Book Review: “Death By Living”

An unconventional book deserves an unconventional review. So, here. we. go.

Death-by-Living-e1375235818221
Cover Art

This book almost got me in trouble. Scratch that. This book did get me into trouble, although the trouble was short-lived and easily explained away. It was the Saturday morning of my son’s first birthday party. And I was sitting in my in-law’s new living room enjoying a cup of coffee and reading about a hand-basket headed to hell. Despite what you may think, the story is quite humorous. And so I did what people do when their humor bone is struck. I laughed. Out loud. A true LOL moment (true, because most times people say “LOL” they didn’t really). The problem was that while my lovely wife and her mother were in the same room, they were in another world, one involving Google, Peter Pan and my son’s future Halloween costume and they had no idea about the humorous hand-basket. You can see where there is going. My LOL happened only moments after my wife had pondered aloud if she could make the costume. *Head snap in my direction* “Are you laughing at me? You don’t think I can do it??” “No, No,” I stammered. “It’s the book. It’s funny. There’s a jetway and an airport and a two-year old and he’s puking and the older brother is puking. And there are no trash cans. And the dad…I’m…I’m not laughing at you. I promise.” *Raised eyebrow. Back to Googling and plotting first-born Halloween cuteness*

The range of emotions Wilson evokes are pretty much of all them. Laughter. Fear (the good kind). Sadness. Remorse. Hope. Warmth. Confusion (there was one section toward the end where I had no idea what was happening. There was a sea and a storm and a sign and fishermen and darkness. But, I blame my incoherence on the midnight reading, not the author). Gratitude. Regret. Anger. Awe. Wonder. But what else would you expect from a book about living. Everyone who dies, lived. And while death is prominent in the title, and present throughout the book, the main thrust of the book is an invitation to life. And not just life. But life lived well. A life lived not for self, but for others.

Tortilla chips. All I needed was tortilla chips. Mexican food is at a premium in this house. The fine lady who is my wife and who plans the menus in our house is not fond of it. This is especially true when she is with child, as she is now. I, however, could eat it every day. But, now and then, Mexican food appears on the menu (I am well-loved). And when it does, I rejoice with great rejoicing. This was one of those days. And there was guacamole to boot. But we had no chips. So off to the store I go, for I would not be denied my joy.  As I enter the first set of Star Trek doors (they open without us touching them?! This should amaze us more than it does) an elderly gentleman is about to go through the second set of doors. I catch up to him because he is slow. The weight of his story is heavy and it has taken it’s toll. Instantly I find within myself patience, which surprises me. Eventually the old character makes it through and I followed suite, heading for my chips and my Mexican delight. As I drove home, I couldn’t help but think of that old man and how dreadfully slow he was. I wondered what his story was like. What had he seen? Who had he known? Who did he love? Was he alone? What did he fear? Perhaps he was shopping for an impending visit from family. Why were they visiting? A funeral? The questions kept coming. I blame Mr. Wilson for this. You will look at people different after reading this book. If you embrace the vision that is being cast, and I hope you do, life gets upgraded to HD. If your life is a story, one being written by the very One who spoke the galaxies into existence (and it is), then that means the people you encounter at the grocery store are living stories authored by that same One who is authoring yours. How will you treat them? What role will you play in their story? What role will you play in your own? You have a say in how this will go.

In The Weight of Glory C.S. Lewis wrote:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.

Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

This book is an ode to that very sentiment. We are mortal, so we will die. But we are also immortal, so we will live forever. Life is a story, but as Wilson writes, it’s one “played for keeps.” There are consequences for dying poorly. And there are rewards for dying well. So, what’ll it be? If you’re reading this now, there is breath in your lungs. There is life still left. There is time yet to choose a new path. Will you continue living as if the Author does not exist? Or will you embrace your story and your Author and try to live to the fullest? I’m shooting for option two. How about you?

I heartedly recommend this book to you (five stars!! Two thumbs up!!). You can buy it here.

~sdg

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: Die Young

 

Introduction

Die Young is by Michael and Hayley DiMarco and published by Crossway*. Haley is the best-selling author of over 30 books, including God GirlMean Girls, and Die Young. She and her husband, run Hungry Planet, a company focused on producing books that combine hard-hitting biblical truth with cutting-edge design in Nashville, Tennessee.

Crossway describes the book this way:

In a world that entices people to chase happiness and be self-centered, Hayley and Michael DiMarco take a stand for the truth. Living for yourself, they say, will destroy you. The only path to real life is through death—a death to self that frees people to live with the fearless love and rock-solid hope that Jesus intended.

Review

Overall, I liked the book. I would give it 3 stars out of 5. The book has a familiar ring to it. It’s organized around the idea that everything you think is wrong. “You have heard it said…but I say unto you.” Death is the New Life. Down is the New Up. Less is the New More. Weak is the New Strong. Slavery is the New Freedom. Confession is the New Innocence. Red is the New White. Basically, the Gospel turns the world and life upside down. I felt like the DiMarco’s did a good job of exploring each of those areas to look at how the call to follow Jesus changes everything in our life. No area of life is left unchanged or unchallenged. All must be surrendered. All is required. The old must die.

While I enjoyed the book and think the core of the material is solid, I did have a few critiques of the book. First, the Gospel is only used to talk about personal salvation from sin. While I’m still learning much about this, the Gospel is more than that. The good news is not just about me avoiding hell and living this rich life that is promised. It’s the all-encompassing fulfillment of Kingdom of Christ. It’s the good news that those who have competing kingdoms can lay down their arms, abdicate their thrones and join the Kingdom of God. I think that the book could have been made even stronger if the theme of the Kingdom had been woven into the book’s core. Second, I found the book very repetitive at times. I found myself saying at times “Okay, I get it…let’s move on.” Finally, I found the layout of the book a little distracting. Throughout the book, both Michael and Hayley interspersed their personal story of coming to grips with the truths they are talking about. However, rather than weaving those stories into the prose of the book, there are these pages that say “Here lies Michael” or “Here lies Hayley” and there the authors share their personal stories. I found this distracting. So distracting that I began skipping them after the first chapter.

I did feel as if the authors wrote the book with a younger audience in mind. Even though they say in the book that you can “die young” at any age, the way the book is written, the authors are clearly targeting the younger generation (teenagers and young adults).

Overall, I think it’s a solid book that would be suitable for new believers, especially teenagers, even with the few critiques I mentioned above.

~sdg

*Crossway provided me with a free copy of the book in exchange for a review. I was not required to provide a positive review.

Book Review: God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgement

God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgement is by Dr. James (Jim) Hamilton, Jr., who  is associate professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is published by Crossway.[1]

I must begin by saying that I enjoyed this book immensely. But I enjoyed it differently than most other books. I enjoyed this book like I would a rich, decadent peanut butter pie (one that my wife will eventually blog about). The first way to enjoy any food is to look at it (If you never stop to appreciate the beauty of well-prepared food, you are missing out one of the delights that God has given to us). As you can see in the cover art to the left, the cover of the book is striking. The title of the book layered over a foreboding painting of Israel escaping the judgment handed out to the Egyptians gives you a pretty good idea what you are in for when you crack this book. The second way you enjoy a rich, decadent peanut butter pie is slowly and in small portions. If you try to jam the whole piece in your mouth, an overwhelming sensation will surely follow. The richness of the pie will overwhelm the senses to the point of revulsion. It will not taste good. However, if consumed slowly, the richness still floods the senses, but it does not overwhelm. You are enjoying this pie differently than you might enjoy other desserts, like cookies. This book is a rich, decadent biblical theology that seeks to find the center of the entire redemptive story that God is telling. This is no light afternoon reading. It’s best enjoyed slowly, deliberately, with pen and highlighter in hand. So if you pick up this book, remember, it’s rich and decadent. Read slowly.

Now, a more specific reason I liked this book was how it helped me better see the flow of the Bible. I was able to see how God was weaving a cohesive and coherent story within the Bible. I think my favorite parts were Dr. Hamilton’s surveys on Chronicles and the Gospels. I learned a lot about Chronicles I never knew before (like how it was written later than Samuel and Kings, most likely during the time of Nehemiah, with a much different agenda). And I appreciated the surveys on the Gospels, because I was able to see how each Gospel author presented Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises that were laid out in the OT surveys. The story of the Bible became more real to me as Dr. Hamilton pointed out the specifics I had never seen before.

I did feel at times that Dr. Hamilton was stretching to make his argument. The whole book is seeking to argue that the center of the Biblical story is that God is glorified by saving people through judgment. While most of the time, I think he makes strong arguments, there were the occasional moments where I didn’t see what he was trying to show me. Perhaps that’s my fault and not the fault of the book. I may lack the smarts necessary to understand what he was saying!

In the end, I cannot more highly recommend this book. Just remember, it’s a peanut butter pie, not a chocolate chip cookie. You’ll need time to enjoy this rich and decadent work of biblical theology. But it’s worth all the effort.

~sdg

Footnotes

Back to Post[1] – Crossway provided me with a free copy in exchange for reviewing the book.

Book Review: Suffering & Evil

Suffering & Evil is by Scott Petty, the youth minister at Christ Church St. Ives in Sydney, Australia and published by Matthias Media [1]. This book is part of a series called “Little Black Books.” The back flap of the book describes the series as “a series of books that get straight to the point on topics Christians always have questions about. Not too big, not too fancy, not at all boring.” Other books available in the series include, Sex, Predestination and The Bible, with more on the way.

Review

The book does exactly what it sets out to do, which is concisely dive into the subject of suffering and evil. If God exists and He is good, how can suffering and evil exist? This book does a good job of introducing the questions and the answers that surround the existence of suffering and evil. The book of Job is used as a guide through this high-level survey of this difficult topic. The author walks us through Job’s experiences with suffering and evil as a way for us to understand our own brushes with evil.

While I enjoyed the book and think it’s a good introduction to the issue, I couldn’t help but wonder if the book was written for high school age kids. At times the prose was not what I would expect from a book directed at adults. So I would have a hard time giving this book to a friend who was struggling through these issues. Now, if I was mentoring a high school kid, I would have no problem giving them this book to read. It seems like it would be more on their level. However, for a more mature thinker, I think there are better books available.

In the end, whether you would find this book useful depends on your situation. If you are a high school age or work with that age group, this book is a good introduction. If you are college or older, there are better books that address the issues of suffering and evil in more full and robust way.

~sdg

Footnote

Back to Post[1] – I was provided a copy of the book in return for a review.

Book Review: With

With: Reimagining The Way You Relate To God is by Skye Jethani, an ordained pastor, author, editor, and speaker, and is published by Thomas Nelson.[1] I must begin by saying that I really enjoyed reading this book. I read the majority of it in one sitting. The prose is readable and easy. The text flows and so the pages turn quickly. The book does have one annoying feature: endnotes. I hate endnotes. So be warned, if you hate endnotes, you will be slightly annoyed as you read this book. However, the content is more than worth bearing the endnotes. I give the book 4 stars and will heartily recommend it with a few reservations.

Review

Jethani begins the book by looking at the world as we now see it. We live in the time after Eden, after man walked with God. Rather than wholeness, what we find is brokenness on every level. And because this world is broken, we all have fear and we all seek some way to gain control of our world to mitigate the fear that burns in our hearts. All human religions are born from this reality. And this is a key component necessary for understanding the rest of the book. Jethani categorizes all religious expression into five camps, or five ways we can relate to God. All five ways of relating to God promise to deal with our fears, yet four of the five do nothing of the sort. The four ways of relating to God that do not remove our fears are Life Under God, Life Over God, Life From God and Life For God. Jethani shows us that not only do they not remove our fear, they only serve to make us more fearful, more desirous of control. The only way of relating to God where our fears melt away and our need for control vanishes is a Life With God. But what does Jethani mean by the other postures mentioned? Let’s take a look.

Life Under God

Life Under God is the primary way that most people in the world understand their relation to God. There are divine rules and if one wishes to avoid calamity and suffering, one must strictly adhere to those divine rules. If you break the rules, disaster will follow. However, Jethani points out that a Life Under God is actually quite ironic. While adherents to this posture are under these divine rules, they assume to exert control over God through their obedience. Since control is still an issue, that means fear has not been removed. Life Under God fails to do what it promises.

Life Over God

If Life Under God is the primary understanding of most people in the world, Life Over God is probably the primary understanding of most people in the West. While the obvious target here is atheist, Jethani takes a different approach. Before exploring this new direction, Jethani does briefly deal with the atheist position. Secular humanism is responsible for increasing fear and strife just as much as Life Under God. But the surprising route Jethani explores is that there are many who claim to be Christians who subscribe to a Life Over God posture. What would cause Christians to accept such a tenable posture? The Enlightenment. According to studies cited, most people who claim to believe in God hold to Deism, rather than Biblical Christianity. This posture promises that if you understand and obey the principles that govern this world, you can mitigate your fear. Control comes via the mastery of the principles that the Great Watchmaker set in place. You can see this in play in how churches operate like corporations and how many treat the Bible like a set of divine principles. Too often God’s revelation of Himself becomes God’s revelation of divine principles for living. When reduced in this manner, the Christian Deist can put the principles into practice without the need for God at all. Again, this posture fails to deliver what it promises. Fear remains. Control remains an unattainable struggle.

Life From God

This posture assumes that God is a lot like me. So that probably means that He wants me to happy. This posture seeks to get from God all the things that we naturally desire. This is appealing to us because it does not require us to change. Now, Jethani is careful to say that God indeed does give us all things. However, the problem with a Life From God posture is that it gives one dynamic of the divine-human relationship a primacy it was not meant to handle. Further, it turns God into a divine butler. This posture does not seek to remove fear, but rather numb us to it. Life From God fails to deliver what it promises, because we may gain the whole world, but our fears remain.

Life For God

Life For God relates to God by how much we do for Him. What matters most is the mission. Did you share the gospel with people on the mission trip? Did you work for justice in the urban core? If so, then you matter. That is when your life has significance. The problem with this posture is that, like the others, it does not remove our fears. If we relate to God in this way, our greatest fear will be not doing enough. And the terrible truth is, you will never know if you have done enough. So fear remains. Another broken promise. Another failed attempt at removing our fear.

Life With God

Life Under, Over, From and For God fail to do what they promise. But Life With God does not fail. For it is fundamentally different that the others. Jethani shows us how Jesus related to God and how that was completely different from the other postures. While other postures seek to use God or control God, Life With God is about communing with God. It is all about relationships. For, at the core of universe, we find the Trinity. The mysterious truth of one God in community with Himself. “God the Father with God the Son with God the Holy Spirit.” The goal of Life With God is not to use God, but treasure God. God is the end that we seek. Jethani goes on in subsequent chapters to examine a Life With God by exploring three vital aspects; Faith, Hope and Love.

Concerns

While I enjoyed this book immensely and would recommend it, I have a few concern that I could not let slide. For a book that I found profoundly simple[2], there were a few moments of simplistic thinking that bothered me. First, when discussing a Life From God posture, Jethani seems to equate consumerism with capitalism. I always get nervous when the theologically trained began talking economics. They do exactly what Jethani has done, which is make surface observations and come to simplistic conclusions that are just wrong. Jethani states that our current economic system needs a complete lack of self-control. On the surface, this sounds right on. Steve Jobs Tim Cook wants me to buy Apple products. Therefore, I must lack self-control so that I go buy all the new Apple products and make Tim Cook a lot of money. Now, the problem with this understanding is that it’s just patently wrong. Self-control is the foundation for our economic model, rather than an inhibitor. Just look at our current economic problems. What’s the issue? Our government lacks self-control. It has spent us into a debt my grandchildren will be paying for. On an individual level, the person who lacks self-control, racks up mountains of debt and can no longer pay their obligations becomes a drain on the economy. In the short-term, yes, the LED 3D television he bought on the credit card helped, but in the long-term, he is an unstable drain on economic resources due to his mountainous debt. You can’t cook dinner over firecrackers, which is exactly what Jethani is trying to do when he says our economic system requires those who lack self-control. A properly cooked dinner requires a stable, controlled fuel source. Same is true for our economy.

Second, and more importantly, when discussing the Life With God posture, Jethani again slips into a simplistic mindset. Jethani keeps talking about helping people see a greater vision of Jesus. The problem that most people have with living a Life With God, is that they have never captured a vision for it. True. Amen. “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.”[3] However, Jethani leaves out a key ingredient. The Holy Spirit. Unless the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of the people to see the vision of Jesus that I am desperately trying to get them to see, they will not see it. The reason that some people fall into these competing postures is not that they have never been presented with the whole gospel. They fall into these postures because their eyes have never been opened. Jethani makes a big deal out of prayer (as he should) when talking about communion with God. So I found it so curious that this one aspect went undiscussed. Without a prayer-soaked presentation of the gospel, eyes will never be opened and hearts will never be changed.

Overall, this is a great book. It deserves a wide reading. If you are struggling with a dry spiritual existence, perhaps you might find that you are trying to live a Life Under, Over, From or For God. With may very well be the catalyst that God uses to draw you into a life of communion with Him.

~sdg

Footnotes

Back to Post[1] – Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for a review.
Back to Post[2] – Simplicity in and of itself is not always a bad thing. In fact, the ability to make complex subjects appear simple is a great gift that requires skill. In the words attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Back to Post[3] – Proverbs 29:18

Book Review: Real Church

Introduction

Real Church: Does it exist? Can I find it? is by Larry Crabb, best-selling author and psychologist, and published by Thomas Nelson[1].

Before I begin my comments on the book, let me share some introductory remarks. Something I realized as I was reading this book was the importance of context when reviewing a book. I think the job of a book reviewer is to review with an eye towards the author’s own context. If I immediately read my context into the words on the page, I’m doing both the author and readers of my review a disservice. Because the moment I do that, I check out. I read meaning into the text the author never intended and I mislead the readers of my review. Let me give you an example what I mean. As I began reading this book, I was actually disagreeing with almost everything he was saying. I found myself writing incredulous questions and emphatic statements in the margins. “Really, Larry?”, “That’s an arrogant assertion”, etc. I was almost turned off. And the problem was I was imagining the author questioning my church. He has some pretty pointed statements and I immediately read them as zingers directed at a body of people I love. Thankfully, I realized what I was doing and I was able to read and enjoy (even the convicting parts) the rest of the book. Hopefully, the good doctor won’t feel as if I’ve misread him and you, my dear reader, will get a higher quality review. So, without further ado, let the review begin!

Review

Larry Crabb does not want to go to church anymore. He’s bored. He’s uninterested. He sees only a thin veneer of religiosity pretending to be the actual body of Christ. He sees more spiritual growth in his life taking place outside of church than inside. So he sees no point in going. And apparently, he’s not alone. Now, what Dr. Crabb means by “church” is the western, institutionalized versions that dot the corners (or blocks for them mega-churches) of American cities and towns. He is most certainly not talking about the biblically constituted, blood-bought body of Christ. In fact, the book is Dr. Crabb’s attempt to expose the fake “churches” so that “real” ones can stand out.

I have two areas of appreciation that I’d like to highlight and one area of disappointment or concern. First, I really appreciated the thoughtful critiques of the current church movements. The health & wealth gospel is rightly anathematized, but that’s an easy target (so easy, in fact, I’ll move on). His critiques of the missional and what I’d call the “SOP” (Standard Operating Procedure) church movements were worth the read.  Since Crabb is a theological conservative, the missional movement’s seeming lack of adherence to absolute truth was a concern. As was the focus on “authenticity”. For Crabb, the authenticity of the missional movement was a faux authenticity. The movement I dubbed “SOP” was also rightly dismissed. The SOP church is probably like most churches you’ve attended. The church you now attend may in fact be an SOP church. This church’s main goal is to help Christians live more morally and help sinners get saved. Crabb’s main beef with this movement of churches is the feeling that there has to be more. Where is the community? Where is the mission to engage the world around us? Too often the change offered is not the deep sort of change that the Gospel seeks to make. The Gospel in these churches is just something that gets us out of hell and nothing more. After we decide to follow Jesus, it’s all about just living morally. But isn’t there more? Crabb thinks so. And he spends the rest of the book laying out what he thinks constitutes the “more.”

The second area of appreciation that I have for the book is in Crabb’s insistence on the need for community. While Crabb is disgruntled with “church”, he speaks glowingly of community. And rightly so. Christians in community (i.e. church) is what Jesus intended when he created the church. Crabb point us to the reality that without community, wrestling with the deep changes that need to take place in our life will never happen. Speaking from experience, he’s right. Only in real community, where the purpose is to get on board with God’s purposes, will real change ever take place. If conformity into the image of Jesus is the goal of the Christian life, it is a goal that cannot be done outside of a community of believers. Or more concisely stated, real change cannot happen outside the church…a real one.

The one thing about the book that bothered me was the tone of the book. Several times, Dr. Crabb mentions that he’s in his sixties. He’s older, he’s lived life. He is full of experience. But that experience came off almost as arrogance. Naming a whole section of the book “Marks of Church I Want To Be Apart Of” smacks of a little arrogance. While I’m not sure that was the intent, continuing to state what kind of church “I” want puts more of the focus on Dr. Crabb’s wants and desires, rather than what Jesus would want[2]. Perhaps, Dr. Crabb would counter that he only wants what Jesus wants. I’m happy to believe that. I believe the points are more than adequately proved from the Scriptures. There just seemed to be an overall tone that conveyed a sense of superiority.

In the end, I give the book 3.5 stars. It was well worth the time I took reading the book. I think there is much helpful stuff in there (including a lot I didn’t touch on in the review). It has made me rethink the why behind the how’s of church. It reaffirmed my love for the local body of which I am so blessed to be a part. It intensified my desire to help create even deeper community within my church so that real change can take place, both in my heart and in the hearts of my friends. If you’re looking for an interesting read on ecclesiology that will challenge you in some ways you might not expect, then I’d recommend Dr. Crabb’s book.

~sdg

Footnotes

BACK TO POST1 – I am apart of Thomas Nelson’s blogger review program. If you’d like free books in return for reviews, check out BookSneeze.

BACK TO POST2 – I am assuming that we’d all agree that the type of church Jesus wants is plain from Scripture. Dr. Crabb does align himself with Scripture by showing where he gets his ideas from, but a cursory reading could lead the reader to think Dr. Crabb knows what’s best. I fully admit that his could be an unfair reading of the book, but this is what struck me as I was reading.

Notes From the Tilt-A-Whirl

Cover Art for the DVD

As I was hurdling over the Pacific Ocean in a steel and aluminum box, sitting in a cramped, 20″ excuse for a chair, I did the only thing that would keep me sane. I read. The book I chose to bring along for this 13 hour trip to the other side of existence was Notes from the Titl-A-Whirl by N.D. Wilson. And how shall I describe this book? Hands down the best book I’ve read this year. Fascinating. Funny. Frightening (reading about death at 37,000 feet with nothing but the sea below is scary). Fiendishly facetious (Kant followers beware). Feel-good. Okay, I’m running out of “F” words. Buy the book. Read the book. And open your eyes to the crazy, carnival-like world we live in. You won’t look at the sea or a line of scurrying ants the same again. And that’s a good thing.

Well, not only is there a book, there is now a film. And Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore has it at 60% off this week only! The film looks amazing. I can’t wait to get my copy and watch it.

Here is the trailer for the DVD:

Here is a clip from the film:

~sdg

Book Review: Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture is by David VanDrunen, who is Robert B. Strimple associate professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics, Westminster Seminary California. The book is published by Crossway.*

 

This book falls into a very large category. Christ and culture is a hot topic in modern evangelicalism. In my estimation, this is a good thing. The fact that a lot of young christians are earnestly desiring to engage the culture at large in a christ-like manner is exciting. Since there are a lot of people contributing to the conversation, there are several competing perspectives for how best to engage the culture. Dr. VanDrunen represents the Two Kingdoms perspective.

Summary

The book is broken down into four parts. First there is an Introduction, where VanDrunen introduces not only the two kingdom perspective, but here he also surveys three other camps within what he calls the “Redemptive Transformation of Culture” movement. The Neo-Calvinist, New Perspective and Emergent camps are surveyed for what they say regarding Christ and Culture. The next section is Part One, where VanDrunen examines the two adams, Adam and Christ. Part Two examines how both Old Testament and New Testament believers lived as sojourners as  way to determine how we as modern believers ought to live. In Part Three, VanDrunen begins to flesh out what the Two Kingdom perspective might look like in the realms of Education, Vocation and Politics.

Review

I would give the book 3.5 stars (out of 5). The main gist of the book is that there are two kingdoms in this world. There is the common kingdom, in which all of humanity lives and there is the redemptive kingdom, in which only the church lives. These two kingdoms are governed by two covenants. The common kingdom under the Noahatic covenant (Gen. 9:1-17) and the redemptive kingdom under the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12). VanDrunen is attempting to answer how the people in the redemptive kingdom relate to and interact with the people from the common kingdom.

The first two parts of the book were quite persuasive and enlightening and I think, worth the price of the book. As I mentioned earlier, Part One deals with the two adams. The first Adam was created and placed in the Garden of Eden. His role was that of King and Priest. Adam was to rule over the garden and to guard the purity of the garden. Not only that, but as God’s image bearer, Adam was eventually to enter rest. As God had worked and then rested, so to Adam was to work the garden and then enter rest in the “world-to-come”. As we all know, Adam never entered that rest. Instead, he abdicated his throne and defiled the garden. He was banished, never to return, never to fulfill his destiny. Yet, humanity was not without hope. A second Adam was promised and that promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Christ. VanDrunen goes onto explain how Jesus has fulfilled the role of Adam and has now entered rest in the world-to-come. He makes it explicit that since Jesus has fulfilled the first Adam’s roll, we should not be seeking to do what Adam was commanded to do. Jesus has done it. Any attempts to fulfill the cultural mandates of Adam is to say that Jesus was insufficient. VanDrunen contends that all cultural activities fall under the Noahatic covenant, not the original mandate given to the First Adam.

In Part Two, VanDrunen surveys both Old and New Testament to see how those under the Abrahamic covenant (and thus part of the redemptive kingdom) lived while they were sojourners. VanDrunen states that the Mosaic code only applied to the redemptive kingdom and the commands to kill everything that breathes were only to be carried out within the Promised Land. By looking at how the people of God lived outside the Promised Land when they were sojourners, we can get a clue for how we ought to live. For instance, while in exile in Babylon, even though the Israelites were promised they would return to the Promised Land, they were told to live in Babylon and plant gardens and build homes. They were also instructed to pray for the cities in which they lived, that they would prosper, because their fate was tied in with that of the city. When VanDrunen turned his attention to the New Testament, he points out that the exile terminology is used to describe the church. The church is just like Israel, in that she is in exile, awaiting the return to the Promised Land. In light of this comparison, we are to relate to the common kingdom just like Israel did. We are to work for it’s good. We are to pray for it’s blessing. Yet, we are to be mindful of the fact that our dealings in the common kingdom are temporary and our work there will eventually be left behind.

Part Three was not as good as the first two (I felt like it became more laborious to read). Here, VanDrunen is trying to show how the Two Kingdom perspective can speak to cultural issues, such as education, vocation and politics. If you’re looking for a definitive work on each of these three areas, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s an overview for how each of these areas might be impacted. The most interesting I thought VanDrunen was trying to point out, was that since each of these areas belong to the common kingdom, there is freedom here for Christians to disagree. Christians can come to different conclusions as to how to do education, work and politics, because those realms are within the common kingdom. The church can only bind things within the redemptive kingdom. Only activities where the church is given authority can it bind it’s members conscience on. Whether you choose to educate your child in public, private or at home is freely up to you. The church cannot tell what to do and other Christians can’t either.

Dr. VanDrunen has definitely heightened my interest in this area. While he presents a very convincing case for the Two Kingdom perspective, I would like to do some more reading before I commit to this perspective.

~sdg

*Disclosure: I was provided a copy by Crossway in exchange for reading and reviewing the book.


 

 

 

Book Review: The Deep Things of God

The Deep Things of God: how the Trinity Changes Everything is by Fred Sanders, an associate professor at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute. The book is published by Crossway*.

The simple thesis of the book is that Gospel is the Trinity and thus Evangelicals are deeply Trinitarian, whether they realize it or not. While simply stated, the substance of the arguments are far from simplistic. At times, this book can be a little heady. I found myself re-reading certain paragraphs in order for me to understand exactly what Sanders was saying. However, for the most part, I found the book to be readable and enjoyable.

I’ve been struggling with how to classify this book. It’s not a systematic treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not a complete survey of evangelical engagement of with the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s kind of a mish-mash of both. Sanders seeks reintroduce evangelicals to the doctrine of the Trinity, by showing them that evangelicals in the past have thought well about the doctrine and thought it important. As he does this, the doctrine itself is discussed and unpacked. For me personally, the book has really heightened my awareness of the Trinity, but in a way that allows the doctrine to remain tacit, rather than explicit (you’ll want to read the book to see what I’m talking about!).

There where two sections I think are worth the price of the book alone. In the Introduction, Sanders presents a problem to us. If evangelicals are so deeply Trinitarian, why do so many seem to be confused by or intimidated by the doctrine? How is that the modern evangelical is so detached from his Trinitarian roots? Sanders believes, and I agree with his analysis, that the emphatic nature of evangelicalism has led to this problem. What he means is the evangelicals have always been concerned with highlighting certain aspects of the Christian doctrines. Bible, Cross, Conversion, Heaven have been the major emphases of evangelicalism. Sanders affirms this pattern of emphasis. However, when you are emphasizing something, you’re assuming a larger body of truth out which a certain truth is then emphasized. The Cross of Christ is certainly worthy of emphasizing. However, the Cross draws it’s power and meaning, so long as it’s flanked by Jesus’ pre-existence, incarnation and earthly ministry on the one side and his resurrection and ascension on the other side.Without those other truths flanking the Cross, Jesus death upon it would have done nothing for us in regards to our salvation. The same could be said of emphasizing the Bible, Conversion and Heaven. They are the right things to emphasize, so long as there is that larger body of Christian truth from which they stand out. What has, sadly, happened in within evangelicalism is that the points of emphasis have been severed from their roots and are presented as the whole story, rather than just the highlights. And when this happened, evangelicalism moved from being emphatic to reductionistic. Evangelicals became “anemic” as they lost connection with all the other important truths. And since the doctrine of the Trinity is one of those truths that falls outside of the emphasis (as it should, Sanders points out), evangelicals have lost touch with it’s power and importance. For me, this nailed my growing up. I grew up in a stream of evangelicalism that had become reductionistic. It wasn’t until after college where I was introduced to the rest of the story. So I really enjoyed this section, mainly because I connected with it so personally. I’m sure many other young evangelicals will connect with it as well. The second section I thought was amazing, was the chapter on prayer. Sanders lays out a way to pray “with the grain.” What he means is that there is a way to pray that lines you up with the way the Trinity works. My favorite section of the chapter deals with how its possible for our prayers to influence God. I believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. What God wills, happens. How do I get off believing my prayers have any impact on God? Sanders gives a plausible explanation for how our prayers can and do influence God when we look at prayer through the lens of the doctrine of the Trinity (you need to read the book to get the answer…I couldn’t do it justice here).

The rest of the book is good as well. As I mentioned before, there a few sections that are kinda heady, but Sanders himself says at certain points that readers can skip ahead if the topics feels too deep. One thing I did notice about the book is that Sanders repeats himself, a lot. However, I didn’t really mind the repetition. It helped me remember where I was and what he was talking about. Other people may find it distracting or unnecessary, but I was fine with it. I had two beefs with the book. The first is that it had end notes rather than foot notes. I hate end notes. Petty, I know. Second, I would have like to see this book in hardback. It’s a solid book, one that I will be referencing again and again. A hardback binding would have been nice.

I highly recommend this book.

~sdg

*Disclosure: I was provided a copy by Crossway in exchange for reading and reviewing the book.

Book Review: The Shack

This is my first attempt at reviewing a book, but I hope that there is value in what you find here. I had heard a few people reference The Shack and also read a few reviews of the book. I was skeptical of it when I read it, but I believe that helped me. Even though the book is a work of fiction, the ideas that drive the story deserve our full attention. If you do not approach this book with some skepticism, you will buy some assumptions that you wouldn’t have otherwise.


For a quick summary, the story centers around the character named Mack. Mack experiences a great tragedy in his life which shatters his world. In the midst of his “Great Sadness” Mack receives a note from god, inviting Mack to meet him at the Shack where the tragedy happened. Mack reluctantly goes and spends the weekend with god (as a quick side note, the god of the Shack will be spelled with a lower case “g”, any reference to the real God will be spelled with a capital “G”). Mack meets with the three persons of the trinity and leaves the shack a changed man. The story ends abruptly. I felt like I was riding in a truck that just driven off the edge of a cliff. Boom. It’s over. Deal with it. On a literary level, it left a bad taste in my mouth for the story in general. I felt like the author was trying to figure out some way to end it and this was the best he could do. You’d think after Mack has this existential experience in the forest, there would be more to the story. But no, it pretty much just ends.

 

I want to begin my comments on this book with a discussion of context. No matter what you want to discuss, context is king. You cannot take comments out of their context and expect to discuss the comment intelligently. I hope that I have not taken the author’s statements out of context. I have included page numbers so that you can go read the entire context for yourself. While I’ve tried to be careful to treat the authors comments within it’s context, I do not feel that the author has done the same with God. God has been ripped from His context. The Scriptures provide the context for God’s revelation of who He is and what His character is. The sad reality of this book is that God has been ripped from the very truth he states about Himself. This critique will be the foundation for the remaining critiques I lay out. So, let us begin.

 

The first objection I have to the god of the Shack is that this god is very man-centered. All god does is centered on and purposed for his love of man. On page 106, god says “We have limited ourselves our of respect for you…” On page 107, Jesus says to the father (who has currently manifested himself as a black woman) “You honored [Mack] and you honored me…” How the father treated Mack made Jesus feel honored. It seems to be saying that god finds fulfillment in man, in helping man. It seems like honoring man is a way to honor God. It seems like this honor is equal. What if we changed the word from honor to glory. Would Jesus ever say, “You glorified man and that brought glory to me”? I do not remember one instance where God declares the importance of His glory to Mack; that through all his pain, God’s glory was meant to shine through. There was never this conversation, only that god is love and his love overcomes the pain of Mack’s life. This is, sadly, a story of Mack’s pain, and Mack’s life and how god comes to help Mack be more adjusted and live in spite of Mack’s pain. This is Mack’s story, it is not god’s. God is merely an actor in the story of Mack. Probably the saddest statement comes on page 126 where god emphatically states, “I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way.” This is sad because God does insist on His own way. His way is the best; the only way! What He purposes in His heart, He accomplishes. God is radically God-centered and we are the beneficiaries of that God-centeredness. If God is not God-centered, He is not truly loving. And, frankly, if God is content being focused on something other than Himself, why should I waste my time with him? I can find the same satisfaction in man he does. Thankfully, I am not left with that option. God is a lover of God and I am satisfied in resting in His good pleasure.

 

The author also presents sin in a man-centered way. Sin is not committed against God, but ultimately against ourselves. On page 120, god says “I don’t need to punish people for sin, sin is it’s own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” Statements like these frustrate me greatly. The phrase is worded ever so carefully to get the reader to unconsciously agree with the statement without any thought. Essentially, god has said that sin is man’s punishment on himself. God’s only complaint about sin is that it hurts his children. Sin is not an attack upon god’s nature, but stepping outside arbitrary bounds god set up for social order. A careful review of the Scriptures will refute this view of God and sin. When David confessed his sin of murder, rape and adultery, he states that he had sinned against God and God alone (Ps. 51:4). That’s a bold statement. What about Uriah? What about Bathsheba and her family? Were they not sinned against? The answer is yes, they were, however the Scriptures are teaching us a very important doctrine. Sin is ultimately against God and His nature. To act counter to God’s nature is to sin. Why is it a sin to lie? Only because God declared it should be so? No. Lying is a sin because God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18, Titus 1:2). So when we lie, we attack God’s nature. We must understand that sin is so much more that what we do to others. It is primarily a rejection of God and His nature. It is to spit in His face and say “I know better! Screw you!” My friends, that is what sin is; do not be deceived. With a Biblical understanding of what sin is, we can now see why there is punishment involved. Is sin really what destroys, as the god of the Shack has supposed? Perhaps in the way that it causes separation between God and man. It makes you an enemy of God and the Bible is very clear, one day, God will route His enemies. They will be thrown into the lake of fire. The measure of the punishment fits the measure of the being who is sinned against. Since God is infinitely perfect, to sin against Him requires infinite punishment (or a perfect substitute). If God does not punish sin, then He is unjust. He won’t even defend His own name. But we know from the Scriptures that God is full of justice (Ps. 33:5, Ps. 37:28, Is. 30:18, Is. 42: 4, Is. 61:8, etc.), that He will never clear the guilty (Ex 34:7, Num. 14:18, Nahum 1:3) and all He does is for the renown of His name (Is. 48:9, 11). Sin is a big deal. Sadly, the god of the shack uses cloaked language to undermine the Biblical view.

 

The god of the Shack is incomplete. At least if it was trying to be the God of the Bible. The god of the Shack only talks about love. That’s pretty much it. If the author was intending to portray the God of the Bible, then he has committed the sin of reductionism. Basically, he didn’t tell the whole truth about the whole counsel of God. As I read, I could here the Beatles in the background singing “All You Need Is Love.” I got the feeling that the god of the Shack is a 1960’s hippie with rose-colored glasses and a tie-dye t-shirt. I half expected god and Mack to start smoking pot on the deck. The problem with this narrow discussion of God’s character is that people who don’t know better will begin to think that’s all there is. But, again, Scripture paints a different picture. God is jealous (Ex. 34:14). God is wrathful (Jn 3:36, Rom 1:18, 2:5). God is just (Is. 30:18). God is merciful (Deut 4:31, Dan. 9:9). God is sovereign (Ps. 68:20, Is. 51:22, Ez. 20:5, Is. 55:11, etc.). God is loving (I John 4). God is truth (Jn 14:6, I Jn 5:6). God is more things than I have space to write or expound upon or even know (I Cor. 13:12). As a side note, people wonder why guys don’t come to church. It’s because they only hear about the “love god.” Guys will not follow someone they can beat up. Basically, if they can’t respect you, they will not follow you. I believe that if we started presenting a fuller picture of who Jesus is, more men would follow. The god of the Shack is the same limp-wristed, dress-wearing, Herbel Essence using, pageant contestant being peddled by most American churches. It disgusts the heart of the true God. Check our Revelation 19 sometime, it’ll blow your weak view of God in a heartbeat.

 

For lack of a better word, the god of the Shack is bi-polar. What I mean by that is that god the father seems to love everyone in the whole world, all through out human history. She is quite “fond” of everyone. What that means, I’m not really sure (which we probably should be sure about). Jesus, on the other hand, loves the church. So, now I’m confused. Does god (father/jesus/holy spirit) love everyone or just the church? The god of the Shack never really answers that question. All we’re left with are ambiguous statements that could be construed to mean whatever you wanted them to mean. I think it’s kinda important we answer this question. A Biblical understanding shows that God does love everyone, just not the same way. God loves His enemies, but not the same way He loves the Church. These vacant statements on who and how God loves are boarding on criminal.

 

Another aspect of the unclear statements on God’s love is the muddied picture of who is actually saved. There is a scene where Mack gets to be reunited with his father and be reconciled. The reason that was needed was that Mack’s father was an angry, abusive drunk. He beat Mack and his mother often. Eventually, Mack runs away, but before leaving, he puts poison in every bottle of alcohol he can find. While it’s never explicitly stated, the implication is that Mack murdered his father. Anyhow, the scene appears to be a glimpse of heaven and somehow Mack’s abusive, drunk father gets in and on top of that, is allowed this reunion/reconciliation. So, if Mack kills his father while his father is still an unrepentant abusive, drunk, how’d he make it into heaven? It is consistent with the god of the Shack loving everyone, but dangerous in the assumptions underlying the scene. This assumes that all is needed for salvation is going to church (which Mack’s father did) and saying a prayer and no life change is required. That is flat wrong! If a man truly submits his heart, under the direction of the Spirit, he will change. If he says a prayer and never changes, he is not saved. You cannot come face to face with God and remain unchanged. This could simply just be a huge whole in the plot line and completely unintentional. If so, scrap this paragraph and chalk it up to a shoddy story editor. However, I doubt that. The author was intending to communicate something with this scene. The lack of any continuity with Scripture leaves this whole even open to wide interpretation. When it comes to who gets saved, themes like that should never be this obscure.

 

The final aspect of the book I found concerning was that the accomplishment of the cross is being twisted. God makes a statement in the book that the cross was a triumph of mercy over justice. I have some big issues with that. The cross was not a triumph over justice, but a dramatic display of it! God cannot violate His justice. He is required to punish sin (as I’ve discussed earlier). To say that mercy triumphed over justice is to say that justice was stayed, denied, ignored, in order to show mercy. In reality, the cross was the punishment of sin, and not everyone’s sin, only those who were to believe. Jesus purchased the faith of every believer on Good Friday. To say the cross was a triumph of purely mercy  is to strip it of it’s power and beauty. I was meant to hang on that tree (as were you), but Jesus was my (and your) substitute. His atonement has been imputed upon me (and you). The cross is the greatest display of God’s justice, mercy and love wrapped up into one event. It’s the shining jewel of glory that we long to see and cherish. Don’t strip the cross of it’s glory by believing the shallow god of the Shack.

 

In conclusion, The Shack is a poor attempt to re-write the character of God. Had the author used plain language to make his points, this book would never had enjoyed the level of popularity is has. The veiled language and hidden assumptions are dangerous and destructive. Become a thinking Christian and engage the truth of Scripture as you read. The God of the Bible is not scared to tell us who He really is. He is authentic, the real deal. Unfortunately, the god of the Shack is a fraud, a sham. The god of the Shack is just the same old lie, cloaked in new garments. Save you money and time and read your Bible instead. It is the actual Word of God. You don’t have to hike to some dingy shack to spend time with God. Just open the Word and the very God of the universe is there, waiting to be discovered and loved.

 

~sdg