Night in Jerusalem

This is the eighteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

In the afternoon of June 26 our tour bus left Caesarea, and Galilee, and took us to where we would spend our final three days. By that point in the trip we had been in Israel (with a couple of trips into the West Bank) for a week, and we had not yet set foot in Jerusalem.

When we got there, the bus driver parked just outside the old city walls, between the Jaffa Gate and the New Gate, and we walked in to our hotel: the Knights’ Palace. It was a charming little place, a former seminary, with a medieval feel: stone exterior and interior, with suits of armor in the hallway and portraits whose eyes seem to follow you like you’re in an episode of Scooby-Doo.

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The old city of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. The Knights’ Palace is in the Christian Quarter, wedged up against the northwest wall of the old city and not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After checking in, most of our group spent the evening going on a walk around the city.

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Walking just inside the Jaffa Gate

I love walking in cities at night. While I’ve spent plenty of time wandering around the major cities I’ve lived in (Prague, Budapest, Vancouver) both during the day and at night, it’s the night walks that have stuck with me, even years afterward.

Maybe this is because my senses are heightened when I’m walking around at night, knowing there is a higher likelihood that I’ll be the victim of some crime. Or, more likely, walking at night just seems more intimate. With the sky dark and the lampposts lit up, cityscapes (especially squares) feel to me almost like a living room. There are fewer people around, and some of the inhibitions that people have in the daylight crowds go away; you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know (you’re also more likely to be propositioned by a prostitute or see stag parties singing/yelling to everyone around as they stagger down the street—two lingering memories from my time in Prague).

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Standing near the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

Tim led us through the warren of narrow streets that first night, looking for a way up to a rooftop from which we could look east and see the Dome of the Rock. Along the way, we saw the Israeli police questioning a young boy who had apparently thrown a rock at someone. In Jerusalem, little things like that can apparently get out of control quickly.

Then we came back down from the roof, meandered through the Jewish Quarter to Hurva Square, and headed east to a place where we could overlook the Western Wall.

fullsizeoutput_2755It was stunning, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Of the three nights we spent in Jerusalem, no matter how tired I was after that day’s excursions, I went walking around at night to take in as much as I could: enjoying the views, watching the people, eating the gelato (who knew you could get gelato in the old city?). I was a little nervous about getting lost by myself, so I had to look for people to go with, but thankfully there were plenty of other people who were also excited to do night exploring (thanks, Kurt & Suzie, Jenna & Abigail!).

 

Caesarea and Kingdom Building

It’s hard to believe it’s now been almost a year since the pilgrimage to Israel I made with a group from my church last summer. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to try to write reflections on every stop we made, but I’m actually pretty close to finishing now. This is the seventeenth post (to read them all, click here).

June 26 PM

Our last stop in northern Israel before heading to Jerusalem was Caesarea. There were two Caesareas—Caesarea Philippi, which we had visited a couple of days earlier, and the one on the coast, which is usually just called Caesarea (or Caesarea Maritima if you want to differentiate it from the other one).

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Standing at one end of the hippodrome

Like so many extant ruins around Israel, Herod the Great picked this spot to build a palace. He wanted a harbor here so he could get a cut of the trade that passed through, so he conducted a building project from about 22–10 BC so an artificial harbor could be created. The palace covered twenty-six acres, and there was a theater and hippodrome here as well. Josephus wrote that Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great entered this theater dressed in robes of silver that shone in the sun. When the crowd acclaimed him as a god, he accepted their praise, and he died shortly thereafter (this is also recorded in the New Testament in Acts 12:20–23). There was also a lighthouse, and ruins of the breakwater are still visible underwater. The site includes red columns from Egypt and black columns from Greece.

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Looking toward the hippodrome, with the palace in the foreground

From AD 6, when the Romans took over Palestine, Caesarea was the headquarters of the Roman governors. In 1961 there was a stone found here with an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate. The apostle Paul passed through here on his missionary journeys, and he was imprisoned here for two years before he was sent to be tried in Rome (Acts 23:23–26:32).

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A replica of the Pilate inscription; the original is in the Israel Museum

When our group arrived, we went up to the top of the theater and felt the ocean breeze while our group leader, Tim, explained the history of the place and showed us some points of interest. Then we went north to the ruins of the ancient palace. Just below the palace, on the beach, we found ancient pieces of pottery and marble that had been eroded by the waves. Then we continued north through the hippodrome.

Is8059 After we left Caesarea, we stopped at an aqueduct not far away, then continued on to Jerusalem for the night.

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When Tim gave us an overview of Caesarea, he ended by saying that Herod the Great built this to show he was great. That is what he wanted to do with his many building projects, and at least in some sense he succeeded, since we can still see parts of what he built and we still know his name. But of course the palace is in ruins and nobody uses the hippodrome anymore. And even though we know his name, we don’t love Herod. He doesn’t have a place in our hearts. So Tim asked, “What kind of kingdom are you building?”

Character Is King (Review)

Education in general, and education in leadership in particular, has increasingly become focused on the acquisition of skills. Since we as a society cannot agree on what is good or true or beautiful, when we want to teach something the only definition of success we can agree on is that we should become, as the title of a recent book by Charles Duhigg tells us, Smarter Faster Better (or in the words of Daft Punk, “Harder Better Faster Stronger“). Education is little more than an indoctrination into what the French philosopher Jacques Ellul called “technique.”

people-of-a-certain-character-cover_thumbnailThis sort of thinking is also present in churches, although biblical qualifications for leadership have a bit to do with skills (“able to teach,” 1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24) but much more to do with character (“above reproach,” “self-controlled,” “not quarrelsome,” “not a lover of money,” 1 Tim 3:2–3). My friend Jeremy Rios, who until recently pastored at Burnaby Alliance Church and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of St. Andrews, wrote People of a Certain Character: Mentored Leadership for Servants in the Kingdom as a leadership training manual with the goal of helping to restore the church to a more character-focused vision of leadership.

At just 106 pages, it is a brief book that almost might be called a booklet. Rios has consciously kept the book short so that it can be profitably read in groups of Christian leaders. The real purpose is not to read it alone for the purpose of review (as I have just done) but to work through it slowly, reflectively, alongside others with whom you are ministering. In each of twelve chapters, Rios asks a question that aims to get at the heart of a Christian leader’s character:

  • Do you know that you are loved by God?
  • Do you have a conviction of holiness?
  • Are you filled, and being filled, with the Holy Spirit?
  • Are you aware that God is in charge of your ministry?
  • Do you have a right relationship with Mammon?
  • Are you willing to submit?
  • Do you know how to connect with the Lord devotionally?
  • Do you know how to listen for the Lord’s interruptions?
  • Do you know how to share the gospel?
  • Do you know how to minister in the power of the Lord?
  • Do you know how to care for others?
  • Do you know how to restore yourself?

Each chapter begins with a passage of Scripture, continues with a meditation on that Scripture, then concludes with discussion questions and a suggested spiritual practice to help readers grow in that area. For example, the spiritual practice connected with “Are you willing to submit?” is fasting. The book ends with a concluding word on the importance of mentoring for growth in Christian character, using the apostle Paul and his mentoring of Timothy as a primary example.

As I read the book, I thought there were many other questions that could have been asked to help people gauge where they are in terms of their character, but these are a good baseline. The intent, as I see it, is not to be exhaustive, but to prompt honest reflection and growth. It is similar to books on spiritual disciplines: when you read Richard Foster, or Dallas Willard, or someone else, you find that their lists of spiritual disciplines overlap but are not entirely the same. The point is not to establish a complete list of disciplines for people to practice, but to suggest ways in which we might use our bodies and habits to invest in our relationship with God.

I think this book will be a valuable resource for leadership development in the church. As I mentioned above, resources on leadership often focus on the “how” to the detriment of the “who”—what kind of character should you have as a leader? While I do think resources that teach leadership skills have their place, there is a greater need in our current environment for books like People of a Certain Character.

Note: While the author is a friend, a copy of this book was provided to me with no expectation as to the nature of the review. Check out Jeremy’s explanation of why he wrote the book here.

Justice, Mercy, and Brokenness (Review)

Toward the beginning of his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes, “I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (18). In the course of the book, he relates how he came to believe this, and how he came to found the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit that, according to its website, “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

Just-MercyThe main story Stevenson tells in the book is that of Walter McMillian, whom Stevenson began representing in the 1980s. McMillian, who is black, was on death row after being convicted of killing a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama—the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the real-life model for its fictional town of Maycomb—but he didn’t do it. As Stevenson digs into the case, he finds evidence that, since it was a high-profile crime and the public was anxious for a conviction, the local authorities were more than willing to pin it on McMillian, despite the fact that witnesses saw McMillian elsewhere while the crime was being committed. During jury selection, the prosecution excluded African Americans. During the trial, the prosecution relied on two key witnesses who lied. And when the jury recommended life in prison, the presiding judge stepped in and escalated it to the death penalty. (State court judges in Alabama are elected by popular vote, and nobody who is looking to win an election wants to be seen as “soft on crime.”)

Stevenson intersperses McMillian’s story with the stories of other people he has represented, including the mentally ill and those who were serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. As he tells story after story, the evidence piles up that it is too easy in our justice system to wrongfully convict or excessively punish people who lack the resources to defend themselves. Racism is often a factor in unjust convictions and harsh sentences, as it was in the case of McMillian, but Stevenson is careful not to lay all of the problems of our justice system at the feet of systemic racism. All of the people whose stories he tells are poor, but they are of different races. It seems the bigger culprit, of which even racism is a symptom, is our tendency to treat people who are different from us—culturally, racially, socioeconomically—as an Other to be feared and controlled. In this situation, it is the poor, minorities, and mentally ill especially who don’t have the means to resist the ways in which we try to control them or keep them at a distance, both physically and psychologically.

Stevenson doesn’t write about where his vision of justice comes from—why he sees certain things as just and others as unjust. And aside from occasional mentions of church attendance and prayer, he doesn’t talk about his religious commitments. He doesn’t explicitly root his vision of justice and mercy in a particular view of the world, and that’s probably for the best if he wants to convince people from any religion and no religion that justice reform is needed. But I believe his vision is deeply Christian, and the church can learn much from it. I especially saw this in his chapter, “Broken,” in which he sees all people as united in their brokenness:

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill [one of his clients who was about to be executed] and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us. … Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (289)

We are all prone to sort the world into Us vs. Them, and then think the solution to our problems is for Us to get rid of Them. Even many readers of Just Mercy may fall into thinking the solution to the problems in our justice system is for Us (the enlightened readers of this book) to seize power and punish them (the racists, those who profit from mass incarceration, etc.).

But according to Stevenson, the solution to fear and hatred of the Other is seeing what unites us. And what unites us is not our race, or status, or our intellectual ability, or our nationality. According to Stevenson (and even though he doesn’t explicitly root it there, this is firmly within the mainstream of the historic Christian understanding of humanity), what unites us is that we are all broken in some way. We are all in need of justice and mercy.

 

 

Disclaimer: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

All Religion Isn’t Bad, but There Is Such a Thing as Bad Religion (Review)

You don’t often hear people called heretics anymore. In 1905, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics, in which he critiqued the teachings of several of his contemporaries, including H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Even then, though, writing a book calling out heresies was kind of cheeky. In the age of the modern nation-state, when dissenters from orthodoxy no longer get punished (and by the way, I think that’s a good thing), it hardly seems worth one’s while to call someone out as a heretic.

Nevertheless, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat does just that in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012). Douthat himself is a Catholic who has sympathies with conservative Protestantism. In this book,  he takes as a starting point that the famous secularization thesis popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth  century is wrong; societies do not inevitably become less religious as they become more modern. Rather, Douthat writes that “every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them” (3). All societies have some beliefs about what the world is like and what people ought to do. Whether that belief involves the supernatural or not, or has weekly services or not, it functions as a religion.

If religion is inescapable because beliefs about ultimate reality are inescapable, then religion itself is not the problem and trying to get rid of all religion is not the solution. If you try your best to get rid of some forms of religion, other forms will pop up in their place. On the other hand, if you’re a religious person, then secularization is not the main problem. “The secular mistake has been to assume that every theology tends inevitably toward the same follies and fanaticisms, and to imagine that a truly postreligious culture is even possible, let alone desirable. The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul” (4).

The problem, according to Douthat, is bad religion: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (4).

The book comes in two parts. In the first, “Christianity in Crisis,” Douthat traces the devolution of Christianity over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century. While heresies have always been present, he argues, what makes our current climate different is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response to them.

He begins the second, “The Age of Heresy,” by pointing out heresy’s inclination toward resolving ambiguity. Whereas Christian orthodoxy has always embraced paradox and sought to hold seemingly contradictory things in tension (Is Jesus God or human? Yes.), heresies have always sought a ruthless narrowing (Does Jesus seem in some ways unlike the God of the Old Testament? Get rid of the Old Testament). “The goal of the great heresies … has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus” (153). This, Douthat argues, has led to the “lost gospel” trend in scholarship about Christian origins. In it, scholars like to present a one-dimensional vision of Jesus—as only human, or as only a wise teacher, or as only a Gnostic sage. Usually, these one-dimensional portraits of Jesus look an awful lot like the scholar (or popularizer, in the case of the novelist Dan Brown) who is arguing that this is what Jesus was really like. Upon closer examination, these claims about the early history of Christianity prove to be inconclusive or outright false, but their popularity tells a lot about what many Americans want to believe.

The next three chapters Douthat spends looking at other heresies that have emerged from the tendency to make Jesus in our own image and to forcibly resolve paradoxes that have existed in Christianity from the beginning: the prosperity gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, the therapeutic “god within” theology of Oprah, Deepak Chopra, and others, and God-and-country-but-mostly-country Christian nationalism.

He then closes the book with a vision of what a renewed Christianity might look like. First, it will be political without being partisan, avoiding the temptation to fit Christianity into the mold of ideologies on the right or the left but at the same time not becoming quietist or indifferent. Second, it will be ecumenical but also confessional, reaching out to like-minded others without watering down one’s own theological commitments. To do this we need strong institutions. Christians who are part of churches with clearly defined theological commitments will be less susceptible to watering down their faith by uniting it with (for example) a political platform. Third, it will be moralistic but also holistic—not downplaying the ethical demands of Christianity while at the same time not becoming unduly focused on hot-button moral issues (sexual immorality) to the neglect of other, just as important, moral issues (gluttony, greed, pride). Fourth, it will be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. It will cultivate both saints and artists. Here he quotes Joseph Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb” (291).

This is a great book, and I recommend it to any Christian believer who wonders how we got to a place where so many Americans want to believe that there were suppressed gospels, that God wants to make them wealthy, that the only God that matters is inside each of us, or that God may be subservient to a political ideology, whether on the right or the left. I found the first part of the book to be a tough slog, focused as it was on recounting a history that I was mostly familiar with. And while I was not sure about parts of Douthat’s interpretation of that history, I agree with his central insights—that secularism is more of a bogeyman than a real threat to Christianity, that heresy tends to resolve the paradoxes of orthodoxy in a self-serving way, and that heresy is rampant today in part because of the weakness of orthodox Christianity’s response.

Unscripted by Ernie Johnson (Review)

Probably like many people, I know Ernie Johnson Jr. from his work as a broadcaster at Turner Sports, particularly hosting Inside the NBA on TNT. I knew next to nothing about him besides that, but when I found out he was coming out with a biography from a well-known Christian publisher (Baker Books) and this biography was being released right around the start of the NBA playoffs, when Johnson is more visible than at most other times of the year (good job on setting the release date, Baker), I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy.

The book is called Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary. Johnson said he got the idea for the book after the ESPN program E:60 did a feature on his family. A recurring theme in the book is “blackberry moments,” named after an incident from Johnson’s childhood that he relates in the first chapter. He was playing in a Little League game that was delayed for a while when two of the outfielders, who had gone over the fence to look for a lost ball, ended up picking blackberries instead. Johnson defines a blackberry moment as, among other things, “an unforeseen moment that catches you off guard and marks you forever” (189).

41EaV5FFk8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There are plenty such moments in the book, from Johnson’s childhood in Atlanta growing up as the son of the Braves’ play-by-play announcer, to his own work as a broadcaster, to his life with his wife and six kids (two biological and four adopted, including one with muscular dystrophy that keeps him in a wheelchair), to his becoming a committed Christian in the ’90s, to his fight against cancer between 2003 and 2006. There were difficult moments in all of these, but Johnson dwells on the unpredictable, joyful gifts—the blackberries—that he has received throughout his life and that have made it all worthwhile. He also tells a few “dad jokes” along the way, but rather than groaning at them, I found them to be an endearing part of his voice. They made him seem like a regular guy.

This is a good book for fans of Johnson’s work, of course. However, even people like me who knew who he was but didn’t watch him that regularly can get a lot out of this book. It’s not really about sports; it’s about how to navigate life. At one point Johnson quotes the spiritual writer Dallas Willard: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Johnson tries to eliminate hurry by looking for blackberry moments everywhere, and his description of this search is inspiring.

Note: Thanks to Baker Books for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Megiddo and to’ebah

This is the sixteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 26, AM

Our next stop after the area outside Nazareth was Megiddo, a site on the north side of the Carmel ridge, on the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley. In ancient times it was along the Via Maris, the main route between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and so held strategic and military significance for a long time. In the united monarchy of Israel, it is listed as one of three cities that Solomon fortified (along with Hazor and Gezer, 2 Kgs 9:15). There is a gate there that some archaeologists believe dates to Solomon’s time. In 609 BC, Josiah king of Judah challenged Pharaoh Neco in battle there and was killed (2 Kgs 23:29–30). The site was abandoned sometime during the fourth century BC.

Is8023Many people associate the name “Megiddo” with Revelation 16:16, which places a gathering of armies at a place called “Armageddon” (literally, “mountain of Megiddo”). Normally Armageddon is thought of as a battle, but a close reading of Revelation shows that the battle is never fought. Personally, since so much of Revelation is intended to be symbolic, and since there is no such place as the “mountain of Megiddo,” and since it’s physically impossible for the armies described in Revelation to gather in the space around Megiddo, I don’t think any literal future gathering for battle is likely to be fought at Megiddo. As Darrell Johnson says in his fine book on Revelation, “The name stands for the last resistance of the anti-Christ forces before the coming of the new creation” (Discipleship on the Edge, 290). Likewise, Grant Osborne writes in Revelation Verse by Verse:

We should begin with the connection of Megiddo with warfare, since so many battles were fought there (Judg 4–5, 7; 1 Sam 31; 2 Kgs 23; 2 Chr 35). It is also associated with the obstinate opposition of the world to God and his people, with the primary background being Gog and Magog (Ezek 38–39) and the mourning of the apostate nation in Zechariah 12:9–14, who here represent all the nations who have broken covenant with God. Thus the message in the name “Armageddon” would be that all who stand against God will mourn as they face God’s wrath. It stands for the assembly of all the sinful nations arrayed against God and his people as they come together in defiance to make war against God and the Lamb. (272)

The point Revelation is trying to make, I think, is that evil forces gather with a militaristic mindset, not precisely where. So at Megiddo, our group leader, Tim, (thankfully) didn’t talk about Armageddon. Instead, he talked to us about idolatry.

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It appears that, even during the time when the Israelites occupied Megiddo, there was religious dualism—Yahweh was worshiped along with the goddess Asherah. This from the article on Megiddo in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books: “It is likely that two deities, male and female, are represented in Shrine 2081, presenting at Megiddo a possible early manifestation of the dualism represented by the worship of Yahweh and his Asherah at Kuntillet ʿAjrud in the early eighth century BCE.”

It may seem surprising to those who have read the Bible all their lives that this kind of thing was going on. Weren’t the Israelites monotheists? Well, according to those who wrote the Old Testament, they were supposed to be, but all too often they worshiped other gods, or they practiced syncretism—the worship of Yahweh alongside other gods. The prophets of ancient Israel were always railing against this tendency in their contemporaries, calling idols to’ebah, which means “disgusting” or an “abomination”: “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable [to’ebah] to the Lord, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret” (Deut 27:15).

Is8034In Jeremiah’s time, God was disgusted that the Judahites were likening him to the god Baal, saying he wanted child sacrifice. This was an abomination (Jer 32:35). Baal worship involving child sacrifice was abhorrent to the Greeks, and they put an end to it before Jesus’ day. But there were other things that were still going on in the first century that God also found disgusting. When Jesus entered the temple after his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he says the temple establishment is making it into a “den of robbers,” quoting a passage from Jeremiah that speaks of abominations going on in the temple itself:

“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things [to’ebah]? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!” declares the Lord. (Jer 7:9–11)

Jesus is saying that, just as the old temple was destroyed because the Israelites thought they could do whatever they wanted there and God would look the other way, so the temple of his day would be destroyed because the Jewish leaders blatantly disobeyed God in the temple itself through their greed. It’s a good reminder that religious activity is not what God wants. What does God really require? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).

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As Kingfishers Catch Fire (Review)

Eugene Peterson has long been one of my heroes. As I was studying to be a pastor, I would sometimes become anxious, thinking that I would have to become an über-extroverted CEO to keep up with contemporary expectations for what a pastor should be. I would be filled with dread and second-guessing until I went back and read some of Peterson’s writing on pastoring (like The Contemplative Pastor), and I would be reassured that I was not crazy to think that someone with my personality could do it, even in America.

Since then, I haven’t followed the path I thought I would. I love and am committed to the local church, but so far I haven’t ended up serving as a pastor. Peterson is still a hero, though, and I still turn to his writings for guidance not just on how to be a pastor in today’s world, but how to be a Christian—or even a human—as well.

9781601429674In mid-May this year, Waterbrook will publish As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, a collection of Peterson’s sermons from when he served Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. It’s the second of his books whose title comes from a single poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (the first being Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places). In the preface, he writes that the goal of all his pastoral work, including the sermons he preached, was congruence:

The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence—congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh. (xviii)

There are forty-nine sermons in this collection from the twenty-nine years Peterson was a pastor. They are divided into seven parts, with seven sermons each. Each part is focused on the books associated with a biblical figure: Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John. There is an introduction to each of these parts that sets the passages the sermons are based on in their biblical context. Peterson states outright that this is not a “best of” collection; rather, they are a representative sample.

Something is always lost when sermons are printed in a book, and no doubt that is the case here. But at the same time, getting a taste of these sermons is better than nothing, and I for one am grateful to have them. Each sermon is between five and six pages long, which is a good length to take one at a time as devotional reading.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Life of the Church (Review)

Moody Publishers has recently published three books on the church from Joe Thorn: The Heart of the Church: The Gospel’s History, Message, and Meaning, The Character of the Church: The Marks of God’s Obedient People, and The Life of the Church: The Table, Pulpit, and SquareThey are intended, respectively, to answer the questions: What does the church believe? What makes a church a church? and What should a church do?

Since I’m always interested in people’s visions of what the church ought to be and do, and I’m on my own church’s leadership team, I decided to pick up the third book to see what Thorn had to say.

9780802414694The book itself is short, almost a booklet (it’s 109 pages). It has a cool design that features the colors black and green, and Thorn himself seems like a cool guy (he has tattoos and wears shirts with epaulets). According to the book, the mission of the church is to follow Christ and make disciples in three environments: the table, pulpit, and square. The “table” is Thorn’s way of talking about a church’s inward community; “pulpit” represents the church’s worship gatherings; and “square” stands for the public square, i.e., the church’s activities in the surrounding community of participation, restoration, conversation, and multiplication.

These three images make up a clever heuristic for thinking about what the church is supposed to do. I’m sure it will stick with me, and that I’ll continue to find this book useful. Finally, while there are many things in the book that churches from any denomination would agree with, when you read between the lines a bit it does seem clear that Thorn is writing from within the Reformed Baptist tradition. Readers of any denomination could benefit from this book, but those who share Thorn’s tradition will be the most “at home” in it.

Note: Thanks to Moody Publishers for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Hum of Angels (Review)

When you hear the word “angels,” what do you think of? Some spiritual being that accompanies people as their guardian? The chubby cherubs from that painting by Raphael? Or do you dismiss them as credulous superstition, the product of overactive imaginations, and leave it at that?

9781601426314New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has set out to clear up what exactly angels are in a book published last month called The Hum of Angels. The “hum” of the title comes from a story that he tells at the outset about a visit to a pet store. He was telling the attendant that there were no hummingbirds where he lived, but the attendant told him there most definitely were. You just had to have the eyes to see them. McKnight went home determined to attune his eyes to see hummingbirds, and now he sees them everywhere.

In that way, angels are like hummingbirds. They are all around us, McKnight says, but we need to train our eyes to see them. He doesn’t set out in this book to prove to the skeptical that a spiritual realm exists. Rather, his audience is people who already believe in something beyond the physical but aren’t so sure whether angels exist or what they are. “If you believe in God,” he says, “you also believe in angels.”

But how do you know what to believe about angels? You could listen to stories about angel encounters, but without some kind of other foundation for identifying what angels are it won’t be clear whether some of these experiences really involve angels or not. As a Christian (and a biblical scholar at that), it isn’t surprising that McKnight turns to the Bible to find out what it teaches about angels. And the Bible has a lot to say about angels. McKnight puts the core of what the Bible has to say about angels this way:

God is love.

All that God does is loving.

God sends angels to us because God loves us.

Love is a rugged commitment to be With,

to be For us so that we can

progress Unto Christlikeness.

Angels are sent to express God’s love

by being God’s presence with us,

by being God’s presence for us, and

to lead us into the redemption of Christlikeness.

He spends most of the book unpacking what the parts of this statement (which he repeats, with some variations, in almost every chapter) say about what angels are. I won’t get into the specifics, but here are a few takeaways from the book:

The Bible nowhere teaches that people become angels when they die. According to McKnight, “the model for what we will be like after death is not angels but the resurrection body of Jesus—who, again, did not become an angel” (20). Just in case it needs to be said, the moment when a friend says on Facebook about a departed loved one that “heaven gained an angel” is NOT THE TIME to instruct them on this point. But in light of how widespread this misunderstanding is, I do think churches ought to make a point of teaching on it.

Not all angelic visitations are from good angels. Angels always point to God, and “angels that don’t summon us to see God are not doing God’s work” (27). Angels are messengers of God’s love, and God’s love is more than the presence of positive feelings about someone. Love, McKnight says, “has a goal.” It “is not tolerance or deciding to put up with one another or doing our best to get along. Love, if it is Christian love, leads to mutual growth into Christlikeness” (42). Angels who do not point us toward God in Christ are what the Bible calls demons, or evil spirits. So modern-day “angel experiences that do not draw us to God’s Son must be held either loosely or not at all” (125).

The Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. Now, not all biblical scholars agree about this, so this shouldn’t be asserted dogmatically. But after looking at several passages, McKnight comes down on the side of believing that while “God becomes present to us in special ways in the Angel of the Lord” (85), that is not the same as saying it is the pre-incarnate Jesus.

The Bible isn’t clear about whether people have guardian angels assigned to them. It is clear that God does send angels to protect and guard and guide us, but it stops short of saying that each person has an assigned guardian angel. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom believed in guardian angels, though, if their opinion matters to you.

They probably don’t look like the chainsmoking angel on the cover of the classic Van Halen album 1984. Okay, McKnight actually doesn’t address this. But I think it’s a pretty safe assumption.Van_Halen_-_1984

Should you read this book? There are many books about angels out there, and I honestly haven’t read many of them so I don’t know how it compares to others. But if you are curious about angels, and what the Bible says about angels is an important consideration for you (and if you are a Christian, it should), then you may find this book helpful.

Note: Thanks to WaterBrook, the publisher, for a review copy of this book (even though they said they would send a hardcover and sent a paperback ARC instead). I was not asked to give a positive review.