Review: My Body is Not a Prayer Request

My Body is Not a Prayer Request, Amy Kenny. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022.

Summary: A description of the physical, emotional, spiritual, and verbal barriers disabled people face generally, and especially in their encounter with churches and what can be done to make them welcoming and inclusive places to the disabled.

The title and opening chapter sets out one of the ways “ableism” expresses itself among Christians. We seem desperately fixated on cures and treatments to “fix” the disabled rather than beginning with accepting disabled persons as they are. Instead of taking time to learn how God has encountered the disabled person and how they may be a gift to God’s people, they are treated as a problem to be solved, a condition to be healed. And try to imagine for a moment that this is you (if it is not already you). Wouldn’t that make you more than a bit uncomfortable.

Amy Kenny, who is disabled, begins with this as one expression of a form of discrimination many of us may not be aware of, ableism. Even though upwards of one quarter of our population is disabled in some form, our society is constructed around the able. We question the accommodations the disabled ask for to accomplish the same tasks as others in educational and other settings. We wonder if the person is disabled or “faking it” for some perceived benefit. Our architecture assumes the abled, even though accommodations for the disabled often benefit others (ramps benefit parents with strollers as well as those using wheel chairs or other wheeled devices). Churches are the most egregious offenders, being exempted from ADA requirements. We post signs saying “everyone welcome” while erecting these barriers that exclude or make to feel unwelcome a significant population.

Kenny addresses the dubious theological assumptions that are unhelpful from discussions of the fall to discussions of the bodies we will have in heaven. All convey that God doesn’t love these bodies and neither should we. She also speaks of how ableism creeps into our vocabulary. When we use words like “blind,” “deaf,” and “lame” as metaphors (which I know I have done countless times!), we never mean something good in their use. Imagine what it must feel like to hear a steady stream of such words if one is disabled in one of these ways. Kenny calls these “disability mosquitoes.” One mosquito bite isn’t so bad. A host of bites is uncomfortable or could even be deadly.

Jacob as an example of the disabled is one we do not often think of, but his wrestling overnight, having his hip put out of joint, made him a different, humbler and more generous person in his encounter the next day with Esau. Disability can be spiritually transformative, teaching dependence upon God and bringing new perspectives on both ourselves and God. Kenny observes how Christ crucified is himself disabled. We worship a disabled God.

She invites us to listen to the disabled and to incorporate “Crip space” (her term) into the design of our spaces. When we do so “It makes the muffins with the blueberries in the batter instead of tossing them on top after the muffins are baked.” And, like properly baked blueberry muffins, such spaces communicate love, that the disabled are not an afterthought. She also reminds us that everything from bicycles to touch screens on our phones began as assistive technology. When we receive the gifts the disabled offer us, life can be better for all of us.

Kenny is both unsparing in helping us grasp how our unintentional “ableisms” hurt and yet the exuberance of her life, including her rhapsodies about her scooter, Diana and her cane, Eileen. These reveal a person with a strong sense of self, a disabled self who knows she is accepted by God as she is in all her messiness, and who would just like the rest of us to do likewise. All this shines through in the “Top tens” that conclude each chapter.

Like other forms of discrimination, we often may be unaware of our discrimination against the disabled. You won’t be able to say that after reading this book. The question is whether you will resist or open up your heart to what is written here. Will you and I love these who God loves? Will we take risks that will mean we get it wrong at times, continuing to allow our disabled friends to teach us? That is the invitation you will find in this book.

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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: Heavy Burdens

Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church, Bridget Eileen Rivera. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021.

Summary: Rather than an argument about what the Bible says about LGBTQ persons, a discussion of the ways LGBTQ Christians, regardless of their beliefs, have suffered under heavy, and the author would argue, needless burdens.

This is not one more book arguing about what the Bible says about LGBTQ issues. Bridget Eileen Rivera, a celibate, lesbian Christian committed to the church’s traditional teaching about sexuality and marriage (often labeled Side B in this discussion) offers a much needed account of how the church often wounds young men and women struggling both with their faith and sexuality, often driving them away from faith, and sometimes to the point of suicide. One of the sobering truths this book talks about is that, unlike any other demographic group, religious involvement of LGBTQ persons actually increases their likelihood to commit suicide. Equally troubling, these burdens have nothing to do with what we believe the Bible says about sexuality.

The first of these is the double standard around celibacy. On the one hand, much of the church glorifies sex within marriage and has little to say about celibacy–except for gay persons–even though the Bible commends both celibacy and marriage.

The second is that no matter what an LGBTQ person does (or doesn’t) do, they are often treated as pathological sinners. Actually, in doing so, the church follows Freud and not scripture, which only speaks about acts rather than orientation. Freud helped construct the idea of “homosexual identity.” Many in the church brand members who simply admit attractions or struggles with gender identification as “perverted,” sometimes banning them from working with children (even though they usually pose no danger to children) or expelling them from families or congregations. We define them as sinners beyond grace.

Third, the church has often branded all LGBTQ people as folk devils and moral enemies when our real enemies are not flesh and blood and we are called always to embody the grace and truth of the gospel. Even more troubling is that many of those so branded and consigned to hell are still teenagers and may not have even acted upon their inclinations. Remember trying to figure out your sexuality in middle and high school? And sometimes we made poor decisions. What if on top of this we were branded enemies of the church and consigned to hell?

Fourth, Rivera shares the complexities in the texts applied to LGBTQ persons that are often described as clear, even while passages referring to adultery, divorce, and the church’s case for or against contraception are often described as complicated. She points to figures like John Piper, who speak of allowing others grace, even though he would disagree with them on matters like divorce. But no grace for LGBTQ persons.

Rather than go into the other burdens in detail, I will note that Rivera discusses issues of how masculinity and femininity are defined, sometimes expressed toward gay men as bullying to get them to “man up,” and the gender essentialism that galvanizes opposition to transexuality, which she argues is rooted in Aristotelianism rather than scripture. Finally, she pleads for as much grace for LGBTQ Christians as is extended to cisgendered straight Christians in all their sexual sins.

I do wonder if there is a tendency toward making the Side A/Side B discussion merely adiaphora–a matter of personal conviction over which Christians disagree and extend grace toward each other. But this does not take away from her powerful witness to the destructive burdens laid upon LGBTQ persons that are not a necessary corollary of the church’s historic beliefs around sexuality and contrary to the gospel.

Rivera and I would agree on our understanding of scripture’s teaching about sexuality, though I suspect her arrival at her convictions was probably harder won than mine. Furthermore, she gives language to my dis-ease about what has seemed an obsession of the church’s focus on the sins of LGBTQ persons, a minority, while blithely ignoring or covering up sexual abuse, pre- and extra-marital sex among Christians, pornography addiction and domestic violence in marriages. She also raises important questions about the extra-biblical material we have imported into Christianity concerning orientation and gender roles. She reminds us that there is much more to the identity and personhood and sexuality of all of us than sex. She touches on something I’ve wondered–what would happen if we began to ask how LGBTQ people may be gifts rather than problems for the church? She leaves me hoping for the day LGBTQ people will not feel they need to leave the church to preserve and find their lives.

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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: Disability and the Church

Disability and the Church, Lamar Hardwick, foreword by Bill Gaventa. Downers Grove: IVP Praxis, 2021.

Summary: An eloquent and theologically grounded plea affirming the value of persons with disabilities and the steps churches can take to welcome and fully include them.

It was heart-breaking. Friends with a son who has a developmental disability were asked by an usher to leave a service due to the fact that their son’s vocalizations were distracting to others. Their son was fully aware he was the reason they were asked to leave. A well-stated letter to the church’s vestry (and social media posting) led to further meetings and a welcome to return.

Many of our churches post signs that say “all are welcome” and make efforts to welcome those of various ages, economic status, ethnicity, and gender and sexual orientation to our congregations. Yet both physical barriers and barriers of perception, understanding and values make it difficult for persons with disabilities to find welcome and be accepted as valued parts of our church communities. The U.S. Center for Disease Control states that 61 million adults (or one in four) in the U.S., a number that rises to two in five over the age of 65.

Lamar Hardwick is a Black pastor with a passion for reaching this huge population. A significant part of this is fed by his growing understanding of his own autistic spectrum diagnosis at age 36. He describes both the wonderful ways his congregation made accommodations informed by his diagnosis as well as some of the responses that sought to persuade him not to talk about his diagnosis. Thankfully, he and his congregation have learned to live with his disability in ways that allow his gifts to flourish. This book both narrates some of that journey and discusses a theology of persons with disabilities that affirm their unique gifts and abilities and capacity to contribute in our communities.

He grounds this appeal in the reconciling work of Christ, our unity and individuality in Christ, and his peace in our communities. He believes that the church is made for inclusion, including inclusion of those with disabilities. He then begins to address specifics of inclusion by contending that we have not designed our churches for inclusion of persons with disabilities. We need to think about what it means to set a table that is welcoming in terms of staff, background checks, training, equipment, curriculum, family support, special events, and outreach and marketing.

As we work with the disabled Hardwick draws on his own experience to discuss better questions: not, “why did this happen?” but “how may God be seen?” He deals with efforts to “heal” those with disabilities which may reflect our own discomfort with suffering when we might better walk alongside a person as God forms them through their disability. Hardwick explores the barriers of body image in our culture and how we respond to those who fall outside “ableist” norms. He raises the intriguing question of whether the risen Lord, bearing the wounds of the cross, would also bear their disabilities in the use of his hands, and his abilities to walk. We have to consider whether our actions help or hurt and we cannot do this apart from those with disabilities being part of the conversation.

Then drawing a parallel with the parable of the soils and the three soils that do not bear fruit, he addresses three kinds of barriers that hinder our churches from bearing fruit in including those with disabilities. There is the barrier of lack of understanding that may be met with education. Second is the barrier of life’s problems that prevent those with special needs from making deep and meaningful connections addressed through patient and persistent care and appropriate support structures. The third is the barrier of thorns, by which Hardwick means the policies, processes, and programs that hinder the fruitful engagement of those with various disabilities. He believes this is addressed by developing a diverse leadership culture that includes those with disabilities and affirms their leadership.

Above all, he commends the development of an affirmative culture focused on what all those with disabilities are able to do in all areas of church life. What makes this book so compelling is that throughout, Hardwick is not simply advocating for those with disabilities, but with them, speaking out of his own experience, and offering a vision of what could be as the church awakens to this significant “people group” who we often fail to include well.

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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: A Bigger Table

A Bigger Table, Expanded Edition with Study Guide, John Pavlovitz (Foreword by Jacqueline L. Lewis). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: Traces the author’s journey into a bigger vision of and practice of Christian community that is far more inclusive in welcoming people and chronicles the stories of a bigger table and the lives it has touched.

This is an expanded version of a book first published in 2017. John Pavlovitz is a popular pastor and blogger who wrote this book as a narrative of his own journey into a ministry, starting with youth, that welcomed many who previously had not felt welcome. These were youth from different backgrounds, races, and especially, those who identified as LGBTQIA. This paralleled an internal journey from a vision of traditional church where there were things to be believed and not questioned, where you kept those questions and doubts to yourself. As Pavlovitz understanding about sexuality shifted, even though his ministry was thriving as kids encountered the love of Christ, he was fired from the congregation where he was serving.

This opened the doors to a new ministry of building bigger tables. His model was Jesus who set a big table at which “sinners” encountered radical hospitality, true diversity, and total authenticity. Establishment types, political radicals, sexual sinners, working class people, women as well as men were all welcome. The only ones who were not comfortable were the religious establishment. Pavlovitz argues for an “agenda-free” community that isn’t out to “convert” or “minister” but simply share life around Christ.

He argues that for Jesus, love matters more than theologies and apologetics and worldviews. He describes the response that opened up when he wrote about how he would love a child of his own who came out, and the stories and conversations with mama bears and mama dragons that followed, the mothers who advocate for their LGBTQIA children. He writes of the revolution that comes when we shed what he sees as false fears:

Fear of believing the wrong thing

Fear of not praying enough

Fear of joining the wrong denominations

Fear of not exegeting Scripture correctly

Fear of not evangelizing our neighbors enough

Fear of Muslims and gays and atheists

Fear of beer and Harry Potter and cuss words and yogo and mandalas and voting Democrat

Fear of a God who is holding hell over our heads–

Fear as our default setting

John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, (p. 166)

In the end, what Pavlovitz wants is a church that is the most diverse place on earth.

I found myself say “yes” at many points where he named some of the pathologies of the church, and the way our distorted theologies resulted in stunted, unloving lives in the world. I also grieve with him that the church is a dangerous place for many young people to open up about an LGBTQIA identification. It is also a dangerous places for others to talk about pornography or romantic fantasy addictions or adulterous affairs that are corroding marriages. It is also dangerous because we often cover rather than confront abuse in various forms. We tolerate bigotry and embrace of statist ideologies of the left and the right.

It was striking to me to read the afterword in the new edition. It seemed to recognize that there are dangers to the open table. Some are the dangers of political ideologies that would exclude persons of color or immigrants among believing people. Pavlovitz calls for pastors to exercise courage to stand up against a fear-based, loveless Christianity and for the diverse people welcomed to the table.

My concern in this book is what I believe is an either/or binary or dichotomy between radical love and good theology. I think it leads increasingly to a pastor having to open and also guard this welcoming table on their own authority, solely on the strength of their own incarnation of Christ’s love. While theologies can be sterile, distorted, and loveless, the authority of the biblical narrative centered in Christ can challenge idolatries of nationalism, racism, various forms of discrimination and injustice and also challenge all of us to Christ-shaped sexuality. Sadly, the narrow focus in some churches on the sexuality of LGBTQIA persons serves as a convenient dodge for allowing Christ to redeem and shape the sexuality of all of us in a supportive community.

The revised edition of the book includes a study guide for churches to use to begin to think about how they can remove barriers to a bigger table. While I do not agree at all points with the theological moves Pavlovitz has made to have a bigger table, the conversation he proposes for churches and his critique of the pathologies he experienced are worth taking on board.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Beautiful Community

the beautiful community

The Beautiful Community, Irwyn L. Ince, Jr., Foreword by Timothy Keller. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An argument that churches united amid their diversity are beautiful communities that reflect the beauty of the triune God they worship.

Most of us love beautiful things and are drawn to them. That is often not the picture we have of the church, fraught with conflict and division, including division across racial lines. Irwyn L. Ince Jr. believes that such community is necessary, possible under God, though not easy, to point the world to the beautiful God as reflections of God’s beauty. Ince has walked this talk as a pastor within the Presbyterian Church of America, part of a multi-ethnic pastoral team pastoring a multi-ethnic church in urban Washington, DC. He is the executive director the Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission. In 2018, he was unanimously elected to serve as moderator for the PCA General Assembly, the first Black moderator in the denomination’s history.

Ince grounds his argument for the beautiful community is grounded in the relational beauty of the Triune God, and the first part of his work is devoted to this idea. In his introduction, he lists twenty-two attributes of the beautiful God. This is the source of our beauty as creatures in the image of God, the source of our dignity. And since the beauty of God is a beauty in community, no single individual can fully reflect that beauty but only the diverse community of humanity.

Ince writes, “We were made to image God as beautiful community but sin ruptured our communion and polarization has been our story ever since.” Ince argues that we moved from garden to ghetto, including the racial ghettos of the American landscape. He argues that while race is indeed a human construct, it is one that has had real effects on the lives of people. He would contend that those who want to do away with the term are unwilling to deal with the harmful consequences of this sinful construct, and how the history of race in this country shapes our present context. He notes the often-failed efforts to form multi-ethnic congregations and the exodus of people of color from many evangelical congregations following their overwhelming support of the current president. He notes how ethnic identity may feel central for all, including whites whose ethnic and cultural practices subtly dominate in many multi-ethnic churches and only the new garments of an identity established in Christ can transform us.

One of the striking chapters in this work was the critical importance of devotion to doctrine. He argues that the injustices people of color have faced are departures from the fundamental truth of the unity of a diverse church, and gospel integrity calls us to address these injustices. He follows this chapter with a call to costly holiness, a holiness that faces and confesses our failures, and relinquishes majority dominated power structures. After challenging words, he concludes with a joyous vision of a beautiful, beloved community enjoying the pleasures of the Lord, including the pleasure of table fellowship, the sharing of good food.

The power of this book is that Ince addresses a challenging reality with a beautiful God-centered vision. Sociologists he cites have analyzed as a near impossibility that churches can gather across racial differences. Yet his doctrinally formed vision of God, of humanity, of the work of Christ, and of the church come together in his beautiful vision, under God’s grace. His conviction is that it won’t be easy, that it will involve intentional hard work, and reliance upon the grace of God. The question for us is whether our vision of the beautiful God will fuel our vision of a beautiful community that reflects God’s beauty to the world.

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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: Analog Church

analog church

Analog ChurchJay Y. Kim (Foreword by Scot McKnight). Downers Grove: IVP Praxis, 2020

Summary: An argument for churches maintain real community, participatory worship, the ministry of the word, and communion in an era when it is tempting to “go digital” with the rest of the culture.

This has been an interesting time to come out with a new book. This book takes “interesting” to a new level. It “dropped” on March 31, amid lockdowns and the pivot of business, education, and church to all-digital. In the words of the subtitle, it argues “why we need real people, places, and things in the digital age.” Gathering to sing together in close proximity to other people in an enclosed space, listening to the Bible taught without a mediating screen, sharing the Lord’s table right now seems like an epidemiologist’s nightmare scenario. I can’t recommend it–for now.

Jay Y. Kim’s argument is an important one that our current constraints actually amplify. He commends “whole body” worship where we are not passive observers of a performance but actually join our voices with others. Right now, the most I can do is sing to a computer screen, with my mike muted, to the accompaniment of either an actual singer or a recorded music track. I’ve had desserts online and hundreds of conversations, including some rich interactions, but apart from socially distanced visits with family without hugs and a few socially distanced visits with friends, no real presence other than with my wife. I’ve listened to some great teaching of the scriptures and webinars with thought-provoking content (I’ve even hosted a few) but none of the times of sitting around a table, Bibles open, wrestling with a text and letting it wrestle with us together. I’ve not partaken of the Lord’s Table since lockdowns began. I’ve heard of it being led virtually where we bring our own bread and cup. Our church does threefold communion including footwashing, a “love feast” or meal, and the bread and cup.

Kim, I believe, would argue that despite our increasing creativity with digital technology in this time, we are becoming more aware than ever of its limitations, as much of a mercy as it has been. We grow impatient, we become aware of how shallow many of our interactions are, and we feel our isolation even though we may have thousands of “friends” on our social media accounts. He proposes that the medium is not just a neutral means through which the message comes but that, in McLuhan’s words, “the media is the message.” He contends that the move of churches, even in normal times to an increasingly digitized worship is actually contrary to the spiritual longings of the rising generation’s longing for transcendence rather than relevance, in the gatherings of God’s people unmediated by digital technologies.

I think the misguided attempts of churches to gather during the pandemic, ostensibly for reasons of “religious freedom” actually reflect these longings, and make Kim’s point. “Analog” church does something different than digital. It is incarnational, celebrating the Incarnate Lord. There has been a move away from such churches in recent years, and I’ve heard people say they can “do” church with the device in their pockets. What if one of the strange mercies of this pandemic is to make us so “Zoom-fatigued” that we re-examine our uses of digital technology, and realize the gift of hearing the real voices of the older woman who warbles and the fellow who can’t carry tune in a bucket, but who sing with such joy that we get caught up. What if we rediscover what a pleasant and good thing it is to break bread around a common table?

Kim himself suggests as much in an interview on Front Porch Republic. He acknowledges the ways this technology has made it possible to stay connected when physical gatherings carry danger. He touches on how we may struggle to find our way back to embodied presence with others, when a hug with someone from another household is no longer dangerous. His hope is that we will recognize the gifts of our life together as the church, unmediated by technology and screens, and reconsider our embrace of digital technologies. My hunch is that we will continue to use some of these technologies, having discovered uses that extend beyond the pandemic. But Kim’s book is one worth reading now as we consider what our transition to a post-pandemic new normal will look like. Hopefully it will be a new normal vibrant with warm, incarnate life, as warm as the vinyl some of us never stopped loving and others have newly discovered.

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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 #MeToo Reckoning

the metoo reckoning

The #MeToo ReckoningRuth Everhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the church, the impact on victims and the response of many churches more focused on institutional reputation than protecting victims and justice for the perpetrators.

Ruth Everhart tells two #MeToo stories of her own in this book. In the first, she was raped at gunpoint in college. Part of her healing was testifying against her rapist, seeing him convicted and sent to prison. In many ways, the second incident was harder. Serving as an assistant pastor under Zane Bolinger, a respected senior pastor, she became the object of inappropriate attention, culminating with being forcibly kissed in her own office.

The early chapters of this book use this incident to trace how the dynamics of sexual assault often play out in churches, beginning with the patriarchal power exercised by Bolinger in assaulting her. She describes her efforts to seek redress from the church’s personnel committee, how they accepted the pastor’s account that he had acted from “pure Christian love,” burying the assault in pious language that protected the abuser and the institution. She concluded that she had to leave.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this narrative was the subsequent consequences in her former church. It did not have to do with Reverend Bolinger, who was gone by this time, at least not directly. A young man had been sexually abused by a church member. Everhart describes the conspiracy of secrecy that followed that did not report abuse to the authorities or even to the congregation and that elicited a “confession” that failed to acknowledge responsibility. The culture created by Bolinger, one of autocratic leadership that covered over anything detrimental to the church’s reputation continued. Healing only began with a process of bringing what had been hidden into the light, eventually resulting in the perpetrator’s conviction, and a new policy for handling allegations of sexual abuse.

Everhart then goes on to describe her efforts to bring Bolinger up on charges before the denomination and the mixed results that illustrate how such proceedings often try to bring healing without justice, that neglect the basic issue of sincere apology, and the preservation of power and institutions (including protecting the institution from legal exposure above protecting victims). Subsequent chapters detail the connection between purity culture and rape culture in the church, patterns of betrayal and deceit by perpetrators, not only on victims, but on manipulated church leaders, and the challenge, particularly for women, of finding a voice to speak up, to press for justice.

Everhart interweaves biblical narrative with her own and others narrative. Abuses of power and sexual abuse run through scripture, in the stories of Tamar, of David and Bathsheba, and others. She shows God’s concern for the victims, some incorporated into the ancestral line of Jesus. Everhart also speaks frankly and practically about what denominations and churches can do to care for survivors rather than institutions, from honest language (“rape” instead of “had sex with”) to involving the whole church in how churches will respond to sexual abuse.

There has been a #MeToo reckoning taking place in our culture, from exposing assault by physicians to gymnasts and other athletes, to movie moguls and political figures. The Catholic Church is paying huge damages for past abuses. Bill Hybels, longtime leader of Willow Creek Church, was forced to step down due to a pattern of improper sexual behavior. These are stories now being played out in many churches. Everhart’s book ought to be a must-read for every church governance board. The church in the greatest danger is the one that says, “it won’t happen here.” Those are the ones that practice institutional denial when it does, including shaming, or shunting aside the survivors of abuse. Those are the ones that wittingly or unwittingly create a culture where abuse can continue unchecked–until the reckoning.

Everhart does not want your church to be among these but rather among those who create brave and safe spaces where these matters are spoken of with candor, where survivors can find support rather than shame, where “brightline” policies are in place that discourage or identify potential abusers early, and if abuse occurs, it is made public and prosecuted, not covered up. This is a book filled with hope for survivors and gritty encouragement for leaders who are ready to set aside patriarchy and power for protecting and raising up the vulnerable, who are willing to expose the ugly underside of human behavior to Christ’s truth and justice.

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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: When Narcissism Comes to Church

when narcissism

When Narcissism Comes to ChurchChuck DeGroat. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores the expressions narcissism can take in the church, the damage it may do, and healing both for the abused and the narcissists who abuse them.

Chuck DeGroat makes this observation early in this book: “A colleague of mine says that ministry is a magnet for a narcissistic personality–who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week?” As a counselor, Chuck DeGroat has seen both narcissists and the people they leave in their wake. Many of them are in the church–church leaders, pastors, or even the quiet but “indispensable” administrator, who is controlling and has everyone around him or her walking on eggshells.

DeGroat helps us to recognize the narcissist in our church and what attracts them. Particularly, he notes how many of the screening inventories for church planters actually select for narcissists. Using the Enneagram, he shows nine different ways narcissists manifest according to each of the types. He then identifies ten characteristics of the narcissistic pastor including: all decision-making centers on them, impatience, feelings of entitlement, and inconsistency and impulsiveness.. Inwardly, the narcissist struggles with shame and rage.

The insidious aspect of this is that narcissism can infect they entire system of a church. A narcissistic leader. It results in a church unable to be honest. DeGroat describes different times of dysfunctional system and what health looks like. He exposes the gaslighting techniques of the narcissist that make others feel “crazy, uncertain, confused, insecure, and bewildered.” This is what life around a narcissist is like and DeGroat helps us see what it is like to be married to one, and why so many such marriages end in divorce.

DeGroat’s final chapters chart the process of healing both for individuals and churches who have been abused by narcissist in the church, and the narcissist.  Both take time, pealing back the layers of defense. Especially with the narcissist, the challenge is coming to believe that the real person underneath the glittering image of the narcissist is actually far more beautiful.

This is an important book, especially for any of those involved in calling and placing church’s leaders. Pastoral search communities need to read this book before embarking on their work. Most of all, those in a situation where the charismatic leader who fills the pews or is indispensable is driving everyone crazy, you might want to read this book to understand what may be going on.  Sadly, we often are drawn too much to the glittering images and do not consider what lies beneath. DeGroat relates numerous examples but also offers hope that healing can take place, if people are willing to face the truth.

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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: From Adam and Israel to the Church

From Adam and Israel

From Adam and Israel to the Church (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology [ESBT], Benjamin L. Gladd. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A study of the theme of the people of God, tracing this theme throughout scripture in Eden, in Israel, in Christ, and in the church.

This is the inaugural volume of a new series looking at essential themes in the story line of scripture. This work is written by series editor Benjamin L. Gladd and traces the idea of the people of God through scripture. For many, particularly in the dispensationalist stream, this is defined by covenant with a sharp demarcation between Israel and the church.

Gladd uses a different lens, focusing on the people of God as created in the image of God, expressed in terms of the functions of king, priest, and prophet. Kings control the environment, keeping it holy. Priests both worship holy God and discern between holy and unclean. Prophets speak truth on behalf of God. Gladd also develops a three level understanding of the world that mirrors the heavenly temple with the Holy of Holies (Eden), the Holy Place (the Garden) and the outer courts (the outer world).

Gladd traces this from Eden, where Adam and Eve allow the unholy serpent into the Holy of Holies, yielding control of the environment, and shade and then disobey rather than speak the truth. He then shows how this image of God as king, priest, and prophet was reflected in the creation and fall of Israel, at Sinai, in the Tabernacle and Temple, and the nation’s decline into idolatry with unfaithful kings, apostasy with unfaithful priests, and prophets bringing the word of God competing with those who were false. Ultimately, in Nebuchadnezzar they experience what they’ve embraced in the anti-king, anti-priest, and anti-prophet. The prophets point to Israel’s restoration, centered in a person who would embody king, priest and prophet.

Jesus embodies restored Israel in his person as the ideal king who succeeds where Adam and Israel fail, and gives himself for his people as great high priest, who is also the temple, the Holy of Holies, and speaks with authority the word of God that constitutes the people of God. These people, the church are the Israel of God, displaying the image of God who rule by standing and suffering with the king, to be vindicated by God, who are priests built as a temple for God to dwell on earth and who bear prophetic witness to the world and the cosmos and stand guard against the evil one’s wiles.

Perhaps most bracing is the author’s thoughts about how kingship, priesthood, and prophets works out in the new creation:

   Perhaps another dimension of imaging God in the new creation will be the development of technology and science. Will we invent the wheel again? Will we learn how to start a fire once more? What about basic human knowledge such as math, language, music, and so on? I suspect that we will not start from scratch. One could possibly argue that we, being perfected in God’s image, will develop what we have learned in the past. The knowledge that humanity has acquired and is acquiring through observing the world around us may not only inform us about God’s creative power, but it may also prepare us for life in the new creation.

The author speaks of the wedge between Israel and the church and the church as the true Israel, the people of God who image God, in continuity with ethnic Israel. I wish the author might have said more specifically about the Jews, and about how Romans 11 might be fulfilled in this people of God. The author allows for a “remnant of Christian Jews” saved through history (p. 128-129), which seems far from explaining how “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). He contends that the church does not replace Israel, yet he calls the church the true Israel of God. Granted that how these things shall be is unclear for any of us, this presentation seems to be murky at best.

That said, Gladd paints a picture of the people of God throughout history, a people who images God in the world, and in our own day is called to be kings who rule without exploiting, who worship God alone and commend his excellence over all worldly idols, and who prize the truth in our lives and words. We pursue these in faithfulness to the great high king, high priest and ultimate prophet, Jesus. This is not insipid pablum but strong and substantive food for the follower of Jesus. I look forward to seeing what successive volumes in this series do to enlarge on the biblical story line.

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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.