From Jerusalem to Timbuktu - A Review

If you read the right commentary on the state of Christianity, it will seem like doom is coming and we are well into the waning days of the faith, well past the point of no return. Those discussions of the present and future of Christianity tend to rely on data from the developed world, particularly the Northern Hemisphere that has been strongly influenced by the European colonialism.

In From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, Brian Stiller offers a much different picture. Stiller words as global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance and has previously served as president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. The reality he describes is generally more reassuring than the darkest of predictions, but disconcerting to those who have concerns about recent innovations in Christian doctrine. There is much to celebrate about the spread of the gospel, but much work to do, as well.

Stiller offers a number of reasons for the spread of Christianity. He cites the spread of Charismatic theology as a contributor to the spread of Christianity. (More on that later.) He also notes that the increase in the number of Bible translations in the heart languages of more people have advanced the cause of Christ. There is little doubt that the proliferation of God’s word has done a great deal to advance the spread of Christianity as a local movement.

Another reason for the spread of the gospel is the willingness of missionaries, particularly those from the West, to allow Christianity to take local forms by not constraining converts by Western clothing and music. This conversation is helpful, though Stiller seems to be uncritical of some forms of contextualization that appear to be closer to syncretism than authentic Christianity. Additionally, Stiller cites the efforts of Christians to engage in the public square for the common good as Christians. Corollary to engagement in the public square is the recovery of an emphasis on the implications of the gospel—in other words, seeking reconciliation in more than just the spiritual dimension—among Christians.

There is a great deal to celebrate about the growth of Christianity and Stiller’s book is encouraging in that general sense. On the whole, however, Stiller spends too much time arguing for recent theological innovations instead of simply reporting the facts. In particular, Stiller attempts to justify the rise of female pastors and Charismatic theology as normative and consistent with Christian tradition. It is clear from his argument that he believes these movements, largely unknown in the Christian church until the 19th century, are causes to be celebrated regardless of their differences with the historical practices of the church. It would have been a better book if Stiller had reported the facts instead of trying to push a theological agenda. His arguments on this front rely on pragmatic justification: these recent theological developments appear to be working, therefore they must be good.

Both with the rise of Charismatic versions of Christianity and excessive contextualization, the book fails to consider sufficiently the detrimental nature of the syncretism of pagan spirit worship with Christianity that he notes on several occasions. Similarly, he is insufficiently critical of the Prosperity Gospel movement, focusing on the abuses of its leaders rather than the theological poverty of the entire system. That critique is necessarily buried, since the Prosperity Gospel movement is a direct theological child of the revisionist Charismatic and Pentecostal movements—the Prosperity Gospel spreads most rapidly among those who seek ongoing special revelation as a special gift from God.

It is exciting that the gospel is spreading, but not all movements that claim to be gospel may accurately reflect authentic Christianity. In that sense, Stiller’s book should raise concern among orthodox believers.

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Setting aside those critiques, this is a largely encouraging volume. Although there is much handwringing in the West about the rise of Nones and the secularization of our Christian heritage, the Gospel of Christ is on the move. Stiller’s book pulls the reader’s focus from cable news stories about US Supreme Court cases, concerns over student aid for those who choose to attend a Christian university, and the minor persecutions that seem to highlight some media channels.

Most importantly, and the thing that makes this book worth reading, is that it offers reassurance that in Christ we are more than conquerors. It calls the reader to recognize the great need for evangelization, the opportunities for evangelism, and the possibility that each of us can participate in the spread of the gospel if we simply obey the command to do so.

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

Defend Your Holy Week

In the haze of holy week there will be, without doubt, many reasons to lose focus on the Passion of Christ.

In recently memory, there have been scandals, political turmoil, theological disputes turned into public brouhahas in the days leading up to Resurrection Sunday.

Given the present political climate and the regular barrage of scandals, it is nearly unquestionable that there will be a scandal.

Often, news outlets choose to post articles arguing against the historicity of Jesus. Theologically liberal denominations publish posts on how, if Christ’s death was ordained by God for our redemption, it would be tantamount to cosmic child abuse. Others, like the book I discussed in a recent post, will argue that Christ’s death on the cross could not have paid for our sin because they think it has negative ethical outcomes. (Spoiler: The book does not do well at making this argument.)

In our constant battle for joy in holiness we are beset on all sides by the world, the flesh and the devil. There are few times this is as apparent as in the days leading up to Easter Sunday.

Watch this week. You’ll see a hundred attempts to derail your focus and distract from this holiest of weeks.

I’m neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I would bet a cookie that there is going to be a significant attack on Christianity this week.

That’s not superstition, it’s an acknowledgement that the last thing Satan wants is for Christians to revel in the wonder, mystery, and power of the resurrection. There is little that makes Christians more effective in living out the gospel than being enraptured by the miracle of Christ’s sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection in our place.

Perhaps the worst thing about the disruption to the possibility of our spiritual advancement in this week of particular focus is that we will allow it to happen. Or, at least, we will take few measures to present it.

Make Resurrection Sunday Bigger

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/CKN230j2FAB

Used by CC License: http://ow.ly/CKN230j2FAB

Our culture has turned Christmas into a blowout holiday. Crass commercialism is creeping into everything, with stores pushing junk months ahead of previously little-celebrated holidays. But during Christmas we do a billion things to keep in mind that Jesus is the reason for the season.

Our culture loves Christmas because they have turned the incarnation into a chance to make money, eat rich foods, and hang out with family in tacky sweaters. Christians have gotten sucked into many of the bad aspects, even as we celebrate the goodness of Christ’s incarnation.

For most of us, however, the celebration of Christ’s atoning work on the cross gets a smaller budget, less build up, and a shorter celebration.

I would argue that Resurrection Sunday should be the pinnacle of the church calendar. That we should use the Lent season (with or without some of the trappings) to build to the glorious heights of the most important hours in the history of the universe: when Christ—the spotless lamb of God—took the penalty for our sin in our place. This is better accomplished at Easter since it lacks the commercial trappings of Christmas.

The atonement could not have taken place without the incarnation, which is why celebrating Christ’s birth is a good thing to do. But without the atonement the incarnation is incomplete. Christ’s work on the cross completed the work he did in this life. He lived a perfect life, showed people what the new heavens and new earth will look like, and pointed people toward the renewed creation that will be finally inaugurated when he comes again. Christ’s resurrection gives testimony that his work on the cross—his sacrifice for our sin—was accepted by God.

This is the capstone moment in Christianity and ought to bear the brunt of our interest and celebration.

Defend the Holy Week

However, when we begin to recognize the importance of the resurrection, the world, our flesh, and the devil will get in the way of being enraptured by its power.

If you don’t believe me, try meditating on the resurrection for a few minutes. The phone will ring, a kid will have a crisis, you’ll decide you desperately need to check social media.

Don’t be surprised that even if you set aside some time this holy week to focus on the cross, to participate in contemplation of the atonement, or to spend hours with your brothers and sisters in Christ that distractions will kick in.

There will be a scandal that directly pokes at the Christian faith. The media will release articles with conspiracy theories to convince the people you are sharing Christ with that the gospel is really fake news. Something will arise in the political sphere that seems designed to take your eyes of the cross. Your car will break down. Whatever.

It’s coming. Defend the Holy Week. Be prepared for battle.

Share the Good News

This is one of those weeks that it’s easier to have meaningful gospel conversations than others, because people are talking about Easter. Use the time wisely.

Skip over the political jabber and skip to the cross. Explain what Easter really means and why it has very little to do with bunnies, marshmallow chicks, or oodles of chocolate.

You would be surprised, I think, how few non-Christians actually understand the gospel. The Passion week is an excellent time to bridge those gaps, explain the real meaning of the cross, and point people to the life that can only come through Christ.

Don’t get distracted by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Preach Christ so that others might know him and celebrate new life even as we remember how the way was paved for us to share in that new life, too.

Evidence that Demands A Verdict - A Review

Evidence that Demands a Verdict is a title well known to many Christians. The book was originally published in the early 1970’s by Josh McDowell as a source book for Christian apologetics. It both presents arguments and points readers toward more in-depth arguments for the truthfulness of Christianity.

Given the four decades since the book’s original publication, many of the sources in the first edition are outdated. Over time, arguments change, new evidence for or against positions is considered, and scholars on all sides of the debate reframe their thoughts.

It was high time for this book to be updated. This year, Josh McDowell and his son, Sean, have released an expanded and updated version of this classic work on apologetics. This volume adds the credentials of the younger McDowell to the senior's extensive apologetic experience. The younger McDowell is an apologist, serving on the faculty of Biola University.

About the Book

Evidence that Demands a Verdict is the sort of book that defies concise summary. At over 700 pages, it makes a satisfying thunk when set on the table. That alone may be enough to add gravity to the claims of a budding apologist. It has a helpful table of contents with chapter abstracts, as well as subject and author indices, which keep this tome from being unwieldy.

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The arguments are laid out in logical chunks in outline format. This makes the book suitable for research, though it might make cover-to-cover reading more difficult.

The McDowells have covered the major questions of Christian apologetics. They invest five chapters discussing the historical reliability of Scripture. Eight chapters help demonstrate the historicity of Christ and his resurrection. There are thirteen chapters dedicated to the reliability of the Old Testament. The last major section includes six chapters arguing that truth is possible, with an attempt to counter certain claims of postmodernism.

The beauty of this book is that it has been well seasoned over decades and targeted to engage ongoing discussions charitably and at the point of contention. This enables the arguments in this volume to cover a great deal of territory in relatively brief space, which may seem amazing, given the length of the book.

That the authors have covered such broad ranging topics in such a short space is a gift to Christians seeking to understand the major points of the plurality of debates about the truthfulness of Christianity and, hopefully, engage their skeptical friends with the truth of Scripture, especially the gospel. This really is a good, first stop for a number of excellent arguments.

At the same time, the target audience (regular Christians) and the brevity of some of the discussions sets the volume up for its likely criticisms. There is no doubt the war drums of some Christian philosophers will be beaten as they line up to critique some of the interpretations of the volume. For example, the section on postmodernism is an easy target since the subject matter has more publicized versions than the number of scholars that have argued for it. This makes every generalization about the subject a target for critique, and, since many postmodernisms conflict with one another, there is no safe ground to argue against the general drift of thought. (Part of the joy of being postmodern seems to be the ability to say your critics don’t get it as you smile smugly.)  If readers accept that the chapters in this volume are introductory and not exhaustive, this book stands up to reasonable scrutiny.

Uses for the Book

It is unlikely that most people will read this volume cover to cover. It is constructed like a reference book and will serve that purpose well.

At the same time, the length of the chapters would make it useful for study with a group of young Christians. It is unlikely any group would make their way through the entirety of the volume. However, it would be a helpful resource to introduce someone to some of the credible arguments for Christianity.

The book might serve well as a secondary volume in an apologetics course at the college or seminary level, with some assigned readings chosen to introduce particular topics. Again, it would be difficult to get through the whole volume in a semester or year.

The most important use of this volume is as a way to self-equip for the ministry of evangelism in a skeptical age. The chapters are useful for buttressing the faith once delivered to all the saints. They are also helpful in showing how to frame an argument against the common objections to Christianity. This is a handy resource for a Christian engaged in the Great Commission.

Conclusion

Evidence that Demands a Verdict is a classic work. The updated edition has done exactly what it should do: added new arguments, updated sources, and retained the positive qualities of the original.

This is a book that should be in church libraries, on the shelves of pastors, in the homes of Christian parents, and among the recommended resources for new believers.

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

The Ignorance is Astounding

Recently multiple news outlets have reported on Dr. Ben Carson's theory that the Egyptian Pyramids were used for grain silos. 

There is little reason to give credence to Carson's theory, which is an extreme minority position. All the archaeological evidence seems to point toward the pyramids being built as monuments to rulers. In a presidential election, it's fine to point out the weird ideas of people that have put themselves on display.

What is inexcusable, however, is the fact that multiple news outlets are reporting that Carson's theory is drawn directly from the book of Genesis. 

In their original report (which may be updated any time now) Forbes wrote:

When I found this, I wondered if the ignorance was isolated. However, when I looked at the illustrious reporting of CNN, I found that while their article was correct, the original report required a correction:

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the Book of Genesis refers to Joseph building pyramids to store grain. It refers only to Joseph storing large amounts of grain.

I stopped looking at two sources. Most likely the error was in the original news service story that the other outlets subscribe to.

I'm glad that CNN caught the mistake. However, it is telling that the original authors of the article was so ignorant of Scripture that he or she believed that Genesis talks about using the pyramids for grain storage. This also made it through the editorial process.

It isn't like this is information buried in someone's diary from the 17th century in an obscure monastery library in the Alps. No, this is information that is readily available online in multiple languages and versions. The team of individuals responsible for these reports lacks a basic literacy in Scripture, and yet was too lazy to take a few minutes to proof their information.

Remember this artifact as you read news article reporting on what people are supposed to believe and have said. While one example does not prove that all such reporting is bad, it does give an indication that the authors and editors may be well out of their depth.

Application for Christians

Christians should also recognize the significance of this error. We assume an awful lot of baseline knowledge when we talk to each other and to others. If I asked a group of school age kids at most local churches if Joseph had stored grain in the pyramids they would have given me an incredulous look. Yet, here is a group of adults so unfamiliar with Scripture that they could make such a blatant gaffe in published work.

Think about that when you present the gospel to someone. You can't assume they know the background. And, really, the notion of the substitutionary atonement is pretty crazy apart from the background of Scripture and an understanding of the Ancient Near Eastern culture of the Hebrews. It probably takes more explaining than what has been expected in previous decades.

We are no longer in a culture where we can assume the basics of the gospel. The ignorance is astounding. However, ignorance is not a sin. 

The solution to ignorance is information. This means that we need to get the gospel message out in a way that is comprehensive and intelligible. We can't afford to assume that anyone knows the rest of the story. Likely they have never actually heard it told well at all.