Review: Enhancing Christian Life

Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community, Brad D. Strawn and Warren S. Brown. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: The authors propose that as persons we are embodied and embedded in particular contexts, but also that extended cognition expands our capacities as we engage our physical and social worlds, with implications for the importance of Christian community.

The authors begin this work by reminded us of the African-American women who served as human computers during NASA’s space projects. Their calculations extended the cognitive capacities of the flight engineers and scientists. The authors argue that our cognitive capacities are not merely a function of our own intellectual achievements but also the social and physical context in which we are embedded as embodied creatures.

An important part of this argument that the authors discuss early in the book has to do with our assumptions about the mind-body relationship. They contend that the philosophical and Christian assumption of mind-body dualism has been problem in directing the focus of spirituality inwardly, ignoring the embodied social context in which we live in the Christian community. Extended cognition recognizes that our embodied relationships with people and the physical environment extend our minds beyond our bodies and enhance our Christian life beyond an inward and private focus.

They explore various ways extended cognition works to nurture “super-sized intelligence” from our families to meetings to psychotherapy and finally the church. They observe that even the seemingly personal spiritual disciplines connect us to the life of the community, our shared faith and commitments. Our praying for others may be understood as believing for them, enhancing one another’s lives as we pray, learn, and act with each other. The stories and traditions of the Christian faith are “mental wikis,” that enhance our abilities to respond to various situations in our lives.

What is compelling about this proposal is that it shifts the locus of our lives from inward private experience to our shared life in the embodied Christian community. What is controversial about this proposal is the non-dualistic assumptions behind it. The authors exchange the term, “Christian life,” for “spiritual life.” What we call “mind,” “spirit,” or “soul” are simply perceptions of neuro-physical processes. Rather than defend this proposal, the authors critique the spirituality that has developed from dualism. Both defense of these ideas, and consideration of their theological implications need to be considered. While not central to this work, one question that arises is that of the intermediate state, our fate between our deaths and the resurrection. If, when we die, all of who we are ceases to exist, then in what sense are we “with the Lord”?

More pertinent to this project is the question of how we engage with God. The discussion of extended cognition mentions a number of other physical beings and objects. While prayer is mentioned, it is spoken of as primarily for others. How does extended cognition work with a being who is defined as “spirit”?

Also, while there is a privatistic spirituality that may be justly critiqued, this seemed to me to be a bit of a straw man. One may think of many examples of dualists who combine deeply inward lives with communal engagement. Henri Nouwen, for one, comes to mind.

Still, whether one accepts the premises of non-dualism or not, the idea of extended cognition, and how our communal life enhances all of us as Christians is worth considering. It is a valuable corrective to a “solitary man” spirituality (my favorite type in my worst moments). It “extends” our biblical understanding of how our lives are interdependent, how deeply we need each other to become all Christ intends us to be.

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

Review: The Sacred Chase

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The Sacred ChaseHeath Adamson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Summary: Using Jesus’ encounter with the demoniac who ran toward him, the author encourages us that as we pursue God, we may have the intimate relationship with God we desire.

There are many things we chase after in our lives. All these may distract us from the pursuit it is most worthy to chase after–the pursuit of God. Heath Adamson contends that the sacred chase is unlike any other we may pursue:

There is a mind-blowing, never-ending connection with God available to everyone right now. I am not necessarily talking about meeting God so you can go to heaven after you die. That is of primary importance, don’t get me wrong, for eternity is long, and your eternal salvation cost God all: his Son.

What I am referring to is the audacious pursuit of God and God’s reckless love for you–what I call the sacred chase. Perhaps you think of salvation in Christ like a door. Once you walk through that door, you will discover how unsearchable the love and promises of God are for you….Pursuing this is worth all your efforts. When deep connection and friendship with God is someone’s desire, I have never seen that someone walk away disappointed (pp. 12-13).

The author contends that we might know an intimacy with God that surpasses comprehension, but that we must choose to pursue it without hindrance or distraction. He challenges us to give up pursuing Christianity to pursue Christ–to move beyond institutions and agendas to pursue a person. He encourages us that God will welcome us from wherever we are coming.

In the remaining chapters of the book, Adamson centers his focus on the demoniac whose name was Legion. One of the critical observations is that the many, with all his wounds and torments, runs toward Jesus. He hears Jesus say, “what is your name?” Jesus gives him total liberation, sending the demons into pigs rather than letting them wander, and possibly return. He leaves a man clothed and in his right man, one who encourages the people in his town to also engage in the sacred chase, which they do the next time Jesus visits Gadara.

In between discussions of the narrative of Legion, Adamson illustrates principles with life stories and other narratives in scripture.  He holds forth the question of will we pursue the intimacy with God that we long for and encourages us that we will be more than met in our chase.

Adamson writes well and compellingly. The only thing I found missing was the idea that as we pursue God, we will find that God has been pursuing us. Perhaps Adamson didn’t want to spoil the surprise, and he does encourage us that God will meet us. But the truth at least that I found was that the Lord was the “hound of heaven” pursuing me before I ever pursued him. I found myself thinking as I read this book, “who is chasing whom?”

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

Review: Growing in Holiness

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Growing in HolinessR. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Compiled from the author’s lectures, the book offers both theological basis and practical help for the believer for growing in Christ-likeness.

This is one of those books I wish I had fifty years ago. I knew what it meant to become a Christian, but had no notion of what it meant to be a Christian. How should I live after I’ve believed? How do I overcome sin? How can I be assured of my salvation? How does Christ form his character in me? R. C. Sproul addresses all these questions and more in this book, which is a compilation of his lectures on growing in holiness, or our sanctification.

He begins by giving a very clear articulation of the goal of our life in Christ: “The goal of human life is to mirror and to reflect the very character of God.” Sproul acknowledges that coming to Christ can make more complicated as we are more aware of the gap between how we live, and the life to which we are called in Christ. Believing doesn’t make life easier, but rather we face opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil and our own powerlessness apart from God and the support of his people. Sproul talks about the call to righteousness as the inevitable fruit of Christ’s saving work, and yet the truth that our salvation is grounded in the righteousness of Christ, and not our imperfect efforts.

Sproul contends that we may enjoy the assurance of our salvation. This is not faith in faith, the church, or experience but comes out of the trust that obeys Christ, repents from sin, and lodges one’s hope in the finished work of Christ. Such assurance is great encouragement in continuing to press on to become more and more like Christ. Our confidence in Christ moves us to profess Christ with others, deepening our own assurance.

The next two chapters focus on the virtues also called “the fruit of the Spirit.” Sproul focuses a whole chapter on the first and greatest of these, love–love that is long suffering, characterized by kindness, humility, and self-control. He walks through the remaining fruit of the Spirit, explaining what each of these looks like in the life of the believer. Finally, he returns to the ultimate goal of becoming like God, like Christ in our character. This comes as we focus on Christ, trust and obey him implicitly like children, and over time, grow up to maturity as we diligently, year in and year out, diligently pursue the means of grace.

Sproul helps us understand both how our sanctification depends on the provision of Christ, but also that we must persist in laying hold of that provision, settling for nothing less than growing up to be like Jesus in character. In the words of Philippians 2:12-13, we work out the salvation that God is working in us. Sproul neither lowers the standard nor makes it simply an accomplishment of human effort. He consistently throughout this work points us to the goal of growing to be more and more like Christ, and encourages us that in one day we will indeed be glorified, that Christ will accomplish his goal for us.

R. C. Sproul went to be with the Lord in 2017. We are fortunate for the efforts of the Ligonier Library and Baker to compile his lectures offering theologically rich and practical to the chief end of our lives.

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

Review: Sacred Endurance

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Sacred EnduranceTrillia J. Newbell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Using the analogy of running a race, sets out the promises of God and the practices of the believer that enable us to finish the race of faith.

…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience…” Colossians 1:11, NIV

Years ago, my first ministry supervisor and I were studying through the book of Colossians together when we came to this verse in the middle of Paul’s intercessory prayer for the Colossians. He asked me why “great endurance” is so important as a believer. As a young believer, I’m not sure I fully grasped why this mattered. But the question stayed with me, as well as the promise of God’s strengthening glorious might. The years since have made sense of the necessity of endurance through the parenting years, through disappointments, serious illnesses, deaths of close family and friends, failures, conflict, and the gradual encroachments of age on one’s body. Equally, there are those seasons of the ordinary, the routine tasks that we get up and do over and over. Most of us have wondered at some point, “how can I keep going on?” “How can I finish well?”

Trillia Newbell has written a marvelously encouraging book exploring this crucial topic of endurance. A former runner, she describes running the anchor leg of a 4 X 400 relay, running swiftly until the last 100 meters, when exhaustion left her summoning every last ounce to finish ahead of those on her heels. Throughout the book, she uses the image of a race to speak of both the provision of God to enable us to finish our race of faith, and what it means for us to live into that promise.

The book is filled with biblical passages, grounding our hope for enduring in the promises and instructions of God. She reminds us of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on, and the necessity to strip away any encumbering sins and to focus on Jesus. She explores our running motivations, particularly the “love of Christ” that compels. She confronts the lies of the gospel of success and prosperity and explores how the presence and power of God meets us in our suffering, troubles, and weakness. She addresses the importance of the mind to endurance and the call to be renewed in our minds.

I was particularly impressed with her chapter on enduring amid the troubles of society and the world. She acknowledges the particular challenges she faces as an African-American female confronting blatant racism, even white supremacism. She describes her own disciplines of stopping to remember God, taking heart in the truth that the Lord has overcome the world, that people are not the enemy, to persist in doing good, not giving way to cynicism, and knowing toward whom we are running when we can be distracted by other loyalties.

She explores abiding in Christ, and practical disciplines of abiding, particularly the word of God and prayer. She speaks of how God meets us in our brokenness and contrition, helps us press on when we fall and fail, the provision of running companions in the church, and the prize toward which we run. Even her appendix, on those who don’t endure, stresses how God is fully able to help us run to the finish.

There is nothing startlingly new here, but perhaps in our preoccupation with so many challenges in life, we need to hear these words afresh. Trillia Newbell is like the good track coach who keeps telling us the things we need as often as we need to hear them. She coaches out of her own journey with honesty, humility, and a contagious joy that arises from her own experience of the promises of God that help her run and endure with joy. She reminds us of all the resources God provides, the practices that help us keep running, the things we need to let go of, and the God who meets us at our weakest places and the Christ toward whom we run.

If you are asking yourself how you will get through the next year, or month, or even day, this is a great book to read. It is a good book for young parents balancing work, childcare and other responsibilities. It is good for those in the mid-life “sandwich,” wondering where they will find the strength to handle it all, and why it is worth it. It is a good book for those in their senior years, approaching the finish line, wanting to do it well. Endurance never goes out of season.

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

Review: Forgiving My Father, Forgiving Myself

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Forgiving My Father, Forgiving MyselfRuth Graham with Cindy Lambert. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Through both personal narrative and biblical teaching, explores the power of forgiveness to bring freedom from bitterness, transforming our lives, and in at least some cases, our relationships.

Ruth Graham was leading a team into Angola Prison when she encountered Michael, on death row for murder, and yet at peace with God. Graham learns the amazing story of how the grandfather of the murderer’s victim had forgiven him and was praying for him. It led Ruth on a journey where forgiveness went from head knowledge to transformation in her life.

Ruth grew up in an extraordinary family. Her father was Billy Graham. Such a family carries its own stresses, that Ruth speaks about, never bitterly or cynically, but honestly. She made a series of bad choices in marriages, going through four divorces. Her mother’s advice was often less than helpful. She also began to see that she had a deep wound in her life from her father’s long absences. Despite her love for him, and his for her, she struggled with feelings of abandonment, and anger. Graham never excuses her own bad decisions, but weaves her journey of learning to forgive her father, forgive her self, and seek the forgiveness of others with biblical principles of how we forgive, and the tough issues of forgiving when forgiveness is not sought or rejected, when those we forgive are no longer around, and forgiving when the other person is not safe to be around.

She helps us see that forgiveness is neither fair nor easy, but that God has commanded it. She shows us that forgiveness is a process that does not depend on our feelings, but that God can help us to do something against which our feelings rebel. In forgiveness, bitter wounds become sacred wounds as we offer these to God and open our wounded places to Him. She teaches us how to ask forgiveness: “I did this. It was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me.”

Unlike Bryan Maier in Forgiveness and Justice (reviewed here) she believes that forgiveness can occur separately from repentance, reconciliation and restoration. Maier contends that forgiveness (which Graham might call reconciliation) can only occur when the offender confesses and repents from the wrong done. Maier contends that where there is no repentance, the proper response of the aggrieved is to take the grievance to God and trust God for justice

Graham would propose that forgiveness delivers us from bitterness, even in the absence of reconciliation, or when reconciliation is no longer safe or possible. Maier, I believe, would say that we take our anger to God as well as to pray, where it is possible, for the repentance of the offender, but not prematurely forgive.

I don’t believe Maier deals adequately with what one does when it is not possible to reconcile with an offender. At the same time, I think there is a point that Graham misses that was called to my attention in watching the documentary Emanuel on the deaths of nine people at the hands of Dylan Roof and participating on a panel with two black scholars who have studied the history and literature of violence against blacks. One of the remarkable things is how quickly a number of families forgive Roof, even though Roof never shows remorse (and other family and friends struggle to or refuse to forgive to this day). While we all recognized how these believers were shaped by biblical teaching, it was observed that it has often been the place of oppressed blacks to forgive, often accompanied by celebration that this has averted a more violent response. One scholar asked, “should not there be anger at the white supremacists and a system that produced Roof, at the history of violence in the forms of lynchings and church burnings against blacks?”

What I wonder is whether it is possible to forgive, as Christ forgave unrepentant enemies on the cross, and yet be angry, but not with bitterness, at the things which anger God, whether systemic racism, infidelity, sexual abuse, or morally corrupt leadership. There is an anger which is not hate, but which motivates advocacy, that does not relent in seeking justice. Sometimes, at least for some, forgiveness is a quick release from the hard feelings of grievance, or an escape from the hard work of seeking justice.

What I would say is that Graham does not minimize the challenge of forgiveness. She also offers a model of honestly facing her own need of forgiveness and what she hadn’t forgiven in others and herself. She helps us see the corrosive character of bitterness arising from an unforgiving heart and the grace God can give to forgive. Yet I think we also need teaching on forgiveness that teaches us how to know and live amazing grace while avoiding cheap grace, that does not heal personal or national wounds lightly.

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

Review: Walking with Jesus on Campus

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Walking with Jesus on CampusStephen Kellough. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019.

Summary: A former college chaplain reflects on ten key issues students face.

Stephen Kellough is Chaplain Emeritus for Wheaton College. At twenty-five years, his was the longest tenure of any chaplain at Wheaton. In this book, he reflects on what he believes are the ten most important issues facing Christian college students today.

I love where he begins. He starts with what he thinks the most significant challenge, which he believes is that students know that they are loved by God and invites them into a relationship of growing in love for God, in discovering the love that casts out fear and that dispels false guilt and deals with true guilt.

Other chapters deal with weakness, perfectionism, doubt and depression, sabbath, sexuality and singleness, servanthood, safety in community, revival, and living as an apprentice to Jesus. Each chapter includes reflections on one key biblical passage. For example, the chapter on doubt and depression begins by frankly discussing symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. He explains why he discusses doubt and depression together, because these are often connected at an emotional level, he considers David’s lament in Psalm 13 and how it reflects the dilemmas of doubt (being in two minds) and depression and its debilitating character. He helpfully encourages seeking care and also talks about how doubt actually is a form of faith, indeed that we cannot know what faith is without having doubted at some point.

One of the most fascinating chapters is that on revival in which Kellough narrates the unfolding of the 1995 revival at Wheaton. It began when a student leader of the World Christian Fellowship confessed openly, calmly, and briefly his sin of pride as a leader. Here is what followed:

After a pause, another brave student came forward to a microphone and confessed his own sin of pride. Others came forward; and lines grew on each side of Pierce Chapel. After someone would honestly and vulnerably share a public confession, friends would huddle around and pray over that person while another student began speaking from the other side of the chapel.

What was confessed? There were confessions of pride, hatred, lust, sexual immorality, cheating, dishonesty, materialism, addictions, and self-destructive behavior. There were tears, and there were smiles. There was crying and singing. People confessed their sins to God and to each other, and there was healing. It was biblical. It was orderly. It was sincere. And it honored our Lord.

This went on nightly Sunday through Thursday of one week, involving as many as 1500 people a night. He describes powerful and ongoing racial reconciliation and forgiveness.

His concluding chapter is on being apprentices of Jesus–for life. He quotes Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, who said, “Don’t take care. Take risks.” He proposes that this is the life of faithful and obedient stewards of God’s gifts.

I recognized that Kellough is writing from a place of wisdom and yet there was nothing stuffy or stodgy about his writing. He speaks with deep compassion for students and admiration of students he knows. He freely quotes younger writers like Rosaria Butterfield and Wesley Hill in his chapter on sexuality. His work combines grace and biblical truth.

I’m not sure this is the book for the “churched” student who has never personally embraced the faith for him/herself and wants to get as far away from it as possible during college. I think this makes a good book for the committed Christian student who wants to live for Christ in college to understand some of the practical issues this involves. It could be a book first year students might discuss together and the reflection questions at the end of each chapter lend themselves to this. It’s a good book for parents of students as well, and it raises the question of whether we want our students just to be successful, or do we want them to whole-heartedly, and sometimes riskily following Jesus. It will certainly give parents ideas of how they might pray for their students.

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

Review: Upside-Down Spirituality

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Upside-Down SpiritualityChad Bird. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Highlights nine areas in which Christian faith turns cultural conventions on their head, turning the world “upside-down.”

When you ask most people what they think a real Christian is, the answer is often some version of people who are nicer than those around them. Often, we buy that, adopting the way those around us think of a good, or even successful life, covering it with a veneer of Christian-y sounding language.

Years ago, I had a seminary course in New Testament Ethics, the primary text of which was Allen Verhey’s The Great ReversalI have to admit that at the time, I still regarded Christian ethics as a nicer version of the world’s, but was bothered by the title. Over the years of reading and re-reading the Bible, I began to suspect more and more that Jesus really did inaugurate a great reversal, literally turning the world’s ethics on their head, blessing the meek and the humble and making the least the greatest.

Chad Bird’s Upside-Down Spirituality develops a similar idea. Whereas we tend to celebrate good people who succeed, Bird proposes that this common sense needs to be turned on its head. He proposes:

“Failures of a faithful life–that’s what we’ll be talking about in the chapters that follow. What this world’s common-sense wisdom reckons as failures, anyway. The failure to be extraordinary, the failure to live independent lives, the failure to go big or go home, the failure to think love sustains our marriages, even the failure to have a personal relationship with Jesus….For there are areas in all our lives–personally, in our families and marriages, as well as in our churches–where we’ve become so habituated to the empty platitudes of our culture that we don’t even realize our hearts have gone astray” (p. 24).

Bird discusses nine failures under three categories. The first category is how we think of ourselves. He challenges the idea of believing in the God who believes in you. Instead, he argues that God doesn’t believe in us but through “Jesus only” we discover the God who loves us despite our failures. He contends that failing to make a name for ourselves, living what may be hidden lives of faithfulness carries the great assurance that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. He calls out a culture that urges us to follow our hearts, and invites us to follow not our hearts, but Jesus.

The second part considers how we think about our lives. He begins by puncturing the dream of being the perfect parent. He cites a Facebook post outlining a long litany of things the perfect mom does and contrasts it with the list used by former generations: “feed them sometimes.” The truth is that all of us who have been parents have done mediocre jobs, and that our real hope is that our children grow up, not in perfect houses with perfect parents, but in houses of grace where we all come to understand that our hope is being God’s forgiven children. Instead of questing for our ideal “calling,” Bird challenges us that there is no sacred-secular divide, and that we may live as called persons wherever we are, and in whatever we do.

The chapter in this part I loved the most was where he argues against the myth of finding one’s soulmate. When I hear marrying couples say this, I either gag or tremble, fearing that they are headed to an early divorce if they don’t wake up to the reality that no person can live up to that ideal. We are both unique, and often self-centered and marriage will sooner or later bring those differences and our fallenness to the surface. Bird proposes that it is not love that sustains marriages, but rather marriages that sustain love as we press into Christ for his help to do what is humanly impossible.

Finally he challenges some of the success myths of the church. One is the myth of us versus them, that to not conform to the world, we need to cut ourselves off from the world. He explores what it means to be resident aliens, building bridges into Babylon, seeking its peace and prosperity, even as we embrace our true citizenship in the kingdom. He gives the lie to having “a personal relationship with Jesus,” that faith is a private thing. Rather, we relate to Jesus as part of communities who are his body.

His final chapter wonders about something I’ve wondered about. Why do so many of us drive past fifty churches to go to the “big box” church across town rather than worshiping with those who live near where we live? He contends that instead of buying into “bigger is better,” we find contentment and joy wherever the crucified and risen Christ is preached.

Each chapter ends with a “beatitude,” all of which are summarized at the end. A couple of my favorites:

3. “Blessed are those who don’t follow their hearts, for they follow the Lamb where he goes.”

5. Blessed are those who fail to find their calling, for theirs is the kingdom where life and love and service find them.”

Bird writes with candor and vulnerability. He’s been through a divorce and done everything from pastor to drive a big rig. He punctures the success myths of contemporary Christianity as one who has failed and found grace, and a far more vibrant and honest life as a humble follower of Christ. He offers hope that when we fail, we may be closer than ever to the grace of God and the kingdom of Jesus, who turns the world upside down.

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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: Transhumanism and the Image of God

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Transhumanism and the Image of GodJacob Shatzer. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An exploration of how developing technologies raise questions of what it will mean to be human as we are formed by, or even integrated more closely into our technological devices, along lines some have envisioned as a transhumanist or even post-humanist future.

A basic axiom of this book is that we shape our technology, and then our technology shapes us. There is a constant tendency once we fashion a technology to optimize its use. In introducing this subject, Jacob Shatzer considers the ways we have kept time, with ever more precise devices. Shatzer argues that the shaping quality of our technological devices has implications for our moral formation. These shape how we relate to other people and to our physical environment. They shape our sense of control over our world, our perception of our capacities.

The rise of transhumanism takes this further as we think about using devices to enhance our intelligence, physical strength, and sensory inputs. Going further, transhumanism leads to posthumanism, where our technological developments hold out the hope of transcending the limitations of our physical bodies, including the ultimate limitation of death. He traces the steps in the unfolding of a transhumanist future. First there is the idea of morphological freedom–that we have a right to alter our physical form to enhance our ability to achieve our potential. On the face of it, this seems unobjectionable, except that it may be premised on faulty notions of freedom and what it means to be human. Second, there is the idea of becoming “hybronauts,” in which we utilize technology to augment our perception of reality, whether through wearable technology, or even some of the functions of our smartphones. Where all this is going is a fusion of human and artificial intelligence, with everything from a host of robots attending to different functions of our lives to the copying or uploading of our brains, predicated on the idea that our minds are simply a complex network of data, that may be stored biologically, or digitally. Are such assumptions reductive of what it means to be humans in the image of God? Yet we must face the fact that the directions in which we have shaped our technology are shaping us toward such a life, that we have technological liturgies, as it were, that condition us toward such a future in how we think or act.

Shatzer does not suggest a Luddite approach. He sees technology as double-edged, offering both aspects that enhance human flourishing, and aspects that dehumanize. He believes the Christian faith offers practices and images that enable to resist the dehumanizing aspects of our technology. He explores the question of “what is real?”, and contends that the incarnation, and our embodied existence must be robustly maintained, and that the storyteller may play a pivotal role in delivering us from the virtual reality world detaching us from the body. He explores the question of “where is real?” in a virtual world where one loses place. He describes placemaking practices from gardening, homemaking, and hospitality, and the importance of the love of real neighbors. He asks, “who is real?” and notes our increasing attachments to virtual and robotic technology (think Pokemon and Tamagotchis) and our virtual communities of “friends.” He stresses the importance of the practice of the Lord’s supper, and the figure of the real friend. Finally, he considers the question, “am I real” and the ways we construct, project, and manage our online selves. Shatzer contrasts our efforts at self-construction with the humility of entering the kingdom as children, entrusting our identity to Christ.

One of the important aspects of this book is that Shatzer seeks to help us identify the technological “liturgies” that are shaping us toward a transhuman future. These are liturgies that propose an expansion of our control, a transcendence of limits of knowledge and existence, and control over our identify. What is most troubling though, and also something our social media prepares us for, is the sharing of everything. What happens when networking extends to our thoughts, when nothing is private for us and nothing is concealed from us? Shatzer helps us recognize how our technological liturgies, far from leading to flourishing, threaten to change in dehumanizing ways, what it means to be human.

Any of us who has acquired a smartphone has experienced the formative power of this technology, which we may be tempted to check hundreds of times a day. Shatzer’s final chapters explore the questions we must ask, the small steps we can take, the practices we can embrace beginning with sharing meals together that remind us of our embodied nature, our relationships with neighbors and friends, and create places for remembering our story.

Setting limits, setting tables, saying prayers, cultivating friendships, telling stores. I found myself asking, “Are these enough?” Perhaps the issue is, how many of us will just focus on what our technology will do, and how many of us will keep asking and prioritizing in our practice the question of “what kind of humans we are making.” Shatzer’s book helps us ask these important questions.

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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: Basics for Believers

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Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018 (Re-packaged edition, originally published in 1996).

Summary: Expositions of the Letter to the Philippians focusing on the core concerns of Christian faith and life.

This work is part of a series of expository studies by D. A. Carson originally published from the late 1970’s to the mid-1990’s being re-issued in a reasonably priced, re-packaged form. In this case, Carson exposits the Letter to the Philippians. These messages are lightly edited versions of four messages given during Holy Week of 1994 at the “Word Alive” conference in Skegness England. The second message has been broken into two messages.

The title of the work, Basics for Believers, might give the impression that this is a book for new believers. The subtitle actually helps us see the importance of the book for all believers: “The Core of Christian Faith and Life.” He draws this from his study of Philippians, in which he sees a church perhaps ten years old, challenged in various ways, and needing encouragement to re-focus and maintain their commitment to the core of the Christian faith, centering around the gospel of Christ crucified and raised, and a life lived worthily of that gospel. I suspect we all can use this, kind of like an annual physical that reminds us of essentials of healthy physical life.

The five messages address the following themes:

  1. Put the Gospel First (Philippians 1:1-26)
  2. Focus on the Cross (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 2:5-11)
  3. Adopt Jesus’s Death as a Test of Your Outlook (Philippians 1:27-2:18, focus on 1:27-2:4, 2:12-18)
  4. Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders (Philippians 2:19-3:21)
  5. Never Give Up the Christian Walk (Philippians 4:1-23)

Several qualities about these messages stood out to me. I appreciated the gracious and clearly articulated explanation of the propitiatory work of Christ in his chapter on the cross. This is not a popular idea in contemporary discusses, often caricatured. Those who would oppose propitiation ought to consider and engage Carson’s articulation of this doctrine. Carson carefully connects doctrine and life throughout.

While these are not exegetical commentaries, but rather expository studies, it is very clear that Carson’s messages reflect disciplined exegesis and that his preaching outline arises from careful textual study and reflection. An example I particularly appreciated was in his fourth message, “Emulate Worthy Christian Leaders.”

  1. Emulate those who are interested in the well-being of others, not in their own (Philippians 2:19-21)
  2. Emulate those who have proved themselves in hardship, not the untested upstart and the self-promoting peacock(!) (Philippians 2:22-30)
  3. Emulate those whose constant confidence and boast is in Jesus Christ and in nothing else (Philippians 3:1-9)
  4. Emulate those who are continuing to grow spiritually, not those who are stagnating (Philippians 3:10-16)
  5. Emulate those who eagerly await Jesus’s return, not those whose mind is on earthly things (Philippians 3:17-21)

The outline elaborates both the basic theme of the text (“emulate worthy Christian leaders”) and summarizes the content of each section in memorable form. The outline alone gives much grist for reflecting on the question of, after whom we are modeling our lives.

The other mark of good exposition evident in this work is incisive application. Once again, I will give but one example from the first message on putting the gospel first. He has just cited a scholar who traced the course of a movement who in one generation believed the gospel and advanced certain social, economic, and political entailments, the next generation assumed the gospel and identified with the entailments, and the third denied the gospel and made the entailments everything. Then he asks:

“What we must ask one another is this: What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? What consumes your time? What turns you on? Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, homeschooling, women’s ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version, and much more….Not for a moment am I suggesting that we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?” (pp. 31-32).

Theological acuity, exegetical and expository clarity, and searching application. All of these challenge the reader to join the Apostle Paul in his aspiration: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).

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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.

Reviews of other D. A. Carson books in this series:

The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus

The Cross and Christian Ministry

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World

Review: Finding Holy in the Suburbs

Finding Holy

Finding Holy in the SuburbsAshley Hales (Foreword by Emily P. Freeman). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Suburbs reflect our longings for the good, that we often fill with gods of consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. Only when we repent and find our longings met in belonging to God, can daily life in the suburbs become a holy endeavor.

Nearly one-half of Americans live in suburbs, and yet many view the suburbs as a place of desolation, a deadening affluence and isolation that James Howard Kunstler has described “the geography of nowhere.” In many Christian circles, the “cutting edge” Christian life is one lived in urban neighborhoods. So what does one make of a call of God to leave an urban community that has been a thriving place of ministry and rich relationships to return to the California suburb of one’s youth? That was the challenge faced by Ashley Hales and her husband as they moved from urban Salt Lake City to that California suburb.

Hales discovered that there was a hunger in the suburbs, a longing for “home” that people filled with consumerism, individualism, busyness, and safety. In the first part of this book she described her own wrestlings with these false gods. She describes the consumeristic fantasies of granite countertops and therapeutic shopping at Target. She describes the individualism of measuring worth in the square footage of suburban castles that close us off from community. She narrates the busy life of the mom in a minivan ruled by the schedules entailed by all the childhood experiences our community says our children must have. She confesses the fears for safety that lead to walls and fences and gates that end up shutting out the joyous life of the kingdom.

Hales believes that “healing begins at the place of hunger.” It is when, in conversations over coffee, or the back fence, the doubts and frustrations arise that expose the brokenness of this life and the chance to “find holy” opens up. The middle part of the book deals with two movements that are critical. The first is repentance, when we acknowledge that the “glittering images” of suburban life mask an inner emptiness. The answer is not to double down or to look for a different place, but to acknowledge our mess, and stay put, waiting for God’s grace. The other part is to know that grace, that we are God’s beloved, and that our belovedness is not in how “ripped” or svelte we are, but in finding a better Lover who sees us in our beautiful brokenness and will not let us go. The challenge is to live in that reality each day in the little acts of suburban life.

The concluding chapters commend an alternative life in the suburbs that arises from repentance and belovedness. It begins with hospitality that doesn’t worry about how Pinterest-worthy our homes are but shares meals together as family and invites others into the warmth, with children interrupting, and crumbs in the sofa. Instead of consumerism, we live with an open-hearted and intentional generosity with our stuff and our time and our money. It means choosing vulnerability over safety in opening up our lives to our church and our neighborhood. It is living into the shalom of God in the midst of our broken-busy lives.

Hales writes in a style that at once evidences deep spiritual reflection, and personal honesty about her own moments of failure, repentance, and of rooting her life in the suburbs in an awareness of the presence of God in the ordinary. Each chapter concludes with some practices that individuals, families or groups may use.

As one who has lived in a suburban community for 28 years, there was much that I recognized, from the dreams of kitchen remodels to the minivan lineups at schools, practices, and fast-food drive-throughs, to the concerns for safety (far greater than in the urban community of my youth). I appreciate the insight of the author to see beyond these things to the hunger and longings of her neighbors, and the needed posture of Christians who live in this setting.

At the same time, I wonder if her and her husband’s commitment to minister in that community sets them apart from many. Our suburb significantly empties out during the day as people spend the bulk of their waking hours working somewhere else–often a place where they form their most significant friendships. She doesn’t deal with the transience of suburban communities (the house next to us has had four owners during the time we have lived here, the house behind us seven). Suburbs have life cycles from the squeaky clean “new build” stage to aging housing stock and changing demographics as many move to newer exurbs while some stay after raising families to become empty-nesters, and eventually, those who choose to “age in place.”

I hope the author and her husband will stay long enough to wrestle with these realities and work out the practices described in this book, which I believe reflect what kingdom presence looks like, as believers in the suburbs. Many suburbs really are a “geography of nowhere,” removed from shops, services and workplaces, and with attached garages that allow us to enter our “castles” without any interaction with neighbors. Many communities have no real identity and have little beyond the local schools to offer cohesion.  This work describes well the spiritual landscape of suburban life and the posture needed for those who will minister there. I look forward a sequel to this book, something like, “Further Adventures in Finding Holy in the Suburbs.” This is needed work!

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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.