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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review: Throw It Down by Jud Wilhite

Addictions, habits and dependencies come in all shapes and sizes. From chemical to emotional, from spiritual to behavioral, all of us have sinful tendencies that separate us from healthy relationships with God and others.

This is Jud Wilhite's premise in Throw It Down (released by Zondervan today). Using the exodus of Israel out of Egypt as a metaphor, Jud describes the stages that characterize an exodus out of slavery and dependency. Pastor Wilhite is himself a former addict, so his own testimony colors some of the chapters along with the testimonies of others who have found their way to his ministry.

As much as the author and publisher would like a wide target audience for this book, it read too much like a 12 step program for the average reader to really engage with it. However, for those dealing with dealing with addictions and dependencies (and for the churches ministering to them), this book is an excellent resource.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Addicts and those working with them

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan Books.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Review: Small Faith--Great God by N.T. Wright

InterVarsity Press' latest offering from N.T. Wright's, Small Faith—Great God, is in fact one of his oldest books, first released in 1978. Amazingly, I would not have noticed the book was over 30 years old had I not read the preface. Wright seems to write and think in a timeless fashion that does not grow dated very quickly.

Small Faith—Great God focuses on the faith of the Christian, Who we look to and what we hope for and look forward to. It is part devotional, part apologetic, highlighted by N.T. Wright's vast knowledge of biblical history. Most of the chapters were originally sermons given in and around Oxford University and they fall roughly into three parts. The first part focuses on the object of our faith, God and his character. The second looks into the lives of various biblical characters and how their faith impact their lives. And finally, the third portion addresses how our faith can likewise enable us today to live faithfully through every period and challenge of life.

While I admittedly haven't read much from Wright and despite the theological debate he has sparked of late, this small book has got me looking forward to reading a lot more of his work.

The Westminster Bookstore has Small Faith—Great God at one of the best prices I could find, 33% off the list price ($12.06).

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of N.T. Wright's early work, anyone who's felt challenged in faith

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Reason for the Season

Thinking back on my childhood, I can still remember the excitement and anticipation that I felt leading up to Christmas. It was almost like a dull vibration that went humming through my body giving me a constant sense of advent. Of course, it was the advent of Christmas morning and presents that I was feeling, not the more spiritual Advent you're thinking of.

I still remember the year that I began to care a little less about the presents. I remember telling my mom so and saying that I was understanding and appreciating more the "real reason for the season". And since that year, there has been a continual progression as the presents are less and less a part of my Advent excitement. And this year I am beginning to wonder if that's such a good thing.

Don't get me wrong. I believe Jesus is the reason for the season. But I think we're losing something when we try so hard to get away from the childhood fixation on gifts, because at the heart of the incarnation is one act of God after another that is each fundamentally and profoundly a gift.

After all, I don't think most adults appreciate the real reason for the season any better than kids do. When it comes to Christmas gifts, children are quite materialistic. They're excited about getting stuff. Adults, on the other hand aren't less excited because they're less materialistic but rather because they can get all that stuff for themselves. If you were anything like me, you started caring less about the Christmas gifts around the same time you started earning your own money and buying all the stuff you wanted throughout the year. So we're not less materialistic than we used to be, we're not more in tune with the real reason for the season than we used to be, we're just more capable of meeting all our own wants and needs during the year.

Kids, on the other hand, wait for months in anticipation of the promised and coming gifts. They know that if they aren't given what they want or need, they are completely helpless to get it on their own. Someone else must earn and pay for their gift. And what shows the Gospel and Advent better than gifts given to even the undeserving and ill-deserving children? In my childhood and materialistic mind, I was thinking in very simple terms "Despite how I've behaved this year, the gift under the tree is what I want, what I need, and if it's not given to me, I am utterly out in the dark to earn it for myself".

The gift of Jesus in incarnation—his advent, his life, death, and resurrection—are, as Tim Keller might say, the true and better Christmas gift. It fulfills promises and great anticipation. It is given to those undeserving and ill-deserving. It meets our most fundamental needs. It satisfies our deepest desires. It cannot be earned. It cannot be bought. It cannot be merited by good behavior.

I'm suggesting that when we lose that gift-excitement around the Christmas season, we're actually losing something that is a perfect picture of the Gospel and Advent. Instead of making it less about the gifts perhaps we should consider how we, for children and adults alike, might take the excitement and anticipation of the gifts and channel them toward the true Gift.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book Review: The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung

Before I say anything else, I must offer a big thanks to Moody Publishing for their patience in waiting for this review. I took my time with this book and read it more as a devotional which incidentally the book is perfectly laid out for. More on that in a moment.

Who would have guessed that a catechism from the 16th century could be anything but dry, propositional and boring? Yet Kevin DeYoung has taken the Heidelberg Catechism and unearthed a treasure that is modern, relevant and even interesting in The Good News We Almost Forgot.

The catechism (and thus the book) are largely an unpacking of the Apostle's Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. The 129 questions of the catechism are broken up into 52 chapters, perfect for a weekly devotional reading. While I didn't spend a week on each chapter, I did take my time reading the book, rarely reading more than a chapter or two in a sitting. The chapters are short enough and the content varied enough that the book doesn't really lend itself to knocking out half the book in a sitting.

This book is taken best in small bites . . . and chew slowly.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian looking for a systematic survey of Christian theology and it's application to everyday life

You can purchase The Good News We Almost Forgot at 34% off the retail price at the Westminster Bookstore!

This book was a free review copy provided by Moody Publishers.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Book Review: Evidence for God

For this book I am breaking from my usual practice and sharing my criticism first. Evidence for God, edited by Mike Licona and William Dembski, has a slightly misleading title and subtitle: "50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy and Science". A more fitting title and subtitle would be Evidence for God and Jesus: "50 Arguments for the Christian Faith". That's it. That's all I can say bad about this book.

Evidence for God is broken into four sections and, while the first two address concerns shared by all theists (questions of philosophy and science), the last two sections (Jesus and the Bible) address apologetic issues for Christianity in particular. However, there is enough material in the first two sections alone to benefit any theist seeking evidence for God.

Typically a book with so many contributing authors may struggle to keep a good flow of thought and argument from chapter to chapter. Not so with Evidence for God, and much credit is due to Dembski and Licona for this fact. Notable contributors such as Copan, Habermas, Pearcey and Witherington III make the best use of the four or five pages given each chapter. The brevity of these chapters keeps any one topic from growing too overwhelming or nuanced but still gives adequate space to grasp the facts and the basic argument.

All in all, this is an excellent starting point for anyone looking for a broad treatment of the most common challenges in Christian apologetics.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: All apologists (Christian and theist)

This book was a free review copy provided by Baker Books.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Video Review: BASIC.Fear God by Francis Chan

As one of the primary people responsible for finding small group curriculum for my church, I have found that videos work particularly well in the summer when regular attendance and outside study both take a vacation. Last summer, for instance, we worked our way through some of the Nooma videos by Rob Bell. However, if I may be honest, I have found something I am even more excited about for this coming summer.

Francis Chan has begun a new video project called BASIC that lends itself perfectly to the small group (both teen and adult) and addresses the fundamental building blocks for the Christian life and the Church. These videos are visually exquisite, intellectually stimulating and theologically solid.

The BASIC videos are being created by a group called Flannel, the same organization that did the Nooma series. However, based on the videos I've seen so far, they have outdone themselves on this current project.

One of the elements that sets these short 15 minute videos apart is the secondary story that takes place as Chan presents his material. The picture cuts between Chan and other characters that give us a sort of visual "parable" of what Chan is describing (trust me, it's not as confusing or distracting as it sounds).

Fear God is the first video in the BASIC series and it lays the groundwork for the videos that follow. Chan addresses some misconceptions surrounding the idea of the fear of the Lord, but also affirms some of the more challenging aspects at the same time. In the end, however, this fear should drive us away from self-sufficiency and toward the only one who can save us, God.

This will be a stellar series and I look forward to the future releases and using these videos in my own ministry!

You can watch the trailer for BASIC.Fear God here.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: The Passionate Intellect by Alister McGrath

The intellect and "discipleship of the mind" does not always top the list of dominant Christian characteristics in the eyes of the general public, especially those more antagonistic to our views (like the new atheists). So who better to write on the role of the mind in the life of the Christian than a former atheist? And there is perhaps no one on that list better suited than Alister McGrath to write such a book.

And The Passionate Intellect is that book—for the most part. The first two chapters are as solid a treatment on the Christian mind as I have read and they alone merit picking up the book. Other high points include a chapter on the relationship between theology and apologetics and between faith and science.

While the first half of the book focuses on the life of the Christian mind in general, the second half is a sort of case study on how Alister McGrath himself has applied these principles in his areas of expertise. The final five chapters deal with such themes as the natural sciences, evolution and the New Atheism.

The key weakness of this book lies in the fact that each of its eleven chapters are based on previously unpublished lectures and addresses given over the last three years. This naturally lends some of the chapters to be more timely than timeless. It also keeps the book from having a cohesive flow at times from chapter to chapter. And the book ends on a bit of an odd note with a chapter called "Atheism and the Enlightenment: Reflections on the Intellectual Roots of the New Atheism" rather than a summary and conclusion.

All in all, this book makes a solid case for the Christian intellect and gives us solid modern-day application for some of the biggest challenges currently being thrown our way.

For those interested, right now you can buy The Passionate Intellect over at the Westminster Bookstore at 32% off retail price!

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Theologians, university students, teachers, apologists

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review: Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps

Flickering Pixels is part history of media, part theology for the postmodern era, part social commentary.This book read like a collection of short essays unified around major shifts in media and strongly influenced by Marshall McLuhan's book "Understanding Media" (you should recognize his now famous aphorism, "The medium is the message"). From the printing press to social networking sites, from texting to TV, Shane Hipps gives a brief and random sample of media history and how each of these elements have effected culture and Christianity.

I found the chapter on the printing press particularly interesting as Hipps argues that it gave rise to the modern age of linear, logical thinking. While most of Christianity is still operating in this modern mindset in its apologetics and theology, he suggests that the postmodern age has been ushered and accelerated by the arrival of the telegraph, television and internet. While the modernist mindset was logical, linear and word-based, the postmodernist mindset is now nonlinear, narrative- and image-based. I found his criticism of Christianity in this regard to be excessive and more than a little ironic since he was making his argument in book form.

With that said, Hipps understands media well and identifies with post-modernity well (at times uncomfortably so). This is a decent read and certainly a challenging read for anyone who is still a logical thinker of a modernist bent (which I assume most avid readers will be).

Rating: 2 1/2 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Those interested in media, postmodern ideas and how Christians might respond

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: Marks of the Messenger by J. Mack Stiles

Marks of the Messenger is not a how-to guide to evangelism, it's not steps or strategies to gaining more converts. Instead, this excellent little book by J. Mack Stiles lays the groundwork for a life that is gospel-centered and naturally evangelistic. For example:
I'm convinced that the greatest obstacle to healthy evangelism is pragmatism: "doing evangelism"...Success drives pragmatic evangelism. Pragmatic evangelism never asks the question "Who are we to be as an evangelist?" Pragmatic evangelism only asks the question "What works?" (p. 19)
J. Mack Stiles certainly didn't set out to write a faddish book (and by no means did he) yet Marks of the Messenger addresses how a life centered around the Gospel and evangelism informs how we should think about such hot topics as social justice, the missional movement in a post-Christian age, and the narcissism and self-love of our culture. When speaking of social justice, he says the following:
"The gospel message is the message that produces salvation. So we should never confuse meeting physical needs with sharing the gospel. Caring for others represents the gospel, it upholds the gospel, it points to the gospel, it's an implication of the gospel, but it is not the gospel, and it is not equal to the gospel." (pp. 68, 69)
While some may disagree with his position on social justice, every reader will find the vast majority of the book to be easily readable, applicable and commendable. (Every reader will also find it at the Westminster Bookstore for 33% off the retail price at $10.05. Sorry, shameless plug!)

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian in ministry, small group leaders, any Christian wanting to be more comfortable in sharing their faith.

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Challenges from the Exodus account

As I've mentioned before, our church is going through the first five books of the Bible during a series we're calling the Old Testament Challenge. This past week we read—and the Community Groups discussed—the account in Exodus covering the ten plagues. There were some really good questions during our discussion time and I wanted to offer some (hopefully) succinct answers to a few questions I imagine are very common from these passages.

Q: Why so many plagues and why so severe? Was God just wielding the ten plagues like a playground bully, twisting Pharaoh's arm until he cried "uncle"?

A: No, it was much more than just a battle of the wills. Egypt was a pantheistic society, which means they worshiped many gods. Each of the ten plagues was direct challenge (and defeat) of one or more of those gods in the minds of the Egyptians. In essence, God was demonstrating his superiority and sovereignty over all of the created order and the supposed corresponding Egyptian pantheon. Pharaoh and all the Egyptians would have rightly understood this as a sort of clash of the titans, with the Israelite God emerging as the clear victor.

For instance, darkness was an assault on the sun god, Ra. The Nile turning to blood was an attack on Hapi, god of the Nile. With each plague, the Israelite God worked his way up the rungs of the Egyptian pantheon, finally reaching the Supreme: Pharaoh himself. The Egyptian religious system held that the Pharaoh was a human incarnation of Ra and that he was a god-king. So the death of Pharaoh's first born was the death of the son of god, the god-in-waiting.

Not only was this final plague seen as the defeat of Egypt's preeminent god figure, but within it (and the Passover sacrifice and meal) was a beautiful foreshadowing of both the Old Testament sacrificial system and the eventual perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. So in each of the plagues—but especially the last—God is anything but a mere bully and arbitrary in his actions.

Q: Were all the other Egyptians (and the Israelites, too) just innocent victims suffering collateral damage in this battle of the gods?

A: No. God demonstrated his ability to execute a surgical strike when necessary. The land of Goshen, the Israelite district within Egypt, was spared some of the plagues like those of flies, darkness and livestock. We are even told that some Egyptians were spared the worst of certain plagues when they "feared the word of the Lord" and responded properly (see the account of the hail for example).

However, it is conceivable that God had designs even for those plagues that afflicted both Egyptians and Israelites indiscriminately. After all, even the Israelites delayed in honoring, fearing and obeying the direction and word of the Lord through Moses.

It is also reasonable to assume that Pharaoh was not the only Egyptian holding out hope that one of the higher and mightier deities might finally put an end to this God of the slaves. In fact, there is never any account of any repentance or pleading for mercy or sanctuary on the side of the Egyptian people. This idea seems supported by the fact that there is no account of any Egyptians fleeing to Goshen during some of the more localized plagues. Whether they still held out greater hope in their gods (and Pharaoh) or whether they simply feared Pharaoh more than God, the silence of the Egyptian population doesn't necessitate their innocence.

Q: How do we make sense of the biblical account when it says "God hardened Pharaoh's heart"?

A: This is probably one of the most common and challenging questions from the entire book. One question that I have found important to ask about this problem is: "What action is required of God in order for Pharaoh's heart to harden?"

The Bible does declare emphatically that "God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed." (James 1:13,14) So God would not tempt Pharaoh and in deed did not need to if Pharaoh's own evil desire and inclination was already against God. If this is true, than all that would be required is for God to release Pharaoh and turn him over to his fallen tendency towards hardness of heart. This same progression of fallenness is shown in Romans 1 when Paul writes three times that God "gave them over" to sinful desires, shameful lusts and a depraved mind. So while God may be the passive agent releasing fallen mankind to do whatever they desire, Pharaoh and the rest of humanity would be the active agents in our sin and rebellion. Our fallenness simply dictates what we do with our freedom when God turns us loose.

The biblical writer of Exodus communicates as much when switches back and forth between the idea the God hardened Pharaoh's heart and Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32). Certainly the author was not implicating God in Pharaoh's sinfulness, but it does seem he sees even Pharaoh's willful, sinful hardness as under the sovereign allowance of God.

In summary, the Bible always keeps these two ideas in balance and tension: the active willful rebellion of mankind within our freedom and the passive allowance of that rebellion under the sovereign rule of God. In this way, both the moral responsibility of man and the ultimate sovereignty of God is preserved.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Book Review: A Praying Life by Paul Miller

I am not much of a prayer. I mean, I pray, but no one that knows me would put me in the category of "prayer warrior". In fact, I have trouble finding the time to pray and, even when I do find that, finding the words to pray.

This is perhaps why I loved A Praying Life by Paul Miller so much. While it is packed with wisdom and helpful instruction, it is written by and intended for the struggling prayer. If you're like me, a book on prayer sounds about as appealing as a book on having your cavities drilled at the dentist (you and I were both wrong).

Unfortunately, practice is much harder than principle. This is not a book to be rushed through. I would recommend a slow pace that allows you to implement the various disciplines and directives within. Believe me, it will be worth your time.

Not only did the book read much easier than I expected, it really stuck with me. I have found myself quoting him often in my Community Group as the various challenges to prayer are common and widespread. Additionally, this book will be one I will loan and recommend often and it even made it onto my "read again" list (a surprisingly short list, believe it or not).

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian (yes, all of you)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: The Grace of God by Andy Stanley

The God of the Old Testament can sometimes seem like a starkly different person from the God that Jesus reveals to us in the New Testament (so much so, in fact, that heresies have sprung from the idea that they are two different gods). His dealings with many Old Testament characters can seem harsh and cruel—as the New Atheists love to point out. However, just under the surface is a strong current of grace that flows through the biblical narrative from beginning to end, from Adam and Eve, through Jesus, and all the way to the modern-day believer.

Andy Stanley charts the thread of God's unmerited favor through the Bible in his book, The Grace of God. As he recounts some of the better and lesser known biblical accounts, there is enough history, humor and insight to make even the most familiar stories fresh. Some of the most interesting chapters deal with the shady Old Testament characters and episodes that make it into Jesus' lineage (i.e. Judah, Rahab, "the wife of Uriah").

And yet one would have to be blind to not see, in the retelling of grace in each of these lives, the same grace that is constantly at work in our own lives. Andy Stanley has taken one of the Bible's most dominant themes, retold it in captivating fashion and captured a satisfying portrait of the Gospel of grace in the process.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of Beth Moore, Philip Yancey and anyone desiring to get a good big-picture idea of the Bible

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book Review: Pure Pleasure by Gary Thomas

Ask the average non-Christian on the street and they will probably tell you that the God of Christianity is just out to set a bunch of rules and spoil everybody's fun. They may even suggest that to become a Christian means to devote yourself to a life of monkish asceticism and self-denial. In Pure Pleasure, Gary Thomas sets out to debunk this misconception, and does so in rousing form and in the spirit of the likes of John Piper and C.S. Lewis.

Early last year I was sent a copy of The Glorious Pursuit unsolicited and I read it not knowing what to expect, being unfamiliar with the author and his work. I have been thrilled with everything I have read from Gary Thomas ever since and this book is no exception. Central to Thomas' argument is the idea that pleasure is good, God created pleasure, and we are created and intended to pursue our highest pleasures (ala Piper). In fact, at the core of most sins and temptations is a good pleasure—a good drive—that is being hijacked by our fallen, sinful nature.

The solution, Gary offers in part, is not to deny ourselves these illicit pleasures, but rather to so pursue and satisfy ourselves on holy pleasures that we kill at the root our temptations. As he says, "Using pleasure to point us back to God instead of allowing it to compete with him (or worse, letting it draw us away from him) roots us in the greatest pleasure that will never, ever end".

Always the Christian life should be one of biblical balance. A time to indulge, a time to abstain. A time to exercise self-control, a time to get lost in something purely good. This book is not an argument against a Puritan life, it shares the key to finding and nurturing godly pleasure in life, even if yours is a Puritan one.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Those interested in spiritual growth; those dealing with sin, temptation, legalism

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan books.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Exclusive Q&A with the authors of Is God Just a Human Invention?

If you are interested in McDowell and Morrow's book Is God Just a Human Invention?, head over to the other blog I am a contributor to, Christians In Context, for an exclusive Q&A with the authors!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: Is God Just a Human Invention by McDowell and Morrow

Atheism has seen a resurgence in the last decade or so in its publicity—if not also its popularity—due in large part to the New Atheism (names like Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris) and most recently Stephen Hawking with his argument against the existence of God in The Grand Design. Yet for every volley leveled at theism in general and Christianity in particular, there is are equally capable minds ready to pick up the gauntlet and offer return fire.

Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow aren't charting new territory in this book. Far from being a criticism, however, I found this to be one of the greatest strengths of the book. These two authors are thoroughly well versed in the arguments and works of other Christian thinkers and quote liberally from writers like C.S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, Dinesh D'souza, Alister McGrath and Paul Copan. A brief postscript section called "Why It Matters" follows each chapter and features other such thinkers as Gary Habermas, William Dembski, Randy Alcorn and Greg Koukl.

The book is broken up into two sections: "Responding to Scientific and Philosophical Challenges" and "Responding to Moral and Biblical Challenges". Each chapter is imminently accessible to even those unfamiliar with the topics at hand. For this reason, none of the arguments get very in depth, but the authors have done the heavy lifting and offer a couple titles at the end of each chapter if you feel up to the challenge as well.

Christian apologists have well reasoned responses to the New Atheists' charges and this book is as good an introduction as one could want. McDowell and Morrow are standing on the shoulders of many brilliant minds and have made a substantial offering in their own right. This book is a perfect reference for those familiar with the arguments, a perfect primer for those who are not, and a perfect loaner for the believer and skeptic alike.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Skeptics, apologists, those looking for an introduction to the arguments and counter-arguments of the New Atheists.

This book was a free review copy provided by Kregel Publications.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Five Reasons Why a Thoughtful Person Would Start Their Religious Quest With Christianity

1. Christianity is testable. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) In Christianity objective evidence exists and matters. It literally hangs the entire religious system out for objective scrutiny, inviting people to test it. You can make decisions for or against the Christian worldview based on objective evidence. This explains perhaps why Christianity is the object of "affection" for atheists when attacking religion. How long will it take you to investigate the claims of Christianity? It might take a week, it might take years, but at least you can investigate them.

2. Salvation in this system is free. There might be glimmers of grace in Hinduism and Buddhism, but every other major world religion is about doing stuff that is going to please some deity. Only Christianity turns the popular view of religion as moral conformity on its head and offers a relationship with God that is not based on our moral performance.

3. Christianity paints a picture of the world that matches reality. Of course, this is a huge claim that cannot possibly be tested in all its applications. However, we can begin to test this thesis using one of the more popular arguments against the existence of God, the problem of evil. Specifically, one should look at the way that different worldviews handle the issues of evil, pain and suffering. Most eastern religions portray evil, pain and suffering as "illusion" that you need to overcome and transcend. Christianity takes evil, pain, and suffering seriously. Christianity says not only is evil, pain, and suffering real but God takes it so seriously that he gets down with the the sufferer in their pain to bear them up. Jesus, of course, is the ultimate picture of this.

4. Christianity allows you to live a holistic life. In Christianity, we get to use our minds in our worship, we get to think about God. We use our minds to worship God, we are to reason and it's supposed to make sense. You worship God with the same mind that you approach every other aspect of your life, you don't need to compartmentalize. In eastern traditions (those religions that most often make the claim of being holistic), your reason might actually be an impediment in your religious progress.

5. Christianity has Jesus at the center. Jesus is the universal religious figure that every major religion wants to co-opt. If you're a Buddhist, you might claim that Jesus is an incarnation of the Buddha or at least an enlightened teacher. If you're Hindu, you might believe that Jesus is an avatar of Vishnu. If you're in Islam, if you read the Koran, Jesus emerges as a figure greater than Mohammad himself. If you're on a religious quest, it makes sense to start with the religion that centers around the greatest universal religious figure in human history.

This was a presentation developed by Craig Hazen as presented on one of my favorite weekly podcasts, Stand To Reason, hosted by Greg Koukl. (Note: Greg was absent the week of this conversation, but you can click here to listen to the entire three hour call-in program or skip to the last hour to hear the interview with Craig Hazen.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two Books by Eugene Peterson

While many may only recognize the name of Eugene Peterson in connection with The Message, he has written more than twenty other books that have had a considerable impact of their own. In fact, were it not for one of these two books, he may never have written The Message at all.

Peterson wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction thirty years ago and it's fifteen chapters are based on the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), Psalms that were most likely sung as Jewish pilgrims made their ascent to Jerusalem for their holy feast days.

Each chapter begins with one of the fifteen Psalms in The Message translation which provides the framework for the chapter. In fact, it was actually the work done during the writing of this book that, as Eugene says, "provided the impetus for embarking on the new translation".

This form is at times refreshing and at other times distracting. Refreshing because it reads a bit like an expository sermon, dealing with the text as it is written and in sequence, chapter by chapter. Distracting because, as far as a book on discipleship goes, it doesn't have a simple list of logical steps to follow. But, after all, when does discipleship ever work like that?

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: A supplemental read with The Message, anyone looking for a discipleship devotional

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Living the Resurrection is just three chapters long as Peterson describes how the resurrection meets us in the three sacraments of Sabbath, communion and baptism. Though this seems a simple enough of a concept, I found myself struggling to follow the ideas and themes throughout. In fact, I didn't even realize the three central ideas of Sabbath, communion and baptism until it was explicitly stated on page 94. While is a short 123 pages, I must confess it began to feel long since it is only broken up into three chapters (I am a sucker for long books with short chapters).

Peterson seems to write in a more flowing, poetic style rather than the straight-forward, logical form that I am accustomed to in most of my reading. While this is certainly not bad, being aware of it will certainly aid in finding enjoyment in the book (of which there is plenty to be found). The insights and the flashes of beauty in this work come not like the crescendo of a solid argument, but like the subtle turn of a word or phrase that may make you think of your everyday Christian life in a new light.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of Eugene Peterson and The Message

This book was a free review copy provided by NavPress.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Book Review: Can We Trust the Gospels? by Mark D. Roberts

Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus. Dan Brown's DaVinci Code. From academia to pop media, it's trendy to suggest that Christians have gotten the message—and the person—of Jesus horribly wrong.

Enter Mark D. Roberts and his easily accessible book, Can We Trust the Gospels? What began as a blog has turned into what Roberts calls a blook, which is a real word for a blog turned book (who knew?). Without delving into the highly technical arguments of textual criticism, Mark D. Roberts defends the reliability of the Gospels in such a manner that even those with a low view of Scripture should be impressed and perhaps even convinced.

While the book is less than 200 pages in length, Roberts deals with all of the most central challenges to the transmission of the biblical texts. He also addresses many of the more fringe challenges that may not find footing in the academic realm but may gain popularity among the general public (via a novel turned movie about the Gospel of Thomas, for instance). After all, I don't care what academia thinks of an idea as long as Ron Howard can work some explosions and intrigue in.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Recommended: For apologists or anyone who wants to know if we can trust the Bible

This book was a free review copy provided by Crossway Books.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Review: Intelligent Design Uncensored by Dembski and Witt

The debate between evolution and intelligent design (ID) can become quite intellectual and academic, quickly passing over the heads of your average reader (including yours truly).

William A. Dembski and Jonathan Witt have done all those interested in the discussion a favor in writing Intelligent Design Uncensored. Perhaps the best aspect of this book is that it doesn't focus on just one aspect of ID. Not only does it cover some of the most compelling arguments (the origin of the universe, the bacterial flagellum motor, etc.), it also addresses the stranglehold of materialism and evolution presupposed into much of academia. And it does so in language that usually won't outpace the reader.

And finally, the last chapter of the book is intended as a "how-to manual for using the investigative tools of intelligent design to reinvigorate our culture by awakening it to the powerful evidence of design in the natural world". They have pointers for aspiring scientists, parents, teachers and the rest of us.

This book is as good an introduction into the ID position as I have read and at just 154 pages it's a perfect loaner that won't intimidate as well.

Rating: Five of five stars

Recommended for: Apologists, the scientifically inclined, anyone looking for an introductory resource for intelligent design

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Album Reviews

Since I already posted this over at the other blog I write for (Christians In Context) I figured I would break tradition and share some music recommendations:

The first I purchased this past week while I was on vacation in Boulder, CO (incidentally, vacation is also why I haven't been as consistent on my book reviews, sorry!). Andrew Peterson's Counting Stars quickly became the soundtrack for my Colorado vacation much like his Resurrection Letters, Vol. II did for last year's Colorado vacation. While this album has a lot more to say about Peterson's role as husband and father, there is still plenty of spiritual depth in his lyrics. I can honestly say there is no other songwriter that moves me to tears, goosebumps and a driving passion to be a better Christian than Andrew Peterson. (And a little side note: If you ever get a chance catch his Christmas program on the Behold the Lamb of God tour, you will never see a better gathering of great musicians telling the Nativity story beginning from all the way back in the Old Testament. I promise, it is worth every cent!)

Favorite lyric: "It's so easy to cash in these chips on my shoulder/So easy to loose this old tongue like a tiger/It's easy to let all this bitterness smolder/Just to hide it away like a cigarette lighter/It's easy to curse and to hurt and to hinder/It's easy to not have the heart to remember/That I am a priest and a prince in the Kingdom of God" - Fool With a Fancy Guitar

The second album that forced me to pull out the lyrics and follow along during vacation was John Mark McMillan's The Medicine. Stylistically, I think fans of Samford and Sons will find a lot to like here.

John Mark started making serious waves when David Crowder recorded his song "How He Loves" on his last album. However, if you purchase this album expecting an entire record of worship songs like that, you will probably be disappointed. McMillan writes with depth, honesty and creativity that probably makes most of the songs a little too strange for congregational singing.

However, the one exception is the song "Death In His Grave": "On Friday a thief/On Sunday a king/Laid down in grief/But woke with the keys/of hell on that day/The firstborn of the slain/The man Jesus Christ laid death in his grave"

Honorable mention:

The Outsiders, needtobreathe - Southern rock, a bit of a live feel makes it stand out

The End Is Not the End, House of Heroes - Influences from The Beatles to Green Day, Muse to Weezer, this album has been a year long favorite

Beautiful Things, Gungor - Lyrically and sonically, Gungor sits somewhere between John Mark McMillan and your radio-ready worship music.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book Review: Atlas of the Bible by Carl G. Rasmussen

I have always loved maps. Remember the game "Are we there yet?" as a kid? Yeah, that was my favorite game until the day I discovered I could add all the little red numbers between the cities on my parents' atlas together and find out exactly how long till we were there.

So when I got the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible by Carl Rasmussen in the mail I was like a kid in a candy store. And this isn't your grandma's Bible Atlas either. The multidimensional and three-dimensional maps add a new layer to the context of many biblical accounts. My personal favorites are the maps that detail some of the Old Testament battles; the three-dimensional maps give a new understanding of how the terrain may have played a role.

However, this is not merely an atlas. Fully half of this book is text in addition to the maps, chronological charts, full-color photos and graphics. All considered, this book is a solid Bible history book in and of itself. Some of the pictures are more relevant and helpful than others, but the whole book is so beautifully put together one can hardly blame them for including some vivid imagery of the Middle East countryside.

I foresee this book being indispensable in the near future as Redeemer Church is planning to work through the Pentateuch together in nine weeks for a series we're calling the Old Testament Challenge.

Rating: Five of five stars

Recommended for: Anyone wanting to study the history of their Bible deeper; all cartophiles

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sermon on Jonah 3 & 4: Part 1, The Forgiven People

After being puked up on the shore near Nineveh, Jonah finally obeys God in this dreaded assignment—dreaded because Assyria is a growing superpower in the middle east that is threatening the the norther border of Israel. Dreaded because Jonah cannot imagine how this will end in his favor: either the Ninevites reject his message and kill him or they receive his message and repent.

The one consolation left for Jonah is small. His message isn't one of repentance, only judgment. His only recorded words to the Ninevites is "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

Yet the Ninevites seem to come to all the right conclusions: fasting, sackcloth, dust and ashes, calling urgently on God, and giving up evil ways. No infant sacrifices or self-mutilation which was common in many pagan practices. We see universal conviction on the part of the Ninevites. The king issues a royal decree of repentance and mourning, but the text points out that the people already "believed God" and were in the process of fasting and mourning before he said a thing. This is nothing short of the hand of God on the hearts of the people.

Biblical scholars seem to be divided about whether the Ninevites truly repented and were saved in the book of Jonah, but the argument is strong that they were for three reasons:
  1. In verse 3:5 it says they "believed" (NIV) or even that they "believed in" (NAS) God. This is the same phraseology used describing the faith that Abraham had that was reckoned to him as righteousness.
  2. Obviously their repentance was of the substance that God had compassion on them and relented.
  3. Jesus seemed to consider their repentance to be of note: "Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here." Matthew 12:38-41
Though God destroyed Nineveh just a few generations later (as chronicled in the book of Nahum), this does not rule out the true repentance and turning of heart by an earlier generation.

In summary, the Ninevites:
Respond with belief toward a God who was not a god of Assyria.
Respond with humility toward a prophet who was not a prophet of power.
Respond with repentance to a message that was not a message of repentance.

Why is this relevant? Because centuries later, one came to the Jews who was a prophet of power, who was from the God of the Jews, and with a message of repentance. And the result? The Jews rebelled and killed that prophet. And Jesus knew this would be their response. When he told the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham said to the rich man "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Luke 16:31)

What do we see through the repentance and salvation of the Ninevites? First, we see that the God of the Old Testament was not just a God of wrath, judgment and jealousy. God was a God of mercy and forgiveness. Above and beyond that, He loved, sought, and saved those outside of the covenant of Israel. Certainly this was not his normal operating procedure, but God demonstrates here (as Paul delineates later) that salvation has always been a gift from God for Jews and Gentiles alike, through faith, and not from ourselves, not by works so that no one may boast.
Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me." But of Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people."
- Rom. 10:20,21 ESV
This post is the first in the three-part series of excerpts from a sermon delivered at Redeemer Church in Omaha, NE on July 25th, 2010.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Many thanks to BibleCo for sponsoring this post and sending me an imprinted Bible as an example of their fine work. A brief skim of the site showed many of the Bibles I was looking at marked about 20% off the retail prices and, unless I'm mistaken, the personalized imprinting is free for most items!

This is a company I am happy to recommend to my readers as they have been a pleasure to work with. I know I am promoting the personalized Bibles a tad too late for the graduation season, but I am giving you plenty of time to look into the large print Bibles for National Grandparents Day on September 12th. I know, I know, "phew" you say, "I didn't know what to get them." You're welcome!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Review: Wired For Intimacy by William M. Struthers

I felt compelled to write my review for this book immediately after Anatomy of the Soul because both are dealing with the areas of neuroscience, Christian spirituality and moral transformation. William M. Struthers is also a neuroscientist and his theoretical research is in the area of neuroethics, the biological bases of spirituality and personhood, and the nature of integration of psychology.

According to the latest numbers I've seen, 53% of Christian men consume pornography and 37% of pastors say it's currently a struggle (stats from Clearly, according to the numbers, it is a much bigger problem than is being talked about, and being a pastor of a church virtually guarantees that I (and many of our readers) will deal with someone in the cross-section sooner or later. Thus William Struthers has done the entire believing body a service in writing Wired For Intimacy: How pornography hijacks the male brain.

Perhaps the most interesting and helpful information Struthers provides is on the fact that pornography acts on the male brain much like drugs (such as cocaine and heroin) do. Both cause the body to release dopamine and, with repeated use, the body develops a tolerance and needs greater stimulation to get the same dopamine high (thus the law of diminishing returns is equally true of pornography). Just as a path in the forest becomes wider and more defined as more hikers use it, so do the neural pathways with repeated pornography use until, as Struthers puts it, one has created "a neurological superhighway where a man's mental life is over-sexualized and narrowed . . . they become the automatic pathway through which interactions with women are routed".

Struthers, however, resists the temptation to color pornography use in particular and sin in general as simply a problem of the mind. He writes a book that plays to his strengths, but balances his expertise with the proper biblical picture of sin and temptation. While this book is not for everyone (obviously the subject matter is explicit), given the stats cited earlier, I cannot recommend this book enough for every Christian male, especially those in ministry.

Recommended for: Christian men; especially pastors and counselors

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Book Review: Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson, M.D.

The balance between the body and the soul—the material and immaterial—has been a perennial tension for Christianity, dating all the way back to the early Christians dealing with Gnosticism. In Anatomy of the Soul, Curt Thompson is treading the same waters. However, the subtitle is a more accurate description of the book: "Surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships".

The strengths of this book are not a surprise. As a psychiatrist, Thompson shares many accounts from his counseling sessions and shows how changing how we think about certain things—or don't think about them—can change the way we live. I imagine those who might benefit from a counseling session would benefit equally from reading this book.

There are weaknesses present however. Thompson seems to overemphasize the area of neuroscience—the brain and the mind—when speaking of of the Christian life. Chapter after chapter seems to present the Christian's lack of spiritual growth as primarily knowledge-based. Sin, fallenness and human depravity are often put in the context of problems of the mind rather than the heart and then whole person.

While this book may be helpful for some, I feel the author treads dangerous waters in portraying the Christian life as one of simply overcoming misinformation with right information.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Those seeking Christian counseling

This book was a free review copy provided by Tyndale Publishers.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Review: Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola

As I picked up Jesus Manifesto, I was unsure what I was in for. The subtitle "Restoring the supremacy and sovereignty of Jesus Christ" had my hopes set high but I have been disappointed before when I let them get too high. After all, I told myself, the Calvinistic idea of the sovereignty of Christ that so often gets me worked up is not the sort that needs to be restored in the first place. It's immovable and unchangeable, no restoration necessary. And if we're talking about some other sort . . . well, we will see.

And Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola were talking of some other sort for the most part. Yet I found myself unexpectedly captivated and convicted by this book as they argued for the supremacy and sovereignty that we should be giving Jesus as individual Christians and the Christian church. At times soaring, at times ground-level, at times gushing, Sweet and Viola paint a picture of Christ that is all at once immense and close. And thankfully they often share what a life shaped by the life, cross, and resurrection of Christ will look like—from social justice to love for the church.

They truly hit stride on the chapter regarding the letter to the Colossians. As they expand and expound on the already christologically dense first chapter, their (and Paul's) vision of Jesus comes into clear focus and I found myself aching with love for the person of Christ. I would dare say this book is worth buying for chapter 2 alone—or at least sitting in The Barn (as my wife calls Barnes and Nobles) and reading it. I feel no shame in saying that because I imagine most who read that chapter will buy the book anyway.

A few negatives: the book seems to lack a certain flow from chapter to chapter. The authors seem happy to camp in the middle ground of trendy/edgy Jesus without delving into too many divisive ideas. Their Jesus is a uniter, not a divider. And yes, I did say that the high point of the book was chapter 2—but don't let that stop you. While everything else may be downhill, they keep momentum and the jog is certainly worthwhile.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Everyone

This book was a free review copy provided by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book Review: Embodying Our Faith by Tim Morey

If I were to give the award today for the book that most exceeded the low expectations I'd placed on it, Embodying Our Faith by Tim Morey would certainly win (of course, I can't give that award out until the end of the year). The marked presence of such names as McClaren, Pagitt and McManus in the reference notes at the back of the book set me on high alert for anything "too Emergent" (don't ask for a definition, I have none).

However my fears were ill-founded. Tim Morey pleads with a generation of Christians who were largely won and schooled by a modernist apologetic, as many of these same Christians are at a loss as to why the same apologetic is ineffective with a postmodern crowd. After defining our postmodern climate as one that is characterized by deconstruction, moral relativism and religious pluralism, Morey poses his big question this way:
"How do we bring the message of Jesus to a culture that is deeply skeptical about truth claims, rejects metanarratives (such as the gospel), considers the church a suspect institution, takes offense at moral judgments and believes any religion will lead them to God?"
His answer in a phrase is the embodied apologetic. He suggests that our postmodern culture is hungry for transcendence, community and purpose. Of course, we have all experienced these to varying degrees within the walls of our churches, but seldom do we consider those our strongest cases for Christianity when reaching out.

For all the reading I have done on the postmodern mindset and philosophy, I had not considered—at least on the level Tim Morey has—how this should impact our apologetics and evangelism. I was completely thrilled by this book and the approach Tim Morey has offered—in largely orthodox fashion it seemed to me.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Church leaders and those interested in evangelism and apologetics.

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Book Review: The Five Points of Calvinism by Edwin H. Palmer

The Five Points of Calvinism was first published in 1972. Then again in 1980, the year of Edwin Palmer's death. And three decades later, you will still be hard pressed to find a more brief yet thorough treatment of the TULIP of theology. (No, really. I just spent ten minutes looking over my bookcase—to no avail.)

Don't let the cover of this book fool you. Though it says "A Study Guide" on the front, it stands up perfectly fine for personal reading. However, every chapter is followed by over a dozen (sometimes two dozen) in-depth questions about the previous chapter. When I say in-depth, I mean you should probably have a good grasp on the material at hand before leading a group through such questions.

If I had one disappointment, it was that Michael Horton didn't have more to say in the foreword. I thoroughly enjoyed both Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life and was hoping for more than just a glorified blurb in the front of the book.

However the resource materials in the back were a pleasant surprise, making up for my disappointment in Michael Horton's brevity. Here you will find excerpts addressing the five points of Calvinism from The Belgic Confession of Faith, The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Anyone investigating Calvinism, all those who consider themselves part of the Young, Restless and Reformed

This book was a free review copy provided by Baker Books.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Review: Everyone Communicates, Few Connect by John C. Maxwell

With dozens books under his belt, John C. Maxwell has established himself as one of the foremost writers and speakers on the topic of leadership. While he finds a large audience among church leaders (being a pastor himself), Maxwell certainly has a crossover appeal with leaders of all sorts. My pastor, for one, has found multiple opportunities to bring up "the law of the lid" from one of Maxwell's bestselling book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.

Yet it seems Maxwell has not run out of material or wisdom to share. In Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, John zeroes in on the gap there can often be between communicating and actually impacting and motivating your audience. I myself confess spending hours pouring over the few sermons I have delivered in my lifetime, worrying about what I wanted to communicate but not even considering whether I would be connecting or not. This book will certainly impact any future presentations I will be giving.

This book was a free review copy provided by Thomas Nelson Publishers

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Review: The Radical Disciple by John Stott

With The Radical Disciple, John Stott pens his final chapters in a writing career and public life that has impacted countless Christian lives for generations now and will certainly continue to do so for generations to come. I cannot imagine what goes through an author's mind as they write their final words as Stott, at eighty-eight, knew this would be his last book after announcing his retirement from public ministry in 2007. Contained herein are not only his parting thoughts for the Christian church but also the last public sermon he ever preached (as well as the address of his study if you are so inclined to visit him).

And it is an odd thing to know this as a reader. Were it just another book somewhere in the mix of his library, I would be tempted to rush through it. After all, it is only 135 small pages. But knowing that this was the author's last—and knowing the author knew it too—I took my time, I suppose expecting a sort of swan song.

But instead, I found a simple picture of the author himself, and one of him pointing away from himself and to Christ. Much like its author, the book is humble in its brevity. These eight chapters on some of the more neglected spiritual disciplines often left me wanting more. I felt every chapter could have been several times their actual length—especially the one on Christlikeness—but John remained on task and to the point. There are no revolutionary ideas here. But the steady faithfulness of one believer translates into a simple final exhortation to radical discipleship, not of him but of Jesus.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Anyone who has enjoyed anything by John Stott, those looking for a book on Christian spiritual disciplines

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

Book Review: Against All Gods by Phillip E. Johnson and John Mark Reynolds

Phillip E. Johnson has long been considered one of the leading figures in the intelligent design movement, due in large part to his book Darwin On Trial. His familiarity with both intelligent design and the various manifestations of evolution makes him a prime candidate to take on the new atheists and their age-old arguments. In Against All Gods: What's Right and Wrong About the New Atheism he is joined by John Mark Reynolds and the result, while lean in size at 116 pages, is anything but lean in content.

Though this book is a response to the charges leveled by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and the like, you will not find a point by point rebuttal. Rather, this book is what Johnson and Reynolds consider their contribution to the conversation. After all, they point out, "although they tend to give the wrong answers, they also tend to raise the right questions". This book is written in a very accessible manner and will make a good introduction to the conversation for all but those most unfamiliar with the topics at hand.

If there is one thing that complicates the Johnson/Reynolds side of the conversation, it's in the co-writing of the book. Phillip E. Johnson writes the introduction and chapters one through five then hands it off to John Mark Reynolds for three chapters before returning for the epilogue. There is certainly a shift in style and expertise—not for the worse, but it certainly breaks the flow.

In not simply answering a laundry list of challenges from the new atheists, Johnson and Reynolds (does anyone else think shampoo when I say that?) refuse to let the terms of the debate be set for them. All in all, Johnson and Reynolds have made a well-reasoned defense for the continued conversation between the two camps.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Fans of Phillip E. Johnson, those interested in intelligent design and the new atheist debate

This was a free review book provided by InterVarsity Press.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Review: Radical by David Platt

Initially, I had no idea what to expect from this book or it's author. I should have, however, since David Platt made a big splash at the 2009 SBC Pastors' Conference, yet I only recognized his name after I was several chapters into the book. I would now dare to say that Radical stands to make a bigger splash and a longer lasting impact on the Christian community.

David Platt takes on the daunting task of deconstructing the "American Dream" that has crept in and subverted much of American Christianity. He does this primarily by demonstrating that the life of a Christian disciple should be one colored by dependence on God, by picking up our cross daily and by dying to self. Though this takes on many forms in our lives, Platt gives special attention to American wealth. The stats are familiar, but David makes one of the better arguments I have ever read for living simply for the sake of the poor and the Gospel. Finally, he presents his argument for why "Going is urgent, not optional" (just as Jesus told his followers, "Go make disciples").

Platt ends with a challenge he calls The Radical Experiment:
  1. Pray for the entire world
  2. Read through the entire Word
  3. Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose
  4. Spend your time in another context
  5. Commit your life to multiplying community
Without a doubt, this will be a book I will recommend, loan and re-read. My pastor and I are already making plans to work it into our Community Group curriculum. I pray this book makes a massive impact on the American Christian for the sake of Gospel, the same impact it has had on me.

Click here to download and read the first chapter! And to request a free copy of the companion booklet, The Radical Question, click here!

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every American Christian, but especially those in leadership

This book was free review copy provided by Multnomah Books.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Review: Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne

Sticky Teams has been the most imminently practical book about church leadership I have read this year, hands down. For those of you unfamiliar with Larry Osborne, do you know who John C. Maxwell is? The guy who wrote The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and like a bazillion other books on leadership (no really, I checked Amazon, that number's right)? Well Larry Osborne is the John C. Maxwell of church leadership.

I know, I know, for many pastors, John C. Maxwell is the John C. Maxwell of church leadership. I can barely get through a meeting with my pastor without him referring to "the law of the lid". But in Sticky Teams, Osborne has written out of the wealth of his ministry experience to bring us what only time may show to be the definitive work on church leadership.

This is not a theological treatise on the spiritual elements of leadership. Rather, this is a ground level book that deals with all the interpersonal conflicts and miscommunication within a church. It may bother a few readers that only the occasional Bible verse is quoted, but Osborne is not addressing the doctrinal issues that sometimes divide a church. Instead, he is addressing the petty, the selfish, and the interpersonal issues—unmet or uncommunicated expectations, power shifts, undefined roles.

Osborne covers too much ground for me to give you a nice preview here, but I thought I would give you a teaser from one of my favorite chapters, "Six Things Every Leadership Team Needs to Know". Here is his list:
  1. Ignore your weaknesses
  2. Surveys are a waste of time
  3. Seek permission, not buy-in
  4. Let squeaky wheels squeak
  5. Let dying programs die
  6. Plan in pencil
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Anyone and everyone within (or interested in) church leadership

This book was a free review copy provided by Zondervan Publishers.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Review: CrossTalk by Michael R. Emlet

Understanding what the Bible says and means can at times be a daunting task. Properly applying that to our lives in our modern setting only adds to the difficulty. Enter Michael R. Emlet with his utterly practical CrossTalk: Where Life & Scripture Meet.

After reading for yourself, it is easy to see why there is so much buzz surrounding this book. CrossTalk is half hermeneutic lesson/half Christian counseling session and it is Gospel-centered from page one. As Emlet himself describes his trajectory: "It is appropriate to call the approach of this book 'redemptive-historical' or 'gospel-centered' application. It is an approach that takes the narrative (storied) nature of the Bible seriously in order to make wise connections with the narratives of our lives."

A proper understanding of what the Bible is places us in the best position to apply it to an individual life. And since Jesus saw all of the Old Testament scriptures as about him (and clearly the New Testament is equally so), a proper understanding of the Bible centers around Christ and our redemptive history in him.

After a couple chapters on Gospel-centered hermeneutics, Emlet shifts gears to application within a counseling setting. He is insightful in emphasizing the fact that every Christian, in any given situation, is to varying degrees a sufferer, a sinner, and a saint. While Emlet is clearly writing for an audience of Christian professionals (whether pastors or counselors), I found these chapters equally compelling in my own sort of self-counseling session. While the last few chapters get pretty involved as he walks us through two hypothetical sessions using his methods, there is more than enough in the first several chapters to highly recommend this book to every Christian.

Often I read to gain new information. But CrossTalk was a perfect example of another reason I read: to get a new articulation. Though many ideas in the book may be familiar ones to anyone well-read, you will be hard pressed to find a better and clearer communication of them. Additionally, this book will be among the first I recommend to those for whom this is new information. Either way, an excellent addition to the library of every Christian professional and layman alike.

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Recommended for: Every Christian, but especially anyone positioned to counsel or teach other Christians

This book was a free review copy provided by New Growth Press.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Jesus Christ: The Spotless Lamb, the Scapegoat, the Bronze Serpent

Today Christians around the world celebrate Good Friday, the most tragic and beautiful of holidays (literally: holy-day) on which we remember the death and sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus. Tragic for the death that it entailed. Beautiful for the lives that it bought. And yet all of history from the point of the fall was leading up to that moment because "it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life" (Lev. 17:11) and "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb. 9:22).

Likewise, all of the Old Testament was leading up to and foreshadowing the coming of the Messiah who would redeem his people. For this reason, the most dominant characteristic of the Old Testament sacrifices for the sins of the people was that it must be pure, spotless, unblemished. Thus when John the Baptist saw the one for whom he was to prepare the way, he announced "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" Jesus came as one pure and unaffected by Adam's fall. Spotless and unstained by sin. Unblemished and righteous before God. As Peter wrote,
"You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ." (1 Pet. 1:19)

Yet, among the other Old Testament allusions, two have stood out to me as beautifully poignant. The first is only mentioned once in the entire Bible.
Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for the LORD fell, and make it a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot for the scapegoat fell shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness as the scapegoat . . . Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins ; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land ; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:8-10, 21, 22)
Notice that the scapegoat remains alive to carry the sins of the people away. Though there are no explicit New Testament references (that I am aware of) to this living atonement, there is still a clear image of Christ.

The second is less obvious and, had Christ himself not drawn the connection, it would have seemed a bit of a stretch to draw the parallel ourselves. In Numbers 21 we read the account of yet another rebellion on the part of the Israelites against their God. In response, the Lord sent "fiery serpents" with a deadly bite into the Israelite camp. When the people repented, God commanded Moses to "m
ake a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." (Num 21:8) And Jesus calls our attention back to this account when he said "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life." (John 3:14,15)

This imagery can be fairly confusing. It is easy to see the parallels to Christ in the unblemished sacrifices and the scapegoat. But Jesus also says he is like the bronze serpent which, instead of being the picture of purity, is the representation of the curse. Yet Jesus did just this when he came in human form. Beyond this, " God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21)

Thus, in Christ all of this Old Testament imagery comes to a head and fulfillment. Christ became the One who was without blemish or defect to be our sacrifice, the One who lives to take sin upon his head and carry it away from his people, and the One who was lifted up in the likeness of the curse—nay, became the curse
!—so that all who looked upon him in faith in the promise of God would be saved.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why Heaven Will Be Superior To Eden

There is an idea floating around in contemporary Christian literature and music and I am baffled at its popularity. It usual manifests itself in phrases like "return to paradise" or "get back to Eden". I am baffled because—if one makes even a cursory reading of Genesis 2-3 and then Revelation 20-22—heaven seems plainly superior in many ways to Eden.

Yet this idea that salvation and heaven are just a reclaiming of what was lost in Eden seems to have some staying power. Certainly there are obvious similarities (which seem to get all the attention by many), but the differences are significant and considerable. I'm not even talking about the superficial distinctions—obviously one is a garden and the other is a city (the only carry-over we see in both places is the tree of life). Some of the other differences, however, are important because they inform our understanding of the fall, of heaven, and of the sovereignty of God.

The potential for a fall

I was tempted to break these all into individual points, but in the interest of brevity (and intellectual integrity) I summed them up to the basic idea that the fall and all that came with it loomed as an ever-present possibility. In Eden, mankind was of the nature that, though morally perfect in that he had not sinned, was not perfect in that he could not sin. Thus the possibility of sin and the fall kept these all as potential realities (and as we know, eventual realities). These ever-present possibilities include mourning, crying, and pain (Gen. 3:16, 17) and even physical death (Gen. 2:16, 3:19). Yet these all become impossibilities when God promises there will be no more "mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more" (Rev. 21:4) and Death itself will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).

The presence of Satan

"Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman . . . " (Gen. 3:1) The beginning of the fall narrative opens with the presence of what most theologians agree is a physical manifestation of Satan. Yet in Revelation he is defeated and banished to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). This is reaffirmed when we read that "nothing unclean will ever enter [heaven], nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life" (Rev. 21:27).

The presence of God

While the last point is probably quite obvious to most, the presence of God also seems to be different between Eden and heaven. It is possible that God was not perpetually present in Eden in a physical manifestation because we read that "[Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day" (Gen. 3:8). This seems to suggest he was not constantly walking in the garden. It also seems implicit that God is not physically present during the conversation between Eve and the serpent. Whether this is true or not, it is certainly true that Adam and Eve's awareness of the presence of God was such that they thought they could escape it as they "hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden" (Gen. 3:8).

Now I am certainly not questioning God's omnipresence, but I am suggesting that there will be a change in our awareness of the presence of God from Eden to heaven. In heaven, we read that "the dwelling pace of God is with man" (Rev. 21:3) as well as this great promise: "They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever." (Rev. 22:4,5) It seems clear that in heaven we will

The ignorance/innocence of mankind

This last point is to some extent an outgrowth of the first three. While Adam was indeed quite intelligent (e.g. naming of the animals) and enjoyed a relationship with God of which we can only speculate, there is a great bit of experiential ignorance/innocence in man pre-fall. Adam and Eve did not have the same experiential understanding of God's grace, mercy, saving love and sacrificial servanthood that we have this side of Eden—and we do not have the same understanding that we will have someday while remain this side of heaven. Everything between Eden and heaven serve to shape and form worshippers who understand and appreciate who God is better than we ever could if we had stayed in the garden.


Obviously more could be said for each item and more items added to the list (for example, could Jesus' incarnated body and his post-resurrection glorified body be a picture for us of the bodies from Eden to heaven?). However, I feel these four points are sufficient to delineate between the condition of mankind in Eden and in heaven. So what? Why does it matter? I can think of at least two reasons.

1) This understanding of heaven as superior to Eden give us a greater appreciation of the sovereignty of God. If mankind had to endure everything between Eden and heaven just to get things "back to the way they were meant to be", it would seem somewhat pointless. But if God had planned from the beginning to bring a chosen people from Eden, through the in betweens, and to a heaven far superior to Eden, then that is a very amazing and beautiful thing. Indeed, I believe that is exactly what Revelation is talking about when we read "All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." (Rev. 13:8) Notice that both those who would be saved and their means of salvation have been written from the creation of the world. This seems to imply also a fall that was somehow written from the creation of the world. (See also: Ephesians 1)

2) The understanding of a superior heaven should motivate us to live a life both joyfully in the present and eagerly anticipating the future. If all the trials we endure on this Earth are just backlash from our sin in Eden, then we've just gotta buckle down and bear it. But if each and every trial is a piece that God sovereignly ordained (see point 1) so that in heaven that very trial will all the more magnify the grace of God and the conquering joy of his people, well then we can, as James instructed, "consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds". If all of the in betweens are just the hoops we must jump through to get back what we'd lost in Eden, we could spend all of our lives looking back regretting the fall and questioning God. But if heaven surpasses Eden, then this is reason enough to press on, to look forward, to trust God and to pray with fervency "come quickly Lord Jesus!"