Category Archives: Book reviews

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

Here’s something you might not hear at your Reformed church this Sunday: YOU don’t get to decide who the Christians are.

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. And I bet you it’s not something you have heard at your church (even though you should!).

Continue reading God is not a Christian

Reflections on Christmas and Christianity in the USA

The New York Times op-ed column this past weekend included an excellent analysis of two recent books and what they tell us about Christians in the USA. Well worth a read, especially at this time of year.

You can read the piece at the NY Times website here, or an extract below.

A Tough Season for Believers

By ROSS DOUTHAT
Published: NY Times op-ed column, December 19, 2010

Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Continue reading Reflections on Christmas and Christianity in the USA

Welcome new readers – a quick intro to the conversation thus far

Every now and again I’ll do a quick overview of my favourite posts – and that can act as a nice introduction for new readers and a navigation tool for those who want to “catch up” with some of the thinking and conversations on this blog.

The purpose of this blog is to help Christians and those seeking faith to find new ways to think about what it means to be a Christ follower. I have been writing and blogging on this topic since 1995, and this blog includes a selection of new and old stuff I have been working on. Some of it I’d die for, but some of it is purely experimental (I try and let you know which is which). The point is not to present a fully worked through systematic theology, but rather to allow you to enter into an ongoing conversation with me. If you like, this is just my journal – and you get to look in…

So, with that said, here is a brief intro to some of the posts on this blog:

Continue reading Welcome new readers – a quick intro to the conversation thus far

Blue Like Jazz

Originall posted on 1 June 2005

I am busy reading “Blue Like Jazz”, by Donald Miller (Nelson, 2003, ISBN: 0785263 705) (buy it at Kalahari.net or Amazon.com). The subtitle, “nonreligious thoughts on Christian spirituality” hints at the style – its collection of stories and reflections on experience of a person trying to understand what it really means to be a question on the 21st century.

He explains the title as follows: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But sometimes you have to watch somebody loves something before you can love it yourself. But I was outside the Baghdad Theatre in Portland one night when I saw the men playing the saxophone. I stood there for 15 minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody loves something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before in the of this happened.”

Continue reading Blue Like Jazz

Some Thoughts on Hell

Originally posted on 15 August, 2008

Some time ago I skim-read Brian McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That (get it at Amazon.com or Kalahari.net). This past week, I have gone back to it, and am devouring it in depth. It is a story-based reflection on the issue of salvation, with specific reference to hell. It really has got me thinking, and has helped to clarify some questions (see previous post at this blog), if not entirely provide adequate answers. These are issues we should be dealing with in our churches, but are not.

I think a key part of the problem with our understanding of what it means to be saved, and the issue of hell, the life hereafter and “eternal life”, is that the historical church has created such strong camps/entrenched positions. I don’t find any of them convincing or coherent. And none of the traditional positions gives a “unifying theory of everything” – a consistent and coherent explanation of the whole of the Biblical witness. I find that I have sympathy (and concerns) with every position, from exclusivism (that everyone not personally, consciously, individually “born again” will be excluded from heaven), or inclusivism (that some will be saved through Jesus without ever knowing the name of Jesus), to conditionalism (that hell does not last forever – after a period of conscious punishment, the damned in hell are annihilated) or universalism (that everyone will ultimately be reconciled to God through Jesus, with hell ultimately being empty).

The key to understanding the importance of the issue of hell, is not actually the concept of hell itself, but rather the God to which that concept points. “God loves you – like the greatest father’s unconditional love – and has a wonderful plan for your life, and if you don’t love God back and cooperate with God’s plans in exactly the way He wants you to, God will torture you with unimaginable abuse, forever!” Yes?

Continue reading Some Thoughts on Hell

Cheap Grace

A sermon outline originally posted on 13 March 2005

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship (buy it at Amazon.co.uk or Kalahari.net), wrote: “Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has…. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because if calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son: ‘ye were bought with a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

In the lead up to Easter this year, let us remember that “salvation” is about “justification” AND “sanctification”. To emphasize one over the other is unbiblical. To my mind, this is the single biggest failing of the church at the moment – to be so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good. To emphasize what Jesus came to die for, and to neglect all he came to LIVE for – the establishment of His Kingdom ON EARTH as it is in Heaven!

If we lived more like Christ’s intent, we wouldn’t have many of the issues I talk about elsewhere on this blogsite.

Here is a sermon I preached just before Easter a few years ago:

Continue reading Cheap Grace

Eddy Gibbs on the Emerging Church

Originally posted on 19 September 2005

In a lecture presented to the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa a few months ago, Eddy Gibbs, a long-term voice for change in the church, talked about his view of “emerging church”. What found really interesting in the report I received, was his list of emerging church characteristics. He since wrote a book on the topic. While it is now slightly outdated, I do think that the picture he presents of the “ideal” emerging church should be aspirational for all church leaders.

“For the past three years I have been working with a younger colleague at Fuller Seminary, interviewing around 100 emerging church leaders in the UK, the US, and other areas of the English-speaking world in an attempt to answer those questions. Here is our tentative list:

  • Their churches are worship-inspired with everyone playing an active role in creating the worship experience.
  • They are mission focused, committed to responding to the needs of their community and especially in serving the poor.
  • They are shaped by context, i.e. seeking an indigenous expression of church that is culturally appropriate.
  • They seek to contextualize discerningly, ensuring the integrity of the message and refusing to soften its radical impact.
  • They disciple intentionally, which means that they are more concerned to challenge people to live as Christ-followers rather than gathering a crowd.
  • Their churches are structured relationally rather than hierarchically. This means that everyone has their place to belong and ministry to which they can contribute.
  • Their churches grow organically, which means that they are reproducible, much like a strawberry plant sending out runners that set down new roots and produce more strawberries.
  • They network extensively, usually by means of regular contact with the internet, with chatrooms and blogs.
  • They gather together periodically the smaller cell churches for times of celebration and re-tooling for mission.
  • Lastly, they serve compassionately, in that they are committed to holistic spirituality, rejecting any separation of the spiritual from the secular, which occurred under modernity.

I like it a lot.