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Redeemer Church

Redeemer Church
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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Review: The Michael Horton Duology

As a sort of early Christmas present, the generous folks over at Baker Books sent me both of Michael Horton's latest books and I have been quite excited to review them. In retrospect, I am happy I was able to read them back to back, and I would suggest anyone else interested in either of the books do the same. Christless Christianity, while an excellent book in it's own right, leans toward a bleak picture without The Gospel-Driven Life to balance it. Of course, if you have heard anything about the duology, you know that's sort of the idea.

Christless Christianity is Michael Horton's diagnosis and prognosis of the state of the Christian church in America. Going into painful detail, he presses in on the places where the church has shifted its focus from God's activity to ours, from Christ as Savior to Christ as coach, from the transforming Good News to our own transformed lives.

Horton says that our narcissism has taken the form of what has been coined "moralistic, therapeutic deism", but he suggests that, at its core, it is simply a repackaged Pelagianism. He calls it "the default setting of the human heart: the religion of self-salvation".

While Horton seems uncomfortably spot on through much of the book, I imagine every reader will find a critique with which they might disagree (or in the case of the fans of Joel Osteen, an entire chapter). Also placed under the microscope are the Emergent Church, fundamentalism and the religious left and right, but his diagnosis is so often returning to the Gospel message that it is hard to argue against it.

While Michael's writing style flows well and moves at a good pace, there was one thing that made this book a slightly harder read: 260 pages were broken up between only seven chapters. I know this is a bit of a juvenile complaint, but long chapters just make a book feel longer.

Christless Christianity is sharp critique of the state of the modern church, and I imagine that no one can walk away from this book perfectly unscathed. However, it is well-reasoned and -argued, and the cuts it makes seem to be the necessary and precise cuts of a surgeon.

If Christless Christianity was Michael Horton's diagnosis of the Christian church, The Gospel-Driven Life is his prescription. Using the lingo of the news room, Michael argues in his sequel that the church needs to reorient to the "Good News" as central to our faith and practice.

Where the former book was bleak, this book is hopeful. The book is split into two halves, the first focuses on getting the elements of the Gospel straight and the second details what sort of a community the true Gospel creates (what he calls a "cross-cultural community" and, yes, pun intended). Horton memorably says that we need to get back to "Drama, Doctrine, Doxology, Discipleship", themes that continually recur throughout the book.

In contrast with the narcissism and Pelagianism that Horton diagnosed as the church's primary problems in Christless Christianity, he offers this as the solution: "The gospel makes us extroverts: looking outside ourselves to Christ in faith and to our neighbor in love."

Again, as in Christless Christianity, Michael is sure to ruffle everyone's theological feathers at some point. For me it came when (I felt) he overstated his case for the sacraments and the inclusion of the believers' children under the new covenant. Still, when it is so relentlessly couched in Gospel, I am more inclined to consider Michael's position, and this is one of the greatest strengths of the book.

I wholeheartedly recommend both of these books to every Christian, but particularly to those involved in church leadership.

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Book Review: The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith

In the The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith addresses many of the "false narratives" that Christians believe about themselves and God. These narratives (such as "I change by my own willpower", "God is angry with me" or "God blesses me when I'm good and punishes me when I'm bad") shape the way believers live their Christian life and can quickly lead to failure and disillusionment. Speaking of Jesus' teachings and parables, Smith suggests "If we adopt Jesus' narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow". In other words, orthodoxy in the believer will lead to orthopraxy.

I liked the premise of the book and more than a few of his corrective narratives (I hope you can tolerate that word, by the way, he uses it a lot). I think he pinpointed many of the imbalanced views that many Christians have of God and made some good arguments from a counter-narrative.

However, I was disappointed at a couple of points with the seeming lack of balance in his counter arguments. While the false narratives he addresses are caricatures of God (exaggerations that are popular because they are at least somewhat true) it seems his corrective narratives could also be caricatures on the opposite end of the spectrum. If you are turning the magnifying glass on the bad theology (and thus bad orthopraxy) of some Christians, you better be ready to have the magnifying glass turned on your theology as well.

I noticed this particularly in the area of mankind's sin. As I hear more about the idea of "therapeutic moralistic deism", I see more of it's influence in the way people talk about their sin. For instance: "God does not want us to sin, and God does want us to do well. But that is only because sin harms us, and acts of goodness are healing both to us and to the recipients of our goodness" or "God hates sin because it hurts his children". I would suggest that God hates sin and doesn't want his children to sin primarily because of who He is (holy, righteous, and the One whose image we bear) and not because of what it does to us.

I also had a couple red flags go up in the chapter entitled "God Is Holy". While he had some very interesting things to say about God's wrath as being pathos and not passion, he also said that God's wrath is a temporary and just verdict on sin and evil. Smith also says, "Hell is simply isolation from God. A person—even a person others think of as decent and upright—who rejects God is experiencing hell on earth". Neither of those sound like the narrative I read from Jesus.

While I do have a couple concerns about the ideas of sin and hell that Smith suggests as a correction to "false narratives", he overall has given us a worthwhile read on spiritual formation. In the end, he does have a lot of good (and beautiful) things to say about our God. I know . . . that was terrible.

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

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Review: Word Pictures by Brian Godawa

If there has been one publisher in the last year that has been an absolute delight to work with, it has InterVarsity Press. Their generosity in review material and eager participation in our blogging efforts have made this relationship a joyful surprise. And if one author has likewise been a joyful surprise, it has been one from their roster, Brian Godawa.

Brian's second book, Word Pictures (much like his first, Hollywood Worldviews), is intelligent, well-reasoned and compelling (which is somewhat ironic given his subject matter). He suggests that, while the Bible is chock-full of narrative, the European Enlightenment introduced a new paradigm of truth and knowledge that demanded a foundation solely on rationalism and empiricism and Christian thinking quickly followed suit. "The study of theology and apologetics" he proposes, "turned from the narrative text to the factual event behind the text. It's almost as if the biblical narrative became eclipsed by the pursuit of factual empirical verification of the text; a modern scientific obsession". In two early chapters (which also happen to the titles) he contrasts the "Word Versus Image" forms of communication and the "Literal Versus Literary" forms of interpretation.

But the book truly hits stride when Godawa starts talking about the idea of subversion. In subversion, the narrative, images and symbols of one system are discreetly redefined or altered in the new system. Using Acts 17, a chapter often cited in rational apologetics discussions, he argues that Paul was undermining Stoicism, subverting it through the Christian worldview. As Brian describes, "Paul is subverting their concept of God by using common terms with a different defintion that eventually undermines their entire narrative. He begins with their conventional understanding of God but steers them eventually to his own".

If there's one thing I did not like about the book, it was a couple of aesthetic choices. There were pictures scattered throughout, supposedly to support the argument for image, but they were mostly distracting and some were quite arbitrary. Also, each chapter was printed in a different font to accent how "the very art of typography itself influences the way we think". However, the only accent for me was how annoying different fonts in a book can be. In fact, it made one chapter almost unreadable. There is a reason, after all, why most publishers stick with a very few fonts for the body text of their books.

Aside from those few gripes, however, the book was a pleasure to read and a worthy follow up to Hollywood Worldviews. The idea of subversion in our culture was a fascinating concept and one I had not heard articulated before. This idea of subversion carries the second half of the book and I could barely put it down from that point on. It seems clear that subversion is taking place whether Christians are the ones weilding it or not (I had not considered that The Matrix may be an intentional subversion of Christian themes for New Age ideas). As Brian suggests, "We need to be actively, sacredly subverting the secular stories of the culture, and restoring their fragmented narratives for Christ".

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

2010 Book List

Well, it's that time again. New Year's resolutions and such. Pastor Lee and I have a yearly routine as Redeemer Church staff of forming a "One-Year Growth Plan" for ourselves. This year, as last year, part of my goal is to read one book a week (52 for the year). I figured since I have to keep track of them anyway, I'd post them here in case anyone wants to make any suggestions to my reading or ask about any of the books on the list.

Also, as I did last year, I will continually update the list but I won't move it to the top of the blog, so if you're interested, you'll have to search it out! The list will be in ascending order of my favorites!
  1. Is God Just a Human Invention? - McDowell and Morrow
  2. Your Jesus Is Too Safe - Jared Wilson
  3. Word Pictures - Brian Godawa
  4. Scandalous - D.A. Carson
  5. The Glorious Pursuit - Gary Thomas
  6. Marks of the Messenger - J. Mack Stiles
  7. A Praying Life - Paul Miller
  8. Pure Pleasure - Gary Thomas
  9. Dug Down Deep - Joshua Harris
  10. Church Planter - Darrin Patrick
  11. Intelligent Design Uncensored - Dembski and Witt
  12. Can We Trust the Gospels? - Mark D. Roberts
  13. CrossTalk - Michael R. Emlet
  14. On Guard - William Lane Craig
  15. Evidence For God - William Dembski (ed.)
  16. Radical - David Platt
  17. The Gospel-Driven Life - Michael Horton
  18. Sticky Teams - Larry Osborne
  19. Christless Christianity - Michael Horton
  20. Embodying Our Faith - Tim Morey
  21. Holy Subversion - Trevin Wax
  22. Wired For Intimacy - William M. Struthers
  23. Counterfeit Gods - Timothy Keller
  24. The Trellis and the Vine - Marshall and Payne
  25. A Place For Truth - Dallas Willard (ed.)
  26. Unceasing Worship - Harold M. Best
  27. The Five Points of Calvinism - Edwin H. Palmer
  28. Jesus Manifesto - Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola
  29. Why Is God Ignoring Me? - Gary Habermas
  30. Simple Church - Thom S. Rainer
  31. A Million Miles In a Thousand Years - Donald Miller
  32. Vintage Church - Mark Driscoll
  33. Biblical Eldership - Alexander Strauch
  34. A Sweet and Bitter Providence - John Piper
  35. The Good News We Almost Forgot - Kevin DeYoung
  36. Christ Among the Dragons - James Emery White
  37. Against All Gods - Philip E. Johnson and John Mark Reynolds
  38. When a Nation Forgets God - Erwin Lutzer
  39. AND: The Scattered and Gathered Church - Halter and Smay
  40. The Vertical Self - Mark Sayers
  41. A Long Obedience In the Same Direction - Eugene Peterson
  42. Losing Our Virtue - David F. Wells
  43. The Radical Disciple - John Stott
  44. The Discipline of Grace - Jerry Bridges
  45. Your Church Is Too Small - John H. Armstrong
  46. Evil and the Justice of God - N.T. Wright
  47. The Passionate Intellect - Alister McGrath
  48. The Reason For Sports - Ted Kluck
  49. Hedges - Jerry B. Jenkins
  50. Throw It Down - Judd Wilhite
  51. The God You Can't Ignore - John MacArthur
  52. Living the Resurrection - Eugene H. Peterson
  53. The Good and Beautiful God - James Bryan Smith
  54. Church Shift - Sunday Adelaja
  55. Anatomy of the Soul - Curt Thompson, M.D.
  56. Flickering Pixels - Shane Hipps
  57. The Gospel According to Lost - Chris Seay

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Book Review: The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges

In The Discipline of Grace, Jerry Bridges again addresses the idea of Christian sanctification, or as he has popularly called it, "the pursuit of holiness". In the spirit and vein of Puritan author John Owen, Bridges presents both a defense for and practical approach toward Christian sanctification that is both motivated and tempered by the grace of God. While not a new book (it was first published in 1994), the subject matter is anything but old and outdated.

This book is one of balances, which is fitting. After all, writing about sanctification can teeter between legalism on the one hand and unbiblical liberality on the other. But by remaining close to the council of Scrpiture, Bridges seems to have found the middleground. A balance between God's role and our role in the pursuit of holiness (as the subtitle suggests). A balance between the grace of God and the effort of the believer. The balance between the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Christian in sanctification.

One of the central ideas that Bridges constantly returns to is that we must preach the Gospel to ourselves every day (in fact, it is the title of one of his earlier chapters). This, in fact, is the only way that a Christian avoids both liscence and legalism in the pursuit of holiness. The Gospel properly understood and preached every day kills liscence with the loving sacrifice of Christ and legalism with the grace of the cross.

As the title suggests, The Discipline of Grace draws together ideas that may seem at odds, but under the Gospel find a balance. This balance is greatly needed in Christianity today, and this book makes a needed contribution.

This book was a free review copy provided by NavPress.