Jesus and John Wayne

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

Wow. This is an important book.

I attended a boarding school in South America during my high school years. During the few years I was there, multiple missionaries were removed from the mission for sexual abuse of children. For close to twenty years I genuinely believed I had happened to be at the school during a weird time and that that kind of abuse couldn’t be the norm. Then a decade or so social media changed the conversation. Hundreds of former students came forward, revealing that in reality, the school had been the site of rampant abuse for decades. What I had thought was a blip was actually a systemic failure. It was a gut wrenching realization.

I had the same experience reading this book.

So many of the stories shared in this history of Christian nationalism in America were moments I remembered being uncomfortable with at the time, but then moving on and not considering their lasting impact. Having it all laid out reveals a far more serious picture of spiritual unhealth and spiraling patterns. Du Mez has done an incredible job of presenting history, walking the reader through the progression of dangerous trends in the American church.

This book is an important one. It would be easy to ignore or reject it because of the uncomfortable realities it reveals, but my hope is that it will spark conversations, trigger questions, and drive critical self evaluation. The church has reformed in the past, something we celebrate and honor. We can do so again.

All that to say, yes, I highly recommend this book.

Book Review Roundup

Some short takes on four books I’ve read over the last couple months:

God and the Pandemic, N.T. Wright. I really wish I had read this when it first came out! Wright does such an effective job of both navigating scripture and addressing the real pain of the pandemic. He challenges the reader to respond like Christ, while cautioning that sadly, for too many “the coronavirus is providing people with a megaphone with which to say, more loudly, what they were wanting to say anyway.” (p.7) He challenges readers to be humble, to have perspective, and live out God’s calling to love our neighbors even if it means sacrificing our preferences. He askes the questions, “Who is going to be at special risk when this happens? What can we do to help? and who shall we send?” (p.32) I really appreciated the heart in this short book; definitely worth checking out!

Gay Girl, Good God, Jackie Hill Perry. Perry’s book was not what I expected; it was much more than a discussion about her transition from being a lesbian to marriage to her husband. It is the story of her life, the abuse she endured, how she navigated sexuality, the story of her coming to know Christ, and eventually the story of the relationship with her husband. She writes that “being born human meant that I had the capacity for affection and logic. Being born sinful meant both were inherently broken.” (p.21) I thought how she told the story of addressing her brokenness was beautiful. My one frustration was that for much of the book it came across as though becoming a Christian meant a natural transition from gay to straight. It wasn’t until the end of the book that Perry acknowledged that while that was her experience, it certainly isn’t true of everyone. Rather than being a book about sexuality, Gay Girl, Good God, is the story of Perry’s faith journey, and as such it is moving to read. I highly recommend.

Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has to Say, Preston Sprinkle. I’ve enjoyed Sprinkle’s writing over the years (Erasing Hell is one that stands out), but I was frustrated with this one. Sprinkle’s strength is in humanizing the stories of transgender people, but by his own admission, his weakness is that he is neither a doctor or a psychologist. Too often I felt he was either picking the research he agreed with and ignoring the ones he doesn’t, or attempting to interpret complex medical research that is above his pay grade. Having said that, I was surprised on his stance on pronouns and names (given the preceding chapters and his conclusions in general about transgender issues). I appreciate the argument he makes from scripture on why using someone’s chosen pronouns is both respectful to the person and in line with scripture. Overall, though, if someone is going to read just one book on this topic, then I would recommend Mark Yarhouse’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria. As a theologian and a practicing psychologist, Yarhouse does an incredible job of balancing both scripture, science, and his decades of direct experience working with people.

Engaging Generation Z: Raising the Bar for Youth Ministry, Tim McKnight. I found myself highlighting a lot of passages in McKnight’s book. It’s a great resource for learning more about Gen Z, how they think, and ways to reach them. I appreciated his comments on page 83 that teens want to be challenged with spiritual meat; that we don’t need to be dumbing down the material for them. He addresses an issue that I think is particularly relevant for churches to confront; he points out that Gen Z is the most “racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history.” (p.36) As such, they are that much more aware of how the church responds to race issues – and it has become a major stumbling block for them. I know I’ve seen this directly with the teens in our church and their frustration on how they’ve seen many adults in our congregation interact around this topic and other topics over the last year on social media. McKnight gives a lot of great insight on healthy approaches to student ministry, practical tips, and more. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are in student ministry.

Talking Back to Purity Culture [book review]

Rachel Joy Welcher’s Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality takes a look at the Purity Culture many in Gen X grew up with, the impact of it, and discusses how Christians could have a healthier approach to conversations and teachings around sexuality. I think she presents a strong case for the weaknesses and damage caused by a legalistic approach while at the same time giving great insights on how believers can both hold to scripture while letting go of the judgement and damaging rhetoric.

I loved this particular quote from the book: “Purity culture’s main problem is not that it is too conservative but that it is too worldly. Sex is not about self, and abstinence is anything but sexy. Dressing it up as such is not only confusing, it’s discouraging. When our children realize that pursuing sexual purity is incredibly difficult, they will wonder why we didn’t prepare them. Sometimes we think God needs us to dangle carrots in front of people in order to make his message palatable, when he has called us to preach a gospel of foolishness to those who are perishing, a message so offensive to our pride that we must either reject the Son or fall at his feet.” (Kindle location 2722)

From my own experience, the legalistic, purity culture approach to teaching on sexuality lays a foundation that sets young people up to believe that they are either choosing God or sexual activity. Statistically, we know that Christian young people tend to be sexually active at similar rates to non-churched young people. This legalistic approach to teaching on sex does not scare them into good behavior; it instead leads them to believe that they have fundamentally rejected God and now it’s too late. Welcher writes powerfully on this, exposing the damage and ramifications of such an approach.

Unlike many books that just focus on the negative aspects of purity culture and leave the reader wondering if there is anything they can do instead, short of giving up and allowing for a sexual ethic that is indistinguishable from the world around us, Welcher does give far healthier approaches to viewing sexuality and discussing it based on scripture. Overall, I think she has written an important book for anyone in a position of leadership – whether as a teacher, youth worker, pastor, or parent. Definitely worth reading!

 

 

Under Pressure [book review]

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Dr. Lisa DaMour is an important book. Just from my own anecdotal experience of being a youth pastor for what will be twenty years in a couple months, I have noticed anxiety skyrocketing in adolescent girls in the last five years.

Drawing on her training, research, and years of experience working with girls, DaMour effectively lays out the challenges for adolescent girls, the rise in stress and anxiety, and a lot of insight on how girls handle it and its impacts on them. I think she also does a great job on giving insights on how to help girls navigate their stress and anxiety.

The most surprising thought she put forward? “Here’s the first thing we can do to help our daughters take control of anxiety: we can teach them that anxiety is often their friend.” (p.13) Surprised? So was I, but as she goes on to explain, anxiety is our natural alert system – when we learn to trust it rather than fear it, it can be a great tool for giving us insight on what’s going on around us or issues that we need to deal with. At the same time, it can also be a concerning issue. DaMour does a great job contrasting the two and giving tools for recognizing when it’s healthy and when it’s concerning.

Overall, I thought it was an important book and definitely worth reading for parents and those who work with girls. My one frustration was that at times it almost seemed like DaMour painted boys with a broad brush that suggested they don’t have struggles or that adolescence is far easier for them. As with girls, over the last five years I have seen surprising rises in stress, eating disorders, self harm and suicidal tendencies with boys as well – it just manifests differently. All that being said, it’s definitely an important read.

Mark Stuart’s “Losing My Voice to Find It”

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Mark Stuart’s Losing My Voice to Find It is such a great book! I picked it up a couple weeks ago at Youth Specialties NYWC conference; I actually got to meet Mark at the Interlinc booth and get my copy signed.

I should probably preface this review with the fact that Audio Adrenaline has long been my favorite Christian rock band. I’ve always enjoyed their music; when I was a student at Gordon College in the late 90’s their tour came to my school. I was dirt broke so I volunteered to be one of the security people so I could get in the show. I did my job while All Star United opened, however, there is a slight chance that I forgot about it when Audio Adrenaline hit the stage. I also may have abused my position to sneak backstage and meet the band. If you’re ever in my office, I have a shelf that is dedicated to things that make me love student ministry – 99% of it is gifts from students. The other 1% is a beat up copy of Audio Adrenaline’s “Bloom” cd with all their autographs – I got their signatures that night at Gordon. I’ve seen them other times since, but that night was amazing; they brought it big time. One of my all time favorite concert experiences!

So I’m biased.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I loved discovering how the band came together, the struggles, the process behind the music I’ve listened to for decades. An unexpected bonus was an inside look at the Christian music scene in general; of course their story crossed with the major bands of the 90’s and early 2000’s, and it was fun to see those stories play out.

Reading about Mark’s personal story; the challenges of being a pastor’s kid and missionary kid (something I personally related to), his struggle with confidence, his first marriage’s struggles – and the pressure to hide his imperfections from the Christian community, all of this was both fascinating, gut wrenching, and beautiful to see the thread of God’s hand in his life and calling. To see his frustration with losing his voice and the breakup of the band as a result, to his joy in finding a bigger mission through the Hands and Feet project in Haiti, was beautiful.

The book is so good. I thought it would be a fun exploration of my favorite band’s story, but it’s much more than that. There is a deeper message about our desire for control and the power that comes from letting go and letting God take the lead. You don’t need to a fan of the band to be moved by Stuart’s story. The writing is strong, the book flows well – I couldn’t put it down. It’s definitely worth grabbing, especially if you’ve ever enjoyed Christian rock.

A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry (review)

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Dr. Michael McGarry’s new book, “A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry,” is an important resource for the youth ministry community. He powerfully addresses the need for, and the importance of, youth ministry from a number of perspectives.

An experienced youth pastor, McGarry opens the book addressing one of the fundamental concerns many youth ministry veterans and experts have identified; the drop out rate from church is far too high when young people graduate from the youth ministry. We can’t just keep replicating the approaches and systems that have contributed to this problem.

McGarry writes, “the emphasis of this book is on presenting a clear and simple but thoroughly biblical framework for thinking about youth ministry as the church’s expression of partnership with the family for co-evangelizing and co-discipling the next generation.” (p.3)

Towards that end, he does something I have not seen done before; he works through the modern landscape of youth ministry, youth ministry in the Old Testament and New Testament, youth ministry in church history, the theology of youth ministry, and ultimately how this all connects to the family and the local church. For me, this systematic working through youth ministry in each of these contexts is what makes this book so important. He creates a backdrop of history and story that gives weight to his final chapters describing the important components of a healthy approach to youth ministry.

I love his quote, “Youth ministry is for adolescence, the family is for life, and the Church is for eternity.” (p.143) This theme is repeated throughout the book and plays a critical role in shaping a biblical theology of youth ministry.

At 164 pages, this is an easy read. While part of the Randall House Academic line, McGarry does a great job of balancing solid research and methodology with an approachable writing style making this a book for youth ministry professionals and volunteers alike. I highly recommend the book; it is definitely a must read for anyone who wants to see young people and families impacted for God.

The Gospel of Ruth

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The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules, by Carolyn Custis James, is a fascinating book. While I’ve always enjoyed the book of Ruth, I’ve never taken the time to do a deep dive into it’s message and narrative. Unsurprisingly, there is far more to this short book of the Old Testament than many would assume.

James does a powerful job of dispelling the mistaken ways we romanticize the story through our modern cultural bias and instead brings light to how the ancient writer and readers would have read the text. What comes through are incredible lessons in hesed, in seeing the dramatic ways in which Ruth broke with expectations, how Boaz and Ruth both serve as incredible examples of kindness way beyond what was expected or required. James’ comments on Naomi’s story’s connections to the book of Job were eye opening for me.

Walking with God takes us into a sea of possibilities that stretch our capacity for sacrifice and our imagination for obedience, reminding us there’s always more to following God than we think. (p. 102)

All that to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s definitely worth checking out. It’s fascinating to see how Ruth and Naomi pushed the cultural bounds and expectations. It’s amazing to learn about the response of Boaz and the community. This book really helps open the reader’s eyes to what God accomplishes and teaches through the book of Ruth.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (review)

Disruptive Witness Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age

I recently finished Alan Noble’s “Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age.” Noble’s goal in writing the book is to challenge the reader to a deeper, more disruptive (to the culture around us) faith, freed from the distractions of the technology and culture we are immersed in. I found the following passage particularly powerful:

We can adopt thin beliefs about almost anything. Perhaps you become deeply convicted about the plight of Syrian refugees after the US president callously calls for them to be banned. His words strike you as offensive, inhumane, and cruel. And while you may still harbor some unspoken suspicions about Middle Easterners after 9/11, this issue feels like the perfect opportunity to show your goodwill. The next time you see a meme showing refugee children with a superimposed verse about caring for the “least of these,” you decide not only to like it but to share it with your friends. This signals what your stance is on the issue and maybe something about your personal character, your open-mindedness and concern for foreigners. An argument breaks out on your post, with some of your distant relatives and old high school friends arguing over whether Islam is a religion of peace and whether “moderate Muslims” exist. You jump in to defend your position, citing lines of argument that you’ve picked up from other viral images or a John Oliver clip you watched on YouTube. You care about this issue passionately. There is a tremendous moral urgency to your writing, and you are even willing to anger and lose friends over your stance—a stance you adopted fifteen minutes prior, after seeing a compelling viral image on Facebook. Meanwhile, the foundation of your belief goes unquestioned. (p.45)

When he’s calling out these kinds of thin beliefs, the ways we allow ourselves to be distracted, disconnected – Noble really hits his stride. His challenge to live a life of faith that brings a witness to the world around us is a strong one. I found those parts of the book deeply compelling. In other parts, he critiques contemporary worship services, expresses his dissatisfaction with Vacation Bible School, and other modern attempts to bridge culture and faith. I wasn’t convinced that he was right that these approaches are wrong – just that they don’t resonate with him and his pursuit of God, and even found myself somewhat frustrated with his conclusions in those areas.

Overall, I’m glad I read the book. Having said that, it was a bit of a mixed bag for me; parts I loved, parts I found frustrating.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

still hereI’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown, is a powerful book. From her opening sentence to the close of the book, Brown writes a provocative, challenging call to not just awareness, but action. She shines the light not just on the blatant ways in which American culture reveals its racism; she also highlights the more subtle, insidious racism that often times goes unnoticed by those exhibiting it.

“White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.” (p.22)

For me, this book is a call to action for the church. If we’re really honest with ourselves, “white churches” largely ignore this topic, or periodically give it token acknowledgement, but for the most part ignore it because it’s easy. And it’s uncomfortable to actually acknowledge.

I loved her story of a fellow classmate beginning to get it;

“‘I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned,’ she said. ‘I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.’ And then she said nine words that I’ve never forgotten: ‘Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.'” (p.58)

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to capture the book in a short blog post. It’s powerful. It’s important. Christians need to read it, but not just pat themselves on the back for reading it – it needs to provoke change, not just awareness. The challenge of doing nothing no longer being an option rings loud and clear through every page.

The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority

lost worldThe third book in John Walton’s “Lost World” series, this is the first to feature a co-author, and the biggest of the five. The Lost World of Scripture is heavy reading, but fascinating. Walton and Sandy follow the format of previous books with building propositions, but this time with regard to ancient views on communication, authority, and literature. Essentially, Walton writes the first half of the book with a focus on Old Testament literature, while Sandy does the same with the New Testament. The book then concludes with a few more propositions written by them together.

Walton’s contribution was riveting; I was fascinated with his exploration of ancient authority, oral based cultures, and the minor role the written word played – which makes sense, given how few were actually literate. In some ways, it became abundantly clear that as a text-dominant culture and world, it is almost impossible to fully understand ancient culture’s oral based system of authority and passing on of information. Walton does an effective job of identifying those cultural differences and how it has both shaped the scriptures, as well as ways in which we should reconsider our approaches to scripture today.

Sandy’s New Testament portion was also interesting, however somewhat redundant. Literacy was becoming more wide spread during the writing of the New Testament books, but it was still a primarily oral based culture so there was a lot of overlap in what he wrote with what Walton had already established in the Old Testament portion of the book.

In the conclusion, the authors tackle issues of inerrancy, modern standards versus ancient standards, and a present a compelling argument for the authority of scripture. Overall, I’m really glad I read the book. I feel like I have a much stronger sense of scripture and authority. At the same time, it was not an easy read. It took me a while to work my way through the whole book; I’m not sure that it’s ideal for the casual reader. You really need to want to understand ancient languages and literature, as well as ancient views on authority and values in writing to enjoy this book. Having said that, it’s definitely an important work for anyone who teaches/preaches from scripture to read.