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 However, due to the passage of time and shifting of political winds, many of the entries had become outdated and factually inaccurate.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.

The Witness of the Cognitively Impaired - A Review of "Living Gently in a Violent World"

All societies struggle with establishing a place for those who live with some form of physical or mental disability. Although we have not arrived, the modern developed world has made great strides in ensuring reasonable accommodations for those with physical disabilities. Despite some accounts of abuses of the ADA, in general, the move toward finding ways to more fully enable the participation of physically disabled persons in society is a good thing. We have struggled to a greater degree with finding a place for those with cognitive disabilities.

(Before moving on, I should note that I am using the word “disability” in a non-pejorative sense. Rather than attempting to establish some euphemism for a physical or cognitive difference from the majority of the population, I am simply indicating that there are individuals who, due to nature or accident, have different capabilities in one particular area that impact their ability to maneuver our society as easily as others. That there are such differences and that they make life more difficult for those who have them is not disputable. Often creative naming conventions appear to hinder rather than help the conversation.)

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It is the cognitively disabled who are often least to be integrated into society, and those with both cognitive and physical disabilities who struggle the most. As a result of these disabilities many of these people are often sidelined, discarded, and viewed as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved.

In this, our modern, civilized, and inclusive culture is very little different than any other, despite our prideful belief in advancement. This was reinforced to me recently at a community event out of doors. People were lining the sidewalk to watch a parade of WWII era vehicles and reenactors. Much of the best space was covered several tiers deep, with people sitting on the curb, and a second or third row seated behind.

My family arrived after the initial rush and found one section of the curb unoccupied. The reason quickly became obvious because seated in their wheelchairs and camping chairs along the back of the sidewalk were the residents of a group home, likely the local ARC (which once stood for the Association of Retarded Citizens until “retarded” became an epithet rather than a euphemism). These adults made gross noises, talked at the wrong times, and were otherwise disruptive of polite norms. This meant that the curb in front of them was empty, until we sat down. For many, to be sure, the space was left out of consideration to not interfere with any care the group might need. For others, I wonder if the unwillingness to sit in front was not due to a certain level of disgust with these people and a sub-conscious discomfort at these “misfits.” This second hypothesis is reflective of the generally lower value society often places on those with disabilities, especially cognitive impairments.

In a recently revised book, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier use the L’Arche communities, founded by Vanier, as an example of honoring the humanity of all persons, including those with cognitive disabilities. The book is worthy of reading, as it is a brief, but potent example of a better way to conceive of care for some of the least valued persons in our society.

Summary

The book is very short. It has only four chapters, book ended by an introduction and conclusion authored by John Swinton. The expanded edition also includes a study guide, with chapter by chapter questions for review.

Two of the chapters were authored by Vanier and two by Hauerwas. Vanier’s chapters deal with practical and personal accounts of life within L’Arche. These accounts, though theologically muddled, demonstrate Vanier’s real and significant concern for the citizens of our world least likely to be valued. The vision he provides of people with cognitive disabilities being treated as humans, with personalities and flaws like the rest of us, is compelling. Instead of hiding the mentally disabled from view and treating them like patients, L’Arche communities involve co-living with “normal” people who interact with them as neighbors rather than as clients. This process both recognizes the unique needs of these individuals and their distinct value as humans.

Hauerwas’s chapters are more theoretical in nature. As is usual for Hauerwas, they are eminently readable, often very pointed, and sometimes powerfully prophetic. The theological vision presented in this book is an application of his broader pacific ethic, an exposition, if you will, on the structure he outlines in books like The Peaceable Kingdom. The degree to which one finds the whole structure of Hauerwas’s ethics convincing will reflect the degree to which one accepts his theological reflections in this volume. He deals with some of the same obvious inconsistencies in this book as in all his works: e.g., writing about ecclesiology while remaining distant from the authority of a church, and, in this book, writing about gentleness with a somewhat aggressive polemic. This is vintage Hauerwas, both prophetic and conflicted in nature, but distinctly worthy of parsing.

The most significant point of this volume, which is a powerful one, is that among its many ethical concerns, the Christian church must remember the cognitively disabled. Caring for them is a reflection of the church’s gospel witness in the world. Because the cognitively disabled can often contribute very little to society in terms of economic productivity, they are often sidelined and hidden from sight. To some degree, this is necessary to shield them from becoming spectacles and ensuring they receive appropriate care. However, the treatment is often as bad as the condition, resulting in ostracization and isolation that denies the imago Dei in the mentally disabled––as if the primary, and perhaps sole, way that we image God is through rational capability (i.e., functional) rather than in our unmeasurable personhood (i.e., ontological). Hauerwas and Vanier draw attention to the insufficiency of this perspective and the need for deeper theological reflection and practical action for the good of Christian communities and the gospel witness of the universal church.

Conclusion

This book is a short, helpful reminder of a potential blind spot in the application of the gospel. Because we have removed the mentally disabled from view, we often forget about them. Organizations like L’Arche and Shepherds ministry are doing good work in seeking to emphasize the humanity of people with cognitive impairments. Not all of us are called to live in those communities, but all of us would do well to ponder how we have unconsciously adopted an instrumental, functional view of the value of humanity, which is reflected by our revulsion at, discomfort with, or simple desire to avoid the presence of those whose minds lack the agility with which we have been unreasonably blessed.

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

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.

Rethinking Incarceration - A Review

Mass incarceration is a significant problem in the United States. The sheer number of people who are currently in the custody of the various levels of government is staggering. According to one advocacy group, approximately 2.3 million Americans were in some form of corrective custody in 2017. This is a dramatic burden to the population through expended tax revenue, but has an even greater cost for the families of those behind bars, for the communities decimated by this phenomenon, and the individuals who will be permanently marked with the status of ex-con or felon.

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The problem of mass incarceration is complicated by unequal racial outcomes, which indicate that approximately 1 in 3 ethnic minorities will pass through the judicial system and spend time in some form of corrective custody. This inequity helps continue the perpetuation of negative images of minorities and accelerates what amounts to a downward spiral in some communities. A large number of minorities are imprisoned; therefore, they are perceived to be dangerous, then they are watched more closely and given fewer breaks, which leads to a larger number of incarcerations. This has negative effects of the general population’s perception of minorities and the perception of the judicial system and police force by minorities. Add in some cases of real corruption and legitimate hostility on both sides and you have something like the stand off we find ourselves in now with people arguing about the importance of black lives versus blue lives.

With that background, the recent volume by Dominique Dubois Gilliard, Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, is timely and takes on a very important topic. The book consists of two parts.

Part one lays out various aspects that contribute to the problem of mass incarceration, with chapters on the war on drugs, a history of racial bias in law enforcement, an overzealous enforcement of law, issues with mental health and immigration, and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. This portion of the volume is largely sociological and helpful in highlighting important elements of a significant source of injustice in our nation.

Part two is a theological argument intended to move readers of the volume to a doctrinal foundation that Gilliard believes will undermine mass incarceration. In this section, Gilliard offers chapters on Quaker involvement in American prisons, prison chaplaincy, penal substitutionary atonement, restorative justice, and a concluding plea for activism in dismantling mass incarceration. This section of the volume is less helpful and less well done.

There are two apparent theses in this book. First, that mass incarceration is a problem with underlying systemic injustices in the American legal system. Gilliard handles that element of the book well. He researched that section well and puts together a solid argument that has potential to convince a skeptical reader.

The second thesis of the book is that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the cause of the problem of mass incarceration. Unfortunately, Gilliard’s attempt at supporting this thesis is, at best, poor. By any fair measure, the theological argumentation of this section of the book is anemic and riddled with fundamental methodological errors, many of which should have been corrected prior to this book’s publication. These errors and the nature of Gilliard’s plea for rejecting the substitutionary atonement significantly diminish the value of this volume, in some cases making it more likely to cement bias against judicial reform among some conservative Christians than convince anyone of the issue’s importance.

Rethinking Incarceration is a useful book in that it raises awareness of a significant issue of systemic injustice. The work Gilliard does in highlighting the racial aspects of the history of mass incarceration is helpful. Unfortunately, by introducing a second thesis and calling for a rejection of a common, orthodox theory of the atonement and by doing so very poorly, Gilliard undermines the good work he does in the beginning of the book. My hope is that a better book from a more careful author will follow this book and lead to a continuing and more theologically robust discussion of this vital topic.

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

Economics of Neighborly Love - A Review

Our economic activity, when done properly, is primarily about loving our neighbors. Neighbor love is not merely a description of so-called spiritual activities, like those done under the umbrella of a local church. Rather, neighbor love should shape everything we do in the home, in the marketplace, and in our neighborhoods.

In a helpful, recent book, Tom Nelson helps bring theology and economics together in a way the average Christian can understand it. His volume, The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity, weaves together many of the themes in the Faith and Work movement in a single, digestible bundle.

Nelson’s basic assumption is that we live in a fundamentally economic world. His is not, however, an attempt to reduce humans to homo economicus. Instead, he argues for understanding humans to have the imago Dei, which leads to a demand to live compassionately among others. His basic argument in the entire book is that the best workers make the best neighbors, as long as they are working for reasons that matter.

Humans are made to flourish. Part of that flourishing is having our material needs met. Another component of flourishing is pursuing a purpose higher than ourselves. Work is a primary means by which humans flourish.

One sign of flourishing (though not the only or even best sign) is material wealth. Such wealth is a resource to be stewarded for the glory of God and the good of neighbors. It is neither the reward for holiness as the prosperity gospel argues, nor is it intrinsically evil. It is a simply one way that God provides for humans to be fruitful.

Lest Nelson be guilty of reducing flourishing to the accrual of wealth, he quickly explains that intimacy with other people, godly character, and productively contributing to the world around are vital ways that humans are fruitful. Being fruitful and productive are ways that we love the world around us by making this world a better place.

All of the productivity in the world does not do any good, however, unless it is directed toward our neighbors. Nelson explains a vision, consistent with Scripture, of how godly people can engage in a relatively free market for the glory of God.

One way humans engage wisely in economic activity is to be generous, using our wealth to provide the means for the church to do good works in the name of Christ. Another way is to actively pursue the good of the materially poor around us. In the process of helping the poor, however, a biblically shaped worldview recognizes there are forms of poverty that no amount of material support will resolve. People are desperately need of the gospel, so we are called to demonstrate it through our actions and verbalize it through our language.

As part of our economic activity, Nelson also urges Christians to fight economic injustice, to show grace to the communities around us. Most of all, people simply need to get moving. It is altogether too easy to stay cooped up in our homes, never meeting our neighbors, and thus never learning how best to meet their needs. By making personal connections and seeking the common good in all of our economic activities—not just the ones where we spend and earn—Christians can demonstrate what hope looks like to the world.

The Economics of Neighborly Love is the sort of volume that makes a great introduction to a biblical view on faith, work, and economics. Nelson shows how the ordinary lives of ordinary Christians can be leveraged to make this world a better place for the love of God and the good of our neighbors. He presents a practical vision for Christians to be salt and light in the world.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this volume is that there is a way for Christians to show neighborly love not despite our economic system, but because of our economic system. Though Nelson recognizes that sometimes sinful people oppress others in a free market economy, he also recognizes that freedom is an important part of allowing people to fulfill their potential as beings imbued with the image of God. The freedom within the market system helps make financial prosperity accessible to many more people, which helps provide the resources for many forms of productive engagement with society.

Nelson’s book, however, will fall short of its final purpose if it fails to encourage Christians to live their lives for the good of the world around them. This is a book that deserves to be read, discussed, and shared widely as the body of Christ seeks to fulfill the greatest commandment by living out the second greatest commandment in a world of people who desperately need to be loved. The Economics of Neighborly Love is a volume that needs to be applied wholeheartedly, too.

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

Between One Faith and Another - A Review

It is difficult, at times, to understand different perspectives on the compatibility of religions. Or, perhaps to be clearer, I might say that it is hard to understand without caricature other people’s ideas about religions.

For example, for those raised on conservative Christian teaching, there is no question that Christianity is incompatible with dozens of others world religions. We have heard this asserted from pulpit, lectern, and printed page so often that it is clear to us that Buddhism conflicts with orthodox Christianity in ways that are irreconcilable. Truths are black and white. We can be absolutely certain of most things. The law of non-contradiction reigns supreme. This is the perspective on religion known as exclusivism.

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And yet, many hold to the notion that all religions are somehow leading people to climb the same mountain, though via different paths. Though Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, some suggest that his illumination shines through the teachings of other world religions such that all provide a functional path to God. In its most benign forms, this perspective on religion teaches that there is some truth in all religions, and therefore no conflict between them in the absolute core. One might make progress toward salvation (whatever that means) as a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. This view is often called inclusivism.

There is a third perspective on religion, which is called pluralism, that argues we just don’t know which of the religions has the truth (if there is one), but that all may have a piece of the truth. Those that propound this view typically trot out the illustration of blind men feeling different parts of the mountain, an image which Lesslie Newbigin and others have helpfully identified as arrogant presumption of omniscience on the part of the speaker. This perspective often entails a sort of agnosticism, which asks the believer to wait and see before making final commitments.

In didactic texts, whether of the form used for indoctrinating children through Fundamentalist Christian worldview courses or those used to influence college sophomores in a world religions course, these perspectives are often presented triumphalistically. The pastor shows how the god of Mohammed is really vastly different than the God of Paul; the political science professor dons a head scarf and asserts that the two deities are really the same without understanding the basic theological issues; the tired, uninterested arm-chair philosopher argues for pluralism because he really wants people to stop arguing and killing one another over religion. These approaches and their related variants often tend to dismiss alternative perspectives without increasing understanding.

For those interested in understanding better the relationship between inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism, Peter Kreeft has written a new book, Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World’s Great Religions.

Summary

I was initially skeptical of this volume, because it is written in the form of a dialogue (or really a trialogue), which is not my favorite form of philosophy. I am also aware that Kreeft is a committed Roman Catholic who converted from evangelical Christianity, so he has a distinct perspective on the issue; I wondered how well he could represent the perspectives in this format.

My doubt, however, was ill-founded. Kreeft has produced a volume that will help people from all three perspectives to understand the others better. This is because, as Kreeft admits in his introduction, he has sympathies with each of the three characters and their perspective. Kreeft dealt the cards fairly when assigning roles and allowed the dialogue to unfold relatively naturally, without cheating arguments by exposing only flaws or highlighting only strengths.

The volume is a conversation between two students over the content of a world religions course. The atheist/agnostic rationalist is an exclusivist, seeing all the conflicts between different religions. He argues that not only do they conflict with one another irreconcilably, but that they are therefore all wrong; this the is character that sees the fatal flaw in all religions. He is the extremely rational college student who likes to blow the whistle on logical fallacies; sort of like your average Christian homeschooler, but without the background knowledge of Adventures in Odyssey.

The second main character is also a fellow student with the exclusivist, she is the inclusivist who believes that we’re all climbing the same mountain. She rightly notes the moral similarity between most world religions and, sometimes through an act of will, argues that religions have a common center and only conflict (or appear to conflict) in their practice. The rigorous logic of the exclusivist seems over harsh for this theologically liberal Christian.

These two characters engage in a Socratic dialogue after class, since both of them come off with understandable disagreements with the Professor. This is, perhaps, the most unrealistic aspect of the entire book: two people with different worldviews engaging in thoughtful dialogue over a long period of time. However, if the reader suspends disbelief, this is a helpful heuristic tool.

True to reality, Kreeft allows the debate between the inclusivist and exclusivist to wander afield and get mired into the predictable conflict over logic, non-contradiction, and compassion. However, here he inserts a third character, the pluralistic professor who tries not to present his view in class (and perhaps actually lacks a clear view) but simply presents the different religions with their strengths and weaknesses. This professor functions as a plot device to referee the debate when the students get off-track and caught in do loops of circular argument.

Analysis and Conclusion

Overall, the conversation is engaging and informative. There were several points along the way that Kreeft’s dialogue made me laugh out loud because he naturally inserted humor in an otherwise potentially dry discussion. The content of the conversation is relatively natural in its flow, though Kreeft thankfully cleaned up the rhetoric and expression of the speakers to make the debate more precise and linear than would be likely in a real, human conversation.

There are points throughout the volume that the reader is left a bit frustrated, since there is no clear hero, no matter the reader’s perspective. It's a good sort of frustration, though. The inclusivist, exclusivist, and pluralist all score points and all get scored on. At times, each is infuriatingly mired in his or her thought process. However, the characters do develop over the course of the volume, as they each accept the validity of the others’ viewpoints where appropriate. None of the characters “convert” to another perspective, though the rough edges are certainly worn off in several cases.

This is, in short, an example of the sort of conversation that should be happening in society, especially in higher education, but which too rarely occurs. Between One Faith and Another raises more questions than it answers, but that would make this a useful text for multiple audiences.

As a parent of a homeschooler, this is the sort of text that I might consider using in a high school world religions course. It covers many of the basic facts of various world religions, but gets to the more basic (and often ignored) question of how we should deal with the variety of religions.

This volume would be useful in a comparative religions course in a religious or non-religious higher education setting, because Kreeft does well at being even-handed throughout the conversation.

For the casual reader, like me, this volume is truly enjoyable. The conversation moves along, the content is clear and helpful, and the reader’s character is formed by sympathizing with people with whom one would otherwise naturally disagree. This is worth reading, even if simply for the enjoyment of it.

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

Recapturing the Wonder - A Review

We are lost in a world that has largely lost its wonder. Small rectangles of sand and copper steal our attention from sunsets, changing leaves, and the very image of God that sits before us at the dinner table. The chemical composition of our food, often merely the presence or absence of some ingredient, is more interesting than its savor and preparation. The many little natural spectacles deemed near-miracles by previous generations have been explained scientifically, and are thus bore us. We are jaded and blind to the spectacular in a world filled with wonder.

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This should never be, especially for the Christian, but most of us fall into the malaise of modernity that saps the glamour from the glory-saturated world around us. We succumb to the continual bombardment of media, entertainment, and fragmented attention that reduces our ability to perceive the holistic wonder of creation.

Mike Cosper’s book, Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World points us solidly in the right direction to fix what ails prevailing culture.

Summary

The book is broken down into seven chapters with a distinct introduction and epilogue. Each of the chapters consists of a prose explanation of what the problem is with a paired pathway that provides practical steps to diffuse the damage done by our loss of wonder. Cosper identifies seven problems: (1) disenchantment; (2) religiosity; (3) excessive self-awareness; (4) busyness; (5) unwarranted feelings of scarcity; (6) lack of community; (7) unregulated lifestyles. The pathways offer solutions: (1) re-enchantment; (2) grace; (3) seeing Scripture as alive; (4) withdrawing with God; (5) practicing abundance; (6) holding feasts; (7) creating a rule of life.

The bare lists in the paragraph above do little to convey the helpfulness of Cosper’s book. He really gets the wasting sickness that is modernity and its wayward children. His suggested solutions are not novel or New Age solutions, but delves into historical practices of the church to find solutions that were and are intended to make us more human.

Analysis and Conclusion

Few, if any, will apply Cosper’s program in whole. However, even if a reader gleans one or two selected practices, the benefit is likely to be significant. Re-enchantment has the potential bring joy back into life because trees are beautiful and the sky is alive. Understanding grace renews the sense of hope and lifts the weight of guilt. Experiencing the liveliness of Scripture blesses the reader who encounters a living God. All of these are very helpful.

One of the more intriguing practical suggestions in the volume is to hold a feast. Not a potluck, as most Baptists have experienced in full, but a massive meal with few distractions, bountiful food, and a purposed focus on the goodness of the One who gave it all.

Perhaps the most powerful idea in Cosper’s arsenal is of creating a distinct pattern of life that intends to inculcate godliness and communion with God. Here Cosper relieves the medieval monastic practices of their dutiful obligation and supplants it with the original purpose of the formal structure, which was to form the character of the monks. A rule of life doesn’t earn salvation; it furthers sanctification.

Recapturing the Wonder is a book that warrants reading several times. A first pass, perhaps, to diagnose and gain a sense of the whole. A second, deeper exploration that is supposed to determine which practices will be most helpful and can be best applied in your situation. It may be helpful to digest the book slowly with a spouse or with a group of friends with the intention of implementing practices incrementally that can restore a sense of humanity.

This is an excellent book. It can be read quickly and dismissed, but it has potential for enduring value. This is the sort of book that provides just the sort of remedy our harried society needs.

Note: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Political Church - A Review

As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” By this metric our society is very diseased. Even given the special focus on politics caused by it being a Presidential election year, society is excessively focused on politics because our society is a festering wound of dislike and division.

One might think a book on political theology would simply contribute to the excessive focus on politics and the sickening mix of politics and religion that we are seeing with the Religious Left openly lobbying for their flawed candidates and the Religious Right arguing for theirs, too.

However, in the hangover from this election, the church will do well to pick up Jonathan Leeman’s recent book, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. This is the book on nutrition for the glutton suffering from indigestion after binging on junk food.

The thesis of Leeman’s book is that “the church is a kind of embassy, only it represents a kingdom of even greater political consequence to the nations and their governors. And this embassy represents a kingdom not from across geographical space but from across eschatological time.”

This would be a dangerous theory if Leeman were arguing that the church has the same political purpose as a parliament or congress. There is a difference between the church and the state; they have overlapping magisteria but different means of influence. Leeman’s vision of the church and the state is not of two kingdoms, but of a single kingdom with state and church reflecting the authorities of the current kingdom and the future kingdom, respectively. Leeman stands well within the Augustinian tradition via a deep interest, though not uniformity, with Oliver O’Donovan.

Summary

This is not an introductory volume on political theology. Leeman’s discussion is a distinct approach to the place of the church in contemporary politics, but understanding this volume requires a fair understanding of the various political theologies that he is critiques and is building upon.

At the same time, Leeman’s volume begins a step before many others do by addressing some of the basic questions that one must understand before attempting a political theology. The first two chapters of the volume address the important questions, (1) What is politics? and (2) What is an institution? The various meanings of these terms are discussed in some depth before moving on. Though Leeman leaves some flexibility in the terms for his own use, his discussions of historic definitions provide context for the remainder of the book.

The next four chapters outline a positive political theological using a biblical theology as a foundation. The chapters run along the progression of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

The chapter on creation places God at the center of all politics. He made this world and is the just and righteous judge of all things. It is his authority that is represented through the work of both the government and the church. The nature of politics is shaped by the nature of the creator God.

In dealing with the fall, Leeman goes beyond the actual original sin of the primal couple to discuss how falleness has influenced all human interactions since that time. Leeman walks through the biblical storyline to show how sin has influenced government and increased the need for its justice.

The chapter on the politics of the new covenant focuses on the ongoing need for the work of the cross to be done in public. This means repentance, forgiveness, and good natured striving for the common good. Leeman is careful to distance his view from theonomy. In fact, he notes that attempts to bring about the eschatological kingdom on earth now never end well. Instead, Christians should work to apply the gospel as much as possible to earthly situations as one would expect of citizens on the new covenant kingdom.

The last chapter deals with the politics of the kingdom. However, this doesn’t refer to the eschatological kingdom, but is an especial focus on the polity of the local congregation. Leeman exercises his Baptist muscles in talking about the importance of church membership, credo baptism, and right practice of the Lord’s Supper. These are elements of the church that prefigure the coming kingdom. By being faithful to justly administer its own borders, the church stands as witness to the kingdom that is to come. The church is a political body because its policies and ministry influence the world, though it begins at a very local, individual level.

Analysis

Leeman’s book is a helpful approach to political theology because it begins with the narrative of Scripture and asks what the text says about the church’s political engagement. By beginning with the ideas of Scripture and working out, he formulates a much more distinctively Christian political theology.

In other words, political theology generally begins with a vision of what good is, which is often derived from an interpretation of Scripture. However, most political theologies then apply an extra-biblical method to achieve the desired goods.

For example, the Social Gospel movement sought (or seeks) to bring about the kingdom largely through a Rawlsian approach to government that favors strong individualism and a preference for government engagement in solutions at nearly every level. This approach then creates an implicit need for the church to pursue justice by seeking greater government control and introducing more radical human freedoms. The church’s main role in this vision of political theology is as a lobbyist to influence the state’s earthly authority.

A similar criticism could be levelled against movements that are more theologically conservative, as well.

The point is that Leeman’s volume offers an approach that is designed to constrain the Church to her proper role in pursuing a right polity within her own area of influence. The message of the gospel as it is preached in the church should affect all of life, but the authority of the Church in the present age is somewhat limited. Leeman’s biblical theological approach to political theology helps to keep the church in her lane, and rightly focused on the gospel.

Leeman’s point is that the church is an inherently political institution. When it is functioning well, it cannot help but influence the world around with the message of the gospel. If the church fails to equip people and influence communities toward justice, as it is biblically defined, it has failed in its mission. However, when the church begins to engage in politics to increase redistribution of wealth through taxation or enforce certain moral codes through judicial means, then the church has exceeded its authority. Between these failures is the proper political role of the church.

This is a helpful resource for those who are familiar with the general content of political theology. Leeman’s approach is innovative and fresh. It is distinctly biblical. As such, it is a useful resource for those seeking to live rightly in our fallen world.

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

A Call to Be A Christian Missionary to Christians

I reviewed a volume not too long ago in which Mark Tietjen presents the thought of Soren Kierkegaard in an attempt to convince the reader that reading Kierkegaard is a worthwhile activity for the contemporary church. I am inclined to agree with him based on his book.

What struck me as perhaps the most significant lesson from the book was the call to be a Christian missionary to Christians. This is the subtitle of the book and it largely describes how Kierkegaard saw himself. It is, in our day, perhaps a necessary task.

Seven Ways to Be a Missionary to Christians

The following extended quotation, drawn from the conclusion of his book outlines some ways Tietjen sees that Christians can be missionaries to other Christians, which is Kierkegaard’s overall ministry:

-               If there are some who are Christians in name only, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are some who have inherited a perverted form of Christianity and know nothing better, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who value created goods over the Creator, then one can be a missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who struggle to trust in God and his goodness, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who fail to believe God can redeem even the least redeemable person, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who lose hope that God’s kindness, forgiveness and redemption extend even to them, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who ‘speak in tongues of angels,’ and so on, but have not love, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
Thus to be a missionary is not simply to convert the lost but to incarnate divine love in obedience to and imitation of Jesus Christ, the God incarnate. This could involve a fresh gospel message, works of love, words of nurture or the trust of one who construes me as neighbor who bears God’s image. The truth is that just as all Christians are called to mission, so too could all Christians use the message and love of the Christian missionary. Mission work quite simply calls others, all others, to God. (161-162)
$13.60

Reshaping Missions to Mission

A necessary step into understanding what Tietjen is proposing, and what he claims Kierkegaard supports, is altering the concept of "missions." This is by no means a new conversation, but it is one that hasn't always found escape from the halls of academia.

In general terms "missions" refers to the concept of going out to evangelize, do good works, and spread the good news of Christianity. When you think "missions" think vocational missionaries, evangelistic meetings, and a focused effort to reach people who have not previously accepted the gospel.

The term "mission" encompasses those things, but it is an umbrella term that defines a broader range of activity. Advocates of the concept of "mission" are affirmative of focused evangelistic efforts, but also see the gospel importance of daily living. The faith and work integration movement has this vision. Every action has the potential to preach the gospel in some way.

Behind Tietjen's explanation of Kierkegaard as a Christian missionary to Christians is this understanding of the purpose of the Christian life. It broadens the pool of gospel workers to include all truly converted Christians and broadens the work that is considered to promote the advance of the gospel.

Speaking Truth to a post-Christian America

We live in a post-Christian America. Perhaps even a post-reality America. Although I do not believe that America was ever a "Christian nation" in the sense that the nation had a divine mandate or was especially blessed because of its faithfulness, I do see in the pages of history a general Christian consensus.

Obviously that consensus has decayed. And yet, a form of cultural Christianity continues on. This is the sort of Christianity that allows people voting for an immoral, authoritarian candidate for the highest office in the country to claim that he is somehow chosen by God for the office. (Which he may be, just not for the reasons they suppose.) Many of these people claim to be "Evangelical Christians," but do not darken the doors of any church on a regular basis. This is the sort of Christianity that needs Christian missionaries.

Or, on the other side of the political spectrum there are individuals who brand every form of social deconstruction a form of "progress" and make public arguments that adherence to any sense of moral law outside of "judge not" is sub-Christian. There is a large block of such professed Christians in the United States that need the gospel as much as your Buddhist neighbor. They need a vision of the transformative power of conversion, where the Lordship of Christ is apparent over every corner of life.

This is the sort of application that Tietjen is calling for. The gospel must be evident in every area of the life of every Christian. I must say that on this point I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Kierkegaard - A Review

Sometimes it seems like the Church is asleep at the wheel. Some Christians cheerfully abandon cherished beliefs and live as if the gospel didn’t matter. Others act like forgiveness is for wimps and neighbor love is best expressed by yelling arguments to someone securely wrapped up in a headlock. Søren Kierkegaard may part of an answer to some of these problems.

I know that the answer to many modern conundrums can be found in Church History. However, I must say that I’m surprised to find so much that speaks directly to the present situation in Kierkegaard.

Like many evangelicals, I have avoided Kierkegaard. First, there is the eternal problem of how to say his name without sounding like an idiot. Second, I’m really not a big fan of philosophy. This is mainly because I see a lot of philosophy that has abandoned the pursuit of knowledge and has drifted into a pursuit of esoteric and sometimes solipsistic niggling. Third, everyone has always told me that Kierkegaard is a liberal. Combine these three things together and you have a recipe for bypassing Kierkegaard.

But Kierkegaard may be just what the doctor ordered for 21st century Christianity. According to Mark Tietjen, he’s much more orthodox than I’ve been led to believe and he’s always trying to be faithful. Most importantly, the main thrust of his work was intended to revive the gospel in Denmark. It had simply become too easy to be a Christian and play along. One became Christian by simply by being Danish and occasionally participating in churchish activities.

In addition to the laity presuming their Christianity, the clergy seemed to have lost sight of the purpose of preaching. The Danish church leaders talked about the Bible, but were ineffective in bringing it to bear on the lives of their congregants. There are some circles even among my strongly orthodox peers where that is the present condition. Frankly, it’s the sort of error that I am drawn to.

Enter Kierkegaard

In his recent book Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians, Mark Tietjen shows how Kierkegaard’s writing can be used to help call Christians back to a more faithful life in Christ. According to this book, Kierkegaard can be best understood as a prophet explaining the weaknesses of the faith of the people of God. This is not an introduction to Kierkegaard’s work, but an apology for his usefulness for the contemporary Christian Church.

After a brief introduction, the book contains five chapters. In Chapter One, Tietjen gives a biographical overview of Kierkegaard, an apology for philosophy, an apology for Kierkegaard, and a brief overview of his work. In the second chapter the topic of conversation is Kierkegaard’s Christology. Tietjen highlights the fact that Kierkegaard was calling his readers to understand the radical, offensive truth of Christ as God-man. This is a truth that was being (and is again) overwritten by the redefinition as sin and.

Chapter Three discusses how Kierkegaard is helpful in showing what it is to be human. The psychological influence of Kierkegaard is highlighted here and the sinfulness of despair. Kierkegaard calls for the Christian to hope all things, even when things are hard. In the fourth chapter the topic is the Christian witness. Kierkegaard’s work was designed to rouse Christians to live rightly and allow the gospel to permeate their every day lives. In fact, as Tietjen describes it, Kierkegaard felt that right living was the most effective apologetic. In Chapter Five, Tietjen outlines Kierkegaard’s position on Christian love built around the three theological virtues. In a world that tends to misunderstand the nature of love, the refined nuance of Kierkegaard’s position could well be valuable.

Summary and Conclusion

As someone who has read a little of Kierkegaard, I cannot evaluate how accurate Tietjen is. I’ll leave that to other reviewers. However, Tietjen states that his goal “is to convince Christians as I have been convinced that Søren Kierkegaard is a voice that should be sought and heard for the edification of the church.” In my opinion, he has met his goal. I am encouraged to read more Kierkegaard and will recommend that to my friends.

This book met my expectations. I am intrigued by Kierkegaard and will read him soon. Tietjen provides a suggestion for secondary sources that introduce Kierkegaard, so there is a place for me to begin my understanding. In reading this book, I was encouraged, once again, by a figure from Church History that there is nothing new under the sun. The Church has been down this road before and, in this case, Kierkegaard helps to provide the necessary answer. This was an encouragement in a time when I needed some, so I’m thankful for the book.

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