Category Archives: Book reviews

A ‘gag reflex’ to ‘gay lifestyles’ is not any way to judge morality

Recently, Thabiti Anyabwile (Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition) wrote an article which the Gospel Coalition posted on their website: “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage’“. I have heard this argument before: that the disgust many conservative Christians feel towards homosexuality is a sign of the Holy Spirit working in their consciences and a clear indication that it is wrong.

Whatever your belief about homosexuality and gay marriage, this is an entirely spurious supposition.

I travel all over the world for my work, and have very often had a gag reflex in response to some of the food I have been offered. Is that my conscience telling me that the food is morally bad for me? Or is it possibly more likely to be some deep seated cultural conditioning telling me not to eat this food which is unknown or unappetising to me? I have learnt not to trust my gag reflex in many situations.

But I have also experienced the ‘gag reflex’ Pastor Anyabwile speaks of in a church context. The first time (and a few more, sad to say) that I heard a female worship leader (sorry, Darlene Zschech) and a woman preacher I had literal bad physical reactions. I had been brought up to believe with all my heart that women should not be leaders or teachers. I don’t believe that anymore. But the gag reflex had nothing to do with it – either way. I also had a ‘gag reflex’ the first time I saw a black man and a white woman kissing. I grew up in Apartheid era South Africa where this was illegal, and also considered immoral on the basis of the Bible. Although I remember my church being vaguely opposed to apartheid, we never had any black kids in our Sunday School or youth programmes (it was technically illegal to do so, but some churches didn’t bother obeying that particular law, while mine did). And there were certainly no cross cultural couples around. I had a deep cultural conditioning against such things. I don’t anymore (my family has even adopted a Zulu daughter). But a few years ago, on an international youth pastor’s forum, I asked participants to list their top three biggest youth group issues. Many pastors from the southern states of the USA listed cross cultural dating as their number one issue (and they were opposed to it!).

So, I don’t trust my gag reflex to be my moral guide. I really honestly don’t. And I find it horrific that a person in the position that Pastor Anyabwile is can publicly put forward the level of homophobic attitudes he does in his article.

As I was wondering how to respond, I was delighted to see that one of my favourite Christian bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, had also picked up the story and provided a thoughtful and useful response. You can read it on her blog, or an extended extract below.

God forgive us for these attitudes, and rescue us from the pit from which they come.

Continue reading A ‘gag reflex’ to ‘gay lifestyles’ is not any way to judge morality

Wonderful examples of inter faith solidarity

Two years ago when the first riots swept across Egypt, I posted a wonderful picture of Christians who surrounded and protected Muslims who were praying. Now, in the past few days, as Christians have been on receiving end of persecution it is wonderful to see Muslim’s returning the gesture. There are now quite a few photos circulating on the web of Muslims surrounding Christian churches, protecting them from protestors and arsonists.

Here are two of these images:
Muslims protecting church in Egypt

Muslims protecting church in Egypt

One of the books I have enjoyed reading most this past year is Brian McLaren’s, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World”. It is an insightful and well reasoned book that helps us reconsider how we can be truly Christian while still connecting with other religions. The intention of the book is to seek a “third way”. As Brian says, “We know how to have a strong Christian identity that is intolerant of or belligerent towards other faiths, and we know how to have a weak Christian identity that is tolerant and benevolent. But is there a third alternative? How do we discover, live, teach, and practise a Christian identity that is both strong and benevolent towards other faiths?” (Buy Brian’s book at Kalahari.com in South Africa, on Amazon.com or on [email protected]).

It’s great to see some examples of this in Egypt.

The failure of the evangelical: mind, heart and spirit (probably in that order)

This blog entry could be a book on its own. I fear I cannot do this thought justice, but I would like to nevertheless put it out there for discussion and your reflection. It might feel overly harsh on “my own” (the evangelicals), but I do sometimes despair at the shallowness of thought and engagement that often accompanies discussions I have with fellow evangelicals. Hopefully my brief thoughts will spur deeper ones from you.

Back in 1995, Mark Noll wrote, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” – it’s a great read, with a central message: the failure of the evangelical mind is that evangelicals tend not to use theirs. Noll was particularly concerned that evangelicals have not produced great scholars who contribute to Christian interaction in science, the arts, politics, or culture in general. Too often evangelicals simply retreat to a “it’s in the Bible, God said it, I believe it, end of discussion” position.

He’s right.

Last year, Rachel Held Evans wrote on her blog about the scandal of the evangelical heart. In a well written piece, she wonders how so many evangelicals (especially Calvinists) do not feel more about the eternal fate of those they believe are destined for hell. She wonders how we can read some of the Old Testament stories about the Israelites wiping out other nations – including women and children – and not feel grief and anguish. Evangelicals are OK with this because “it’s in the Bible, God did it, it must be fine. End of discussion”.

She’s right.

Continue reading The failure of the evangelical: mind, heart and spirit (probably in that order)

How popular culture continues to feed incorrect visions of womanhood

I recently found two movie reviews very insightful. And, as the father of three daughters, I took them quite seriously, because both of them suggested that young girls were being fed an incorrect view of what it means to be a woman. These were two big movies of 2012: ‘Brave’ introduced Disney’s newest princess, and the ‘Twilight’ saga roared to its conclusion.

Rachel Held Evans wrote about Brave. I really enjoyed the movie, bought the DVD for my youngest daughter for Christmas, and have encouraged her to add Merida to the full set of Disney princesses she already has. I like Merida, and for the same reasons Rachel did: Merida is a flawed princess, with deep complexity, she stands up for herself and her life is not defined by her relationship to men.

But I also agree with Rachel’s main concern about the movie: the men in the story are portrayed as buffoons. It is not necessary that for women to be strong, men must be weak. But this is often how it is portrayed in movies: women only step up when the men fail.

Which leads to the second review that caught my attention. In fact, it was a response to a review. Mark Driscoll is a Christian pastor based in Seattle, Washington who has been making quite a name for himself in his views of men and women. He believes that men must lead, and women be submissive; and he has a vision of Christian marriage that feels a lot more like an idealised American suburb in the 1950s (possibly Stepford?) than the Bible. He spends a lot of time dealing with issues of sexuality, too. And he didn’t like Twilight – he described it as sick, twisted, evil and dangerous and to teenage girls what porn is for teenage boys.

Continue reading How popular culture continues to feed incorrect visions of womanhood

Christian bookstores and their chokehold on the industry

I have never liked Christian bookstores much. Back when I was a theological student, I could never find any books by the authors that my conservative textbooks were warning me about. Sure, some of the warnings were valid, but I still don’t appreciate having my reading list vetted and censored for me. And then, South African Christian bookstores refused to stock some of the best selling Christian authors of the last two decades, including Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and Tony Campolo amongst others. That’s when I stopped buying anything from them (luckily, Kalahari, Loot and Amazon provided me with other options).

Then, last week, Rachel Held Evans wrote a very insightful blog entry on this topic. It sounds as if America is even worse than I remember South African being. How do we let bookstore owners and publisher editors shape and mould our theology. And aren’t these the same people who fuelled the “Left behind” rapture theology with badly written fiction books? Scary.

You can read Rachel’s blog here, or an extended extract below:

Continue reading Christian bookstores and their chokehold on the industry

Great moments in history expressed as Facebook status updates

Just for fun.

My middle daughter, Hannah, is a real history buff (she wants to be an archeologist when she grows up). It helps to have a near perfect memory, so all the dates and names places easily lodge in her mind. But it also helps to have history made fresh, fun and interesting. This started with the “Horrible Histories” series (see the books and videos at Amazon.co.uk) – a kind of Monty Python show of historical facts. It’s genius.

And now, I’ve found something else that looks astoundingly brilliant in concept. It’s the history of the world as told through Facebook status updates. This is so clever. I’ve ordered the book (you can do so too at Amazon.co.uk or Kalahari.net or your favourite bookstore), and have seen some excerpts online. It’s a pity, I think, that the author seems to have a penchant for foul language, but if you can look beyond that, there is some genius at work here.

My favourite so far is the interactions of the church with some key historical figures. Like these, for example:

Continue reading Great moments in history expressed as Facebook status updates

As you go… Therefore go… And interpret the Scriptures

Over the Christmas holidays I read Christian Smith’s new book, “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture” (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com or Kalahari.net). I have followed Christian’s work for many years – he is a well known and insightful sociologist who has spent many years researching the state of the church, youth ministry and Christian culture, especially in the USA.

But in this book, he has turned his attention to how evangelical Christians in America interpret the Bible. It’s an interesting book, as he states often that he is not a ‘professional’ theologian, and is approaching the topic more from a sociological perspective. Yet, his insights are excellent and striking. I think the first half of the book is much better than the second. He starts by defining the type of Biblical readers he has in mind: conservative evangelicals who claim (among other things) that the Bible should be interpreted literally, contains absolutely no errors of any sort (inerrant), was written by God (inspired), represents the full extent of God’s communication with humanity and is sufficient for all matters of life, for all Christians of all ages. He shows that their version of Biblical interpretation is impossible.

Note that he shows it to be impossible. Logically impossible, theologically impossible and practically impossible. The book is a bit long winded, but that’s mainly because I think Smith is hoping that many of the people he is critiquing might read the book. He is therefore meticulous in ensuring his argument is well understood and covers all possible bases.

I find his argument very compelling.

And then on Sunday, the preacher at our church preached from Matthew 28 – the section often referred to as The Great Commission. And right there, I realised was an almost perfect example of the issue Smith’s book focuses in on.

Matthew 28:19 is translated in almost all of our English Bibles as “Therefore, go and make disciples…”. But almost everyone knows that the original Greek construction of the sentence is: “As you go, make disciples…”. Our preacher took this so for granted that he didn’t even mention the discrepancy between what we were reading, and what he was quoting. He simply said, “As you go, you are to make disciples”. This is the correct emphasis of the passage. The “going” is implied, and is not a command. The command is to make disciples, wherever it is that you go. There can be very few people who don’t know this.

So why have even the most modern of translations not updated the text?

I honestly couldn’t tell you. But the point is this: our whole theology does not come tumbling down because we identify this error (for error it is!) and correct it. The community of Christians working together comes to an understanding about what the verses are supposed to mean, and we adjust our thinking accordingly. If needed, we’d adjust our practice too.

We’ve done this so often throughout history, changing our interpretations and understanding of Scripture, and our practices, that it almost doesn’t feel like the point needs to be made. But, sadly it does.

A literalist interpretation of Scripture is not a good reading of Scripture. It believes that there is only one possible interpretation of each Scriptural passage, and that by diligent study we will come to agree on this. And anyone who doesn’t agree is an enemy of God.

So those who read the Bible literally often accuse those who do not of being “liberal”. This is a catch all label which is almost always used dismissively – and pejoratively – and as if it concludes all debate. But it’s just not true. Those who work hard to understand the Bible by looking for dynamic equivalents in order to translate and interpret culturally conditioned passages, and those who try and look beyond factual errors, internal inconsistencies and cultural issues to find the meaning and intent of the passages (without diminishing their belief that they are God’s Words), are not being “seduced by the world” or taking the easy interpretative route. In fact, in most cases, they do this work precisely because they are taking the Bible MORE seriously than they ever have.

You might find it valuable to read one of our archive posts: Confessions of a Bible Deist. If you’d like to read a book about this issue of how to interpret the Bible, then the best one written recently is Scott McKnight’s “The Blue Parakeet” (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com or Kalahari.net). The best textbook I can recommend is Fee and Stuart’s “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” (Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com or Kalahari.net).

If we’re going to deal correctly with issues such as creation versus evolution, science versus faith, the role of women, and homosexuality successfully, we have to start where Christian Smith starts: and look to show literalist Biblicists the error – and impossibility – of their approach to Biblical interpretation. Without that, all other attempts at engagement are futile.

As you go, do your best to take God’s Word seriously. Now go!

Study: Why Young Christians Leave the Church

One of the biggest ‘elephants in the room’ for evangelical Christians is why so many of their young people leave the church in their late twenties. There’s no denying this happens. There are too many “used to evangelical Christians” running around. Something must be wrong.

Some people blame the way youth ministry is run. For example, see this hour long documentary produced by a young churchgoer, “Divided“. They have a point, but I don’t buy into their analysis completely.

A new book by David Kinnaman, Barna Group president, provides some more detail. “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church” is an excellent read. The Christian Post reviewed it and provides a summary of the findings (read it here, or a summary below).

This is a problem I have been passionate about for nearly three decades. I continue to be dismayed at how few churches are trying new things in an attempt to reverse nearly a half century of losing young people. This book from Barna provides some clues. What is your church going to do about it?

Study: Why Young Christians Leave the Church

By Jeff Schapiro | Christian Post Reporter, Sep 2011

Nearly three out of every five young Christians disconnect from their churches after the age of 15, but why? A new research study released by the Barna Group points to six different reasons as to why young people aren’t staying in their pews.

Continue reading Study: Why Young Christians Leave the Church

Rob Bell on the agony of explanation – and what he believes

Rob Bell is a preacher, pastor, author and leading thinker on theological issues. Earlier this year, he wrote a book called “Love Wins” which caused a huge controversy (buy it at Amazon or Amazon.co.uk). One of the upsetting things was the number of detractors who were prepared to “critique” his book without even reading it. Insane, but true. I was sent one which was even printed in the best selling Christian magazine in South Africa where the reviewer freely admitted he hadn’t read the book.

Apparently, people who attend Rob’s church in Grand Rapids were put upon by all and sundry and had a torrid time trying to defend their pastor. On 27 March 2011, Rob started the service with a statement which he labelled “The Agony of Explanation” in their official podcast. I think it is a remarkable few minutes.

He states his beliefs. And there is nothing in any of his books which would contradict this very traditional set of beliefs. He then talks a bit about what he was trying to convey in the book. If you’re not going to read the book, you might as well listen to what he says the message is. He also talks a lot about the attitude one should have. An attitude like Jesus’, I believe.

Anyway, for many reasons, it’s worth listening to Rob in his own words, as he interacts with one of the leadership team of the church:

[audio:http://www.futurechurchnow.com/uploads/Rob_Bell_on_the_Agony_of_Explanation.mp3]

You can find the full podcasts from the church in their free iTunes channel: Mars Hill Bible Church

God is not a Christian

Desmond Tutu, the irrepressible retired Anglican Bishop from South Africa, is one of my favourite people of all time. His speeches are some of the best in history, and always delivered with verve, humour and passion. He is a remarkable man, and I have had the privilege of meeting him a few times and listening to him speak live.

A collection of his speeches and writings – especially his most controversial ones – has just been published (with two different sub titles, confusingly): “and other provocations” or “speaking truths in times of crisis” (Buy it at Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com or Kalahari.net).

The Huffington Post provided an extended extract. You can read it here, or below. I have highlighted my favourite bit. It’s from the speech that book is named for: God is not a Christian. What a profound thought.

Continue reading God is not a Christian