Book Review – Letters from a Skeptic

 


 
 

 
 

I just finished the book Letters from a Skeptic by Greg Boyd and I must say I was profoundly moved by the contents. The book is essentially a series of letters between Dr. Boyd, who was once an atheist, but now a noted theologian and his unbelieving father Ed. The letters took place over a two year period and covered many items that are basic concerns that skeptics have about Christianity. It is not my intent to discuss any details of the book. I will leave that for you to discover yourself. Coming to Christ from the extreme skeptic side myself I had many of the same objections to Christianity as mentioned in the father’s letters. Unfortunately I didn’t have the advantage of a son who is a world renowned theologian to help me wade through them. It took me much more than two years to finally get over my stubbornness and allow the Holy Spirit into my heart.

I am just going to give you some teasers on the type of subjects covered:

  • Why has Christianity done so much harm?
  • Why did God create Satan?
  • Why does God make believing him so difficult?
  • Why are there so many differing interpretation of the Bible?
  • How could an all-loving God torture people in an eternal hell?

     

As he promised his father when they started this correspondence Dr. Boyd tries to answer all of these and many other of his father’s questions in “non-theology terms”. Anyone who has spent any time on this blog know that in my mind is critical in interacting with non-believers. They are turned off by all the technical terms and the “it has to be true because it is in the Bible”!

 

The epilog of the book literally brought me to tears. It was one of the most moving accounts of a conversion I think I have ever read. I can only imagine the joy in Pastor Boyd’s heart to see his father in his senior years finally accepting Christ’s invitation of salvation. The book was one of those that was truly hard to put down. I read it totally over a three day period. I can’t imagine any other book that would prove to be more useful in understanding the thoughts and reasons for why people resist Christ’s invitation and the possible answers to those questions. And I have read many books in this area (apologetics). It is a must read for anyone who is seriously trying to reach out to others with God’s word.

 
 As a epilog to this post I am well aware of the conflicts that some Christians, particularly Calvinists, have with Dr. Boyd’s view of what they call open theism related around man’s free will. I personally am not totally in the open theism camp but I am also not in the Calvinist camp on beliefs related to free will or few other issues for that matter. That being said, don’t let your bias in either direction prevent you from reading this book. Yes, there are some things that you might not totally agree with in the book but I truly believe the vast majority of the contents are enlightening no matter what you leaning is.

The Shift from Church Growth to Kindgom Growth

 Continuing on with my review of Reggie McNeal’s book “The Present Future” we will now look at his 2nd reality. The shift from church growth to kingdom growth. In this section Mr. McNeal is trying to tell us that we are more interested in doing “church” than we are of making disciples. Here is a meaningful quote:

The North American church culture is not spiritual enough to reach our culture. In our self-absorption we don’t even see the people we are supposed to be on mission to reach.

  In my words this means we are too busy preaching to the choir rather than getting dirty with the sinner out there. He likens our current environment to that of the Pharisees’ evangelism strategy of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees said come and get it. If you jump through our hoops and follow our rules you are welcome to join us. If not then stay away.

Do people need to be like us in order to hear the Gospel from us? The author’s argument is that taking the gospel to the streets means we need a church where people already hang out. Not in our cozy and comfortable neighborhoods. He asks the question “What are we so afraid of out there?” The Pharisees were afraid of being contaminated and losing their righteousness. Are we any better than them?

 Mr. McNeal’s last paragraph in this setting is indeed striking:

Bottom line: we’ve got to take the gospel to the streets. This is the only appropriate missional response to the collapse of the church culture. I am not talking about short forays into port off the cruise ship. I am speaking of in intentional 24/7 church presence in the community, not tied to church real estate: office buildings, homes, apartment buildings, malls, school campuses, and community centers.

 I will leave it up to those interested to get the book and study his 3rd through 5th realities. These are more “how do we do it chapters” that are not easily summarized. Next time I will look at the 6th reality: The Rise of Apostolic Leadership.

The Present Future

 
 I want to close out this outreach series with a review of a book by Reggie McNeal called “The Present Future – Six Tough Questions for the Church”. Actually, the book should be entitled “Six Realities that need to be overcome”. Mr. McNeal is the director of leadership development for the South Carolina Baptist Convention. I want to up front admit that this is not a comfortable book to read if you are a North American practicing Christian. So I guess it is appropriate that my review of it comes out an uncomfortable day (Tax Day). I think Mr. McNeal’s purpose in writing the book is to try and shake to the core our being comfortable with how things are with the church. But if you are willing to sometimes see yourself in a not very Jesus like light you should read the book. While I do not agree with all the logic he uses to make his points, the book is worth reading because there are valid issues raised by his list. Here are the six realities that he presents:

  1. The Collapse of the Church Culture
  2. The Shift from Church Growth to Kingdom Growth
  3. The New Reformation: Releasing God’s People
  4. The Return to Spiritual Formation
  5. The Shift from Planning to Preparation
  6. The Rise of Apostolic Leadership

I will spend the next couple of post going through some of this list. Let’s do the first one now.

The Collapse of the Church Culture
This Chapter starts off with the following statement:

 “The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a pervious world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out (80 percent of money given to congregations come from people aged fifty-five and older) or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off or both.”
  These are indeed pretty blunt statements. But I think, if we really face it there is an agonizing ring to these words. He goes on to say that he is talking about the church culture, not the death of the church that Jesus founded. The church established by Jesus will indeed be there when he returns. What he is really talking about what he calls the unique culture in North America that has come to be called the “church”. He goes into quite a bit of statistics to show the above point. I will not cover those as some are the same as I have given in previous posts.

In solution to this diminishing attendance in church he goes on to say that the wrong question is: How do we do Church better? He basically makes the argument that when a church get larger the pastor, or pastors, have to spend so much time on non-spiritual matters that the true meaning of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is lost in the process. Many American congregations are more fixated on growing their “church”.

Here is another striking quote from the book. “Church leaders seem unable to grasp this simple implication of the new world — people outside of the church think church is for church people, not for them. We may have saturated the market of people who want to be part of the church culture, who want church the was we do it in North America.”

The basic point I think he is trying to make is that many churches in this country have lost the reason why they are supposed to exist. The missional fix as he calls it is as follows:

The appropriate response to the emerging world is rebooting of the mission, a radical obedience to an ancient command, a loss of self rather than self preoccupation, concern about service and sacrifice rather than about style.
 While I don’t agree with everything here I do believe that the “church” is too fixated on their traditions and current practices instead of the service and sacrifice that Jesus clearly show us. Jesus truly had the service mentality. We need to get back to some of the practices of the early church. That is taking stands that are not very comfortable to our current members and totally uncomfortable to the current cultural trends of  today’s world.

Book Review – If God is Love


 
 

Today I am going to talk a little about a book entitled “If God is Love – Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World” by Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland. I must admit up front that I am somewhat fascinated by the Quaker religion of which both of the authors are ministers. Although one of them came through Baptist and Methodists to get there. I greatly respect the position the Quakers have taken on non-violence going all the way back to the Revolutionary war. This is a very readable book on a very important topic.

There has been an ongoing debate throughout Christianity’s history on the correct balance between the all powerful and sometime vengeful God and the God of agape Love. Just what the correct balance of this is somewhat attuned to the corresponding debate between law and gospel. Both are needed but how much of each is appropriate for a well rounded Christian? I must admit that this book is very full of God’s love and has little of God’s power in it. I must also admit that I lean in that direction also but not to the extent of the authors.

 The following is, in my opinion, one of the most striking quotes from the book:

The theology of love begins with the assumption that all people are God’s cherished children and deserving of love. “We love because he first loved us. Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” 1 John 4:19-20. Jesus demonstrated his love for the outcasts, those many considered unlovable. Regrettably, many Christians have been unwilling to adopt the ethic of Jesus — a theology of inclusion, acceptance, and love. We’ve been unwilling to love and accept our enemies. We haven’t even been excited about loving our neighbor.

 This quote I believe sums up the Quaker stand on non-violence. They have taken quite a bit of abuse during all our wars because of this stand.

 Another memorable quote is as below:

God has no grandchildren. My children cannot inherit my faith. I can’t save them. Each of us is on a journey. My role as a parent is not to convert my children, but to live a life consistent with my experience of God’s radical love and trust that such a life will attract them.

I don’t know that I have ever seen such a powerful pronouncement of Christian parenting before. The old saying that parents have been spouting for eons is “don’t do what I do, do what I say”. I know I got my dose of that as a child. It didn’t work on me and probably didn’t work for most of you. Our parents, like all Christians must show the love of the Lord in their actions as well as their words. One does not work without the other.

Finally the last quote I want to present is:

“Share everything with your brother. Do not say, ‘It is private property.'” This isn’t the rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto or the Mother Earth Catalog. This is a line from the Didache, an early Christian document used to prepare novices for baptism. The Didache was such a respected teaching that it was nearly included in the biblical canon. This line may have been its undoing. Religion has long resisted the command to be universally concerned, especially when this concern comes with a price tag.

 I understand this tendency. Whenever someone asks me to respond to a need, I have to overcome a long litany of mental excuses. I don’t know enough about the persons’ situation to give wisely. He or she might not use the money appropriately. I’m already giving to other causes. These may all be legitimate considerations, but I sense my deeper motivation — I want a rationale for keeping my money. I don’t’ like Jesus’ command to “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you (Matthew 5:42)

 I was struck by so many of these types of dialogs in the book. They definitely made me think about how I am living out my life. One of the general tenets of the book I don’t really agree with but that does not negate the insightful dialog in other parts. I highly recommend this book to any who are willing to struggle with these types of issues. No one ever said (or should have said) living your life by the words of Jesus Christ is easy! Indeed, it should be and is quite difficult.

The Faiths of our Founding Fathers

 
 


 
 There are a lot of different views of what the Founding Fathers of the United States believed when it came to God. Many evangelicals like to say that we were founded on Christian principles and that is what makes us so unique, some would say superior, but I definitely don’t buy into that. I found the book entitled The Faiths of Our Fathers, by Alf J. Mapp Jr. to be very helpful in discerning truth from myth about this topic. The book goes into quite some detail about 10 of the most prominent Founders and just what they believed. To sum up the overall conclusions of the book I will cite the following quote from it:

“There is no monolithic national faith acknowledged by all the Founding Fathers. Their religious attitudes were as varied as their political opinions….. One famous political leader generally regarded as a red-hot radical became essentially a fundamentalist. Another famed for common sense and hard-headed realism viewed creation as composed of many solar systems, each with its own God. Once celebrated for conventional piety created a mystery by refusing to take communion. One of the most prominent Founders, a man popularly regarded as materialist and dissolute, attempted to found an organization of Christian conservatives to promote the elections to political office of “like minded men”.

 For those who are truly interested in this I suggest you read the book. I won’t go into detail about each person covered. I will leave that up to you. But, I will comment on a couple of the most famous Founders.

George Washington — Most of us know that George Washington was a deist, not a Christian but in his early life he worshiped with an Anglican congregation. The Anglicans, at that time, believed in a strong link between church and state. Of course that is the opposite of our United States’ principle of separation between the two. Historical researchers have, to date, found no evidence that Washington ever received communion. Mapp makes the point that over the years many authors have tried to paint Washington with a large variety of religious brushes. The general consensus is that Washington was a deist. That is a person who believes in God as an omnipotent being who generally guides humanity but does not interfere with it. His frequent references to “Divine Providence” in his correspondence seems to tip to that belief.

On the next post I will cover Thomas Jefferson. He definitely had very unique religious experiences.

The Politics of Jesus

I am going to spend this post studying John Howard Yoder and particularly his book The Politics of Jesus written in 1972.

Here is what Wikipedia says about him.

John Howard Yoder (December 29, 1927 – December 30, 1997) was a Christian theologian, ethicist, and Biblical scholar best known for his radical Christian pacifism, his mentoring of future theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, his loyalty to his Mennonite faith, and his 1972 magnum opus, The Politics of Jesus

It is obvious from his books that Yoder is a pacifist who strongly believes that it is not God’s will for us to be constantly killing each other through politically invoked wars. Of his many books, the most widely recognized has undoubtedly been The Politics of Jesus; it has been translated into at least ten languages.

The book was written in 1972. In it, Yoder argues against the then popular views of Jesus, particularly those views held by Reinhold Niebuhr, which he believed to be dominant in the day. Niebuhr argued for he called Realism philosophy. Yoder felt this philosophy failed to take seriously the call or person of Jesus Christ. For me here is one of the most notable quotes from the book:
Recent systematic tradition tells us that we must choose between the Jesus of History and the Jesus of dogma. If Jesus is the divine Word incarnate, then what we will be concerned about is the metaphysical transactions by means of which he saved humanity by entering into it. We will then leap like the creed from the birth of Jesus to the cross. His teachings and his social and political involvement will be of little interest and not binding for us. (underlining is mine)

He goes on to say that we seek to understand the “Jesus of history” as well as the Jesus of dogma. In other words the life of Jesus was meant to teach us how to live our lives and was therefore a very important part of our existence.
Yoder attempted to demonstrate by the Gospel of Luke and parts of Paul’s letter to the Romans that, in his view, a radical Christian pacifism was the most faithful approach for the disciple of Christ. He argued that being Christian is a political standpoint, and Christians ought not ignore that calling. He believed the primary responsibility of Christians is not to take over society and impose their convictions and values on people who don’t share their faith, but to “be the church.” By refusing to return evil for evil, by living in peace, sharing goods, and doing deeds of charity as opportunities arise.
In my opinion The Politics of Jesus is a little dry and boring in places, but if you hang in there it is a book well worth reading. The book was named by evangelical publication “Christianity Today” as one of the most important Christian books of the 20th century. I’m not sure of that but for those interested in the philosophy behind Christian pacifism it is a good book to have on your shelf.

Why I am not a Calvinist

 
 


 

On the last post I let it be known that I am definitely not a Calvinist. I will give you a few more reasons on this post. Some time ago I read a book entitled Why I am not a Calvinists by Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell that very much influenced my views of Calvinism. For those of you who need some more info about Calvinists I suggest you look up the word on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinism.

 Here is an excerpt from the book:

Does God love all of us and desire our well-being? Calvinists cannot answer this question in the affirmative without equivocation and inconsistency. The breathtaking vision of God’s Trinitarian love is obscured by the Calvinists claim that God passes over persons he could just as easily save and thereby consigns them to eternal agony. The exhilarating message of the gospel that should be good news to all sinners is muted by the Calvinist claim that only the elect are truly able to join the dance. While Scripture teaches that not all will come, the Calvinist account of why this is so ultimately goes back to God’s choice to save those persons rather than their refusal to accept the invitation. Indeed Calvinists hold that God’s sovereign choice not to save some sinners enhances his glory. By subordinating love to will, Calvinism fails to glorify God as he has revealed himself in history and ultimately in the incarnation of his Son.

This is one of the biggest problems I have with Calvinism that they put God’s power/will far above His love. They seem to be deathly afraid of the word “works” and therefore are not willing to even give man the power to accept God’s grace so they say it is God’s will that you are going to hell because He did not chose you for salvation. No matter how much debating of Calvinist theology I am exposed to I will not accept that position as it is totally foreign to my personal understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ.  

Here is another quote that I found helpful:

The love of God as revealed in the incarnation is not a matter of mere words but the Word made flesh who actively seeks the well-being of his fallen children. A love that is truly and passionately promotes the well-being of the beloved, even when it is costly, is the sort of love that has existed from all eternity in the Trinity and was revealed in the life of Jesus. This kind of love, moreover, that God commands his children to by following his example (1 Jn 3:16-18). Because God loves ALL sinners in this fashion and actively works to promote their eternal well-being, this is rejoicing in heaven when one of them repents (Lk 15:7-10). A God who commands this sort of love and who positively delights in repentance of sinners surely has no need or desire to show his sovereign power by passing over some fallen humans, nor would he truly glorify himself by doing so. This is why we are not Calvinists. Our reasons are not merely personal but rather they are theological, philosophical and most of all biblical.

I don’t often do this but here are some bible verses that also reflect my views against Calvinism 

John 6:40

My Father wants all those who see the Son and believe in him to have eternal life. He wants me to bring them back to life on the last day.”

1 Tim 2:3-7

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men — the testimony given in its proper time.

2 Peter 3:9
The Lord isn’t slow to do what he promised, as some people think. Rather, he is patient for your sake. He doesn’t want to destroy anyone but wants all people to have an opportunity to turn to him and change the way they think and act.

RC Sproul Book Review

  I am going to spend the next few posts reviewing books that I have recently read or reread. I must admit that the emphasis of these current reviews are to generally show areas that some, if not many, Christians believe but I tend to disagree with. As always, even if as I disagree with these things I will respect your not seeing things the same way. It is not for me to judge you, God will do that to all of us in His time.

This post is a book by RC Sproul entitled “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith”. For brevity I will be using some terms (Calvinism, Arminianism, Pelagianism) some of you may not be familiar with. I apologize in advance for that. I’m sure I will be covering those topics in a future post but do not want to take the space to do that here. I would encourage you to look them up on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page .

 As usual, I am going to be the contrarian here and say this is a pretty good book but… I have read the book a couple of times and for the most part it is helpful. Generally the book is informative but there are exceptions to that. Mr. Sproul is indeed a gifted writer. As I read this book I had to keep reminding myself that Sproul is a good little Calvinist and there are other opinions on what God’s true theology might be. Mr. Sproul goes out of his way to mention that , yes, there are some who align with Calvinism who are “hyper-Calvinist” and therefore not representative of the true Calvinist doctrine but he never says the same thing of Arminian theology he puts them all in the same boat. That is patently Calvinist and patently unfair. I totally agree that “Open Theology” and Pelagianism is not from God and is, even if Sproul refuses to say it, “hyper-Arminism”.

One controversial section in the book is topic 58 about Predestination and Reprobation (unconditional election). It is part of the Calvinist 5 point mantra. Sproul says “the reprobate, who are passed over by God, are ultimately doomed and their damnation is as certain and sure as the ultimate salvation of the elect”. If a Calvinist, like Sproul, is true to his doctrine then when he approaches someone trying to exercise the Great Commission he should say “Maybe the Lord loves you and wants you to come to Him but maybe he didn’t choose you to be saved”. If God has already chosen some and rejected others then what is the purpose of the Trinity. It seems that God the Father has taken care of everything so the other two members of the trinity are really not necessary. That is a very troubling thought to me.
For an opposing view of this topic I would suggest reading “Why I am not a Calvinist” by Walls and Dongell. I will be putting out a review of this book in the next post. It is up to each of us to find the heart of God and not depend on any one theologian or doctrinal practice for all the answers.  

So, again this is a pretty good book but very aware of it’s author’s underlying foundation. Not all of his “Essential Truths” are what others believe.

An Ordinary Radical??

Let me start out by telling you that this post is not about Jesus being a radical but there is definitely some truth to that statement and I will address that in a future post. I know this title is kind of confusing. Is there really such a thing as an “ordinary” radical. I don’t know but that is what Shane Clairborne calls himself. Shane is one of those few people who really seems to live out the words of Jesus Christ. Yes, he is an out-of-the-box thinker and doer who is part of an organization called “The Simple Way”. Shane and the people in his group live a very simple community lifestyle. They take the words of Jesus to the streets of Philadelphia by witnessing, through their actions as well as words, to the poor and undernourished (both physically and spiritually). I sometimes like to think of myself as a radical. After all I was in college in the 60’s. But, to tell the truth, I was working 40-50 hours a week in order to pay my way through college and also taking almost a full academic load so there was really no time for those pesky demonstrations that were happening all around me at the time. I am kind of ashamed to say that I have lived my life pretty much as most others do. Maybe I am a radical in thought only but I have been trying to change that lately!

irresistible-revolution-128x1601
Let’s get back to Shane. He has written several books including one from which I pulled the moniker above. It is entitled “The Irresistible Revolution – living as an ordinary radical”. This book totally blew me away when I read it! How can a young man, at least young by my standards, have such wisdom about Christian living! Tony Campolo’s remarks at the front of the book does a very good job of expressing my thoughts. He wrote
“Shane expresses the kind of authentic Christianity that most of us are trying to avoid because the cost is too great. He proposes a lifestyle that prophetically proclaims what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the twenty-first century”.

I highly recommend this book, and any of the others he has written. But, I must admit these books are not for those who think we are doing just fine in our Christian living and outreach. I gave a copy to my pastor to read and the first thing he said after reading it was that “the author doesn’t think much of churches today and he is kind of a communist”. According to Wikipedia’s listing for Shane Clairborne, my pastor’s views are shared by other social conservatives in the Christian Evangelical community. I was expecting my pastor, like me, to hook up with the zeal and passion that Clairborne has for Christ but that was not to be. But don’t hold my pastor’s comments against me even if I am not running for president. Maybe I am a radical after all. If you have an open mind and are ready to admit that we, as 21st century Christian, can do a better job of living according to the words of Christ and in reaching out to the community (especially the youth) then you can learn things from this young man. Their website in listed in my blogroll if you care to visit them.