The Insanity of God - A Review

“Is Jesus worth it?”

That is the question that Nik Ripken’s book, The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected drives his readers to ask. It’s a story that Christians in a Western context should ask themselves regularly, realizing that the costs of following Jesus are so much lower in our context than in many others around the world. Ripken’s book is a reminder of the huge cost so many believers are paying for their faith, and that, without question, Jesus is worth it.

The book begins by telling part of Ripken’s story. He came to Christ as a teenager from a dysfunctional family and immediately felt called to ministry. After attending a Christian college, where he met his wife, Ruth, he landed in seminary. After getting married and graduating, the Ripkens pastored several churches in the United States until they felt an unmistakable call to cross-cultural missions.

Their story is not atypical among young missionaries. They fell in love with the people at their first assignment, but could not remain there. For the Ripkens the problem was a low resistance to Malaria that threatened the lives of the whole family. After spending some years working in one of the black districts in South Africa (prior to the end of Apartheid), they felt called to go someplace where the gospel had not been or, at least, where it was not readily available.

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So, the Ripkens began to serve as relief workers in Somalia during that bloody civil war. This opened Nik’s eyes to the horrific persecution meted out on Christians in many Muslim nations. When the Ripkens lost a son, in part due to lack of sanitation and adequate medical conditions, it led them to ask that fundamental question: “Is Jesus worth it?” It also led them to begin to ask questions about how to help Christians undergoing persecution thrive.

Approximately half the book is dedicated to the Ripkens, which is a worthy read. The latter portion of the book focuses on what the Ripkens learned from persecuted Christians.

After a furlough, Nik began to journey around the world to places like the former Soviet Union, where the persecution had just recently been lifted. The stories he tells of the cruelty applied to pastors and lay people are agonizing, but there is an unmistakable power in those stories that remind readers that Jesus is worth any price we could possibly pay.

Then, when Ripken spent time in China and in some Central Asian countries where persecution threatens the daily lives of Christians, the stories of courage, faith, and perseverance emerge with breathtaking clarity and compelling power. Jesus is worth it. These people know it. We too often forget it.

The Insanity of God tells important stories about the persecuted church. These stories do not lead to voyeurism, however. Instead they offer a compelling and convicting call to pray for the persecuted church and to use our freedom to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For American Christians caught in the belief that church is a nice extracurricular activity, or a place where they can go to learn some morals, The Insanity of God is a wakeup call that the gospel is worth any cost. Our primary concern in life should not be when our next luxury vacation is, but how we can more effectively live for the name of Christ.

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.

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.

A New Biography of Eric Liddell - For the Glory

I read biographies because it puts me in contact with better men and women, most of whom have died and whose lives can be measured with more accuracy and finality than the living. This is a sanctifying process, since it humbles me to recognize my own weakness in comparison to the greatness of others.

When it comes to the recent biography of Eric Liddell, For the Glory, I have found a man whose sandals I am unworthy to untie.

Liddell has been immortalized in contemporary culture with the Oscar winning movie Chariots of Fire. That film tells the tale to Liddell’s relatively short running career which cultivated in his surprising world record and gold medal finish in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Previously, when I thought of Liddell, I always heard the synthesizer playing the familiar theme and thought of giving up a chance at more gold medals to honor sabbatarian traditions. The movie ends with a brief, abrupt epilogue that indicates that the hero died in an internment camp in China during WWII.

Another picture emerges in other biographies I’ve encountered. The YWAM biography and other simplified biographies written by Christians paint a portrait of a saint, telling a powerful story for an audience looking for a Christian hero. Danny Akin has preached a sermon using the life of Eric Liddell as an extended illustration.

I expected these sorts of biographies to paint Liddell in a positive light as the protagonist in a compelling sports movie and as a great missionary who died for the cause.

When I picked up Duncan Hamilton’s recent biography, I was expecting a much less flattering picture. A missionary biography written by an apparent non-believer with no clear Christian sympathies printed by a secular publisher is bound to find all the dirt and put it out so everyone can see it. I expected to find private details with hints of suspicious activities at every turn. That, however, is not the case.

The portrait of Liddell that emerges from this volume is of a man whose serious, meticulous devotion to God was rewarded by such a degree of sanctification that he was able to risk his life for Christ without thinking twice. In fact, the man once pushed two wounded men in a wheelbarrow through the countryside filled with Japanese aggressors because they would have otherwise died. He faced harassment, theft, confiscation of his property, and separation from his wife with a good attitude for the sake of the cross. The picture Hamilton paints is one of a saint who did great things for the Lord with a gracious attitude and without neglecting the other good things in his life as a consequence.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One focuses on Liddell’s childhood through his Olympic victories. These chapters line up well with other biographies I’ve read and generally support the well-known story that has been seen on screen as Chariots of Fire. Part Two explores Liddell’s work as a missionary in China, including his courtship of his wife, his continued athletic efforts, and his focus on doing the work God called him to. An interesting wrinkle to the legend of Liddell is that he didn’t absolutely reject the possibility of running in another Olympics. His faith was not a call to asceticism. Rather, it was the British Olympic Committee that failed to engage a man who might have won the U.K. another gold. This section was largely new ground for me and very engaging. Part Three expands on Liddell’s life in the Japanese internment camp, about which much less has been known than about other parts of Liddell’s story. Hamilton conducted a host of interviews of other internees to expand the available information about a great hero of the faith.

What Hamilton has done here deserves notice. He took a Christian hero whose story has been told before and he made it better. Hamilton added to the field of missiology by writing a careful history of someone who has been celebrated widely. He did this without slipping into dismissiveness of Liddell’s convictions or snarky digressions about the foolishness of his faith. Hamilton should be praised for adding a critical work on Liddell that doesn’t fall into the too common trap of attacking the biography’s subject in order to add interest. There are no “daddy complex” narratives or secret abuse allegations. What the reader gets is honest history told exceptionally well.

Even if missionary biographies don’t keenly interest you, this book is worth your time. Hamilton writes so very well. His retelling of Liddell’s life story is detailed but lively, carefully crafted but not pedantic, honest but complimentary. In short, this is a great book that deserves to be read and widely.

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

George Liele - The First Baptist International Missionary

William Cary often gets credit for being the first Baptist sent as missionary to the nations. He certainly deserves credit, along with pastor Andrew Fuller, for kicking off the modern missionary movement.

Adoniram Judson frequently is identified as the first American missionary for leaving the shores of the U.S. in 1812. However, he isn't the first missionary to leave this land to go overseas, nor the first Baptist. Judson is important, but there was a Baptist missionary that preceded him.

The title of the first Baptist missionary actually belongs to a black man from colonial America named George Liele.

Biography

Liele was born a slave in the colony of Virginia in 1750. He converted to Christianity in 1773 in the church of his master, Henry Sharp. He gained his freedom in 1778 from Sharp so that he could preach the gospel. In 1783, since he had sided with the British in the revolution, in order to be evacuated from America with British troops, Liele became an indentured servant in exchange for his family's passage to Jamaica. After a short time he repaid his debt and was freed again. He then turned his attention to preaching the gospel to the slave population of Jamaica.

Liele was persecuted by the plantation owners of Jamaica for preaching the gospel. But he continued to preach the gospel.

Although he pastored many years, he did not rely on his pastorate for his income but worked as a teamster/hauler and farmer to support his livelihood.

Liele is an impressive example of a faithful Christian and an important figure in black history. Below you can watch Danny Akin's tribute to Liele in the form of a sermon on the text of Galatians 6:11-18.

Preaching from Galatians 6, Dr. Akin speaks about the marks of a cross-centered ministry and how these marks are seen in the life and ministry of the first Baptist missionary to the nations, George Leile, a former African slave who planted the Gospel in Jamaica.

Sam James - Missionary Hero

The fact that Sam and his wife Rachel served for 51 years is impressive in and of itself. I dream of being that faithful for so long.

That they served in Vietnam for many of those years makes the feat even more astounding. James recalls of his decision to serve in Vietnam:

"I didn't know any Vietnamese people. I'd never heard the Vietnamese language. . . . It was just something the Lord laid on my heart that I couldn't get away from. . . . Sometimes I think the call of God is something of a mystery."

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