Review: What Are Christians For?

What Are Christians For?, Jake Meador. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: An argument for a Christian politics that recognizes the goodness of all creation including all peoples, that rejects the manipulation of people and places and our own bodies that disregards their nature.

Jake Meador begins this work with the story of Father Ted, who helped a journalist covering apartheid South Africa, escape house arrest and the country. He represents to Meador a kingdom politics committed to life for the whole of life. Meador argues that much of American Christianity divorces faith from creation, from our embodied life, and other human beings, all for our own political and economic ends.

Drawing on the work of Herman Bavinck and Willie Jennings, he describes the immense inheritance we have inherited in the creation and one another. We repudiate this in our Western disregard of both the places we inhabit, living in accord with the particular character of that place, and in our colonization, in our disregard the peoples there before us. The particular expression of our alienation from God for those in the West is the exaltation of whiteness, and the oppression of others. Our reductionist education results in a loss of wonder.

Another reformer points the way back. Martin Bucer taught that the renewal of our relationship with God in Christ renews our relationship to neighbor, to proper governance, and to the care of the land. We learn again to accept the givenness of nature and our place in it. We embrace the household, marriage, and sexuality lived within that relationship, and lives of faithfulness to one another in sickness and health. And we embrace the larger community of God’s people in a particular place. Meador upholds the model of the Bruderhof, who renounce private ownership of material possessions. He advocates for the more challenging work of being this community in one’s own city and neighborhood.

I’m wrestling with my reaction to this book. Meador has great facility for drawing together the work of various theologians, philosophers, and writers, along with some great personal stories. Yet I found the thread of this argument not easy to follow, and a more prolix statement of what Wendell Berry articulates so straightforwardly in What Are People For? and other essays. But it is an important and perceptive argument. The gospel not only restores us to God but to our embodied existence, each other as families and communities, states and the world, and to God’s good earth. It is apparent that our politically and economically captive churches have not heard this enough and this message is so urgent that it cannot be spoken and written and lived enough, until we recover a sense of what Christians are for.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Paul’s Idea of Community

paul's idea of community

Paul’s Idea of Community (3rd Edition), Robert J. Banks. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of how Paul understood the nature of community in the churches he planted, considered against the cultural backgrounds of first century AD Greco-Roman culture.

No writer of scripture has contributed more to our understanding of the nature of the church and the practices of Christian community than Paul. Yet we often read into Paul our own culture, resulting in our missing the cultural context in which Paul worked and how his writings addressed early believers in that culture. Robert J. Banks has devoted scholarly attention to this topic since the first edition of this volume in 1994. Now, he offers us an updated version of this work, drawing on the most recent research, reflected in an updated bibliography, and a additional appendix, offering a “narrative exegesis” of Paul in a fictional account of a visit to an early house church gathering.

He sets the early Christian movement in the context of other contemporary religions and emperor worship, as well as the social structures of the Roman world. He then discusses the distinctive character of Paul’s idea of Christian freedom–a freedom lived for others. In companion chapters, Banks describes the work setting in which house churches often existed, in a building with a shopfront where business was done, and gatherings in family quarters either in the back or in an “upper room,” and then the heavenly setting. He considers community in the context of the loving family household, calling attention to Paul’s use of family terminology, and the organic reality inherent in the use of “body” imagery.

The chapter on mutual learning and testing of faith was especially valuable, I thought, because of its focus of the knowledge element of faith. In a time focused on praxis, Banks reminds us how much the language of thinking and knowledge and testing is found in Paul’s writing. He shows how this informs faith, hope, and love, and distinguishes Paul’s use of “knowledge” from that of the mystery cults, stoics, cynics, and Judaism.

He considers the practical expressions of fellowship from baptism, to laying on hands, sharing of possessions and holy kisses, and especially the common meal, bringing people together from across the social classes of the day. He offers a trenchant analysis of Paul’s use of spiritual gift language and the configurations of their usage holding together the tension of grace and order. Diversity extends beyond gifts to gender, race, and class, and Banks shows the radical ways the early Christian movement overcame these distinctions in the practice of equality, albeit allowing for functional diversity. This equality eliminates distinctions between priests and laity, between officials and ordinary members, and between the holy and the common. Leadership is defined instead by function and not position. Banks argues here that the laying on of hands was not an “ordination” imparting a special grace but rather the recognition of congregational discernment in prayer and fellowship.

The last four chapters explore the relationship of “missioners” like Paul and his diverse companions to the church, a body sharing in partnership with that mission. He describes how Paul exercises his authority in relation to the other apostles and through both authoritative teaching and service. It is curious that Banks’ treatment of the Pastorals is relegated to an appendix, representing a deferral to scholarship that classifies these as “disputed.” He leaves the question for the reader to decide, noting both continuities and discontinuities and development from Paul’s thought.

Every chapter has been the subject of numerous books and monographs. What Banks accomplishes is to offer a comprehensive overview with both scholarly depth and the concision valuable for pastoral theologians who want to ground practice in solid biblical and sociocultural studies.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Power of Together

power-of-together

The Power of TogetherJim Putnam. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: A pastor of a thriving church explores what he believes to be the key to both spiritual maturity and the ministry effectiveness of his church–the fostering of relationships of depth between believers throughout the church.

Jim Putnam begins this book by observing a gap that exists in many American churches. People have come to faith, been taught both Christian doctrine and Christian practice and yet seem to lack the vibrant maturity and depth one one would expect in disciples of Jesus. His thesis is that what is lacking is a depth of relationships between believers, where people are deeply engaging with each other week in, week out, practicing the Christian faith with each other in working through conflict, confessing and turning from sin, learning to serve together, learning to go the extra mile for each other, and caring for those who are seeking.

Relationship is central to the gospel, not only a restored relationship with God but also with each other. First Corinthians 13, he observes, is instructions on how people in the church are to love each other and be family to each other. Marriage is only a small subset of that. Pride is often the major barrier to really opening our lives to each other. We fear being known, and we resist the idea of submission when it means we need to be open to others speaking into our lives, calling us to change. This may especially be an affliction of church leaders to whom Putnam writes pointedly:

“Leaders must be submissive too. This might sound counterintuitive at first, but it’s not in practice. If leaders are submissive, to whom do they submit? The answer is that leaders must be submissive to God, to other leaders, and even other Christians. Yes, it takes strong leadership to get a church off the ground, and yes, it takes strong leadership to keep a church running smoothly. But Ephesians 5:21, which says, ‘Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ,’ applies to everyone, not just people who aren’t in leadership positions” (p. 121).

He writes of how deeply his church invests in training its leaders to work as a team and how hard they work at it. He recognizes the danger of leaders becoming siloed in their work and how much better leadership is when teams keep thinking about the whole and keep developing their capacity to care for the whole. Putnam argues this is crucial to meet the spiritual battle churches face and to stand out as “a city on a hill.”

The style of this book is a consistent movement between biblical principles and stories from various settings of life from Putnam’s personal life to sports. One of his most memorable images is that often our investment in relational discipleship is similar to buying an $8 tube to float down a river. Fine for calm waters, but entirely inadequate for white water rafting.

There are points where I felt the writing was a bit of “variations on a theme” where the author was reiterating his point about how important being together in relationships of depth is to our growth as disciples. I thought there were places where he could have fleshed out how this works more in his congregation. For example, thousands of congregations have some form of home groups or small groups. What distinguishes those at his church?

I think this could be a helpful book for a church leadership wrestling with a sense that the congregation seems “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Often that lack of depth is in the dimension of relationships. Putnam charts a biblical vision, some practical dimensions of the form this takes, what it looks like for leadership, and both the barriers and crucial spiritual importance of relational discipleship to spiritual maturity and church vitality.

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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: Called to Community

Called to community

Called to CommunityCharles E. Moore (ed.). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2016.

Summary: A collection of readings on Christian community centered around the Bruderhof Community but also including theologians and writers from throughout church history.

The Bruderhof communities, beginning with the initial ones formed by Eberhard Arnold, are in the vanguard of a movement among Christians longing for a greater depth of community than ordinarily experienced in congregational life, including intentional communities of Christians sharing accommodations and life together. This book represents a collection of writings published by Plough, the Bruderhof publishing arm, including Arnold and other Bruderhof authors, but also a diverse collection of writers on community including Benedict of Nursia, Eugene Peterson, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jean Vanier of the L’Arche communities. This volume, organized into 52 chapters that may be used by groups over a year, brings together some of the best writing by these and a number of other writers on community.

The book is organized into four parts. The first is “A Call to Community”. Gerhard Lohfink’s statement in the chapter on Embodiment was a stunner:

“For many Christians it would not be a turning point in their lives if they decided, one day, to stop praying tomorrow, to leave off going to church next Sunday….”

This section challenges us to consider the call to something that is central rather than peripheral to our lives.

The next part is on “Forming Community.” It includes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s telling observations on “Idealism” from his Life Together, and a wonderful contribution from fellow Ohio Art Gish on “Surrender.”

Part Three discusses “Life in Community.” The chapter on “Deeds” includes Mother Teresa talking about not despising small things, and John F. Alexander’s challenge to focus not on using gifts but cleaning toilets. Working through issues of “Irritations”, “Differences”, and “Conflict” the section concludes with essays by Richard Foster and Jean Vanier about “Celebration.”

The last section is titled “Beyond the Community”. One of the most moving essays is that by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice describing how they “interrupted” a series of five minute reports at a World Congress to wash one another’s feet before the assembly. Several chapters in this section talk about boundaries and the real tension between compassion and self-care that allows one to continue to minister and recognizes personal limits. The collection ends with Dorothy Day’s incisive comments on “Mercy.”

The book includes a study guide with questions and scripture readings for each chapter as well as sources for further study. It seems the perfect resource for a group who wants to go deeper in community, whether they have formed a more intentional community or not.

One of the things that commends this collection is its catholicity, and the stature of those whose writings are included. To listen to those who have lived community across the centuries is to drink at a deep well of wisdom. This is not just the latest “new monastics” thinking or the latest offerings from the Emergent Church. The call to community is challenging, and yet the recognition of the real challenges of community both tempers naive enthusiasm and offers wise counsel to those who pursue intentional communities out of faithfulness to Christ.

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

Review: Life Together in Christ

Life Together in ChristLife Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Using the account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus road, Barton explores how we may experience life transformation through our encounter with Christ in the presence of others in Christian community.

I thought this was an exquisitely wonderful book! Barton honestly explores how our dreams of community and life transformation often fall far short of reality, a refreshing acknowledgement in itself. Then she goes on to talk about the Emmaus road account in Luke 24:13-35 as a model for how communities might, in their encounter with Christ and each other, become spiritually transforming places.

It all begins with two disciples who choose to walk the road together and honestly acknowledge the realities of their lives. Barton writes:

The disciples’ choice to walk together and to talk about all the things that had happened to them was, in some ways, fairly radical. They could have decided that what they had been through was so personal, so traumatic and so confounding that they didn’t want to talk about it until they had gotten a handle on it. Or they could have chosen to walk together but avoid talking about what was really going on, chatting away about anything else but that. But no. While the experiences of the weekend were still fresh and raw, unvarnished and unresolved, they chose to walk together and talk with each other about all these things that had happened (p. 26).

She describes their situation as a liminal place where their “wish dreams” had died, but they did not yet understand what would take their place.

Then the stranger comes along and they do something uncharacteristic. They welcome him, and in so doing, welcome Jesus, who often comes in the strange, and as a stranger. Jesus listens to them as they describe the events of that fateful weekend and is simply present, not trying to fix them but giving them the freedom to speak. Haley writes:

Even though he certainly had his perspective on the situation (which he shared fruitfully later on), his initial invitation to them was the complete freedom to tell it like it was for them. The goal of such listening is to lovingly and humbly evoke the freedom of others, to invite them into the fresh air and light of unjudged and unafraid expressions of who they are in God (p. 62).

He lets them voice their hopes and desires for the one who they saw as “the hope of Israel.” She talks about communities where we voice our hopes and desires in the light of scripture to be discerned and affirmed or directed in community.

One of the most compelling chapters centers around the astounding report of “some women in our group.” Barton writes refreshingly and realistically about partnership between men and women in the body of Christ in the way I found a breath of fresh air amidst the church’s discussions of gender roles and the culture’s discussions of gender politics.

She then turns to how Jesus speaks of the Messiah’s suffering and entry into glory and the progression of death into life that is part of spiritual transformation as why die to false selves and come alive to our true self in Christ. In the narrative of Jesus explaining the scriptures to them, she talks about how we find ourselves in the story of scripture, even as we meet Christ. She introduces the shared practice of reading the lectionary and lectio divina as aids to that discovery.

In the concluding chapters she reflects on the burning hearts of the disciples as Jesus spoke to them and the role of communities in discerning the work of Christ in each other’s lives. And she writes of how this inward experience leads to outward witness–indeed the necessity of such encounter for any life-giving witness.

Each chapter includes an “On the Road” section to be used in small group or spiritual formation group discussions. Indeed, this book can serve as a guided experience in spiritual formation in a group setting. The book concludes with biblical verses supporting the idea of spiritual transformation in community, and a discussion of stability, a commitment to not leave community without group discernment, and an example covenant for such a group.

In reading this book, I had the sense of listening to a spiritual director or coach as she reflected on Luke 24. Her reflections both painted a vision and fostered the hope of fresh, life-changing encounters in community, with the quiet invitation to take to the road together in the company of Jesus and his friends.