.

Used by Creative Commons License. Via Flickr: http://ow.ly/YEqPy

Used by Creative Commons License. Via Flickr: http://ow.ly/YEqPy

The rationale for this is simple. If someone actually believes his religion is true in an objective way, then it follows that he will hope his child will also believe that the same religion is true. This is because truth about the world tends to make the world easier to live in.

For the sincere Christian believers, the content of their belief may be passed to their children either as thick belief or as thin belief. Surely there is room on the spectrum between these points for degrees of each, but the ends of the scale are useful to illustrate my point.

What is Thick Christianity?

Thick Christianity is a doctrinally sound, ethically rich, gospel saturated faith. This is not to say that it is overflowing with systematic theology (though it may be), or that every choice made is moral (which it certainly won’t be), or even that conversion will occur in the children. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, thus even when thick Christianity is communicated some children may never be born again. However, children who have been exposed to thick Christianity will be able to explain the content of and rationale for the Christian faith whether they have personally accepted it or not.

I have heard it said, though I no longer remember by whom, that in one generation the gospel is loved and known. In the second it is assumed. In the third it is forgotten and abandoned.

This pattern can be witnessed in the fall of once boldly Christian institutions into a malaise of unbelief within a few short generations. A prime example of this is Oberlin University in Ohio. Once it was a robustly Christian institution, but a search of the website now reveals that the gospel is no longer central to their mission. The same phenomenon can occur in churches and denominations. A congregation that was once vibrantly faithful can so easily fall into cultural Christianity in a few years if the central message of the gospel is assumed for a while. Later it will likely be neglected and changed or forgotten. At that point a church becomes a social club and a university becomes just another non-profit educational establishment. There is still some value for society in these mediating institutions, but the transformational power of the gospel is lost.

Thin Christianity is more subject to this sort of generational attenuation than is thick Christianity because thin Christianity lacks the substance that would sustain it. We should expect this, because early in Scripture we get evidence of the importance of living thickly for the propagation of faithfulness between generations.

In Deuteronomy 6, which is part of Moses’ farewell to the Israelites, he affirms the important theological truth of the oneness of God. (v. 4) Then he commands them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (vv. 5-6) In other words, theological truth must result in right ethical action for the believer. The oneness of God led to worship both through adoration and through action. This is part of living a thick Christianity and not merely being a hearer of the word. (cf. Jas. 1:22)

But there is more to the story. Immediately after this Moses gives another command to his audience, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (v. 7)

The significance of verse 7 is not that teaching should be done when sitting, walking, lying down, or rising, but rather that all of life is teaching opportunity for communicating a thick Christianity to our children. Teach them not just the “what” of Christianity, but the “why.” This is what makes a Christianity thick. It is a form of Christianity that is lived, authentic, and grounded in substance. This is the sort of Christianity that has a hope of being sustained across generations.

Ultimately, God does the work of salvation in our children. However, if our Christianity is true, it makes sense to live it in such a way that our religion cannot be reduced to a weekly routine or a set of prohibitions.

What is Thin Christianity?

Despite what some might expect, a thin Christianity is not necessarily unorthodox. Someone can be a faithful Fundamentalist with (mostly) biblical doctrine and live a thin Christianity before their family. There are many faithful Christians that have the right doctrine, but they often do not know why. In other cases, they do understand the basis of their doctrine, but fail to communicate it effectively to their children.

The difference is the depth of living in Christ. Our kids are with us all the time and they can tell when we’re going through the motions. Thin Christianity may have all the right motions, but it is often missing the most important emotion: joy.

A Call to Live Christianity Thickly

Thankfully, sometimes God takes thin Christianity and uses it to make Christians that live thickly. Grace is a wonderful thing.

But it is a much better thing to pass on a thick Christianity to our children. That way they get the benefit of doing the right things for the right reasons, of being faithful and experiencing the joy of knowing Christ richly, and of being able to reference a heritage of thick Christianity when they live well before their children. And by living well I don’t mean getting everything right, I mean pursuing the joy of the Lord in all things.

This is, I think, what Paul was getting at when he wrote Colossians 3:12-17:

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Can We Go Too Far with the Big Picture?

Used in unaltered form by Creative Commons. http://ow.ly/WelOE

Used in unaltered form by Creative Commons. http://ow.ly/WelOE

As a parent of young children, I’m thrilled with the work that people like Sally Lloyd-Jones has done with her Jesus Storybook Bible. Also, LifeWay has done great things with The Gospel Project. And Desiring God has also developed curriculum that walks through the Bible as redemption history.

All of these resources are exceedingly helpful. They explain the big picture narrative of Scripture in a way that I was unable to do until much later in life. They train young people to look beyond the bare facts of the stories to ask why the story is included in the Bible.

A recent article in Christianity Today provides a number of perspectives and reasons why the Big Picture approach to Scripture is important.

This approach is a vast improvement over the approach that many people still use and that was the sort of bread and butter of my childhood. However, I’ve recently begun to recognize the need for a hybrid approach to teaching Scripture.

The Story Model

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the story of David and Goliath. And the story of Daniel and the lions. And the story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who climbed up in the sycamore tree. Or Jonah and whatever the large sea creature was that swallowed him.

These stories, with their details, we told and retold. Often the details were embellished with theological interpretations about how the individuals might have felt or what they might have thought.

Other times, the facts were actually misrepresented. For example, I grew up thinking that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. That may be, since there was probably no clear distinction between whale and fish as sea critters in the (human) biblical author’s worldview. However, the text actually says fish. Also, I was much older when I put together the fact that when Daniel got thrown into the den of lions he was probably pretty old. Daniel was cemented in my mind (often with the help of flannel graphs) at the tender age where he experienced the robust benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Despite the mistaken details, which may have been my fault as the hearer, the connections between these accounts were clearly missing. Clearly they were connected by being in the Bible. They all had something to do with God. However, there was often no cohesion to the tales, even after I had “heard them all” dozens of times.

The Big Picture

The approach that is popular in contemporary circles is more helpful in building an integral understanding of Scripture.

Over and over again Sally Lloyd-Jones emphasizes the redemptive themes that are woven through Scripture. Christ is in the text, often imperfectly represented by types.

For example, David is like Christ when he, the improbable hero, redeems the people of Israel from probable slavery to the Philistines by slaying the giant with the stone. The boy-shepherd-who-would-be-king is a picture of Christ, despite his later plummet from grace.

This is vastly improved over the “hero story” approach that finds moral examples in particular scenes of Scripture and bids the children to do likewise.

However, it’s a little difficult to be brave like David facing Goliath when a) you aren’t God’s anointed one and b) your childish ability to reason from literary types is limited such that you find yourself preparing to fight a literal giant, in case you ever encounter one. (Harvey Cox cites this as one of the reasons he drifted from a conservative understanding of Scripture.)

Also, there is the fact that sooner or later the children find out that David had some problems later in life. He didn’t just commandeer someone’s rubber ducky (as in the Veggie Tales version), but committed adultery (perhaps even rape) and killed a man for his wife. This is a good lesson in grace, but a difficult one for children to sort through when they’ve been presented the “moral example” method of reading Scripture.

The big picture approach is much better than that. And yet, it causes me to think.

The Pitfall

The most likely pitfall of the big picture approach is that, when it is taken too far, it can inadvertently reinforce the notions that a) every detail has to be tied to the big picture and b) if the details don’t fit, they probably don’t matter.

Let me be clear that I do not believe that Lloyd-Jones, LifeWay, Desiring God or any of the other proponents of the big picture approach commit, foment, or accept any of these errors; they are writing curriculum and books that meet a vital need and use a particular approach. Similarly, I do not believe that the authors of the moral example lessons necessarily missed the big picture. I am talking about implementation and receipt of information rather than authorial intent.

The big picture approach is wonderful for getting the main idea across, but it can allow the casual student (or teacher) to miss the vivid detail that is included in the text.

For example, Ehud was a deliverer of the people; a foreshadowing of what Jesus would be. He was also born left-handed, the king was fat, and he apparently liked privacy when he was relieving himself. These are providential pieces of the story; they are details that enliven it and undergird the historicity of it. All the details don’t fit into the big picture, but they allow the big picture to be what it ought to be—they help us know the stories are true.

Conclusion

This warning, then, is as much to me as to anyone else. As I teach my children, I do not want to lose the big picture or the details.

In other words, it is as bad to miss the forest for the trees as it is to see only the forest without distinguishing the beauty of the trees.

In order to understand the beauty of God’s redemptive plan, we need to teach our children the big picture. It will help them make sense of the various genres and accounts in Scripture.

In order to recognize the truthfulness of God’s Word, we need to emphasize the details as we teach the stories. It helps them to trust the documents written by both divine and human authors.

This is not an either/or but a both/and. We need to balance the approaches so that we have biblically literate students of the Word when all things are done.