Posted in book reviews

A brew that is true?

Agbonkhiameghe Emmanuel Orobator, SJ
Agbonkhiameghe Emmanuel Orobator, SJ

When I first drank coffee, let’s be honest: I hated the taste. The only way I could enjoy it was if I doctored  it with copious amounts of sugar and cream. Then, over time, I wanted more coffee and fewer additives. What happened? The taste grew on me.

As with coffee, so with theology. Having read Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot (Orbis: 2008, Kindle edition), I really wanted to like it. After all, he is doing what I want my own Kenyan students to do, not to parrot theology seen through a Western lens but to contextualize theology for their own setting. But at least on a first read-through, I’m reminded of coffee. I may need some time for the taste to grow on me.

Let’s consider a positive aspect of Theology Brewed in an African Pot, namely, the strong chapter on ecclesiology. As a Wesleyan, I am closer in some ways to Orobator’s Roman Catholicism than a Baptist or Presbyterian would be. Both Wesleyans and Catholics emphasize the importance of holiness. Moreover, this holiness is never meant to be a solitary pursuit. John Wesley (1703-91) refused to advocate a kind of faith that was individualistic. Instead, he organized his followers into small groups for encouragement and accountability. In the same way, Orobator develops the nexus between the corporate emphasis of Catholicism as the people of God and the solidarity of African cultures, where “I am because we are.”  Church is not just a loose organization of individuals; rather, Church is family. He clarifies (locations 1465-1470):

In many parts of Africa, family is an important value and dimension of religious, socio-cultural, political, and economic life. Social systems in Africa pivot on the family. When Vatican II declares that the church is the people of God and a communion, we understand this to mean that within the context of the African Christian community, the church is family. Therefore, the corresponding and appropriate model of the local church in Africa is Church as Family of God.

In the Nazarene congregation where I grew up, our pastor had a time in the service where we would sing the Gaither standby, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” While we sang it, we’d shake hands with others around us. Indeed, as I’ve traveled the world, the church as my extended family has been a comfort, an anchor when my life has been mostly sail. So when Orobator speaks of the church in this way, it resonates with my own heart, a reminder that the metaphor of the Church as family is not reserved just for African Christians. It’s an idea that resonates with many cultures on diverse continents.

While I appreciate Orobator’s ecclesiology, I cannot say the same about his view of the ancestors. Chapter 9 – “Our Fathers and Mothers Who Art in Heaven” – presents the conception of African Traditonal Religion (ATR) re. the ancestors as compatible with Christian faith, but is it? Some of what he claims is innocuous enough, such as the value of recounting the stories of those who have gone before us, what he calls the “communion of saints” (location 1865). Where he veers into dubious territory is when speaking of the “living dead” (ancestors) as protecting us (location 1889, emphasis added):

…Through the active presence of the living dead, the community grows qualitatively, because, as ancestors, they have only one duty: to protect the lives of their progeny. In many different ways we celebrate them. We rejoice in their presence.

Likewise, an ancestor is for Orobator an “intercessor,” taking petitions to a “Supreme Being” (location 1899). Roman Catholicism – through its cult of Mary and the other saints – is amenable to those like Orobator who want to maintain a place for the ancestors that goes beyond verbal honor to believing that ancestors are active in our daily lives.

Yet is the idea of ancestors as protectors and intercessors biblical? When Paul was caught in a storm, he did not ask an ancestor to intercede with God for their protection. Rather, God sent an angel to Paul who re-assured him that he and the others in the ship would be spared. “Be encouraged, men! I have faith in God that it will be exactly as he told me” (Acts 27:25 CEB). It is an angel in this instance (not an ancestor) who acts as a messenger of God, as a go-between, assuring him of God’s protection. Yet even here, we must be careful not to be distracted by the angel. Prayer is never directed to angels by Paul in any of his letters; rather, his prayers are addressed directly to God. (Ephesians 3:14-21 is one example). Intercession is the role neither of ancestors nor of angels. Rather, intercession is lodged squarely in the heart of the Trinity. Jesus is our High Priest and intercedes for us (Hebrews 7:25). Likewise, the Holy Spirit interecedes with the Father, even groaning on our behalf (Romans 8:26), a sure sign of his loving concern.

By attempting to reconcile Christian faith and the cult of the ancestors, Orobator has arguably opened a door to syncretism, an amalgam of religious worldviews that cannot mix and remain consistent with biblical faith. His may be a theology brewed in an African pot, but can the brew be healthy when it has been compromised in this way?

Orobator should be commended for wrestling with his own religious heritage passed down to him from his ancestors and the variety of Christian faith that as a young man he chose to follow. Indeed, we all must hammer out our own faith and do our best to see where our own culture of origin has made us blind to important aspects of the Bible. Theology, after all, is not only brewed in African pots. It has also historically been brewed in German, British, and American pots, among others. The challenge for any of us is to accept the critique of those who stand outside our culture. They can sometimes help us discern in the theological brew that we serve up distasteful elements to which we are oblivious.

By reading Orobator’s Theology Brewed in an African Pot, the reader discovers how theological contextualization can be an effective, positive impetus for evangelization. On the other hand, the book is simultaneously a cautionary tale of the doctrinal compromise that can be the unwitting result of the desire to make the Gospel more appealing in any given setting. May God continue to give us wisdom as we walk together as brothers and sisters in Christ, engaging this essential but delicate task.

Posted in book reviews

A well-intentioned but misguided proposal

Dr Philip Kennedy

Dr Philip Kennedy is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Mansfield College, University of Oxford. In A Modern Introduction to Theology: New Questions for Old Beliefs (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006, Amazon Kindle edition), he traces the rise of modernity from its beginnings and growth in the 17th/18th century  and continuing through Higher Criticism in biblical studies and the scientific revolution of the 20th century. By the end of the book, one may agree that Christian theology is in a 21st century wilderness of increasing societal irrelevance – at least in the West – but if you’re looking for Kennedy to lead the way out, you’ll be disappointed.

Let us first thank Dr Kennedy for what he gets right. As a Brit, he clearly sees the diminished influence of the church in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, what he calls as the title of chapter 2 “Christianity’s current predicament.” Kennedy laments: “Untold numbers of contemporary human beings in the industrialized, commercialized and digitalized Occident now prefer to spend Sunday mornings in gymnasiums rather than churches. Why?” (chapter 2, Kindle location 655). There is no question that this is a problem of immense proportion in parts of the world. This is the context in which Kennedy asks the guiding question for his book:

Should conventional Christianity radically modify its doctrine and practices in the light of advanced knowledge generated in modern times? Or ought it to perpetuate itself in contemporary settings by recapitulating ancient wisdoms? (chapter 2, location 619).

By the end of the book, having rehearsed several centuries of challenges to Christian faith originating from diverse academic quarters – from Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Freud, Hick, Darwin, and a dozen others – it comes as no surprise at the book’s end when Kennedy concludes: “My answer to the book’s impelling question – as might have been guessed! – is that Christianity and its traditional theology need far-reaching revision” (From the Conclusion, Kindle location 5541).

So far, so good – there’s a problem that has developed over centuries, and a huge one at that. Yet there seems to be at the same time a certain prejudice just under the surface that shows up in subtle ways. Also in the Conclusion (location 5526), Kennedy observes regarding dismal church attendance in the U.K. –

The principle reason they stay at home is that they are educated enough to realize that the world and its inhabitants can no longer be described in terms unaware of the findings of modern science.

This seems like a backhanded way to affirm that the more you are aware of science, the less you will be a person of faith. Strangely, Kennedy offers no evidence to substantiate his implication. In fact, groups such as BioLogos are creating spaces where those who love God and biology can pursue both, confident that faith and scientific research are complementary, not contradictory. John Polkinghorne, formerly an astrophysicist, is now an Anglican Priest, another example of a person who has not felt compelled to choose between Christian faith or scientific pursuit. Kennedy would have done well to give some treatment to these promising conversations that are happening.

A second assumption that Kennedy makes is that “pre-modern” theology – by which he means that in the tradition of Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas – cannot flourish in the modernism of the 21st century. (One can question his reliance on the term “modern” as a way to describe the contemporary Western scene vs. the majority term “postmodern”). While he does doff his hat at several points to the growth of the church in the Global South – where contrary to his thesis, traditional theological constructs still rule the day – he seems to be unaware that the fastest growing Christian confessions in the United States are those promoting more ancient expressions of Christian faith, such as the Orthodox Church in America. (Note: Part of this growth can be attributed to immigration). American Millenials are increasingly leaving Evangelical churches, gravitating to communities of faith with a much deeper and historic form of worship, often more liturgical or “High Church.” This counter-evidence of attendance trends seemingly validating ancient faith is debatable, for sure, but it’s a debate Kennedy does not engage.

Finally, the tenor of Kennedy’s book is unduly anti-supernaturalistic. The assumption seems to be that since a scientific worldview now dominates, to survive, the church must abandon a conception of a God who performs miracles like those described in Scripture. But is this assumption based on a faulty binary thinking, i.e. that we either believe in naturalism or supernaturalism? Is it not possible to affirm both? For example, we go to the doctor for what ails us and are addicted to our cell phones, yet many in Western cultures are pushing out the edges of their technological worldview to encompass belief in the supernatural. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is exhibit A of the hunger of Brits and other Westerners for what is beyond the natural realm. When I was in France for language study in 1994, an edition of the Nouvel Observateur (a popular French magazine) noted that there were more practicing wizards in France than Protestant pastors. While the church was anemic, belief in the supernatural was robust. My children were enrolled in the French schools and it was surprising to see how much of French children’s literature spoke of witches and warlocks. This seemed to go beyond the realm of imagination to the realm of explanation, an attempt to add another interpretive framework to that of science alone, and this in the country that was at the forefront of the Enlightenment detailed at length by Kennedy — see chapter 4.

When we look at what variety of Christianity is growing best in the world – including in Kennedy’s United Kingdom – it is the Pentecostal strand of Christian faith, one that takes most seriously the reality of unseen forces. This growth arguably is happening because it takes into account the conceptual framework of Hollywood films that promote vampires, zombies, and other para-normal phenomena. Whereas a purely rationalistic type of Christianity denies miracles, Pentecostalism acknowledges evil forces and the many ways in which they can be manifested — see Ephesians 6:10-18. At the same time, it assures followers of Christ that Jesus is the Christus Victor, the one who has through his death and resurrection triumphed over it all! Ours is not to cower in fear but to push back the darkness, bringing in the Kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. In short, such a worldview need not deny the truths of science. However, it adds to its explanatory repertoire realities no less true for being invisible and transcending the natural realm, phenomena that the Bible describes as angels and demons and which may include the idea of systemic evil.

Philip Kennedy has written an introduction to theology that rehearses historic challenges to a Christian worldview. For that, he is to be commended; as theologians, ours is to engage challenges, not stick our head in the sand. I don’t doubt that his recommendation of radically revising Christian orthodoxy is well-intentioned. Notwithstanding, his proposal is misguided to the degree that it does not sufficiently factor in contrary evidence. Chief among this evidence is the striking advance of a type of Christianity particularly in the Global South (Latin America, Africa, and Asia) that is much closer to the plain reading of Scripture that he finds problematic. Indeed, the correct response to the decline of Christian influence is not to water down our wine, but to remember the One who turned water into wine.

Today, youth are more open than ever before to the supernatural as a reality and not just fantasy. At such a moment, it would be tragic if we heed the call of Dr Kennedy and jettison the very elements of Christian faith contained in Scripture that are most likely to connect with the youth of our post-modern world.

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N.T. Wright gets back to basics

christianBishop N.T. Wright is arguably the most prolific biblical theologian of our time. Capable of treatises that challenge long-cherished interpretations of doctrines – such as his expansive Paul and the Faithfulness of God addressing justification- Wright’s versatility shows through in a different approach targeted both to the believer and to the intelligent seeker. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (Harper Collins, 2006; Amazon Kindle edition) is one such book.

Part One, “Echoes of a Voice,” invites the reader into a conversation. By examining injustice (and the human desire to correct it), the “hidden spring” of an undeniable thirst for spirituality in the human heart, relationships between persons and the role of beauty for meaningful existence, Wright examines longings common to all human beings, asking important questions for whom the only sensible answer is God.

Part Two launches into a review of who God is and how God has chosen to relate to creation. He briefly reviews (pp. 60-63)- and dismisses – traditional approaches to God, including what he calls “Option 1,” namely, pantheism (“all is God and God is all”), panentheism (“all is in God”), and “Option 2,” deism (where God creates then removes himself). In its place, he proposes Option 3, a scheme where heaven and earth are “overlapping and interlocking” (p. 63). The biblical narrative of both Old and New Testaments bears witness to this engagement between Creator and Creation, but why is such engagement necessary? Wright clarifies (p. 66):

In particular, this God appears to take very seriously the fact that his beloved creation has become corrupt, has rebelled and is suffering the consequences.

With this premise given, much of the rest of the book (including Part 3) falls into place as a solution to a problem. The Kingdom of God (chapter 7), Jesus as the one who rescues and renews (chapter 8) and New Creation (chapter 16) can be viewed in this light. Other themes include worship (chapter 11), prayer (chapter 12) and the nature of Scripture (chapter 13), to name a few. In each case, Wright keeps things simple, remaining faithful to his goal of helping those who are new to faith or considering following Jesus.

Bishop N.T. Wright

A great strength of the book is its stories. Wright is quick to spin a tale, such as the powerful dictator who decided to control the unpredictability of springs and the floods they cause by paving them over. In their place, he introduced a complicated system of pipes from which water would flow. What happens when people realize that there is far better water to drink than the bland brew that comes out of rusty pipes? Religion taps the deep wells that authorities have forbidden and that many have forgotten, springs that – when tapped – can produce unexpected results. Wright (p. 20) concludes:

September 11, 2001, serves as a reminder of what happens when you try to organize a world on the assumption that religion and spirituality are merely private matters, and that what really matters is economics and politics instead. It wasn’t just concrete floors, it was massive towers, that were smashed to pieces that day, by people driven by ‘religious’ beliefs so powerful that the believers were ready to die for them. What should we say? That this merely shows how dangerous ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ really are? Or that we should have taken them into account all along?

Where Wright shines is his treatment of the meaning of resurrection. While he fleshes out his eschatology in greater detail in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (Harper Collins, 2008), in Simply Christian (p. 114), he previews his later thoughts: “Resurrection isn’t a fancy way of saying ‘going to heaven when you die.’ It is not about ‘life after death’ as such. Rather, it’s a way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead.” In any case, Wright places his accent in the same place as the New Testament, namely, on resurrection as the cornerstone of Christian faith and the basis of Christian hope.

(Read my review of Surprised by Hope by clicking here.)

Simply Christian isn’t flawless. A survey like Wright’s doesn’t have the space to delve too deeply into topics. One example is his description of King Saul’s reign as a “false start” (p. 77). There’s no acknowledgment that Saul’s reign has been estimated as having lasted between 10 and 40 years. By comparison, David ruled for 40 years (1 Kings 2:11) so Saul’s reign was a healthy duration by any measure.

This is the second book I’ve read by N.T. Wright. His writing are appealing in large part because they major on interpreting the biblical witness, avoiding a speculative, philosophical approach to theology. Though he doesn’t allude to John Wesley, one can’t help but think that Wesley would have been a fan of the former Bishop of Durham.


Photo credit (N.T. Wright):


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Ray Bakke’s winsome theological vision for the city

bakkeThe world is moving to the city.

The tipping point came in 2010 when 52% of the world’s population lived in cities. Estimates are that by 2050, 2/3 of planet Earth’s human beings will be urban dwellers.

Ray Bakke is a prominent Chicago pastor and professor who has wrestled with the implications of rapid urbanization for the church. In A Theology as Big as the City (IVP, 1997) – a follow-up to his acclaimed The Urban Christian (IVP, 1988) – Bakke emphatically answers the mistaken notion that the Bible views cities uniformly in a negative light. Instead, he systematically surveys both Old and New Testaments, painting a picture of cities that are the object of divine love and concern. The implication is clear: If God loves cities and the people who live in them, can the church do any less?

While there are many themes raised in Theology as Big as the City, let’s take a look at three key ideas advanced by Bakke:

1) God’s hands are in the mud;

2) Jesus as an agent of personal and social transformation;

3) The role of an urban pastor.

God’s hands are in the mud

Ray Bakke begins his biblical survey of urban themes by looking at the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2. Genesis 2 depicts God as one down in the dirt, using his hands to form Adam from the “dust” of the earth (2:7).

Urban ministry is not aloof but engaged. It acknowledges hard realities yet works toward change. Bakke (p. 37) affirms:

We acknowledge that inner-city neighborhoods are often ugly, and the systems are broken. We all know a healthy person needs a healthy family, and a healthy family needs a healthy community…Yet there’s a sense that if Christ is with me in the midst of the slum, the neighborhood is a slum no longer. For Christ lives in me, and his kingdom agendas confront the neighborhood.

Our motive to work alongside God in “the mud” is not the need that exists. Rather, ministry in cities is fueled because “God has done a work of grace in my life that compels me to share. It overflows”(p. 36).

Continue reading “Ray Bakke’s winsome theological vision for the city”

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Exposing the prosperity Gospel heresy

woodbridgeHeresy (false teaching) often arises when one aspect of the truth is emphasized so much – or tweaked in such a way – that other counter-balancing truths disappear. When it comes to the so-called prosperity Gospel, that truth is simple:

God cares for you.

Jesus certainly teaches this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We are of more value to God than the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.

Yet while Jesus talks about basic provision, preachers of the prosperity message go beyond needs to desires. In so doing, they shift the center away from God, putting humans and our wants and wishes for success and wealth at the center. In the end, it is no longer Gospel – good news – but for those disillusioned by its unfulfilled promises, it is bad news, a modified strain of Christian faith that leaves little room for sin, repentance, the Cross, or the place of hardship and suffering in the Christian life.

This is the most important take-away from David Jones’ and Russell Woodbridge’s Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Kregel, 2011; Kindle edition). The authors identify their subject:

This gospel has been given many names, such as the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, the “health and wealth” gospel, the “word of faith” movement, the “gospel of success,” “positive confession theology,”and, as this book will refer to it, the “prosperity gospel.” No matter what name is used, the teaching is the same. This egocentric gospel teaches that God wants believers to be materially prosperous in the here-and-now (location 118, italics added).

Particularly enlightening was chapter 1. There, Jones and Woodbridge summarize the teachings of the  New Thought Movement. New Thought gained some popularity in U.S. in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Its proponents included Emanuel Phineas Quimby, Ralph Waldo Trine and Norman Vincent Peale (among others). Explaining what the authors call the “five pillars” of New Thought – a distorted view of God, elevation of mind over matter, exalted view of humankind, focus on health/wealth, and a unorthodox view of salvation – the authors make a convincing case that today’s prosperity preachers have recycled many of New Thought’s dubious ideas, including the importance of speaking words to make things come to be. This seems dangerously close to the use of magical incantations.

Though the authors are unafraid to critique the teaching of prosperity preachers – Joel Osteen receives special scrutiny – I appreciated that the book did more than just point out what is wrong with the prosperity message. In the second half of the book, they construct a positive and biblical alternative, including an excellent chapter on the biblical theology of giving.

There are ways in which the book left me unsatisfied. While Jones and Woodbridge rightly debunk the misinterpretation of the “by his wounds you have been healed” slogan (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24 – see location 720), this overlooks that there is a legitimate doctrine of divine healing in Scripture expounded in passages like James 5. Since the word “health” appears in the title of their book, the reader is justified in expecting at least a few more pages to present a more balanced and comprehensive biblical view of the issue. Unfortunately, what they did well when it comes to giving they fail to attempt on the question of health.

A second unquestioned assumption is that all pastors are male. An example of this gender bias appears at location 1708: “An elder or pastor can reasonably expect support from the church that he serves.” Since the authors are from a Baptist background, at one level, their word choice is unsurprising since many Baptists reject the ordination of women. However, a little effort could have avoided this distraction by choosing gender-neutral wording, i.e. “A elder or pastor can reasonably expect congregational support.”  Since the authors are sensitive to the use of gender-inclusive language elsewhere in the book, including the use of the word “humankind” instead of “man” (locations 178, 187, 306), one wishes they had been consistent.

The prosperity message is not just a North American phenomenon but has gained traction elsewhere in the world, including across Africa, introducing an incomplete and shallow version of Christian faith. As diseases like Ebola have ravaged parts of West Africa, one church leader on the ground observed that prosperity teachers have been notably silent. Is this because their message cannot stand up under the sobering realities of pain and suffering? Health, Wealth and Happiness is a well-written book that will open the eyes of many around the world who have bought into a skewed and superficial prosperity message that – though alluring – offers little comfort in the crucible of life.

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Called to the Fire: A review

charles_johnson1The history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States has always fascinated me. As a Nazarene, a book that addresses civil rights and adds a Nazarene angle is a double winner. Chet Bush’s Called to the Fire: A Witness for God in Mississippi – The Story of Dr. Charles Johnson (Abingdon, Nook edition, 2012) is one such book.

Charles Johnson has served for many years as pastor of the Fitkin’s Memorial Church of the Nazarene in Meridian, Mississippi. Called to the Fire chronicles Johnson’s struggle as a Bible College student about to graduate, desiring the sunny skies of San Diego but sent by his District Superintendent (and the Lord) to the hotbed of Mississippi during the upheaval of racial confrontations.

The biography opens with the October 1967 trial of defendants in the notorious murder in Neshoba County, MS of civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. Johnson served as a witness for the prosecution, having known and worked with Schwerner for several months prior to the slayings. The middle chapters go back in time, filling in details about Johnson’s upbringing, call to ministry, and organizing of the Meridian Action Committee (MAC) which fought for a better life for African-Americans living in Meridian, MS. Chet Bush praises Johnson, noting that he worked to “help the whole man” (p. 8). Bush continued:

Charles Johnson dignified a people by demanding justice for them. Charles Johnson dignified another people by demanding justice from them. This is the nature of prophetic speech and the effect of justice restored. Justice means to invite a healing to occur both in the life of the oppressed and an oppressor, for it is beneath the dignity of a fully whole person to treat another as a second-rate human” (pp. 8-9).

Called to the Fire is nuanced in its treatment of racism. Johnson recognizes that the blanket warning that his own mother gave him as a boy to not trust any white person was as much a form of racism as that received by African-Americans at the hands of whites. This introduces a dilemma (p. 31): “How does one break from the mold of racism when a mother must teach her child a healthy distrust toward another people to keep him safe?” Such a stereotype about whites crumbled under the fatherly care Johnson received from a white evangelist, C.R. Smith, who showed compassionate love to Johnson and many other destitute African-American boys living in Orlando, Florida. Johnson observes (p. 36):

What I was hearing from Mother and what I was seeing in C.R. Smith just didn’t match up. As I watched C.R. I saw that he wasn’t like what I had been taught white people were like. He was breaking down the stereotype for me. My walls of fear were crumbling.

What a beautiful description of the possibility of racial understanding that is as close as positive interactions between individuals. Though our skin color differs, we can be united in our common humanity.

Dr. Charles Johnson
Dr. Charles Johnson

Bush is sensitive when dealing with Johnson’s first marriage. His wife suffered from anxiety that was heightened by the very real threats that the Johnsons received, such as harassing calls in the middle of the night. When she died young of congestive heart failure, Johnson knew that “terror” was what really killed her, concluding: “We lost her in the war” (p. 99). This episode humanizes Johnson who had difficulty reconciling the demands of pastoral ministry with duty to his emotionally fragile wife.

For all its strengths – including the short length of just 148 pages, making the book readable in a single sitting – Called to the Fire has a few shortcomings. There are no photos of Charles Johnson after 1988. Also, note 3 on the final page of the Nook edition ends abruptly, with incomplete wording. Hopefully this kind of e-book conversion error can be corrected in future editions.

Whatever its faults, Called to the Fire is a well-written, fascinating account of a pivotal decade in American history as seen through the lens of a Nazarene pastor. In light of the recent racial confrontations in the United States,  it’s refreshing to read of the difference that one pastor – filled in equal parts with resolve in the face of injustice and the winsome love of God – can make in a troubled world.

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Renovating Holiness: Wrapping a gift in more attractive ways

RHDr Rob Staples, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary, once compared the holiness message to a gift. The color and style of the wrapping paper vary depending upon who is doing the wrapping, but underneath, the present itself remains unchanged.

That image came to mind as I perused Tom Oord’s and Josh Broward’s Renovating Holiness (SacraSage, 2015). After reading the more than 100 essays from contributors across the globe – all born after 1960 and most in their 20s and 30s – it’s apparent that younger Nazarenes are articulating holiness differently than those who came before. Still, the underlying truth is unchanging:

God in Christ wants to make us holy.

The chapters in Renovating Holiness are brief, most no more than 750 to 1,000 words, making it easy to read one or two essays in a sitting. A significant number of the chapters were written by those outside North America, including contributions from Africa, Europe, South America, and Asia. (Full disclosure: I contributed a chapter as an American ministering in Africa). This wide array of authors lends the volume a global flavor which is especially important since now less than 50% of the membership of the Church of the Nazarene resides in the U.S. or Canada.

Renovating Holiness has 32 solid essays on the biblical and theological formulation of holiness, addressing passages and themes that are sometimes overlooked. Examples of this are the refreshing treatment of holiness in Exodus by Marty Michelson and the questions on purity and impurity in Ephesians answered by Svetlana Khobyna. Elsewhere, Rob Snow’s treatment of some spiritual gifts is sure to generate conversation, especially in world areas where much of what is spiritually showy has long since been judged a shallow side-water outside the deep main current of historic Wesleyan concerns.

Yet for all the helpful attention given to biblical-theological themes, Renovating Holiness is strongest in the 2/3 of the book focusing on what might be termed the working out of holiness in the world. This is holiness with a social conscious never satisfied to barricade itself behind the four walls of church buildings and piously mouth “Maranathas!” Rather, in myriad ways, the core value of love – celebrated in the sacraments and fine-tuned through small group discipleship – must be expressed in redemptive ways that spill over into society. Essays under the rubric “On Engaging Culture” do this most clearly, yet the motif of what may be termed holiness for the sake of others recurs in numerous chapters, a golden thread that ties together an otherwise motley collection.

On the other hand, an unsavory element slipped into one of the meals served up by Renovating Holiness. James Travis Young’s otherwise insightful observations in “Some Call it Love” are marred by his claim: “We were told lies about holiness and were told about holiness by liars” (p. 94). Such incendiary language is a hot pepper that risks ruining the whole dish. His critique would likely be interpreted by most non-Western readers as out-of-bounds, violating the norms of deference and respect due to elders. If what the back cover says is true – that the doctrine of holiness has for some been considered a “sacred cow” – then in this instance a small stroke of the editorial pen would have improved the essay without compromising its main thrust.

These cautionary comments aside, Renovating Holiness should be celebrated as a gift to the Church of the Nazarene and the broader Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. In a significant way, it gives voice to rising scholar-practitioners who for too long have lacked printed venues where they can skillfully wrap up the gift of holiness in relational ways more appealing in today’s world. This book may signal the beginning of a long-overdue conversation as we collaborate – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – to present holiness in a fashion more winsome and contemporary.

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A classic that speaks to our time

Viktor Frankl

Plus ça change, rien ne change — The more that changes, nothing changes.

This French proverb came to mind as I read Victor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (Amazon Kindle edition). First published in English in 1962, the book serves up timeless insights, chronicling Frankl’s stint in 4 concentration camps during World War 2, surviving the ordeal and from it fine-tuning what became known as logotherapy.

The book neatly divides into 2 major parts. The first part records Frankl’s experiences in the camps, noting with a keen eye the everyday details of life and how prisoners coped (or didn’t) with the horrendous conditions. Part two turns to a scholarly exposition of logotherapy – from the Greek logos, “meaning” –  a theory that many neuroses have little to do with sex (Freud) or power (Adler) but everything to do with what Frankl terms the “existential vacuum,” the failure to identify purpose or meaning in life.

Speaking of the minority of prisoners who maintained a hopeful attitude, Frankl observed: “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (p. 68, location).

Related is a quote from Neitzsche cited multiple times:

“He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How” (location 21).

Frankl identifies three areas that can bring meaning to a person’s life (location 28):

1) work (doing something significant)

2) love (caring for another person)

3) courage during difficult times

Continue reading “A classic that speaks to our time”

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Casting stones, or catching stones?

JustMercyCoverJesus once told a cabal of religious leaders anxious to stone a woman caught in adultery: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8:7, NIV). In his bestseller, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014; Amazon Kindle edition), New York University School of Law Professor Bryan Stevenson calls us to a different task, that of catching the stones cast by others.

Just Mercy recounts Professor Stevenson’s founding of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a legal aid organization based in Montgomery, Alabama that advocates for those who are victims of shortcomings in the U.S. criminal justice system – the wrongfully convicted, prisoners on death row, and juveniles tossed into the chaos of the adult prison population.

Caring about prisoners is a biblical mandate – “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them…” (Hebrews 13:3a, ESV) – so books like Mr Stevenson’s invite the Church to engage an issue too often shunted aside. Well-told stories seize the reader’s heart and won’t let go, stories like Walter McMillan, exonerated after having spent 6 years on death row for a murder he couldn’t have committed. Then there’s Joe Sullivan, convicted with dubious evidence and testimony at 13 years old of rape and  sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, what Stevenson calls “death in prison.” These and a dozen other vignettes  – bolstered by troubling statistics of the sheer number of incarcerated Americans, disproportionately African-American – tell the story of sectors of a criminal justice and prison system tainted by racism and sexual abuse, desperately needing reform.

Continue reading “Casting stones, or catching stones?”

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Appreciation for a bridge builder

SmedesLewis B. Smedes, the late professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote fourteen books in his lifetime. I’ve read only one, his last, My God and I : A Spiritual Memoir (Eerdmans, 2003), which is a rather backwards way of doing things. Still, if this book is a good indicator of the quality of his prior work, I’ve got some more reading to do!

Professor Smedes sums up his outlook on life in a succinct paragraph (p. 64):

I was, from the start, a Christian of the bridge. I liked bridges that I could cross over to drink from unbelievers’ goblets, to feast on their wisdom, and to admire their good works. I also liked bridges that I could cross over and, with God’s blessing, be a blessing to the people on the other side.

Though he joined the Christian Reformed Church as a young man, it is apparent that Smedes over time grew increasingly uncomfortable with parts of the Calvinistic creed, particularly the doctrine of absolute sovereignty, that “God is in control” of the most minute details of what transpires on earth. In response to this idea, he pens one of the most moving chapters in the book. Recounting the death of his newborn son, only a day old, Smedes observes (p. 121):

On the day that our baby boy died, I knew that I could never again believe that God had arranged for our tiny child to die before he had hardly begun to live, any more than I could believe that we would, one fine day when he would make it all plain, praise God that it had happened.

Smedes’ honest remarks resonate with me. We concur when later he applies the same logic to the events of 9/11/2001, seeing in the terrorist attacks not the hand of God but the pure face of evil. He concludes: “God, we hope, will one day emerge triumphant over evil, though, on the way to that glad day, he sometimes takes a beating” (p. 125). I am happy to affirm that God is far more powerful than anyone, but cannot ascribe evil committed by others to a good God, an inescapable conclusion if one believes that God has ordained all that happens.

On the negative side of the ledger, My God and I does not read evenly. The earlier chapters are slow, so the reader should be persistent since the second half of the book moves at a quicker pace.

My God and I is a good snapshot of one who combined the life of the mind with a warm heart for people. It’s a rare combination. In our polarized world, one can pray that the Lord will raise up more conciliators like Lewis Smedes.