Archive for category: Book Reviews

Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?”

14 Jul
July 14, 2017

What-Is-the-Bible 2Rob Bell’s latest book, What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, is both insightful and maddening. Bell has always intrigued me; he’s an incredible communicator with an often times unique perspective on the Bible. His goal with this latest book is to convey all of the excitement, passion, and thrills that come with reading the Bible – something he observes (correctly) that so many miss.

Bell does a great job of paying attention to the Jewish culture, both during Christ’s time and during the times the Old Testament books were written, as well as the Roman culture and other ancient middle eastern cultures and religions. He eloquently paints a picture of the connecting threads throughout all of scripture pointing to an exciting message from God. I loved his observations about Abraham’s covenant with God, the struggle Jonah went through, as well as the writing styles and priorities of ancient writers. I also thought his notes on how modern day Americans process and interpret scripture through our cultural lens conflicts so often without us even realizing it with the culture and writing styles of those who wrote these books so long ago.

But Bell is also maddening.

I feel so pretentious for even writing this, but his books have grown increasingly intellectually lazy. He makes bold claims about meanings of words, culture, theories, and explanations – and footnotes none of it. He doesn’t cite anything! Even half of the scriptures he quotes he does without even giving a reference; and the other half of the time he only mentions the book and maybe the chapter. I found myself doing keyword searches to try and find what verse he was quoting and what translation it was to find the context because of his tendency to prooftext and play fast and loose with his scripture quotes. Some of his theories I was able to find in commentaries, however, they tended to be alternate understandings of a passage’s interpretation rejected by most scholars.

His theology on salvation, revealed in his book Love Wins, returns in the third section of this book. Because of his conviction that ultimately all are saved regardless of their faith in this life, the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death and resurrection is at the very least minimized in this book if not removed all together. He contends that the sacrificial system at large, and therefore the perspective of interpreting Christ’s death through that lens, is purely a human creation made in response to pagan sacrificial systems. His chapter on whether or not scripture is authoritative was also troubling to me; while he believes scripture does have authority, he seems to view it as equal to a number of other sources, which is a dangerous approach at best. From his perspective, he is genuinely advocating for scripture’s authority; and his love of the Bible comes through on every page of the book, however, in his assertion of a variety of other authoritative sources he ultimately both reduces scripture’s power and opens the door recklessly putting faith anywhere and everywhere.

Ultimately, I was fascinated by the book, but because of his pattern of making claims without citing evidence or sources, his loose use of scripture, and his reckless theology when it comes to salvation and authority, it’s not one I would recommend to others. He’s given me a lot to think about, and he does bring the scriptures to life in a way that few can do – but unless the reader is well versed in scripture and theology, it becomes too easy to accept the dangerous theology sprinkled throughout the book.

Boarding School Syndrome review

12 Jul
July 12, 2017

Boarding-School-SyndromeDr. Joy Schaverien’s Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child takes an honest and powerful look at the long term psychological impact boarding schools have on children. Having spent my teen years in a boarding school, I was particularly fascinated by her observations, based on years of counseling and diagnosing adults who attended boarding schools as children. Rather than try to summarize the book (there’s just way too much), I want to share a few of my reactions as a former boarding school student. You can read a strong summary of the book’s content and a list of the many symptoms and issues that can result in boarding school experience here.

Over the last decade, I have become increasingly aware of just how widespread and prevalent sexual and physical abuse was in all of the boarding schools run by the mission my family was a part of, which has been a horrifying realization. Dr. Schaverien primarily interacts with former boarding school students from other systems and organizations, and it was shocking to realize through her research that this sexual and physical abuse seems to be a common reality in ALL boarding schools. The combination of predators being attracted to environments where children are cut off from their parents most of the year and dangerous students with inadequate supervision around younger students consistently creates environments where abuse flourishes.

Dr. Schaverien deals with the question of why children do not report abuse throughout her book, which I appreciated deeply. She points out a combination of factors; for the child who does not have the words to express what is going on, it is a confusing situation. Children think their experience is normal; they may not like it, but it must be normal because it is what they know. Adding to that is the knowledge that their parents sent them, reinforcing the idea that this is both normal and the adults in their life are okay with it (after all, to a young child’s logic, how could their parents possibly not know?). Consequently, the abuse is normalized, and even minimized – “I didn’t like what happened to me, but it’s not nearly as bad as what happened to so-and-so.” What I was particularly struck by is her observation that it is typically around forty years of age that people will begin to recognize or speak out about the abuse they received as a child; often times as they see their own children growing up and realize just how little and unprotected they themselves were at that age and finally begin to realize just how wrong the treatment was.

That jumped out at me; I’m 41. It has really been the last five years that I have wrestled with what I witnessed as a teen and what I can do about it now. As a student at a boarding school I witnessed things that made me deeply uncomfortable and upset – but did not know how to react. It wasn’t until my early twenties as I was studying to be a teacher, and then youth pastor. taking classes on creating safe environments and protecting children from abuse that I realized many of the things I witnessed were legally considered abuse.

I found her comments and observations on former boarding school students relationships with others, the tendency to be closed relationally, abandonment issues, the sexual confusion resulting from growing up in schools forbidding any kind of physical contact (even healthy, necessary contact), issues with food, and a whole host of other ramifications to be incredibly fascinating, and enlightening in what I have seen in my fellow classmates. I think her book is critical reading for anyone who has been a boarding school student, or who has had family members attend boarding school at some point in their childhood. It is written for psychologists to give insight on how to work with boarding school students, so it is not a light read, however it is incredibly beneficial and makes a great contribution to a segment of the population that is largely ignored.

Junia: The First Woman Apostle review

06 Jul
July 6, 2017

juniaDr. Eldon Epp, a professor of Biblical literature, has put together a thorough and well researched case for the existence of a woman apostle in scripture in his book Junia: The First Woman Apostle. The verse in question?

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Romans 16:7, NIV.

The debate originally centered around the name Junia; is it a woman’s name (Junia) or a man’s name (Junias)? The issue was largely uncontested until two hundred years ago when two scholars, separately, came to the conclusion that the verse clearly points to this individual being an apostle, therefore it must be a man, making it imposible for this Greek name to be translated in a female form. They proposed that the actual name was Junias, a male rendering of the Greek, a theory that was quickly accepted throughout the church and Bible translations were updated to reflect it. However, in recent decades it has become clear that there is no such male name in the Greek, while Junia, the female form, was in fact a common woman’s name through every class of society (slave, poor, wealthy, royalty). Consequently, in recent years Bibles have been corrected to reflect this feminine spelling. At this point, the debate has shifted to question whether or not Junia was an apostle, or simply known to the apostles.

Epp uses his expertise in ancient literature to trace the use of this name and language through every major grouping of Greek texts we have from over the centuries as well as how these texts were understood to make the case that Junia was both understood to be a woman from the beginning, and recognized as an apostle. To say he is thorough in his exploration is an understatement. Making the case for the name being feminine is far easier now than it was fifty years ago; it is widely accepted now in Christian scholarship to be the case.

From there, Epp then tackles the issue of whether or not Junia was recognized as an apostle, or simply known to the apostles. Much of his argument centers on the contention that until the last few decades, this was never even a question; from the time of Chrysotom the two individuals mentioned in this verse were universally accepted to be apostles. Paul does not use the title lightly, and through an examination of the original Greek, Epp makes the case that while there may be some lack of clarity in the English, there was no uncertainty in the Greek. So much so, that it was not even questioned until recently when it became clear that the name Junia was in fact feminine, leading him to conclude that rather than allowing the scriptures to speak for themselves, complementarian theologians are instead rewording the intent of scripture to match their own theology. He cites C.E.B Cranfield’s assertion that this approach is “mere conventional prejudice” (Kindle location 738).

Overall, it is a fascinating exploration of controversial topic. Published by Fortress Press, it is an academic book and not a light read. So much so that a third of the book is footnotes and bibliography. Epp is systematic and thorough in his approach, with each of the ten chapters focused on a different aspect of his case for Junia being a woman apostle. Consequently, there is some repetition as he reiterates different pieces of evidence in support of each point he makes; on the positive side, this allows each chapter to stand on its own, but it does get somewhat repetitive at times. Regardless of one’s opinion on the translation of Romans 16:7, Epp’s book is a strong entry into the discussion.

Us Versus Us review

01 Jul
July 1, 2017

us versus usAndrew Marin’s Us Versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community is a powerful examination of the relationship between the LGBT community and the church. Based on extensive research and surveys – the largest of its type – administered by his organization, The Marin Foundation, Marin presents startling and convicting results. The big result? 86% of the LGBT community were raised in faith communities, leading to the title of the book; Marin contends that for too long the debate on sexuality has been framed as an “us versus them” approach, when the reality is that most of us originated in the same place – it is actually and “us versus us” debate, which has only resulted in damage.

Each chapter is committed to examining the major findings of the research; beyond the 86% statistic, he also found that 54% of those in the LGBT community left their faith communities by the age of 18, 76% are open to returning to faith and its practices, 36% of the LGBT community continue to pursue faith beyond the age of 18, 80% regularly pray regardless of faith association (or lack thereof), and finally, he examines the impact of coming out on religiosity.

For years, Marin has powerfully advocated for building bridges instead of walls in the conversation between the church and the LGBT community. He writes that “we have allowed the people comprising the conversation to be characterized by caricature” (Kindle location 128), pointing out that we define positions and camps, focusing the conversation on opposition. Instead, he advocates for “the lost art of loving in disagreement” (Kindle location 135).

What do we do with these results? For Marin, the answer seems obvious. The pattern for many churches in America has been incredibly painful for those in and out of the congregation; somehow we have not been able to emulate Christ’s approach, which in His divine perfection somehow combined His sinless reputation with the ability to have sinners flock to Him. Throughout the gospels Christ avoided closed door conversations; when people asked him yes/no questions in an effort to nail down where He stood, He answered with parables, with stories, with questions of His own. The result? Instead of shutting down the conversation He continued the dialogue and built bridges.

Do I agree with all of Marin’s conclusions? Not necessarily; we differ on the interpretation of some of the data. But the work he and his team have done is essential. Every pastor/church leader should read this book. It is a powerful insight into a group often dehumanized and vilified by churches in America, and the longing for community and spiritual hunger present there.

Understanding Gender Dysphoria review

31 May
May 31, 2017

mark 2Dr. Mark Yarhouse, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Regent University, has put together a solid resource for leaders and those wanting to know more about Gender Dysphoria, or transgenderism, in his book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. There are very few issues in my experience as a pastor as misunderstood as this topic, and in that misunderstanding, tremendous damage and hurt has been and will continue to be caused.

Yarhouse does a tremendous job of explaining the nature of gender dysphoria, as well the different theories surrounding the causes and treatment of gender dysphoria, and the pros and cons of each. He also explains his own approach as a psychologist and his rationale. Because the research is still in early stages regarding the ramifications for the different treatment approaches, he personally advocates taking the least invasive approach that can resolve the dysphoria; which in practicality means different approaches for each individual. I won’t try to summarize his content here; I would never be able to do it justice.

One of the strengths of Yarhouse’s book for those in ministry is his careful and well thought out Christian perspective and connections to scripture paired with his deep knowledge as a psychologist and his practical experience. He has done the research and it shows. By shedding light on this topic and confronting many of the wrong perceptions and faulty ideas, his book is both beneficial and a call to many in the church to rethink their assumptions. One particularly jarring quote from his book really hit home for me;

“What most people who are gender dysphoric find in the church is rejection and shame – the feeling that there is something fundamentally flawed in them, that the flaw is their fault (back to willful disobedience) and that if others knew about their gender incongruence, they too would reject them.” (Kindle location 946)

Yarhouse’s book is timely. As such a hot button topic, it is a relevant work for anyone who wants to grow in their understanding rather than allow news headlines and Facebook rants shape their opinions. As the church, this is an area where we need to grow in our love and empathy, and I think Yarhouse helps point in a direction that accomplishes that. I have personally read a number of resources and articles in my own pursuit of understanding, and his work is the first to really help address that need for me. He has clearly done his homework, supports his assertions with the research, yet writes in a way that is approachable and understandable. Definitely worth checking out.

Life Without Ed review

19 May
May 19, 2017

life without edLife Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, by Jenni Schaefer, is a powerful book detailing the author’s struggle with recovery. What makes the tenth anniversary edition particularly interesting to read is that she has added additional thoughts. Where she originally wondered if she would ever truly beat her eating disorder, ten years later, she is able to proudly declare her full recovery and offer hope through her experience to others that it is attainable.

While she does write about the methods she used to pursue recovery, the real strength in her book are her inner narratives. Like many who fight eating disorders, she personified her disorder as Ed, the inner voice driving her to devastating self image and decisions regarding health. As she documents the inner conversations, the struggle between her eating disorder’s views on her image, how she should live, what success looks like, and the reality of the destruction it was waging on her health. She writes that “eating disorders are about constant self-criticism, loss of self-esteem, and unrelenting perfectionism” (Kindle location 433). Seeing the constant, overwhelming presence of these thoughts in all interactions and aspects of life, begin to help the reader to understand the impact an eating disorder can have on an individual.

Her co-author, Thom Rutledge, is a psychotherapist and brings authority to the methods and approaches discussed in the book through Jenni’s experience. Having said that, my impression is that this book is not so much about communicating approaches to counsel those pursuing recovery – it is far too complex an issue with far too many variations for someone to be equipped to that degree from this book. Instead, this book is an essential tool on two fronts; for the individual struggling with an eating disorder it helps them to see they are not alone and there is hope. They will see their struggles, their thoughts, and story echoed in Jenni’s struggle, thoughts, and story. And secondly, for the family member or caring friend of someone dealing with an eating disorder; it is an essential look into what this experience is like and is a great resource in helping build understanding, or at the very least, how better to be supportive.

Jenni’s story is an important one, and her added reflections ten years later only add to its power. I certainly recommend it to anyone impacting by eating disorders – which honestly, at this point in our culture, is everyone – whether they realize it or not. We all are connected to someone battling this issue.

The Lost World of Adam and Eve

04 Jan
January 4, 2017

lost world of adam and eveJohn Walton followed up his book, The Lost World of Genesis One (my review is here), with The Lost World of Adam and Eve, an exploration of Genesis 2-3 and human origins. Walton is the professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (he had a similar position at Moody Bible Institute previously) and a widely recognized expert on Genesis. I found his first book fascinating; this was one was certainly as well, but also quite provocative in its proposals.

He spends the first few chapters summarizing the thesis of his first book; articulating both the critical need for understanding the culture and ancient writings from the time period Genesis was written, as well as his theories reconciling science and faith in such a way that they can complement one another rather than be at odds. From there he builds a series of propositions regarding Genesis 2-3 and the origins of humanity. He builds off the idea that Adam and Eve are both literal individuals as well as archetypal, he makes the case that the description and creation of the Garden of Eden was language that describes sacred space, or a temple, and therefore Adam and Eve functioned in a priestly role for a possibly already existing humanity from which they were called. Ultimately, God’s creation was about order, an order that Adam and Eve disrupted by eating the fruit and essentially positioning themselves as gods (much like Satan looking at God’s throne and believing He could take it), with Christ’s eventual arrival about restoring order to creation.

While Walton clarifies he is not necessarily espousing this view (a safe statement for a professor at Wheaton), he does argue that there is room to believe what he proposes without compromising scripture or faith. For me, the most provocative proposals regarded Adam and Eve serving in priestly roles together (not one over the other), as well as the idea that humanity had already come into existence over time, from which Adam and Eve were called out of it (as Abraham was called out of humanity to father the Jewish race, and Jesus was called/sent to bring order). He writes, “just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation” (p. 177).

Ultimately, part of Walton’s motivation in attempting to reconcile faith and scientific evidence is the reality that one of the more cited reasons for young people and adults leaving faith is feeling forced to chose between science and God. He closes his book with this thought: “Think, then, of our children and grandchildren. When they come home from college having accepted some scientific understanding about human origins that we do not find persuasive, are we going to denounce them, disinherit them and drive them from the doors of our homes and churches? Or are we going to suggest to them that there may be a way to interpret Scripture faithfully that will allow them to hold on to both science and faith? Can we believe that such a path does not represent a compromise that dilutes the faith but rather one that opens new doors to understanding that the next generation may find essential even though we find ourselves paralyzed on the threshold?  Let us pray together that we can chart a path of faithfulness and stop the hemorrhaging.” (p. 210)

Overall, Walton’s book is packed with insights, thoughts, ideas and concepts that I will be wrestling with for a while. His expertise on ancient near eastern culture and literature is fascinating. While some of his ideas are more controversial than others, he definitely challenges the reader to look at Genesis, creation, and Adam and Eve with new perspectives. The book is both intellectually challenging as well as approachable to the casual reader. Definitely something worth reading and exploring.

Book Review: Gospel Centered Youth Ministry

21 Mar
March 21, 2016

youth ministry guideThe Gospel Coalition’s new book, “Gospel Centered Youth Ministry,” is a great resource for youth leaders and volunteers. Fourteen different authors each contributed to put together a book that sets out to address both the theological depth of the gospel and student ministry, as well as give practical ways to live that out. Where so many youth ministry resources tend to skew either only into the practical, or only into the theological, this is an exciting merging of the two.

The book is split into three sections; (1) Foundations for a Gospel Centered Youth Ministry, (2) Practical Applications for a Gospel Centered Youth Ministry, and (3) The Fruit of a Gospel Centered Youth Ministry. I appreciated the progression of the book; each of the authors were tasked with chapters that fell under those broad headings, building over the course of the book a great overview of a gospel centered youth ministry.

It is a strong work; the authors have done their research, cite their sources, and take an academic, yet very approachable methodology to their writing. They cover a wide range of topics, giving strong presentations on the underlying theology supporting their views before diving into the practicalities of living it out. Definitely a great resource for youth leaders; also a great training tool for student ministry teams and interns.

The Lost World of Genesis One

02 Sep
September 2, 2015

lost world

At  the recommendation of two of the former pastors from my church, Pastor Bo Matthews and Pastor Bill Parsons, I grabbed a copy of John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One.” Walton, an expert on the book of Genesis, attempts to propose an approach for reading and understanding chapter one of Genesis, one of the more fiercely debated portions of the Bible. He outlines eighteen propositions towards a literary and theological understanding of the passage. A large part of his approach centers on the idea that our best way of approaching the passage is NOT with our 21st century cultural and scientific leanings, but instead to understand how people in general understood and approached the cosmos 3500 years ago (approximately when Moses wrote Genesis), and how that would have shaped their understanding of Genesis one. Here are two of the key quotes that really resonated with me as I started reading it:

Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old World science of antiquity. (page 20)

If God were intent on making his revelation correspond to science, we have to ask which science. We are well aware that science is dynamic rather than static. By its very nature science is in a constant state of flux. If we were to say that God’s revelation corresponds to “true science” we adopt an idea contrary to the very nature of science. What is accepted as true today, may not be accepted as true tomorrow, because what science provides is the best explanation of the data at the time. This “best explanation” is accepted by consensus, and often with a few detractors. Science moves forward as ideas are tested and new ones replace old ones. So if God aligned revelation with one particular science, it would have been unintelligible to people who lived prior to the time of that science, and it would be obsolete to those who live after that time. We gain nothing by bringing God’s revelation into accordance with today’s science. In contrast, it makes perfect sense that God communicated his revelation to his immediate audience in terms they understood. (page 18)

I was a history major in college. My approach to scripture has generally been shaped by that influence, which makes sense. And in reality, there are three types of writing that primarily shape scripture: poetry, history, and prophecy. Because of that, as our knowledge of history outside of scripture grows over the centuries, it tends to confirm what we read in scripture – of course. Scripture is in part history, so man’s historical discoveries should confirm the authoritative history that God inspired. But the debate about Genesis one in particular, and science in scripture in general, is a separate issue. It is looking at scripture as something that it was not intended to be. Does that mean all science in scripture disagrees with our scientific knowledge today? Of course not, but that does not mean it was intended to communicate what we sometimes try to read into it.

Ultimately, Walton makes the case that Genesis one is more about assigning functions than it is anything else. For example, the purpose behind labeling the light day was defining its role as a portion of time. This lines up with much of ancient thought that was more focused on role and function than material origin. Function defined existence and value.

Towards the end of the book I began to feel that Walton was dragging out the argument longer than he needed to. He made his most powerful statements when he focused on culture, understanding, limits of language, writing style, ancient culture and cosmology, etc. Some of his propositions later in the book seemed to focus more on the issue of whether or not science could address the issue of God and it seemed unnecessary to me. The historian in me loved the bulk of his propositions that focused on putting ourselves in the sandals of the original readers and how they would have understood Genesis one. Regardless of that, however, this is a must read. Walton has effectively proposed a thought provoking approach to understanding Genesis one that reconciles scripture and science in a powerful way.

 

The 90-Day Fitness Challenge (review)

06 Jan
January 6, 2013

parham bookBack in 2010, former Biggest Loser contestants and inspiring Christian speakers, Phil and Amy Parham released a book called ‘The 90-Day Fitness Challenge.’ They had asked me (as well as a bunch of others) to write a blurb for the inside cover, which I was excited to do after I read their book. Anyway, I was looking through it the other day, saw my blurb and realized I never posted it, so here it is:

Being on the Biggest Loser was one of the most significant times in my Christian life. God designed and desires us to be spiritually and physically healthy, and the impact on our lives is huge. Phil and Amy Parham are the only ones to have put into writing what so many former contestants now know – that weight loss, pursuing health, and becoming the person God intended us to be is not just an exercise program, but a faith journey as well. As a pastor and weight-loss group leader, I love that The 90-Day Fitness Challenge is a complete program, tying together amazing teaching and resources on changing to a healthy lifestyle while honoring and involving our Creator. This is THE book to get for individuals or groups looking to change their lives for the long term!

If you want to grab a copy, you can find it here.