The Freedom of the Christian

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I hear a lot of talk about freedom in our current pandemic situation where people do not want to accept mandates to wear masks or be vaccinated to hold a job or participate in a function. I don’t want to discuss that for the moment because I believe this reflects a different understanding of freedom than how I understand freedom as a Christian. When we discuss things from different premises, we often end up talking past each other–no wonder we disagree.

As a Christian, I understand freedom as freedom from and freedom to. Fundamentally the uses of freedom from in the Bible are either freedom from human bondage or freedom from sin. In the Old Testament, the outstanding case was the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 20:2, the prologue to the Ten Commandments says “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV). Even here, we see they are freed from Egyptian bondage for a relationship with God.

The other form of bondage is that to sin. The singular “sin” refers to the fundamental approach that says to God, “not thy will but mine.” Bondage to sin means a life of running from God, living under the tyranny of self, broken relationships with others, and the abuse of creation, fouling our own nest as it were. In one of the most famous passages, often misappropriated, Jesus said:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:32-36, NIV)

Jesus says elsewhere that the truth that sets free is “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29) or in the immediate context, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). Jesus says real freedom comes in believing and obeying him.

That brings me to the freedom for. Real freedom is to be freed for right relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the creation. Instead of rebelling against and running from God, we love God and believe that our highest joy is found in “knowing and glorifying God forever.” Instead of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe, we find that our greatest dignity is living as beings who reflect the character of the God who is. It is a great relief to realize that God is God and we are not. When I realize I’m not the center of the universe, I can get along better with others. When we accept that we are creatures entrusted with the care of a creation that belongs to the God who made us, we cherish what he made and seek its flourishing. We gain freedom from poisonous water, polluted air, unhealthy food, and, hopefully, a climate out of control. And other creatures of God gain their lives.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be called the manifesto of Christian freedom. Here is what he says our freedom is for:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Paul says that our freedom in the society of people comes not in seeking our personal wants but rather seeking for our neighbor what we want for ourselves. He observes that self-seeking at the expense of others is an exercise in mutual destruction. It deeply troubles me that people cloak this disregard of neighbor in an assertion of personal freedom against “tyranny.” Paul wrote these words under the tyranny of Rome that would one day take his life. The use of “tyranny” in our context is an insult to the sacrifice of martyrs to real tyranny around the world.

As I think about our present moment, freedom means freely choosing to do all I can to protect others from being infected by COVID. Masks block the spread of the virus to others. The vaccine can sometimes prevent infection, or if not, make me less infectious to others. No one has to require these of me. If they prevent my neighbor from getting sick, even if I do, that is love for my neighbor.

These verses challenge me in my response to those who differ. My temptation is to belittle their decisions, which I believe endanger themselves and others. I think my belief warranted, but my belittlement or angry reactions are also indulgences of the flesh and a form of biting and devouring. Where I have done this, I am in the wrong.

But I do want to question my Christian brothers and sisters who refuse to wear masks or receive vaccinations, despite their safety, for reasons of personal freedom, to explain how this freedom takes precedence over the love of neighbor and the humble service of others. I would love to know how you believe this is both love of God and neighbor for which you have been freed in Christ. I honestly would like to understand how an assertion of personal freedom that puts at risk the freedom, health, and possibly life of another is consistent with freedom in Christ. In our present situation, I am deeply concerned that this especially puts the children Jesus loves, and those with other illnesses, at greater risk.

My discussion is not with those who do not share my faith commitments but with those who say they do, who say they follow Christ. It seems to me that you are embracing a worldly rather than Christian definition of freedom. My concern is that when we embrace the worldly, we move away from right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. Instead of freedom, we return to an embrace of bondage. That is even more deadly than COVID. I dare to raise these concerns not merely out of concern about a disease, but out of concern that you renounce the freedom that is in Christ for a poor substitute.

Review: It’s Not Your Turn

It’s Not Your Turn, Heather Thompson Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: When everyone seems to be moving ahead while we are standing still, chosen for jobs while we are runners up, the question is how we should live while we wait our turn.

In our success-oriented culture, it can be very hard when it seems our lives are going nowhere while our friends are conquering the world. Heather Thompson Day contends that the turning point in our lives may center around what we do while we wait our turn. We can be jealous of others or sink into depression. Much of this arises from comparing ourselves to social media success stories. Day came to the realization in her own struggles that the issue wasn’t how she rated against others but against the person Jesus was inviting her to be. What she did to live toward him, succeed or not, was worth more than anything.

Day explores the rich life we may pursue as we wait our turn. Actually, the work begins with learning to wait. Day asks us to imagine the benefits that could come of something we really want being delayed. The hardest part is trusting that God will keep his promises. Then we need to reckon with the things we are saying to ourselves and to allow a life saturated in God’s word to reframe them. We need to move beyond what we feel to what we see, and then, like Elisha’s servant, have our eyes opened to seeing where God is at work. Often it means beginning to see the small things, to pursue faithfulness in the ordinariness of life. How we treat the seemingly insignificant–whether tasks or people–will crucially shape us.

The time when it is not our turn is the time to set our goals and devote ourselves to the deliberate practices necessary to reach them. It’s the time to build our network and one practice she commends is the asking of help. At the same time she challenges the social media practices of many of us, trying to build big platforms and tout our work. Instead, are we using it to stay in touch and care for others? Times of waiting can be times where God challenges our selfishness, where God humbles us so we are not a danger to others and our own souls when we are in a position of power. Waiting our turn can take us into dependence on community and challenge us to re-envision God, not as the angry, demanding deity of so many angry, demanding people, but as the loving and forgiving Father.

Finally, Day addresses how we move when we see that it may be our turn. We take risks, moving on maybe, trusting that God is in it with us. Whether it is our turn or not, we can step out in faith and act in integrity, living “our lives with a dignity we could only have given ourselves.”

Day shares her own struggles as a Ph.D struggling to make ends meet, aspiring to success as a communicator and teaching classes at a community college. She describes the risks to move across country to the positions she and her husband took, only to have a pandemic hit. Reading between the lines perhaps, one senses that the struggles have hardly come to an end and that this book is as much a “memo to myself” as it is a story of, “I made it and you can too and here is how.” Instead, what she shares is a tangible expression of what it means to live out in practical terms a life of faith grounded in the word of God. Each chapter ends with a promise from scripture to memorize as well as some searching questions.

The pandemic has been a time when many lives have been put on hold, and even as restrictions are lifted in many places, things are still in recovery. While it may not yet be our turn to move ahead, it may be our turn to lean into the transformative life of waiting on God and trusting and obeying in the little things and the formative practices that shape us for the day when it is our turn. In reading Heather Thompson Day, I feel I’m listening to someone is walking there with me and has figured out what really matters when it is not yet our turn.

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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: 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

transhumanism

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.