Review: The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom

book of isaiah and God's kingdom

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew T. Abernethy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A thematic approach to understanding Isaiah organized around the idea of ‘kingdom’ exploring the nature of the king, the agents of the king, and the realm and people of the king as elaborated throughout the book.

If you have ever attempted to study, teach, or preach the book of Isaiah, you understand what a challenge it is to wrap your mind around the 66 chapters of this book. Andrew T. Abernethy thinks that a thematic approach to the book can help with our overall understanding. The theme he develops throughout Isaiah is that of God’s kingdom.

For those looking for a discussion of the authorship of Isaiah (single or multiple), this is not your book. What Abernethy does is take a synchronic approach which looks at the finished product of the book as a whole, while still noting the distinctive character of chapters 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. Likewise, while organizing his biblical theology of Isaiah around kingdom, he avoids flattening out the contours of the book. He takes a canonical approach to Isaiah without reading the book through an exclusively Christological lens.

He begins with Isaiah 1-39, observing God as both present and future king, reigning in holiness, seen in all his future beauty as judging and ruling on Zion, and in the present delivering from Sennacherib. Isaiah 40-55, speaking to exiles proclaims the good news of God as the only saving king. Isaiah 56-66 then presents God as the warrior king, showing compassion on faithful outsiders, and ruling over the nations as cosmic king.

Chapter 4 particular reflects Abernethy’s willingness to understand Isaiah on its own terms as he considers the “agents” of the kingdom. Rather than simply reduce them to a single kingly or messianic figure (Jesus!), he takes the text on its own terms and discusses three distinct agents, the Davidic ruler, the servant of the Lord, and the Spirit empowered anointed messenger. While a canonical approach sees the fulfillment of all of these in Christ, by allowing for the distinctive character of these three agents not to be merged into one in Isaiah, one sees all the more the splendor and greatness of Christ, who encompasses all three agents in his person.

Chapter 5 then considers the kingdom realm, noting both the focal point of Zion, to which all the nations come and yet the international, indeed cosmic extent of this realm. He then concludes the book by raising the idea that the theme of the kingdom and its many faceted elaboration is meant to encourage the readers of Isaiah, then and now to a richer and fuller imagination of what this kingdom rule is like. For Christians we see its fulfillment, now and yet to come, in Christ, the church as God’s living temple, looking forward to the Zion of the New Jerusalem. Following this conclusion, Abernethy provides two different teaching outlines for how one might teach Isaiah along the lines this book has developed.

Abernethy’s book makes a good complement to John Goldingay’s The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (reviewed here). Both authors take a synchronic approach to Isaiah, but Goldingay only considers the book from the horizon of Isaiah’s first readers, and not through a canonical lens. They reach different conclusions about the servant in Isaiah, but also recognize many of the same themes in the book–particularly the holy King of Israel amid the nations, and the ways this king will come as warrior, and judge, and savior. What Abernethy’s book most helpfully models is the process of both reading Isaiah in its own setting, and as part of the biblical canon, without slighting either of these. This makes the book a wonderful resource for the pastor-theologian, or anyone else who would make the attempt to scale the challenging and wonderful mountain that is the book of Isaiah. Abernethy helps us see that it is indeed Zion that we are ascending, to encounter the great King.

 

Review: The Tech-Wise Family

tech wise family

The Tech-Wise FamilyAndy Crouch. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: A book for taking steps to put technology in its proper place, allowing persons to grow in wisdom and courage instead of giving in to an “easy everywhere” life.

I think anyone who uses our modern technology–computers, tablets, gaming systems, and especially smartphones, realizes how powerfully addicting these devices can be and the various ways they destroy our engagement with the flesh and blood material world, and especially the other real people in our lives.

Crouch organizes the book around some fundamental premises worked out in ten commitments that he and his family have sought to live by. The premises are that families exist to form the character of their members–to form them in wisdom and courage through their relationships and shared lives with each other, and that this is hard yet rewarding work. The other is that technology is “easy everywhere” luring us into easy preoccupation rather than extended conversations, isolation rather than shared experience, distraction rather than devotion, virtual sex rather than the much more challenging real thing, and listening to music and viewing art, rather than making it. Most of all, it lures us away from real into virtual presence with each other.

The book is interspersed with statistics and diagrams that underscore the impact of technology in our lives. One that caught my attention was on the pervasiveness of digital pornography:

“The rise of digital pornography and its effects are hard to overstate. More than half of teens seek out pornography (only 46% say they ‘never seek it out’) and the numbers are much higher for young adults ages 18 to 24 (less than one quarter of whom never seek it out). Even when they aren’t actively seeking it out, teens and young adults regularly come across it (only 21% of teens and 9% of young adults say they never come across porn). While most teens say they seek out porn for personal arousal (67%), substantial minorities regularly view porn out of boredom (40%) and curiousity (42%). “

Yet this is not a book driven by fear of such things but rather a commitment to putting technology in its proper place, helpful tools rather than addictive devices that destroy our capacities for human engagement. What Crouch proposes and that his family seeks to practice is a life that prioritizes people and experience that are not mediated by devices and taking measures such as media sabbaths and vacations and transparency with each other to ensure that this happens. What they wanted for their children is the discovery of the rich experiences of books, long conversations, explorations of nature, singing and making music together, and real presence in life and death with each other.

Crouch gets real and admits his own failures in the commitments they’ve made, but also the victories and what this has meant for his family and in his own life. I was a late adopter of smartphone use, but a quick convert to its addictive properties. Commitments to keep phones away from the table, to wake before my phone does, to put it away before I retire and to mute it during important conversations are beginnings of keeping this form of technology in its place. If you are becoming aware of the intrusion of technology into relationships and life experiences that matter more, this book may be helpful for its practical counsel, and a vision of life centered around growing in wisdom and courage rather than in our access to “easy everywhere.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Coolidge

Coolidge

Coolidge, Amity Shlaes. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.

Summary: An account of Coolidge as a man of quiet conviction who presided over a great American transformation.

Calvin Coolidge was always one of those presidents who was a name on the list of presidents who otherwise seemed unmemorable. Especially in a time of a president who dominates the news coverage, Coolidge might come as a pleasant breath of fresh air–someone who cared more for deeds than words, and sometimes influenced more by what he did not do. Perhaps he is not better known simply because he was a president between the wars, during the great economic expansion known as “the roaring Twenties.”

Amity Shlaes gives us a presidential biography of Coolidge that certainly raised him in my estimation while reminding me of the limitations and challenges every president faces. Shlaes begins with describing the Coolidge family tree–those that left Vermont for better land, and those who stayed to eke out a life on its rocky soil, a lineage tracing back to the early colonists, peopled by both farmers and politicians. We trace his education at Black River and St Johnsbury Academies and then on to Amherst, where this quiet young man excels in debate.  He establishes a law practice, winning clients attracted to his quiet efficiency that cost them less, kept them out of court, earning him less but building a clientele.

He married Grace, who had spied him through a window while shaving. She was a teacher at the Clark School of the Deaf, which Coolidge in his later years raised $2 million to endow, and created a cause to which Grace gave himself after his death. Shlaes traces his political career from city and state legislator positions to his governorship of Massachusetts during which he takes a strong stand against the Boston Police strike that brings him to national attention, and eventually to nomination as Vice President on the Harding ticket, with the indignities of that office, disrespected by Cabot Lodge from his own state.

Then Harding dies, and Coolidge finds himself in the White House. The bulk of the book traces that presidency. He begins with a restoration of integrity after the crony politics of Harding. He gathers people like Andrew Mellon and Charles Evans Hughes around him. He consistently balances budgets, cuts taxes and expenditures, and increases revenues and surpluses. He wins election in his own right, probably saying less than any other presidential candidate. Often, he presided through the veto and even pioneered the pocket veto, which was upheld in court. He also presided over an incredible economic boom, highway construction, the Lindbergh flight. He resists veterans bonuses which he believed the states should pay. When floods ravage Vermont, he resists flood control legislation because of how it would bloat federal budgets, which he was able to hold to a mere $3 billion per year.

Shlaes makes us aware of how tough the presidency is on the occupants of the office. It broke the health of Wilson, Harding died, and Coolidge also was broken in health by the office, dying within four years. He suffered the loss of a son, Calvin, during his tenure. His marriage was strained. His last years provided a measure of restoration, even though his relationship with Hoover was always tense.

Coolidge, like some others, served to restore the dignity of the office when his predecessor had jeopardized the stature of the office. That is a particular kind of greatness, not the greatness of a war president, but nevertheless important to the republic. Shlaes helps us appreciate the important role men like Coolidge have played in our history.

Review: The Living Temple

the living temple

The Living Temple, Carl E. Braaten and LaVonne Braaten. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016 (originally published in 1976).

Summary: A theology focusing on our physical bodies as dwelling places for the Spirit of God and the implications for the food we eat, including the problems of processed, chemical-laden foods full of empty calories.

This is a book I wish I had read in 1976 when it was first published. It might have led to amendments in my own diet much sooner. More than this, it might have led to a more thoughtful perspective on one thing we all have in common, our bodies. What the Braatens offer in this brief work is a theology of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, countering the incipient Gnosticism and other worldly spirituality that the church has been dealing with throughout its history. It is not from Christianity which throughout its scriptures attests to a healthy body-theology, but from Greek Dionysian myths that the idea of body as evil comes to us. Sadly, over-spiritualized versions (and maybe over-intellectualized ones) deny our embodied existence, and lead us to a sad neglect of our bodies.

Much of the neglect that the Braatens focus on concerns the food we eat. While food cannot make us ritually and spiritually unclean, it certainly can pollute and deplete the temple of the Holy Spirit. They focus much of their attention on chemically treated and supplemented food and highly processed foods like white bread and white sugar. Presciently, they speak of a growing movement toward healthy, organically grown foods in which groceries would be forced to give over more space to organic foods.

They also see a connection between our care for our bodies and our care for the earth. They write:

“We are to our individual bodies what the whole body of mankind is to the earth. Our attitudes regarding our bodies reflect and express the way we look at the world around us. It is downright silly, for example, to fight for clean air in the city and then suck cigarette smoke into our lungs. We must learn that we are dovetailed into the world. We simply die without day-to-day communion with the vital systems of the good earth. Good body ecology is the key to the renewal of the earth on a global scale” (p. 67).

I do wish this work could have been revised rather than simply re-printed. It suffers in places from what is probably outdated nutritional advice. Yet some things, like the concern about nitrites, are right on target and only now being addressed. At times the authors make sweeping statements railing against big business without substantiation. Yet their fundamental case concerning the food processing industry, the values of organic foods and moving away from a meat-laden diet, path-breaking then, is increasingly common wisdom. In sum, they still get more right than wrong.

Christians are just discovering a theology of our embodied life and working out the implications of this in various areas of self-care. What makes this book so interesting is that it anticipates by forty years work only now being done and articulates both theological grounds and concrete action, and with remarkable brevity. Wipf & Stock is to be commended for bringing back into print this pioneering work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: To Alter Your World

To Alter Your World

To Alter Your World, Michael Frost and Christiana Rice. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores a different metaphor for the church’s role in God’s mission, that of midwife to what God is birthing, and how this might change the ways we engage with our world.

One of the dominant metaphors for Christian cultural engagement today is that of battle, whether of spiritual warfare, a war to “reclaim” the culture, or retreat, because of perception that either we’ve been fighting the wrong war, or that we are seriously losing and need to re-group and re-build. A more sophisticated model is that of “changing” or “transforming” the world. Yet as James Davison Hunter points out in To Change The World, this has often been an exercise in starry-eyed naivete’ and a prescription for burnout when the world doesn’t easily or quickly change.

Michael Frost and Christiana Rice, two missional practitioners and theorists have come together in this book to suggest a different model, a different way of “joining” God in the mission. Their inspiration is drawn from Isaiah 42:14:

“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”

Their contention is that it is God, through his work in Christ, who is birthing a new world and our role is akin to that of the midwife. They write:

“If God is groaning like a woman in labor, and if a new world is being born before our very eyes, being pushed forth through the cracks of our broken world, our job isn’t to hurry it along. Rather our job is to join God and partner with him in the delivery room and to stop imagining we can birth the new world with our own strategies and methodologies. Indeed, our attempts to usher in the new order in recent years haven’t produced the kid of restoration, redemption or reconciliation in this world that we believe God envisions” (p. 17).

Frost and Rice don’t stop with a new metaphor or a new paradigm but press this out in the practical work in which teams of missional people engage. They challenge us to forego our colonizing and rootless efforts at church planting that fail to listen to and attend to communities and develop wholistic ministry in partnership with its people. Instead they elaborate the metaphor of midwife, both in ancient Israel and contemporary practice.

Midwives neither give birth to the child for the mother nor “make it happen” according to a plan but attend women during their pregnancies. They make space for a birth to happen to remove all barriers to giving birth and welcoming new life. They study place, they notice signs, they look at physical space. They act flexibly and fearlessly to the changing circumstances of the birth process. They don’t spend lots of time arguing the importance of midwifing, but quietly live that narrative with the women they attend. Rice and Frost work out practical applications of these principles.

They also see that collaboration to effect change is a multi-level process: with individuals, interpersonally in small groups like families, in community, in institutions and in structures and systems. Much of this happens not just through “church” activities but through a transformed vision of our work that things about our work societally as well as individually.

Place and space is a big part of what they talk about, and often overlooked. They draw on the work of the Project for Public Spaces to identify seven principles for creating great spaces that missional communities in a space need to consider:

  1. The neighborhood is the expert.
  2. Craft a place, not a design.
  3. Look for partners.
  4. You can see a lot just by observing.
  5. Have a vision.
  6. Money is not the issue.
  7. You are never finished.

The concluding two chapters concern the missional person. Not only do they attend to the changes God would birth, but they are changed themselves in the process. Often this comes through suffering. Change is disruptive and there will be push back. To love a place and its people and to persist in all this is hard and we will be changed through it.

The call of this book is not to quietism as opposed to human-centered activism, a kind of can-do, we can make it happen spirit. The midwife, is active, but in a different way, and this is what I most appreciate about the theme and approach of this book. It offers, to people who have begun to think they must make something happen to advance the mission of God, the insight that God has something God would give birth to in the world. Perhaps most striking is that this is a distinctively female metaphor–one of a woman attending to another giving birth, and God uses it of God’s self! Many of us who are fathers went through childbirth classes that taught us how we might attend and accompany our wives, perhaps in the presence of an obstetrician or midwife, in the incredible process of birth, one we could only support as our wives labored. Perhaps we might begin to draw upon that to understand and become skillful midwives in the birthing process of the new creation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Embrace

Embrace

EmbraceLeroy Barber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: An extended reflection on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and God’s invitation to embrace the difficult places, people, differences, and callings involved in bringing his peace and justice into a divided world.

Many of us who are followers of Jesus feel ourselves to be “strangers in a strange land.” As people who have experienced the life-giving shalom of new life in Christ, we are disturbed to witness the deeply divided public discourse in our country that reveals hostilities between political parties, between racial groups, between rich and poor, between natural born citizens and immigrants. As people who look forward to God’s new city, the new Jerusalem, we grieve the devastation of decaying cities, of polluted water and air, of unsafe streets.

Leroy Barber offers in Embrace a series of reflections on Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I  carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you to will prosper.”

Barber speaks as a black pastor who has worked extensively in Christian community development work. He sees in these verses a call to embrace that will lead to the healing of our cities: an embrace of the place where we are, an embrace of the “difficult people” in our lives, of difference as a gift of God, He invites us into the hard work of change that lays down privilege to serve. He bids us to settle in for the long haul.

For the baseball fan like me, he challenges us to recognize and embrace the sacred spaces of the other–a favorite sport, television show, and to create new traditions in our Christian communities that honor those spaces. He calls us into the embrace that grieves injustice and advocates on behalf of those who are on the receiving end of injustice. He calls us into the difficult choice to offer the embrace of forgiveness to those who hurt us deeply as did families and friends of the Charleston Nine did with Dylann Roof.

Probably for many, he could have stopped there but he concludes with a chapter on Black Lives Matter, addressing ten myths about this movement. He writes, “I am not requesting that you agree with everything you have read about Black Lives Matter. I am advocating for a listening ear, healthy dialogue, and love. This is where loving hard people–including our enemies–begins to take shape in our hearts. Can you love and disagree? Can you love and honor another’s humanity in spite of the differences?” It seems in this that Pastor Barber may defining something of what “embrace” looks like between whites and blacks.

I feel in writing so far I haven’t captured the “winsomeness” of this book. Leroy Barber’s personal stories, but even more, his embracing manner makes embrace across the divides and challenges he speaks of, not easy, but compelling. He helps us see that this is the arc of the biblical narrative, the arc of the ministry of Jesus, and the arc of joy for many like him who have dared to embrace. He helps us envision, and believe, that this could be the arc of our own lives as well.

 

 

Review: Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible and the Church

Two views

Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible, and the ChurchPreston Sprinkle (ed.), William Loader, Megan K. DeFranza, Wesley Hill, Stephen R. Holmes (contributors). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.

Summary: Four biblical scholars and theologians, two holding a traditional understanding of human sexuality, and two holding an affirming stance, but all taking the biblical testimony about human sexuality seriously, articulate the basis on which they hold their positions, and respond to the statements of the other three in gracious dialogue.

I don’t think anyone will contradict the assertion that recent discussions around sexuality both within the culture and the church have been fraught with bitter rancor and contention. Denominations have fractured and hurtful attacks have been made on those holding either of the two major stances, traditional and affirming. There are books demeaning those holding one or the other of these views while arguing for their own.

If for no other reason then, this book is a welcome alternative. Four scholars argue for variants of one of the two major stances in a dialogue that is unrestrained in the rigor in which one or the other view is held while speaking respectfully of the contributions of others, even those in disagreement. Furthermore, all four care deeply about the biblical witness on these matters, although they part ways in their interpretation of that witness. Strikingly, three of the four, including one of the affirming scholars would contend that the biblical witness precludes same sex unions but reach differing conclusions on how this might be applied in the contemporary context.

The four scholars then in the dialogue and the basic positions they hold are:

  • William Loader, a scholar who has studied sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity holds that the Bible prohibits all forms of same sex relations, but that this must be weighed against findings in biology and other fields related to sexuality and gender not available to the biblical writers, and thus he arrives at a position affirming same sex unions.
  • Megan DeFranza is a theologian whose research on intersex persons (those whose physiology is neither clearly male nor female) challenges the assumption that all people are born exclusively male or female. She notes the recognition of eunuchs in scripture as a biblical example contrary to this traditional assumption. She also argues that the prohibition passages have to do with exploitative forms of sexuality related to slavery, trafficking, and power differences and do not focus on loving, monogamous same sex relationships.
  • Wesley Hill, a celibate gay biblical scholar who shares something of his own narrative, contends that the prohibitive passages preclude any same sex relations and argues that these must be understood in the broader context of the Bible’s affirmations about sexuality, marriage, and procreation. Both he and the next scholar draw on Augustinian theology as the best resource for articulating a biblical synthesis on matters of marriage and sexuality. Hill also eloquently argues for the place of “spiritual friendship”–deeply committed, non-sexual friendships between two same sex persons as well as the full welcome of same sex persons committed to the traditional view within families, sharing his own experience of being invited to be the godfather of a couple’s children and thus drawn into that family.
  • Stephen Holmes is a theologian who argues that the prohibitive passages are actually secondary (though important) to the biblical passages teaching about marriage. He also draws on Augustinian theology, despite its acknowledge defects for its formulation of the three-fold goods of marriage: children, faithfulness (a God-graced experience of learning selflessness), and sacrament (revealing the mystery of Christ’s relation to the church). Holmes, while not advocating same sex unions, explores the possibility of some kind of accommodation for same sex couples who come into the church, along the lines of the church’s accommodation for at least some who divorce and remarry, or those made in mission contexts for polygamous unions.

Each of these scholars sets forth his or her own understanding and their reasons for that understanding–rooted significantly in biblical, cultural, and contemporary research as well as pastoral concerns.

The essays underscore several things:

  1. With some exceptions, the question is less what scripture says than what this is taken to mean for the church and how this is appropriated pastorally.
  2. While the tone of these discussions was irenic, the disturbing reality was the support this gives to the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” scholars like Brad Gregory and Christian Smith level against Protestant Christianity. At the same time, these scholars model a serious effort at engagement that looks for common ground, and perhaps in the future, a reconciliation of their differences.
  3. The essays and responses all model pastoral concern and compassion and respect for the dignity and character of LGBT persons as well as the challenge all in the church are faced with by the scriptures calling for integrity in our sexual lives.
  4. Both Hill and Holmes press a corollary of traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality that is neglected in much Protestant discourse, the good of procreation and children.
  5. Loader and DeFranza do raise an important hermeneutic question of how in other areas (for example, our understanding of the cosmos, a heliocentric solar system, the age of the earth) many in the church have accommodated their understanding of scripture to these findings in science. Is there similar warrant in matters of sexuality? Hill and Holmes would argue that there is no basis for such a warrant concerning homosexuality, and arrive at different hermeneutical outcomes.

Preston Sprinkle, editor of this work makes similar observations and also helpfully frames the discussion at the start, and points toward future work to be done. The need for this is clear. Often, the disputes of the church have taken a century or more to resolve. The discussion of justification, grace, faith, and works is five hundred years and running, with significant recent explorations of common ground between Catholic and Protestant. It occurs to me that a resolution will take further work along the lines of what these scholars done.

I also believe the conversation needs to be expanded to listen to scholars and theologians from non-Western backgrounds. While this discussion included a woman and a self-identified gay person, it was a discussion among four white scholars. One of my own concerns in this discussion is the exclusionary and culturally imperialistic consequences of how the church in the West has often deliberated and acted in these matters and sometimes spoken pejoratively of the views of believers from other parts of the global Christian family. Their voices must also be heard and honored.

Review: A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1961.

Summary: Lewis’s reflections after he lost his wife, Joy, that explores the different seasons of grief and his honest wrestling with what it means to believe in God when facing profound loss.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

These are the first words of this extended reflection on the experience of grief by C. S. Lewis after he lost his wife Joy to cancer. It is not a theological treatise but an unvarnished account of the devastating experience of loss Lewis faced. During his life, he published this under a pseudonym (N. W. Clerk), only permitting it to be published over his name after his death.

So much of the book is like these opening words, simple description of the experience, and seasons of grief, the loss of energy, the moments of brightness followed by gloom, the remembering, the ache for one with whom he had been so intimate. He wrestles with the question of why, so late in life, he was granted to taste the joy of love with an intellectual equal, only to have her snatched away so quickly.

He speaks of how little comfort he finds in his faith at these times:

    Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

In fact he struggles at times in not believing evil of God and admits it. Certainly he struggles with the concept of the goodness of God. At one point he comments, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never been to a dentist?”

He struggles with memories, and the question of how memories distort the character of the beloved. He speculates about the afterlife, but without but confesses that while he believes in the resurrection, it is something he does not understand. He also comments that between Lazarus and Stephen, Lazarus was the greater martyr, who had to die twice.

This is not a book to explain the inexplicable. Not even Lewis could do that. Rather, he simply gives word to his own grief, and perhaps that of others and the impossibility of just “getting over it.” We see someone facing the grief every widow or widower faces of being parted with one you’ve shared life and love with–whether for just a few years, or nearly 70 like my father. It is never easy, and the amazing thing is to watch Lewis lean into believing when one does not see, when all seems dark–with humility, with faltering steps, and with honesty that does not sugar coat death and loss.

This is a book we all need, whether to give words to our grief, or to listen, and maybe have a notion, of what our friends or loved ones struggle with in their grief. Read, reflect, and learn. So much in such a slim volume.

Review: The Circle

The Circle

The CircleDave Eggers. New York: Vintage, 2014.

Summary: Dystopian fiction exploring the potential in a digital, online age to create a world where nothing is secret, and whether that is a utopia or a nightmare.

Imagine a world where you can know anything, and nothing is hidden or kept secret. Imagine a world where every person has a digital profile that collects all your health, educational, commercial, and social data, every picture by or of you, and makes this available to all. Imagine a world where we have embedded chips so that anyone can know where we are. Imagine we all wear body cameras that record our interactions and activity throughout the day. Imagine that all the archival information in the world may be searched to put together your family history, dark sides and all,.

This is the world Mae finds herself in when she gets a job with The Circle with the help of her friend Annie, a higher up in The Circle. She begins working in Customer Experience, but soon discovers that The Circle wants far more of her than to get a 100 rating on every customer interaction. They want her to share her life with the rest of The Circle–to give opinions via a headset, to give them her digital life, to join groups, to interact with others in The Circle.

This alone would probably have creeped me out and had me running for the hills. But Mae has been rescued from a dead end job with a local utility. She has a father with MS struggling with his health insurer–until The Circle finds out and adds him to their plan. The hooks go deeper even as she is cut off from much of her former life, eventually moving into a Circle dorm. After an incident caught on Circle’s SeeChange cameras catches her “borrowing” a kayak after hours, she meets one of the three leaders of The Circle, its public voice, Eamon Bailey. He helps her to recognize that the worst part of her act was keeping secrets, that we are better people when we do not hide but rather openly share our lives with the world. And in her “evolved” state of insight, she agrees to go “clear” and wear a camera recording all her activity, and becomes an celebrity both within The Circle, and in the wider public who love watching Mae’s life.

She tries to usher her former boyfriend Mercer into the wonders of being connected with the world through The Circle. He will have none of it, and when she attempts to promote his business, he leaves the grid, writing her a long letter warning her of what she is getting into. He is not the only one. She encounters a shadowy figure, Kalden, who also tries to warn her of what would happen if they should succeed in “closing the Circle,” creating a world where The Circle becomes a vehicle by which all is known, seen, and nothing remains secret. She is disturbed, and also fascinated by him, reflected in some rather kinky hookups in bathrooms. Yet she goes further and deeper into the Circle’s plans. What will this mean for Mae? Her parents? Mercer? Her friend Annie?

I’ll leave you to discover what happens if you have not read the book or seen the recent movie version (trailer here). I will also leave you with the thought that everything the book describes, as far as I could tell, is technologically possible today. More than that, the amount of information we voluntarily surrender about ourselves via social media, online and offline purchasing with credit cards, our banking and credit histories, the photos and files we store in the cloud, the customer cards we use at various stores and more, is staggering. Increasingly our medical records and health history is digitized and shared between providers and insurers, and we agree to it all. And the GPS chips in our smartphones track our every move. Everything in The Circle could or is being done. The only thing forestalling the tyranny Kalden and Mercer foresee is the lack of sufficient will and impetus to do it. We’ve laid much of the groundwork for such things either willingly or unknowingly.

More intriguing yet is the effort to usher in a utopia, the effort to perfect human nature, this time through stripping us of any secret worlds. Such a world substitutes social conformity (and who decides what conformity is?) for the harder won integrity that consists of living truthfully, living consistently with what one values when no one is looking. Instead of living one’s life coram deo (before the face of God), we substitute the human god of the grid, and the much more capricious fancies of its controllers and the mentality of the online mob.

Finally, the book raises the question of whether it is really a good thing to be able to know everything. Is the steady stream of status updates, online surveys, likes, tweets, news stories really making us more informed? More wise? Perhaps if nothing else, Eggers book makes us reflect on all the information we offer up, our addiction to the little rectangles we carry in our pockets, and the illusions all this fosters of a kind of omniscience that may be too much for our little brains to handle.

Review: Praying For Your Pastor

Praying for your Pastor

Praying For Your PastorEddie Byun (foreword by Chip Ingram). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: A practical guide both advocating for the importance of prayer for our pastors and offering a practical rubric in the form of the acronym PRAYERS.

“I often tell my congregation, “Your prayer support is my life support.” Someone who has been rescued from drowning or is recovering from a serious injury like a gunshot wound may need to be put on life support for a period of time. The injured person doesn’t have the strength to keep going by himself, so he needs the help of something outside of himself in order to allow his body to rest and to be strengthened to health again. In many ways, the pastor is under a wide range of attacks from the enemy. The attacks may come in various forms, such as gossip, criticism, slander, sickness, or even threats. There are days when your pastor feels emotionally burned out, physically exhausted, and spiritually weak. She feels she just can’t go on. These experiences are far too common and come far too frequently. These are the times when pastors need the life support of our prayers to keep them going. You may not know the struggles your pastors face today, but you can know that your prayers will make a difference in their lives” (pp. 22-23).

So writes pastor Eddie Byun in what is both an impassioned plea and practical guide to pray for our pastors. Throughout this book Byun uses both statistics and personal stories to describe the challenges pastors face that leads to so many dropping out of the ministry. He believes that one of the most important things churches can do is to mobilize teams of people to pray for their pastors.

Byun goes on to provide a simple rubric around the acronym PRAYERS to guide those praying for pastors. Each chapter in the book is organized around one letter in the acronym:

  • Protection: Against temptation, evil, and the enemy and praying through the armor of God (Ephesians 6:14-17).
  • Rest: For physical, emotional, and spiritual rest, for unhurried times with the Lord, against burnout and for times of refreshing.
  • Anointing: For growing intimacy with the Lord, greater consecration, and for power to be released in your pastor’s life and ministry.
  • Yielded heart: Daily transformation by the gospel, obedience out of love and gratitude for the cross, trust and obedience, growth in treasuring Christ.
  • Effectiveness: Wisdom, increased fruitfulness in life and ministry, in people being saved and discipled, and faithfulness to the end.
  • Righteousness and integrity: A strong foundation in one’s life, that all that one does is motivated out of love and honor for Christ.
  • Strong marriages and families: protection of marriage and family, support in the church to encourage pastor in marriage and family life, and strong discipleship of children with parents who live their faith.

Each chapter fleshes out these themes, provides discussion questions, prayer points, and action plans one may take to form and guide a prayer team. Reading this book challenged me with regard to how much (or little) I pray for my pastor and reminded me of the challenging character of his work as well as how thankful I am for him, and other pastors I’ve known who faithfully shepherd God’s flock.

It also reminded me again how important it is for all of us in ministry to have prayer teams. I am blessed with ten people who have committed to pray for me daily and I truly believe they have been instrumental in God’s work through the ministry in which I engage. Byun, in his concluding chapter quotes Deuteronomy 4:7 which says, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” He observes that while God is always present, there is a special way he is present to people when we pray for them. I know I need this, and I know those who pastor our churches need this. Byun’s book makes this case and shows us how we may get started.