Category Archives: Book reviews

VIDEO: Brian McLaren on the Courage to Differ Graciously

Brian McLaren’s last book was about interfaith dialogue and how we can learn to be both fervently Christian and also gracious to those of other faiths. In a recent event hosted by The Guibord Center, Brian spoke about his book (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World). You can watch the whole video here.

During the Q&A session, Brian gave some fantastic advice on how we should deal with people from within our own faith traditions who attack us and fight against us. I was both impressed and challenged by his advice, and extracted it in a short video. His simple message, and one I am trying to learn, is to have the courage to differ graciously.

For further reading on this vital issue, have a look at Brian’s own blog for two examples. And then read Mark McIntyre’s superb blog post on “Selective Grace in the Church“.

Rational responses to the Noah movie

In recent weeks, conservative evangelical Christians have complained about the Disney movie, “Frozen” (proclaiming it’s theme tune to be supportive of gay rights), campaigned against World Vision withdrawing funding for third world children, and now are up in arms about the Hollywood movie, Noah. It can be embarrassing having to wear the label “Christian” alongside these whiners and moaners.

The movie, Noah, was recently released. It is a fictional tale based on the Biblical account. It includes some content from the book of 1 Enoch (it is stunning how many Christians show complete lack of knowledge about the books that nearly made it into the canon of Scripture, and have been accepted as extra-canonical but nevertheless Biblical by more than half of all the Christians who have ever lived). It also includes some references to other ancient flood myths, including the most powerful one, the Gilgamesh Epic, that actually predates the Biblical account (again, most conservative Christians show complete ignorance of these other accounts of creation, the flood and antiquity, even though an understanding of the version Moses wrote must take into account how it interacted with these more ancient myths).

The movie, Noah, is a fictional account of the Biblical story, taking some license with the very short version in the Old Testament. It contains typical amounts of extra material designed to build drama and excitement, and does a good job of incorporating a variety of source material. But it does contradict the Biblical account in a number of ways, and dramatically changes how Christians would prefer God to be portrayed. As such, should Christians still watch it?

I believe that we absolutely should. And we should take the opportunity to talk about it amongst ourselves and with our children. This really does come down to how we handle truth. Conservative Christians try to handle truth by not engaging with error in any way. Well, “the elders” of their churches should engage with error, effectively becoming guardians and censors, warning “the flock” of dangers and steering them away from error. I prefer the approach which teaches people how to spot error for themselves, and to raise their ability to handle truth wisely. This involves, amongst other things, teaching people how to have conversations about truth, how to investigate, how to think and analyse, and how to ask questions – all the time relying on the Holy Spirit to teach and guide.

For the most balanced and rational review of the movie, I’d suggest Greg Boyd’s which you can find here. You can also read Tony Jones’ take on the movie – a more theological reflection on the nature of the Bible and how we should interpret it.

N.T. Wright on Paul, Romans and Election

I am a huge fan of N.T. Wright, and especially of his work on showing the sweep of God’s redemptive history in Paul’s books. I also particularly like his interpretation of the book of Romans (I have written on this blog before how Romans is a very misunderstood book if you think it is simply a summary of theology by Paul. It is not: it has a very specific and deliberate purpose, aside from which the book does not make sense as a coherent whole).

In his upcoming book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright takes a deep look at the doctrine of election. Some extracts are being made available, and I was intrigued by these two passages from the book. They make a lot of sense to me, and the idea that God’s covenant with Abraham (which was repeatedly shown to be a one sided covenant anyway) – that the whole world will be blessed – is fulfilled in Christ is magnificent:

Now at last we see where his sharp-edged, and often controversial, ‘doctrine of election’ in Romans 9 was going. This was never an abstract ‘doctrine of predestination’, attempting to plumb the mysteries of why some people (in general, without reference to Israel) hear and believe the gospel and others do not. Paul never encourages speculation of that sort. Rather, it was a way of saying, very specifically, that the fact of Israel’s election (starting with the choice and call of Abraham) had always been there to deal with the sin of the world; that Israel’s election had always involved Israel being narrowed down, not just to Isaac and then to Jacob, but to a hypoleimma, a ‘remnant’, a ‘seed’; and that this ‘remnant’ itself would be narrowed down to a single point, to the Messiah himself, who would himself be ‘cast away’ so that the world might be redeemed. The point of ‘election’ was not to choose or call a people who would somehow mysteriously escape either the grim entail of Adam’s sin or the results it brought in its train. It was not – as in some low-grade proposals! – about God simply choosing a people to be his close friends. The point was to choose and call a people through whom the sin of humankind, and its results for the whole creation, might be brought to the point where they could at last be defeated, condemned, overcome. Hence the line that runs, in Romans, from 3.24–26 to 8.3–4 and on to 10.3–4, backed up by the summaries in 5.6–11 and 5.12–21. Here is the faithfulness of the Messiah, which discloses, unveils, apocalypticizes, the righteousness of God, God’s covenant faithfulness.

And on Romans 9-11:

As becomes apparent in Romans 9—11, this single divine plan has been hugely paradoxical, because the way in which Israel’s story has been God’s instrument in the salvation of the world has been precisely through Israel’s ‘casting away’. This is the point of the (to us) strange passage about negative predestination in 9.14–29: Israel is simultaneously ‘the Messiah’s people’ and ‘the Messiah’s people according to the flesh’, as we might have deduced from the opening summary statement in 9.4–5. Israel’s story, that is, was always designed (as many second-Temple Jews would have insisted) to come to its climax in the arrival and accomplishment of the Messiah; but that accomplishment, as Paul had come to see, involved the Messiah himself in being ‘cast away for the sake of the world’. Thus Israel, as the Messiah’s people, is seen to have exercised its vocational instrumentality in God’s rescue operation for the world precisely by acting out that newly-discovered and deeply shocking ‘messianic’ vocation: Israel is indeed the means of bringing God’s rescue to the world, but it will be through Israel’s acting out of the Messiah-shaped vocation, of being ‘cast away’ for the sake of the world. Paul finally says it out loud (at a point where most interpreters have long since lost the thread and so fail to make the connection) in 11.12, 15; this is where we see why Paul did not deny the ‘boast’ of 2.19–20, but went on affirming it paradoxically, even though it raised the questions of 3.1–8 to which he has at last returned and which he has at last answered. Salvation has come to the Gentiles – through Israel’s paraptōma, the ‘stumble’ in which Israel recapitulates the sin of Adam, as in 5.20. ‘The reconciliation of the world’ has come about – through Israel’s apobolē, ‘casting away’, the ‘rejection’ in which Israel recapitulates the death of the Messiah, as in 5.10–11. At the heart of one of Paul’s strangest and most challenging chapters we find exactly this theme: that the creator God, having entered into a covenant with Abraham’s family that he would bless the world through that family, has been faithful to his promise, even though it has been in the upside-down and inside-out way now unveiled in the Messiah.

A deep, but important, reflection this Sunday evening.

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!