2014 is proving to be a good year for newly published Christian women's books, a genre whose weaknesses and shallowness I and many others have oft lam...more2014 is proving to be a good year for newly published Christian women's books, a genre whose weaknesses and shallowness I and many others have oft lamented.
Without even using the word hermeneutics, this book is a guide to exactly that. (But no worries, lovers of and trained students in hermeneutics, the author still pulls out and articulately teaches words and concepts such as metanarrative, exegesis, and Bible literacy.)
Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds is a clarion call to today's Christian women to lay aside poor Bible study habits and to dig deeply into patient, purposeful intake of the full scope of Scripture, examining God's Word word-by-word, and within context of The Big Story. Just like our culture is currently learning that this the case with food, the more processed your Bible study is, the less healthy it is for you.
Jen Wilkin encourages women to "put the ruffles in the back," (you'll have to read the book to learn the specific meaning of this one :)), to put away flaky bible study, and to realize that simply "doing devotions" or a "spending time in the Word" are often merely buzzwords that have not been further elaborated or adequately demonstrated.
Yet she writes without intimidation; her own words are neither lofty nor inaccessible. Instead, Jen writes as a skilled teacher, articulating with precision and simplicity, giving her readers a helpful framework for studying God's word. This guide gives the reader specific steps to follow while simultaneously allowing freedom for individual seasons of life, speeds of learning, and the relinquishing of poor study habits. Framework for Studying the Bible After addressing the need for Bible study, Jen dissects several common, yet ineffective, ways we tend approach Scripture within the American Christian subculture: the Xanax Approach, the Pinball Approach, the Magic Ball Approach, the Personal Shopper Approach, the Telephone Game Approach, and the Jack Sprat Approach. (Check out this article for a more in-depth examination of each of these approaches.)
In going through each of these mistaken ways to approach God's Word, Jen not only discusses how easy it is to treat Scripture carelessly, but how important it is that we take a careful, studious approach.
(While this is certainly not a diatribe-focused book, it is nonetheless important to address these errors. Because these approached have subtly become the standard and accepted methods, extra time and explanation must be given to evaluating each of them. Many of us have habitualized these methods to the point of needing extra effort to eliminate them from our Bible study methods.)
Jen builds a framework for good Bible study using her alliterated five-point outline. She urges her readers to study with:
Although alliteration is occasionally symbolic of shallow Bible study, in this case it's a well-crafted pneumonic device.
Under these five foci, Jen addresses the importance of understanding metanarrative (the big-picture story of the Bible) and understanding the Bible as literature (focusing on an understanding of specific authors, the time of writing, the intended audience, the style of writing, and the purpose of writing).
As she explains within the section on Study with Process, Jen then gives the reader specific steps for approaching a passage and studying it in detail, listing the three main stages as:
Comprehension - "What Does It Say?"
A Printed Copy of the Text
An English Dictionary
Other Translations of the Bible
Interpretation - "What Does It Mean?"
Application - "How Should It Change Me?"
What does this passages teach me about God?
How does this aspect of God's character change my view of self?
What should I do in response?
While she does give specific instructions, Jen nonetheless is teaching her readers to fish, rather than simply handing them pre-selected fishes. Or in the words of Jen's opening analogy, she gives her readers a spoon to move their "mountains of Biblical ignorance."
At the end of the book, Jen walks through James as an example of studying a smaller book of the Bible. (This is extremely beneficial, particularly for those who may not have had previous exposure to this type of Bible study.) For the Hungry Women of the Word is easy to read (can be read in just a few hours), but is also valuable as a Bible study companion — using it as a reference and tool as you learn to navigate exegesis of individual passages.
Christian women are hungry for God's Word. In the absence of being taught how to feed ourselves or where to find the healthy food, women are turning to the ineffective approaches listed above, to false teachers, or to anyone who will claim to feed them. Others have been told that "spiritual meat" isn't food for women, and some have become content with a diet of milk and watered-down Word. Yet we can't expect a quick-fix: studying God's Word takes discipline, persistence, and patience. And as we labor through the text, we soon realized we are being filled, we are growing, and our hunger is increasing.
Regardless of where you are in your spiritual journey or how much Bible study training you have under your belt (or your fluffy tights :)), I can guarantee that anyone who has a desire to study God's word will walk away from this book better equipped to do so. Does Every Passage Have Personal Application? One minimal concern with Jen's instructions for Bible study is found in the final step of making application.
(Specifically, my concern is grown out of the application she draws from Genesis 1-6. It would seem that her particular application from that specific text is a bit forced: "A person who applies the creation story can tell you that because God creates in an orderly fashion, we too should live well-ordered lives..." While we may indeed be called to live well-ordered lives, I do not believe this is something that can be drawn out as specific application from this text.)
Because her teaching is so specific and corrective elsewhere in the book, I think further clarification on this particular detail is warranted. Not every passage is going to contain specific personal application or even merit a specific, immediate response. Sometimes, the most specific application that can be wrestled out of certain texts will be to simply step back in awe of Who God is. Sometimes, and Jen does address this elsewhere (also listed in excerpts below), we are simply storing up a savings account of Biblical literacy for the Spirit to apply specifically at a later time.
Jen is careful to repeatedly point out that Scripture is not a book about finding ourselves, but about learning who God is. She is even careful to note that while, yes, we will learn more about ourselves the more we study God's Word, it is only under the umbrella of coming to know who God is. When I understand who He is, I can begin to understand who I am in light of that.
And so, teaching or believing that personal application can be made from every passage can potentially lead to forcing the Scripture into a mold it wasn't intended to be in, going back to the very error Wilkin is so concerned about in the first place.(The particular example that stands out as forced; I think Wilkin would agree with the previous sentence, but perhaps could do a better job in articulating this, especially in light of the ineffective approaches she lists.) The Truth Will Set Us Free This book is empowering for women who have been told that theology is the man's work, or who have been relegated to studying only the "pink passages." (Hannah Anderson's Made for More, review here, also has a great, in-depth examination on this subject.)
The truth is that God desires all people — male or female — know Him for who He is.
A proper understanding of Scripture (and how to study Scripture) is absolutely essential for Christian women. Why? Because our Biblical theology affects our practical theology — how we live out what we believe before God and humankind.
Our understanding of who God is directly affects our understanding of the world around us, of ourselves, and how we view and treat the countless other people created in God's image. And until we can dig deeper to understand who God is, we often leave ourselves with a very shallow interpretation of each of those areas.
If we've been taught that it's okay to cherry pick the Scriptures, we end up twisting the Bible to say whatever we want it to say. If we haven't understood the metanarrative of the Bible, we are unable to discern what is truth when we hear Bible teachers teach opposite positions.
It would behoove those in a position of teaching God's word to others or leading a Bible study to read this book. In fact, Jen devoted her last chapter to addressing the particulars of teaching Bible study.
While this book is addressed particularly for women, this would also be a valuable resource in any man's toolkit for studying Scripture. Given the dearth of Bible study teaching for women, my hope is that many pastors and other men would seriously consider reading this book, both to sharpen their own understanding of being people of The Word and for increasing their knowledge of available resources.
For those who are in a season of life that allows for only minimal (or, even no) interaction with the Bible, the author empathizes and is careful not to make rules that Scripture itself does not make. Rather, she writes with encouragement to endure and wait during such seasons. (A portion of such encouragement is included below, as the final excerpt.)
After reading this book, my hunger for further and deeper Bible study grew. This is a book I have long hoped would be written, and am thankful for this important resource in Women of the Word. Assorted Excerpts:
"It seemed obvious that if God had given us his revealed will in the Bible, I should be spending more time trying to know and understand it. But the task seemed overwhelming. Where was I supposed to start? And why weren't the things I was already doing making the problem discernibly better? How was I supposed to move my mountain of biblical ignorance?
The answer, of course, was gloriously simple. The answer was 'one spoonful at a time.' Thankfully, someone gave me a spoon...
On the other side of the mountain of my biblical ignorance was a vision of God high and lifted up, a vision stretching Genesis to Revelation that I desperately needed to see. I have by no means removed that whole mountain from my line of sight, but I intend to go to my grave with dirt beneath my nails and a spoon clutched in my fist. I am determined that no mountain of biblical ignorance will keep me from seeing him as clearly as my seventy or eighty years on this earth will allow."
"Within our Christian subculture we have adopted a catch-all phrase for our regular habit of interacting with Scripture: 'spending time in the Word.' Church leaders urge us to do so. Authors and bloggers exhort us to value it. But what should take place during our 'time in the Word' can remain a vague notion, the specific habit it represents varying widely from person to person.
The potential danger of this vagueness is that we may assume that our version of 'spending time in the Word' is moving us toward Bible literacy simply because we have been obedient to practice it. Not all contact with Scripture builds Bible literacy. Learning what the Bible says and subsequently working to interpret and apply it requires quite a different practice than many of those we commonly associate with 'spending time in the Word.' We cannot afford to assume that our good intentions are enough."
"For years I viewed my interaction with the Bible as a debit account: I had a need, so I went to the Bible to withdraw an answer. But we do so much better to view our interaction with the Bible as a savings account: I stretch my understanding daily, deposit what I glean, and patiently wait for it to accumulate in value, knowing that one day I will need to draw on it. Bible study is an investment with a long-term payoff. Rather than reading a specific text to try to meet an immediate need, give the benefits of your study permission to be stored away for future use. What if the passage you are fighting to understand today suddenly makes sense to you when you most need it, ten years from now? It has been said that we overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten. Are you willing to invest ten years in waiting for understanding? Are you willing to wait a decade for an application point to emerge? Be encouraged that you are storing up treasure, eve if you don't see or feel it in the short term."
"For me, these seasons [of not being able to devote long periods of time to Bible study] have sometimes lasted for years — sermons and podcasts were a lifeline. Having a structured group study to go to helped keep me in contact with the Bible, but some months even that was too much to take on. Some months, just keeping body and soul together for myself and my family seemed to occupy almost every waking moment. I don't consider those months to have been lost time or setback to my growth. They were times to employ patience, not with active learning of the Scriptures, but with waiting on the Lord. They deepened my desire for study. Some of my most fruitful times of teaching and writing occurred immediately after just such a period of waiting."
Table of Contents
Disclaimer: I received an electronic advanced reader's copy of this book in exchange for my review. But all opinions are my own.
I'm afraid I may have gone into this book with a slight bias: I've read Hannah Anderson's writing (via blog and contributed articles elsewhere) over t...moreI'm afraid I may have gone into this book with a slight bias: I've read Hannah Anderson's writing (via blog and contributed articles elsewhere) over the last few years, and have almost always profited from her writing and thinking. When I heard and read reviews for her upcoming book, my heart skipped a few beats with excitement, both at the topic and my knowledge of her gift for writing.
As I immersed myself into Hannah's forward, I again felt the same excitement.
Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Imageis an invitation for women to step back from our culture's myopic view of life (both inside and outside the Church), and to take in the full scope of our identity in Christ. In the front portion of the book, Getting Started, Hannah states her purpose in writing this book:
"This book is not a call to deny womanhoood in order to embrace being made in His image. But it is a call to understand that womanhood, and everything that comes with it, serves a greater purpose. It is not a call to abandon labels or categories, but it is a call to step back in order to lay a solid foundation before we build those categories. It is a call to wrestle with what it means to be made in His image and to believe that you are made for more than what you often settle for."
Ensconced within the final sentences of that paragraph, I believe, is what makes this book's message so crucial. So much of today's "Biblical womanhood" teaching has not been laid as a solid foundation, but instead upon bricks of flaky theology and a chronistic view of womanhood. Sadly, many of us with such a foundation under our feet have indeed settled for far less than what we were created to be and to do.
The scope of this book is primarily a one of providing a foundational overview of living imago dei, yet under that umbrella, Anderson also offers a robust and corrective theology of vocation and education (learning).
Under the realm of vocation, I particularly benefited from this aspect that Catherine also brought up in her review of the book, and appreciated Catherine's articulation of this:
"[P]erhaps the most profound section[s] of the book (and I hope the author writes more extensively on this topic in a future book, because I think she nailed it) is Anderson’s description of integrated identity. That is, rather than chasing the have-it-all thing, or attempting to compartmentalize different facets of our identity, Anderson advocates a convergence and flourishing that comes from seeing our different callings and roles–from personal to professional, expressing our giftedness to accomplishing mundane tasks–as a chance to be the hands and feet of Christ, and to reflect the unity and wholeness of the Trinity. And, she writes, when we love God with the fullness of our identities, and seek Him in every aspect of our lives, we will enjoy His peace and see those seemingly disparate parts of who we are “work together in beautiful coordination for our good and His glory.” I love the way she puts this:
The fact that I am a woman, that I am a mother, that I am a writer—even where I live—all work together to enable me to image God in a more complex, more brilliant way than if my identity were simply one-dimensional. So even as we strive for wholeness, we do not reach it by diminishing the multidimensional nature of our lives. We find it through the complexity of them. We find wholeness as each facet is cut to capture and reflect the radiance of Christ Himself."
As God has shifted my paradigms of theology of vocation and Biblical womanhood over recent years, I've come to accept and appreciate this sort of "integrated identity" in myself. Because of my many interests (not all of which can be explored during this particular season, or even during any one particular life season, really), I've come to terms with seeing myself as a "renaissance soul," a concept explored in the secular book by the same name (my review here). And in reality, we are all renaissance souls, as perhaps no one is gifted or called to simply one realm giftedness and ability over the course of a lifetime. But this exploration is particularly helpful to Christian women who have often been relegated to seeing their identity as a "one-dimensional caricature" of a rather superficial view of womanhood, at that. Written for More As Matthew L. Anderson shared in his back cover blurb, "Here is a book for women that has something to teach men. Made for More is wise and well-written, and I heartily commend it to everyone made in the image of God, male and female alike."
This is a book that I want my children, both sons and daughters, to read. This is a book that I want my husband to read. (Thankfully he already has a good grasp on imago dei, and has not been afraid to learn theology or otherwise from women, either! :))
This book was healing and hopeful, freeing and spiritually challenging, edifying and empowering, and bears an important message for all those who bear God's image, which is all of us. Anderson writes with theological precision and academic accessibility, and demonstrates her own giftedness for writing in a way that promotes the human flourishing she speaks of in the book. Assorted Excerpts
"Thankfully, He's the kind of God who welcomes our questions, who can wrestle with us through the confusion and still bless us in the process. He is the kind of God who desires true faith, even at its weakest points, and looks for mustard seeds instead of mountains. He is the kind of God who delights in the plea, "Help my unbelief" and then holds on to us because we can't hold on to Him anymore. He is the kind of God who can handle all our doubt, all our fear, all our questions if we will simply commit to letting Him." (27)
"Instead of being fully formed, multi-dimensional people who radiate the complexity of God's nature, we [mistakenly] become one-dimensional caricatures, as limited and superficial as the thing we have devoted ourselves to." (50)
"Our God doesn't bear grudges. He doesn't hold Himself back to punish us. He doesn't "teach us a thing or two." Instead, in the face of unbelievable rejection, even as we turn from Him again and again, He patiently, generously, abundantly extends Himself to us. And when we finally return to Him, and to each other, He faithfully, freely forgives and makes us whole once again." (91-92)
"And yet Scripture does not differentiate between sacred wisdom and secular knowledge. In Psalm 19:1, David sings that even "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork." Everything you could possibly learn -- from the physics that enable a suspension bridge to straddle San Francisco bay to the social habits of whales to the tenderness of a mother's touch -- everything reveals the majesty of God 'who established the world by His wisdom.'"
"Because of this, imago dei knowledge is by necessity more than a dry, crusty intellectualism; it is more than a 'worldview.' At its root, imago dei knowledge means searching for Him with childlike curiosity, wide-eyed and eager to discover who He is and the world He has made." (99-100)
"Too often as women, we have restricted ourselves to the 'pink' parts of the Bible. When we identify first and foremost as women, we can begin to believe that knowledge of ourselves will come primarily through passages that speak to women's issues or include heroines like Ruth or Esther. But when we do this, when we craft our learning and discipleship programs around being "women," we make womanhood the central focus of our pursuit of knowledge instead of Christ.
And we forget that these "pink passages" were never intended to be sufficient by themselves. We forget that we can never understand what it means to be women of good works until we first learn about the goodness of a God who works on our behalf. We forget that nothing about them will make any sense if they are not first grounded in the truth that we are destined to be conformed to His image through Christ.
Because you are an image bearer, you must allow the entirety of Scripture to shape your sense of self. You must begin to see every verse as a "pink" passage because every verse speaks to who God is and therefore who you are as His daughter. You must begin to believe that theology and doctrine are not men's issues but that they are imago dei issues because they reveal the God in whose image you are made." (103)
For Elizabeth A. Johnson, working through a Biblical response to physical affliction was not merely an abstract theological question to be dealt with...more
For Elizabeth A. Johnson, working through a Biblical response to physical affliction was not merely an abstract theological question to be dealt with at random. For her, the questions presented themselves in the form of chronic illness that interrupted the life she thought she would have, years before many feel forced to search for such deep answers. In Touching the Hem: A Biblical Response to Physical Suffering, Elizabeth works through a theology of a Biblical response to physical suffering by working through five main related studies: God's character, God's works, our circumstances, our response, and God's response.
Elizabeth is a gifted writer, and her study and personal devotion to this topic shine through the book. While this is definitely not a fluffy women's book, it is an easy, well-organized read. It is both academic and accessible while blending in Elizabeth's personal experience with the subject matter.
Although I am not currently enduring a time of chronic physical affliction (and the book certainly deals with far more than chronic health issues), I still found the book devotionally and spiritually valuable. I have suffered from minor health issues in the past, and know that, unless I die suddenly and soon, I will face them again, though the severity and longevity of such remain presently unknown. At the same time, I think that if I read this book while in the midst of intense physical affliction, it would lend even greater value.
Elizabeth's audience will be primarily those who hold to a (classical) Cessationist theology, as is evidenced by her chapter dealing with faith healing. This is also evidenced in the following statement: "When people find themselves healed today, while it may feel like a miracle to one who has suffered so intently for so long, it generally can be explained by God's working through natural means to heal them. The healing is still of God, when it comes, but it is not usually an actual miracle. True healing occurs on God's terms alone: according to His perfect will and timing. It is never solely by the hands or words of a man." With room for beliefs between Cessationism and charismaticism, I appreciate her open ended statement that leaves room for the possibility for God to heal through miracles, though such occurrences be rare or unseen to many.
Elizabeth does an excellent job of connecting physical health and spiritual health and showing Scriptural support of how these are linked together. Seeing this link highlighted in the book was a helpful reminder to me in many ways, but particularly in demonstrating compassion as I love my neighbors/fellow believers and also in being able to better understand some of my own seeming spiritual struggles during times of physical weakness. In relation to that, Elizabeth included this helpful excerpt from Tasker's commentary on James:
"...when the body may be racked with pain and the mind considerably disturbed, it is not easy for the sufferer unaided to turn his thoughts in any articulate or concentrated manner to prayer, and he needs the consolation of other Christians in what may be for him a period of much spiritual distress."
One minor weakness of the book, particularly in potential audience scope, is the use of the King James Version as the Scripture text of choice. Having grown up using this version, I did not find it difficult to use; but at the same time, because of the frequency of Scriptural quotations and excerpts, it may be confusing to some. Additionally, I found weakness in some of the arguments and logic used to demonstrate that the use of doctors and medicines would be Biblically commendable. (I do agree with the author's conclusions, but wonder if perhaps the same logic and argumentation could be used to prove any number of things that many Christians would also think unbiblical.)
Regardless of current health status, this would be a helpful study for any believer. In addition to the main text of the book, there are also several valuable appendices at the end of the book.
Table of Contents:
Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book to review, but all opinions expressed here are my own.
If ever there was a case in which you should not judge a book by its cover, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to "The Passion of the Christ," would be a classic example. Though the cover art leaves you thinking it's going to be a pop-theology book or Jon Acuff-style book (although there is definitely a place for Jon Acuff's books), this book is quite academic in its examination of American church history and theology. Overview Nichols purports that the American Jesus is a by-product of the cultural ideologies flowing from various eras, some of it good, but much of it deceptively harmful. As indicated in the title, the book begins by examining the origins of an American Jesus during the era and teachings of the Puritans. He traces the trajectory of this Jesus through American church history, from the times of the founding fathers (e.g., Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and Paine), the concurrent Victorian and rugged-frontier eras, the emergence of liberalism and fundamentalism, the CCM and Christian filmmaking industries, Christianized consumerism, and finally the hijacking of Jesus in support of political movements and agendas. Each chapter looks at multiple facets of how each epoch shaped the identity of the American Jesus, both negatively and positively.
This is one of those books that, even while I disagreed with some of the author's conclusions, has nonetheless made a significant impact on my thinking for the year. Unless Tim Keller writes some more books fast (he did just release another), I'm guessing this book is going to go on my list of ten best reads for the year. :) Value Paradigm-Shifting and Perspective-Tilting
This book provides an excellent lens through which to view our current culture, both secular and Christian, both the culture at large and our smaller subcultures. I found myself doing this with clearer perspective after reading this book. Particularly with the increase of social media use this presidential election year, Facebook statuses and tweets laced with founding father quotes, spiritualized materialism, and religious elitism were an excellent reminder of how we all fail to see how much we've allowed culture to override our religion.
Sadly, American Christianity is far more influenced by culture than we would like to believe. So ensconced are we in our own culture that we accept spiritualized untruth and allow it to seamlessly flow into our once pure streams of pure doctrine, and it happens so gradually that we never notice the waters are tainted.
While Nichols exercise keen insight and awareness into the way our Christian subculture is a reflection of the cultural sensibilities at large, he is not aloof or misinformed of his surrounding culture. On the contrary, he seems very well-versed, a sometimes participant, in much of secular and Christianized entertainment, yet without appearing to indulge in it. This is a rare combination, but one that lends credibility to his cultural critique.
Highlighted the Importance of Robust Doctrine and Right Living
Both indirectly and directly, this book highlighted to me the importance of both robust doctrine and right living (and right community), and how they are united. Nichols seems to bifurcate the two throughout the book, giving the Puritans a pass on their glaring approval of human mistreatment, simply because their doctrine was correctly aligned. (To clarify, I realize that every era of theologians will have their own blind spots that will eventually be glaringly obvious when given the hindsight of time and distance.)
Robust doctrine is essential. We cannot have mere pendulum-swing theology and teaching that focuses on reacting to what the religious community perceives to be the cultural errors. Yet, this is what happened during various American eras, and we have allowed those cultural emphases to shape "our Jesus," both in conservative and liberal divisions of American Christianity.
As John R. W. Stott wrote (183), "every heresy is due to an overemphasis upon some truth, without allowing other truths to qualify and balance it." In the first portion of the book, Nichols highlights the dangers of reactions to the Puritans preaching, yet the reactionary back-swing of the pendulum can be equally dangerous when not taught along with all doctrine and the truths to qualify and balance.
For instance, we must study and teach diligently both Jesus' humanity and His divinity. If the culture or doctrinally weak religious institutions of the time overemphasize Jesus' humanity, it can be tempting to attempt to try to correct this by overemphasizing His divinity (or, vice versa--heresies exist in both overemphases). The Church must teach both aspects of Jesus' identity, though a heavier, still balanced, emphasis on one or the other may be appropriate in varying contexts. Concerns and Criticisms: Nichols seems to suggest, at times, that doctrine is more important than lifestyle. While one cannot have right living apart from right theology, it seems il-advised to elevate one above the other, or even to attempt to separate the two.
I'm not against strong writing, but there is a problem with overstatement. And, sometimes, Nichols tends to overstate his point. In demonstrating the Jesus Made in America of today or bygone eras, he seems to focus on otherwise innocuous expressions of contextualized biblical lifestyle or teaching as a sign of the Jesus made in their own image. When you're hunting coyotes in the woods, every moving branch appears to be a coyote.
Drawing major conclusions from historical instances is dicey work. For one, there are probably plenty of examples to counter the argument you're trying to make. Second, you may never know how many examples to muster in order to prove your point. Nichols is an admirable historian, yet there are points at which the point he is making seems dubious at best, based on the historical exhibits. (For example, he discusses the theology of Puritans Edward Taylor and Jonathan Edwards to make a broad conclusion regarding the Puritans as a whole. Choosing two out of the many American Puritans may be the case for an observation, but perhaps not an airtight conclusion.) In essence, Nichols runs the risk of historical cherry-picking — selecting one or two examples, then purporting such examples to be representative of an era, and thus the linchpin of a major point.
Where does contextualization end and misappropriation begin? Christianity must be contextualized for every age and culture, just as it was in its 1st century ancient Roman setting. The fine line between contextualization and compromise has vexed the church for centuries. In some areas, Nichols may simply be looking at appropriate contextualization, and vilifying it as an American fabrication of Jesus; yet in others, he very clearly and helpfully points out the dangers of subtle misappropriation dressed up in contextualization and spiritualization.
When reading an erudite author, it can be easy to think that whatsoever the author saying is truth. Nichols is both a brilliant scholar and a skilled writer, that it can be easy to let everything he says pass uncontested. There are some areas, as in any book, where we may view his conclusions with some degree of thoughtful hesitancy.
Some of these statements of the book are particularly insightful, and worth reflecting on.
"Once Jesus is liberated from the confines of revelation, he ends up looking a lot like the ideals of his reinterpreters." (55)
"The first step in retooling Christ means freeing Christ from the abstractions of creeds and instead looking to the simpler Jesus who graces the pages of the New Testament. The second step entails an emphasis on personally experiencing Jesus over merely learning of him. More often then not, this second step means looking beyond the pages of the New Testament." (77)
"Commodifying evangelism turns persons who relate into customers who buy, a rather alien approach to that of Christ's." (187)
"Listening to the critics of evangelicalism, both sympathetic and not, may go a long way to helping see blind spots. Perhaps evangelicals especially have such blind spots because of putting Jesus, whether its on the [political] left or the right, in the wrong place." (212)
"Co-opting Christianity for the cause of politics does not serve to elevate, but reduce Christianity, to relegate it to a place it does not deserve." (215)
"American evangelicals have sterling proficiency in the realm of the subjective and experiential. But not all of the answers to life's questions come from within or come from our own time." (224)
Back to Those Puritans As to Nichols's seeming eagerness to gloss over the faults of the Puritans, I believe that theologian-pastor Thabiti Anyabwile does an excellent job addressing this common-to-more-than-just-Nichols issue in his somewhat recent article, "The Puritans Are Not That Precious," particularly from points five and onward. I believe this paragraph addresses the Puritans as presented in this book, in particular:
"[G]ood theology does not mechanically lead to good living. We need to understand this. It’s a commonplace Christian assertion that if we believe the right things we ought to do the right things. Then we’re perplexed when either people who believe the right things actually do vile things, or people with supposedly faulty theology actually live better than the orthodox. We’re left groping for explanations and defenses. How did the Puritans “miss it”? Why did “liberals” seem to “get it”? Well, “it” doesn’t follow mechanically, ipso facto, ex opere operato from some set of solid beliefs. There’s a whole lot of effort, application, resistance to the world, self-examination, and mortification that’s gotta accompany the doctrine in order for the duty to follow. As Flav put it, “They’re blind, baby, because they can’t see.” That’s why they missed it; they couldn’t see it. Their theology wasn’t a corrective lense; it didn’t fix the cataracts. It didn’t fix the degenerative sight of Southern Presbyterians who also missed it, or the Dutch Reformed of South Africa who not only missed it but supported Apartheid, or some of the German Reformed who missed it in Nazi Germany, and so on. And this is why I’m made slightly nervous by the tendency of some Reformed types to advocate “pure” doctrine and demur at “pure” social action. The Puritan movement was a movement in church reform and revival, and some of their heirs (I count myself one) can be too purely concerned about the purity of the church without a commensurate concern about the purity of social witness. We can stack our chips on theology, as though theology inexorably produces the social results we want with little to no attending effort. Mistake, I think. The Puritans prove that."
Thomas Kidd also offers helpful, related thoughts and reactions here.
Grudem wants readers to know that business, standing alone, can glorify God — not just when it's harnessed as an evangelistic tool (though he agrees this is can also be beneficial to the kingdom when used in such a manner). This is a helpful message for both Christians or secularists who believe business is intrinsically evil, and for Christians who have heard that full-time ministry is the only first-class vocation, and business is for second-class Christians wishing to support "ministry."
The book addresses 9 areas of business/financial matters through which God can be glorified, each of these making up a short chapter, and then 2 additional chapters dealing with heart attitudes and the effects of business on world poverty:
Inequality of Possessions
Borrowing and Lending
Attitudes of Heart
Effects on World Poverty
In each chapter, Grudem makes clear that each of these areas can be used for evil, but that he believes that when done/viewed properly, are inherently good. (Usually each chapter begins with " ___ is fundamentally good and provides many opportunities for glorifying God, but also many temptations to sin." At least once per chapter, Grudem clarifies with this helpful statement, "But the distortions of something good must not cause us to think that the thing itself is evil." Both of these are helpful and important reminders. Concerns Grudem draws from various Old Testament texts to "prove" that each of these areas is inherently good and part of God's plan. Here's where the problems in the book enter. Frequently, the author states that a principle is drawn from Scripture and then moves on to build his argument in such rapid-fire succession that many readers may not take time to examine whether or not this is truly what the Scripture is saying. In some cases, I believe his assessment of Scripture is accurate. In other cases, it would seem that it is a valid argument, but his method of arriving at his conclusion was faulty. In other cases, he seems to be cherry-picking and proof-texting his personal opinions. While some may look at such conclusions and remark, "Wow! I never saw that text in that way," I hope many more will be discerning enough to wonder that they never saw it that way (or heard/read it explained it that way), because that's not what the text is saying.
In the first area of consideration, ownership, Grudem draws his readers to one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:15, "Thou shalt not steal." He quickly rushes to conclude that because God commanded His people to not steal, it is implied that stealing indicates that there should be personal property and ownership. Based on that foundation, he concludes that God ordained ownership, as opposed to communal sharing. Yet, someone could just as easily look at the same text, and quickly say that if God tells us not to steal, then He clearly intended government to own all property.
In other chapters, Grudem appeals to passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus to indicate God's design and the inherent goodness of various of the 9 areas. Again, this can sometimes be a confusing approach, particularly when not rounded out by other reasoning. For example, using the same line of thinking that is used in the book, one could look at Deuteronomy 24, see that it discusses the "how to's" of divorce, and conclude that God instituted divorce. I know that Dr. Grudem would not agree with such a conclusion. (And, clearly, this is not the best example because we have New Testament passages further rounding our certain aspects of divorce.) While there is a difference between the moral laws we consider to be binding today and the laws God gave Israel as theocratic law, this is not delineated in the book, even though conclusions are drawn from both. This makes the logic and argumentation weak, in my opinion.
In another section of the book, Grudem asserts, "Competition seems to be the system God intended when he gave people greater talents in one area and gave other people greater talents in another area." To this and similar statements, I also raise an eyebrow.
I also read the book while reminding myself that it is difficult to have a well-rounded perspective on the use of wealth, when we live in a land where our commonplace excess can easily impair our perspective. To round out such a perspective, it is helpful to also read the writings of Christians in other cultures, times, and places. Helpfulness of the Book Overall, the book has a helpful perspective on business, though it is broader than just business, since much of it also applies to personal finances. In this regard, Grudem provides constant reminders of the temptations involved with finances, but also explores the many ways in which they can be good and used for good. He also emphasizes that it is the love of money, not money that the Bible calls evil.
This book would provide a slightly different perspective than books such as Randy Alcorn's The Treasure Principle, Francis Chan's Crazy Love, or David Platt's Radical. Yet, taken in together and with perspective, I believe each of these books adds helpful insight into the way we should live as Christians. Books like Alcorn's would state that Christians should not put money into savings or invest financially long-term, while Grudem's book would push towards doing so. I believe we need both types of Christians (as well as those who fall somewhere in between), and that the Church thrives with members who have wealth, as well as those who are willing to give up all material possessions and live a life of radical faith.
Timothy Keller's Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Roadis a valuable expansion on both the why's and how's of loving our neighbors, particularly doing so through mercy ministries. After taking a closer look at both Jesus' command to love our neighbors and the Parable of the Good Samaritan (in the Prologue and Introduction, respectively), Keller divides his book into two parts, each with seven chapters: Principles and Practice. The first portion, Principles, is an in-depth study of the Biblical teaching on loving our neighbors through social justice and mercy ministry, while the second portion, Practice, focuses on the practical and technical aspects of practicing mercy ministry.
The basic layout of the book is as follows:
Prologue: The One Who Showed Mercy Introduction: Who Is My Neighbor?
Part 1: Principles 1. The Call to Mercy 2. The Character of Mercy 3. The Motivation for Mercy 4. Giving and Keeping: A Balanced Lifestyle 5. Church and World: A Balanced Focus 6. Conditional and Unconditional: A Balanced Judgment 7. Word and Deed: A Balanced Testimony
Part 2: Practice 8. Getting Started 9. Preparing the Church 10. Mobilizing the Church 11. Expanding Your Vision 12. Managing Your Ministry 13. Mercy Ministry and Church Growth 14. Meeting Needs Suggested Reading
The practical half of this book deals primarily with betterment of mercy ministry rather than development in mercy ministry, though the final portion of the book does touch on the latter. For an expansion on the importance of development versus betterment in long-term mercy ministry, I highly recommend Robert Lupton's Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life.
My husband, Daniel, read Ministries of Mercy about 4 years ago, and it greatly impacted his (and subsequently, my) thinking on mercy ministry at that time — a time when we were going through many paradigm shifts, particularly in relation to ministry and the living out of our faith. While the book does deal with church-orchestrated ministry, it also addresses individual and family mercy ministry. I found these sections in particular to be very helpful (and convicting) to me personally.
For those who are interested in reading and learning more about mercy ministry and/or social justice and their place in the Christian's life, I recommend three books in particular, perhaps to be read in this order:
This book, while written by Tim Keller prior to Ministries of Mercy, is probably best read as an introduction on the subject. It lays the theological foundation for justice.
I included a brief review of the book in this post.
This post includes excerpts from Keller's book on "4 Types of People Who Would Benefit from Generous Justice."
This book explores the problems at just leaving mercy ministry at betterment, and shows why true, long-term compassion and justice pursues development. It also explains what betterment and development are and how they differ.
The book primarily deals with the fleshing out of this concept within urban and inner-city ministry, but has much broader application. For me, it was eye-opening and slightly paradigm-shifting. The book emphasizes Jesus' teaching that the whole law hangs on the two commandments to love God and neighbor. Often, the simplicity of these commands is hidden beneath a lot of spiritual clutter.
I have not yet written a review for this book, but plan to sometime this month, hopefully.
Since John R. W. Stott’s death in July 2011, interest in The Cross of Christ has been revived, particularly through the 20th anniversary edition (2006...moreSince John R. W. Stott’s death in July 2011, interest in The Cross of Christ has been revived, particularly through the 20th anniversary edition (2006). Although it’s only been around 25 years since first published, The Cross of Christ has already been recognized as a Christian classic. It was on my list of Christian classic to-reads, along with older authors as Athanasius, Augustine, and Luther.
Like a skilled jeweler carefully examining and detailing the many facets of a gem, John Stott goes the cross and carefully inspects, details, and elaborates the many facets of the cross of Christ. Only in this case, he is not merely examining some diamond in the rough, but the crown jewel of Christianity.
While books with titles of “Cross-Centered-____” or “Christ-centered-____” practically compete for space on the new-release theology shelves of Christian bookstores these days, The Cross of Christ is undoubtedly the most comprehensive book on the centrality of the cross. Academic and practical in it’s coverage, this work is both scholarly and heavily devotional. Stott interacts with and draws from a wealth of philosophers and theologians past and present, and also delicately draws from Scriptural texts with his skills as a practiced exegete.
The book is divided into four sections, comprising thirteen main chapters:
I. Approaching the Cross
1. The Centrality of the Cross 2. Why Did Christ Die? 3. Looking below the Surface
II. The Heart of the Cross
4. The Problem of Forgiveness 5. Satisfaction for Sin 6. Self-Substitution of God
III. The Achievement of the Cross
7. The Salvation of Sinners 8. The Revelation of God 9. The Conquest of Evil
IV. Living Under the Cross
10. The Community of Celebration 11. Self-Understanding and Self-Giving 12. Loving Our Enemies 13. Suffering and Glory
Conclusion: The Pervasive Inﬂuence of the Cross
There were some statements and conclusions on which I found myself conflicted or coming to an alternate conclusion, but even given the length of the book, such occasions were very few and did not detract from the overall theme and importance of the book.
The book is somewhat lengthy and not necessarily light reading, but it is one that I would recommend, and perhaps consider as a must-read for Christians.
Here are some quotes from the book (random: there are countless that are worthy of being framed and wall-mounted):
“Life in a Christian home, which should in any case be characterized by natural human love, should be further enriched by supernatural human love, that is, the love of the cross. It should mark all Christian family relationships, between husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters. For we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21), the Christ whose humble and submissive love led him even to the cross. Yet it is especially husbands who are singled out” (281).
(Reading the above section, I was greatly reminded how grateful I am for a husband, in particular, who has loved me in this way.)
“The spirit of James and John lingers on, especially in us who have been cushioned by affluence. It is true that inflation and unemployment have brought to many a new experience of insecurity. Yet we still regard security as our birthright and ‘safety first’ as a prudent motto. Where is the spirit of adventure, the sense of uncalculating solidarity with the underprivileged? Where are the Christians who are prepared to put service before security, compassion before comfort, hardship before ease? Thousands of pioneer Christian tasks are waiting to be done, which challenge our complacency and call for risk. Insistence on security is incompatible with the way of the cross. What daring adventures the incarnation and the atonement were! What a breach of convention and decorum that Almighty God should renounce his privileges in order to take human flesh and bear human sin! Jesus had no security except in his Father. So to follow Jesus is always to accept at least a measure of uncertainty, danger and rejection for his sake. . . ” (288)
“The cross lies at the very heart of mission. For the cross-cultural missionary it may mean costly individual and family sacrifices, the renunciation of economic security and professional promotion, solidarity with the poor and needy, repenting of the pride and prejudice of supposed cultural superiority, and the modesty (and sometimes frustration) of serving under national leadership. Each of these can be a kind of death, but it is a death which brings life to others.” (283)(less)
The front flyleaf of The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of Godmakes a rather bold statement: "There has never been a book on marriage like The Meaning of Marriage." That seems a rather audacious assertion; but by the time I finished the book, I think I'd concede to read that claim on the back flyleaf, as well. Contents Many marriage books leave me scratching my head, banging my head, or really, really thankful I'm married to the man I am. This book did leave me doing the latter, but also left me thinking this would have been a very profitable book to have read if it had been available as premarital reading (not to mention less head-banging).
Timothy and Kathy Keller pack a lot of experience and exegesis into this book, packaged into eight chapters:
One: The Secret of Marriage
Two: The Power of Marriage
Three: The Essence of Marriage
Four: The Mission of Marriage
Five: Loving the Stranger
Six: Embracing the Other
Seven: Singleness and Marriage
Eight: Sex and Marriage
(The book also contains an Introduction, Epilogue, Appendix: Decision Making and Gender Roles, Notes)
Although I've yet to meet a Tim Keller book I didn't like, this book pleasantly surprised me in what it had to offer. The style is certainly Kelleresque, yet unique to his other published works. (It is co-authored with his wife Kathy, with Kathy writing the entirety of Chapter Six.) Unlike many marriage books, this book is not written with only married couples or soon-to-be-married singles in mind; it is written to a broad audience, but with particular portions of it specifically addressing singles. The Essence of Marriage One aspect of the book that I greatly appreciated was the Kellers's emphasis on the marriage covenant as the foundation of marriage. And really, this is the essence of marriage and the essence of the book. (Maybe that's why Chapter Three is entitled, "The Essence of Marriage." :))
While I think most contemporary Christians teaching on marriage would acknowledge the covenantal importance of marriage, there is often a subtle shift to teachings that seem to indicate that "keeping the passion alive" is the way to have a healthy marriage. (This is what Keller includes in his assessment that we most prize "romantic fulfillment" [see quote below] as the key to a happy marriage in our culture.) This is spiritualized and then marketed in numerous ways, coming across in emphases including:"If you practice abstinence before marriage, you'll immediately have amazing sex on your wedding night and beyond," "If you have a weekly date night, you're sure to have a healthy marriage," "If your marriage has stopped sizzling, your marriage has failed and is doomed," and can this misplaced emphasis in parenting and marriage books can often make young parents perceive a dichotomy of the family into the couple vs. the children. And even while many of these books/teachings, if Christian in name, will attest that "love is a choice," it is often portrayed that choosing to love is best displayed by acts of romance. While Keller doesn't address all of these teachings individually, he clearly notes that this type of misplaced preeminence of romance detracts and confuses the essence of marriage.
Keller speaks of some of the way marriage has come to be perceived in our culture (as well as comparing and contrasting with traditional societies):
"Traditional societies made family the ultimate value in life, and so marriage was a mere transaction that helped your family's interests. By contrast, contemporary Western societies make the individual's happiness the ultimate value, and so marriage becomes primarily an experience of romantic fulfillment. But the Bible sees God as the supreme good--not the individual or the family--and that gives usa view of marriage that intimately unites feeling and duty, passion and promise. This is because at the heart of the Biblical idea of marriage is the covenant." (80-81)
(Keller also quotes C.S. Lewis stating, "People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on "being in love" for ever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realizing that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one..." (104))
"Sociologists argue that in contemporary Western society the marketplace has become so dominant that the consumer model increasingly characterizes most relationships that historically were covenantal, including marriage. Today we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs at an acceptable cost to us. When we cease to make a profit--that is, when the relationship appears to require more love and affirmation from us than we are getting back--then we "cut our losses" and drop the relationship...Covenant is therefore a concept that is increasingly foreign to us, and yet the Bible says it is the essence of marriage, so we musst take some time to understand it." (81-82)
Personal Helpfulness For me personally, I think I had enough of a foundational understanding of marriage to hold the covenantal model of marriage above the consumerist model. Yet, hearing and reading in my pre-marriage preparation, I was often led astray by the syncretization of a covenantal view of marriage and the primacy of romance in marriage.
One harmful message that came out during my pre-marriage reading/counseling classes was, "if you remain abstinent, then sexual relationships in marriage will come naturally, immediately, and amazingly." This, of course, was very confusing as a newlywed, specifically for someone whose conscience was bound to the point that when I felt we'd "gone too far" by holding hands before we were married, I felt that in order to avoid further "temptation" that my husband [then fiance] and I should no longer drive places in the same vehicle until we were married. Added to that dynamic, my husband and I also grew up in homes were "The Talk" did not take place, and when the discussion of physical intimacy was scheduled in our pre-marital counseling, we were told that we'd figure things out on our own. Although we weren't completely in the dark, I carried a lot of baggage from some puritanical ultra-purity teachings into our marriage, and carried a lot of guilt into the early years of our marriage when I couldn't flip the switch mentally to go instantaneously from to "purity/"shame to passion. Of course, neither could Tim and Kathy Keller, and neither can many who enter marriage similarly.
Reading this book helped me in dealing with a lot of the self-imposed guilt and confusion I've felt over this area, in particular. Somewhat related, I was reminded in yet another and great way in which my husband's patience and gentleness has been manifested toward me over the years as I've wrestled with some of this baggage. And I more clearly see his faithful commitment to continue to love me in the way that Christ selflessly loves the Church.
It was, as mentioned earlier, also a reminder to me of God's mercy in giving me the husband I have in Daniel. Though only a few days shy of six years into marriage, there are many aspects of our marriage vows that we lived out much sooner than we had anticipated. My husband has faithfully, selflessly loved and served me through those times, both tragic and triumphant, and this book gave me a deeper depth in the appreciation of his commitment and love.
I remember at a time when we had just come through a painful, difficult season of life (from external sources), I saw an article in Time Magazine called "Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution." I remember specifically thinking, "I do. I needed my vows and I need that covenant." Though the storm we weathered didn't originate from our marriage, there were definitely some very deep and low times—times where we were both hurting so deeply we didn't even know how to help one another, and times when it may have been tempting to say "maybe you [and the world] would be better off without me." God's grace brought us through, and our marriage grew and flourished in ways we couldn't have even anticipated. (And yes, I know, our marriage is still quite young and has many, many more seasons of life to grow through, permitting death do not us part.) And while Time's article prompted me to think of how deeply we needed our commitment to one another,* I would have loved to have read this book at that time, as well.
There were many additional areas in which the book was helpful, refreshing, encouraging, and challenging. I was glad to be able to read this at the same time as my husband, and it is one we think we will return to through the years. Final Thoughts Of course, the emphasis is not merely on physical relationships in marriage, and to draw that out as the bulk of the book really does disservice to what this book is all about. *Due to my personal emphases above (on covenantal commitment and the false importance of romantic fulfillment), I also want to clarify that Keller does not teach that the Bible claims divorce is never an option, nor does he teach that covenant commitment equals passionless, emotionless duty. Contrarily, he takes time to explain both in a way that brings clarity to some of the harmful and hurtful misapplications in both areas.
Like many books by Keller, readers will be challenged to think about more than just the specific theme of the book, and to yearn for a deeper knowledge and walk with God. Some themes I grew from in this book were 1) growing in the Fear of the Lord (and an explanation of the Fear of the Lord), 2) a healthy (but not overzealous) explanation of how "love languages" and family upbringing can affect and/or create and avoid misconceptions and misunderstandings in marriage 3) the depth of the book without depicting opinion as law, 4) the emphases that neither the models of conservative approach nor the secular approach to marriage will lead to a satisfying marriage—only the Christian principle of Spirit-generated selfishness. I really view my first read as an overview/survey, and as I read through again, I know new and different parts of the book will stand out to me.
Beyond a careful handling of Scripture, Keller also draws on the wisdom of theologians, philosophers, and numerous books, past and present. And, of course, not only does this book reflect the imprimatur of C.S. Lewis on Keller's teaching and writing, but he also shares how C.S. Lewis was a common thread in influencing the early relationship between Tim and Kathy.
Certainly, there are aspects of the book with which I don't agree, Scriptural connections that I don't necessarily see, and analogies which I think break down. But, none of these are issues that I believe would detract from the overall message of the book, even in areas in which there are notoriously dichotomized perspectives among Evangelicals.(less)