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victim or perpetrator

April 26, 2012 1 comment

I realize that these quotes from Volf over the last few days have been life changing for you, but it needs to come to and end. But before we wrap things up, one last lengthy quotation on the need for repentance on the part of the victim.  That’s right, the victim. I know it seems beyond strange to suggest that victims have a need for repentance, but that is because we have a compulsive need to see everything in terms of all-or-nothing. And by “we,” I mean church people. Or maybe Americans, in general. Honestly, don’t most human beings suffer from this inability to see things in shades of gray?

A person is all good or all bad. A marriage failure is all the husband’s fault or all the wife’s fault. Problems in education are all the fault of the teachers, or the students, or their families, or the system. Someone’s view of God is either entirely orthodox or it is heretical. For whatever reason, we are drawn to the simplicity of seeing things in terms of either-or.

However, it doesn’t take much sustained reflection on our part to realize that life is more complicated than that. Children misbehave not only as a result of their own inherent sinfulness, but also because of the dysfunctionality of their family, or the pressures of their peer-group, or even as a means of exacting justice – no matter how skewed their ideas of that might be. What is true for children is true for adults, and organizations, and tribes, and countries. Despite our desire to see things in terms of absolutes, our better selves know that no one person or country can bear all the weight of this all-or-nothing way of thinking. We all behave badly for different reasons and in different ways.

I’m not sure how I got off track here. Let’s get back to the matter at hand, namely Volf on victims and perpetrators…

Jesus called to repentance not simply these who falsely pronounced sinful what was innocent and sinned against their victims, but the victims of oppression themselves. It will not do to divide Jesus’ listeners neatly into two groups and claim that for the oppressed repentance means new hope whereas for the oppressors it means radical change. Nothing suggests such a categorizing of people in Jesus’ ministry, though different people ought to repent of different kinds of sins. The truly revolutionary character of Jesus’ proclamation lies precisely in the connection between the hope he gives to the oppressed and the radical change he requires of them. Though some sins have been imputed to them, other sins of theirs were real; though they suffered at the sinful hands others, they also committed sins of their own. It is above all to them that he offers divine forgiveness.

The most seminal impact of enmity … consists in transforming the violent practices of the dominant into the dominant practices … envy and enmity keep the disprivileged and weak chained to the dominant order – even when they succeed in toppling it … repentance creates a haven of God’s new world in the midst of the old and so makes the transformation of the old possible.

Victims need to repent of the fact that all too often they mimic the behavior of the oppressors, let themselves be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy. They need to repent also of the desire to excuse their own reactive behavior either by claiming that they are not responsible for it or that such reactions are a necessary condition of liberation. Without repentance for these sins, the full human dignity of victims will not be restored and needed social change will not take place … If victims do not repent today they will become perpetrators tomorrow who, in their self-deceit, will seek to exculpate their misdeeds on account of their own victimization. (from Exclusion and Embrace, emphasis his).

So I’m pretty much done subjecting you to Volf…

For now.

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idol factories

April 25, 2012 Leave a comment

I got Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace and his Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace at the same time. I chose to read Exclusion and Embrace first because it is older and from what I could tell it was his more pioneering work. However, if the decision was made based upon which book had the better cover, there would have been no contest.

Free of Charge not only has the distinction of being the more attractive of the two books, it is also shorter and easier reading in general. So if you are in any way tempted to dive into some Volf, this may be the place to start.

Here’s a little something to whet your appetite…

There is God. And there are images of God. And some people don’t see any difference between the two.

… They simply assume that who they believe God to be and who God truly is are one and the same. God is as large (or as small) as they make the Infinite One to be, and none of the beliefs they entertain about God could possibly be wrong.

But in fact, our images of God are rather different from God’s reality. We are finite beings, and God is infinitely greater than any thoughts we can contain about divine reality in our wondrous but tiny minds … When we forget that we unwittingly reduce God’s ways to our ways and God’s thoughts to our thoughts. Our hearts become factories of idols in which we fashion and refashion God to fit our needs and desires … Slowly and imperceptibly, the one true God begins acquiring the features of the gods of this world. For instance, our God simply gratifies our desires rather than reshaping them in accordance with the beauty of God’s own character. Our God then kills enemies rather than dying on their behalf as God did in Jesus Christ.

on rage and forgiveness

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Yesterday, I gave fair warning of a steady stream of Volf-isms coming your way, and I intend to deliver on that promise. I would put up a picture of the book, but the design is so awful that you are likely to dismiss it on sight. The quote comes from Exclusion and Embrace and as you might guess, it is about rage and forgiveness.

For the followers of the crucified Messiah, the main message of the imprecatory Psalms is this: rage belongs before God  … by placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice … Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion – without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.

One of the things that I’ve really appreciated about this book is its universal relevance. Whether we are talking about nations warring over centuries old ethnic and religious animosity or the fight that a husband and wife had last week, his observations hold equally true. And come on, what’s not to love about a sentence like, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.

Pure gold.

my messy house

February 22, 2012 2 comments

Like I said yesterday, I’m using Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter to guide my thoughts over the next forty-plus days. The entry for Day 1 is by Kathleen Norris, and I think she sums up particularly well what the Lenten season can be for all of us… young or old.

WHEN I’M WORKING as an artist-in-residence at parochial schools, I like to read the psalms out loud to inspire the students, who are usually not aware that the snippets they sing at Mass are among the greatest poems in the world. But I have found that when I have asked children to write their own psalms, their poems often have an emotional directness that is similar to that of the biblical Psalter.

They know what it’s like to be small in a world designed for big people, to feel lost and abandoned. Children are frequently astonished to discover that the psalmists so freely express the more unacceptable emotions, sadness and even anger, even anger at God, and that all of this is in the Bible that they hear read in church on Sunday morning.

Children who are picked on by their big brothers and sisters can be remarkably adept when it comes to writing cursing psalms, and I believe that the writing process offers them a safe haven in which to work through their desires for vengeance in a healthy way. Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.”

“My messy house” says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?

Have mercy on us, Lord.

Four (best reads of 2011) for Monday

February 13, 2012 1 comment

I know this is suppose to be a Friday thing. I wanted to get it done on Friday, but it just wasn’t meant to be. A number of the books I read in 2011 were honestly pretty forgettable. However, there were a few that stirred the heart or mind (sometimes both) enough for me to recommend them to others. They are all of the “religious” variety. I’m not apologizing for that, but I just want to be clear about what you can expect.

Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation
by Gordon T. Smith
(sample chapter)

If there is one book that I’ll be re-reading in 2012, it will be this one. Smith’s work on conversion is thought-provoking to say the least. If you are one cares about what the journey of faith (particularly what we call “conversion”) looks like, then I can’t more highly recommend this book. Like a good physician, Smith adeptly diagnoses what ails modern day evangelicalism. His ideas on how we might restore health don’t feel quite as thought through, but his insights are difficult to dismiss lightly. If nothing else, read the sample chapter and see if he doesn’t pique your interest. Plus I would really love to have someone to talk to about what he has to say.

Without doubt, the greatest problem with the assumption that conversion is punctiliar is that it rarely ever is. Many people do not have a language with which to speak meaningfully about their own spiritual experience for the simple reason that they have not experienced conversion as a punctiliar event in their lives. Whether they are second-generation Christians (more on this below) or whether their journey to faith and of faith does not fit the mold, they do not know how to tell their story, how to give expression to their encounter with God’s grace.

Movements of Grace: The Dynamic Christo-Realism of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances
by Jeff McSwain
(sample chapter)

Movements of Grace came my way from my father-in-law who got it from my brother-in-law who is friends with the author. So that pretty much makes me and the author best friends. As is often the case, titles can be misleading which is why we need subtitles. In fact, subtitles all the way through the book could be helpful given its dense theology – which can at times sound like a foreign language. In some ways, this book is similar to the previous one in that they are both concerned with how God’s work happens in person’s life. Both suggest that modern-day American evangelicalism places too much emphasis on human volition as the precursor for God’s saving activity. When I finished, I had a greater appreciation for and understanding of trinitarian theology. It also caused me to go back and re-read Barth, and that’s probably a good thing. From what I understand McSwain was embroiled in some controversy with Young Life a few years ago, and reading this book certainly helps one understand why that might have developed.

For my years of Christian ministry before January 2000, I habitually proclaimed the gospel in a way that undervalued the union of Jesus Christ with both God and humanity. On the one hand, while I pad lip service to the fact of Christ being God, my articulated theory of the atonement defied it. I portrayed a God who sent Christ to assume the world’s sin so that God could stay pure in himself.

Love Wins
by Rob Bell
(sample chapter)

Speaking of controversial books, you might find the inclusion of Bell’s Love Wins on the list surprising. Honestly, there were several other books that I found more interesting than this one, but there is no denying that it created quite a splash – even before it was released. There is also no denying that the conversation concerning universalism is still alive and well. Let’s be clear, Rob Bell didn’t invent universalism (he isn’t even a true universalist). He simply moved the discussion from people’s living rooms into the church, and I think the discussion has by and large been a healthy one. Bell is particularly gifted at asking questions, and in a way he is only asking the same question (albeit in a different way) that the previous two books are asking – Who does “salvation” depend on? Me? Or Christ?

Really?

Ghandi’s in Hell?

He is?

We have confirmation of this?

Somebody knows this?

Without a doubt?

And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?

Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir… of Sorts
by Ian Morgan Cron
(sample chapter)

What is there for me to say about this book that I haven’t already said? I would simply like to add that this book in some ways falls in line with the other three. I quoted at length from his recollection of his first communion, and it is noteworthy that the ‘saving’ work was something that came from without, not within. I would love to quote more from this wonderful memoir, but I’m pretty sure that the author/publisher would hunt me down and demand some royalties. Of all the books on the list, this is easily the one that my vast readership would most appreciate.

So as you can see, a recurring theme in my reading this year has been on the way in which God works in people’s lives. In American church culture, we unsurprisingly place a great deal of emphasis on the choice of the individual for the efficaciousness of grace. Sure grace is a good gift of God, but it is something I can either choose to accept or reject. I’m coming to terms with (but far from having resolved) the notion that grace only becomes operative when I make a choice for it to be. Like I said, a very American sentiment. I’m just not sure how biblical it is. If grace only becomes saving grace through some choice of my own was it ever really grace to begin with?

Ok, enough heresy for one day. I really do love hearing what other people enjoy reading. Last time I did a book post, several people chimed in on things they appreciated. I’m especially indebted to the women who helped to broaden my appreciation for female authors. As you can see here, that is something of a deficiency in my reading diet, and I really would love to hear what sort of things you guys have found helpful recently.

Stay tuned for an honorable mention list sometime soon.

Best Christian Books?

January 3, 2012 4 comments

Happy new year!

Apparently, it is our last. Bummer.

End of the world or not, I’ll be reading some books in the coming year. I imagine you will as well.

In an effort to ease my way back into the occasional book post around here, I wanted to kick around a couple of thoughts.

A friend recently asked me what books I would put in the “must read” category for every serious Christian. This is a difficult endeavor for me because there is a ton that goes into recommending a book (much less a list of books) to someone. But I’m going to give it a go.

In no particular order…

Augustine – Confessions // Can’t overstate how important this 4th/5th century guy was for the shaping of our understanding of Christianity.

C.S. Lewis – Mere Christianity // This book was pivotal for helping me (and countless others) come to terms with faith in Christ.

John Stott – Basic Christianity // Ditto above.

Richard Foster – The Celebration of Discipline // Want to grow? This one rings as true as when it was written.

John Piper – Desiring God // If you want to understand the thinking of one of most influential Christian leaders in America today, this is the book to dive into.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart – How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth // This book stands unrivaled in the way it combines clarity, insight and usefulness. The things you’ll learn about biblical interpretation from this book will stick with you years after you’ve set it down.

Jonathan Edwards – Religious Affections // Most important American theologian… ever.

Karl Barth – Evangelical Theology // I don’t know if this is a bigger indictment on the irrelevance of theology or the anti-intellectualism of the church, but it is certainly a sign of our times that the most influential theologian of the 20th century is virtually unknown in the church.

John Bunyan – Pilgrim’s Progress // True confession… I’ve never read this.

Dallas Willard – The Divine Conspiracy // Despite its cryptic title, this book is extraordinarily helpful in understanding what it means to be a Christ follower.

N.T. Wright – The Challenge of Jesus // While we are talking about Jesus, let’s make sure we aren’t just following a Jesus of our own making. This book helps to dere-construct a picture of Jesus against the backdrop of first-century Jewish expectation. By the way, just in case we’ve forgotten, Jesus was a first-century Jew.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – The Cost of Discipleship // Must read. Period.

Ok, so this is the list tonight. Ask me tomorrow and it would undoubtedly look different.

One glaring issue… all the books are written by men, and with the the possible exception of Augustine, white men. I don’t want to probe the depths of what that means right now. So let’s just chalk it up to my own myopic reading patterns and call it a day.

Not sure who has stuck around after the half-year hiatus I found myself on, but I would love to hear any feedback.

Question on the table… What’s the most helpful Christian book you’ve ever read?

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bloodlines

September 13, 2011 2 comments

My church has become increasing committed to the gospel vision of a racially unified family of believers. Every now and then something will happen in my ministry or life (there is quite a bit of overlap between those two things, but they aren’t entirely one and the same) that reminds me how far we still have to go. Today has been such a day.

Providentially, I saw this video trailer for a book (or maybe it is a trailer for a longer video) that John Piper has written on race, the Cross, and the Christian. It is called Bloodlines and I can’t wait to read it. Not everyone loves Piper, and there are times when he misses it. But there are times when he is gloriously right. I expect this book to fall in the latter category.

(HT: JT)