November 2008: Books Read

There were not a lot of books that I finished in November, but this was not for lack of reading. A lot of the reading that I did this past month was in preparation for the sermon that I gave yesterday, and so much of the reading I did was in commentaries and such. I also read sizable chunks of two books on preaching, but since I didn’t read the entire books, I can’t list them among the ones I finished.

1. No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come As You Are Culture in the Church by John Burke. I saw this book in the library and picked it up for two reasons: first, because of the catchy (if long) title. Second, because I had been impressed favorably by John Burke the two previous times I had heard his name: first in a book that I borrowed from a friend last year called Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches, and then this past August, when he was a speaker at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit.

After reading this book, I must say that I like him even more. The book is basically about how to reach the postmodern, post-Christian culture in America. Burke is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Austin, TX, and he peppers the book liberally with stories from people who have come to faith as a part of that church. They make the book 328 pages long (pretty hefty for a popular-level book, most of which I’d say top out at around 200), but they make it very readable.

He structures the book like this: in part one, he looks at our current cultural situation: people have become cynical and jaded, particularly where “organized” religion is concerned. Burke compares our situation to the biblical Corinthian church. In part two, he examines the struggle that many people have with trust, and how to address that in the church: create a culture of dialogue and authenticity. In part three, he looks at the struggle with tolerance. He stresses that at Gateway, they often repeat the phrase, “Come as you are… but don’t stay that way.” They want to create a culture of both acceptance and growth. Then he devotes a chapter each to two huge issues that many people have with Christians when it comes to tolerance: the question of other religions, and the question of homosexuality.

Part four he devotes to the struggle with truth. This (well, and part three too) was probably my favorite part of the book. Instead of going along with the postmodern notion that all truth is contextual and that truth claims are primarily assertions of power, he writes with a practical eye, saying that different people relate to different approaches to truth. He argues that truth must be humble, pragmatic, rational and incarnational. I liked his approach because, on the one hand, he didn’t insist that truth cannot be known. But on the other hand, he does not attempt to return to the modern mistake of overestimating our ability to know truth and coming across as arrogant. While there may be objective truth, no mere human being can know it in an objective way. That’s where humility comes in. Here is a quote from an e-mail that Burke sent to a spiritual seeker:

Many postmodern philosophers say… the word “truth” has no real meaning other than “strong opinion.” But what if God, the Universal Creative Mind, who alone understands all things and can know what is true (really as it actually is), decided to communicate his mind to flailing humans? If we could determine with some assurance God really has communicated, that would be our very best shot at knowing what is true–a lot less risky than trusting spiritual advisors (like me) or scholarly opinions…. I believe that ultimately, Truth is a person. And if you can approach finding truth about God more like you’d approach getting to know a person, it might help. Because the fulfilling part of knowing Truth personally comes with experiencing his love–that really is the whole point! It seems like you’ve been doing religious learning, but have never fully given yourself to God–in an act of surrender. (p. 172-3)

In part five, Burke moves on to talk about the struggle with brokenness. He devotes chapters to creating a culture of hope, sexual wholeness and healing, which I fully agree with. I think that many churches need to dive more into the messiness of people’s lives more than they have, or else they risk being irrelevant. Not that being relevant is the most important thing, but devoting attention to people’s real issues instead of sweeping them under the rug is something that the church simply needs to do. Part six Burke devotes to a similar theme: the struggle with aloneness; creating a culture of connection and of family.

Part seven is Burke’s conclusion; he stresses the creation of a culture that encourages leaders to emerge. Again, I agree. Overall, I enjoyed and enthusiastically agreed with this book. I think that Burke is on to something when it comes to being the church in our current culture.

2. The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis. I love the little Macmillan paperback editions of C.S. Lewis’ books. They’re so little and portable. I saw this one in a used book store about a month ago, and thought that reading it might help me prepare for my sermon. Although I’ve read lots of Lewis over the years, I hadn’t made it around to this one.

And it was good, as expected. The guy sure knew how to turn a phrase. This book contains such immortal gems as this one:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (p. 93)

and this one:

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. (p. 127)

I was most impressed, though, with his resoluteness to follow a train of thought all the way out to see where it led. This is a trait that, honestly, is not found enough in the evangelical Christians (like me) who so admire Lewis. In this book we find Lewis saying that he doesn’t necessarily have an objection to people being descended from animals (p. 72), speculating on whether animals can be immortal (139-140), and wondering whether Satan might have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared (135). The fact that I admire him on this point doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree with all of his conclusions, but I like it that he’s not afraid to use his intellect and see where it goes. This doesn’t always lead in good directions, of course, but neither does sticking with tradition merely because it is tradition. I could learn a lot from him.