How to Interact with People Who Disagree with You (Review)

Like many (maybe most) people who use social media, I have a like/hate relationship with it (“love” would be too strong, but “hate” isn’t). On the one hand, I find it useful for connecting in small ways to people I already know, and getting to know a few people I didn’t know before (although I never accept friend requests from people I don’t know on Facebook, and rarely interact with people I haven’t met in person on Twitter).

On the other hand, a whole lot of the time social media looks like everyone on it has collectively decided that the foolishness described in Proverbs 18:12 (“Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions”) is actually wisdom after all. It seems that these days, in real life as well but especially on social media, there are only two options when you’re faced with a substantial area of disagreement with someone else:

  1. ignore it (this is for when you want to maintain cordial terms with someone you interact with in real life); or
  2. vanquish the enemy.

9780451499608In his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs presents a third, seemingly forgotten way: thinking. Not burying your head in the sand, as in #1 above, and not assuming you know the solution from the beginning and using any means necessary to destroy those who stand in your way, as in #2 (what Jacobs calls “Refutation Mode”), but thinking. Using your noggin. Exerting the little grey cells, as Hercule Poirot used to say.

This is a short book, at just 157 pages. In spite of its somewhat grandiose title (but more in keeping with its more modest subtitle), this is not a book about how to think in general but more specifically about how to get past social and psychological barriers that prevent you from thinking in the first place. Because the problem is not merely that we aren’t trained to think very well, but that even if we have been trained, we don’t tend to do it. It’s hard. It doesn’t give us the rush of blood to the eyeballs that vanquishing the enemy gets us. But then, vanquishing the enemy doesn’t usually work either, since enemies almost always don’t stay vanquished for long.

Alan Jacobs tells us the circumstances in which we are most tempted not to think, so we will be on guard in just those situations. For example, when we are tempted to circle the wagons around our own group: “The person who genuinely wants to think will have to develop strategies for recognizing the subtlest of social pressures, confronting the pull of the ingroup and disgust for the outgroup” (23). And when we tend to repeat keywords, metaphors, and myths whose primary purpose is to communicate that we are part of a particular group: “In search of social belonging, and the blessed shortcuts that we can take when we’re in the presence of like-minded people, we come to rely on keywords, and then metaphors, and then myths—and at every stage habits become more deeply ingrained in us, habits that inhibit our ability to think” (105).

When it comes to advice on how to think, though, Jacobs doesn’t exactly give us a to-do list. There is a “Thinking Person’s Checklist” on page 155, but it is less a checklist and more a list of things to remind yourself of from time to time, like “4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness,” and “Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing,” and my favorite, “12. Be brave.”

This is a fun little book; Jacobs clearly derives a good deal of joy from writing, and it’s contagious. Sadly, though, I think the people who are most likely to need this book are the least likely to read it. They are still trying to vanquish the enemy, and they haven’t yet seen the shortcomings of this approach.

People who already show a degree of epistemic humility, who acknowledge that they don’t have the answers and like to seek out the best counterarguments, are most likely to read it but are the least likely to need it. You have to want to be that kind of person in the first place to derive benefit from this book. Somewhere in life, you need to be humbled. You need to come to the realization that the world is more complex than you can understand, that you can’t get everything you want by looking for the right levers to pull. It’s a good realization to have. I wish it for everyone, and myself on a daily basis most of all.

So here’s my recommendation: if you’re just starting to see the futility of “vanquish the enemy” mode, please please pick up this book.

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

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How Do We Think about Privilege? (Review)

When The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege was published earlier this year, I wanted to read it and I didn’t want to read it. I requested it from the publisher for review, because I knew it would be good, and then it sat there for most of the summer. Because as good as I knew it was going to be, I knew it would also be challenging. Even if you are committed to racial equality, it’s still hard to confront how you have benefited in life merely because of the color of your skin.

Ken Wytsma knows this, and that is why he wrote this book. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College, and founder of the Justice Conference—and he’s white. When Helen Lee at IVP asked him to write a book on racism, he balked at first. What could he say that couldn’t be said better by a person of color? But the more he thought about it, and saw racial bias in person, the more he thought that some white people were simply able to hear this message better (at least initially) coming from someone like them.

4482The book comes in three parts. In Part I, Wytsma briefly tells the story of race in America, from the age of exploration to modern segregation. In contrast to those who might argue that we have now largely moved on from our racist past, Wytsma maintains that “one of the central arguments of this book, as we uncover the roots of injustice and privilege, is that the effects of state-sponsored racism in America are very much present today” (75). But even now among the dominant evangelical culture, civil rights for minorities are not a priority: “A thin personal gospel, along with an oversimplified understanding of deeply entrenched racial systems (what I’ve called ‘the myth of equality’ in this book), has often allowed race to be made secondary to other foreign, domestic, and spiritual concerns” (65).

In Part II, Wytsma looks more closely at this “thin personal gospel.” He says that many of us have what he calls an “aristocratic itch,” where we place our own comfort above working for justice: “It is common for me to talk to people want to pursue justice but only after they have taken care of themselves first” (90). He also argues that the gospel of Jesus, properly understood, is not just about personal salvation. It is a gospel of reconciliation, which inevitably involves justice issues, but white American Christians have been blinded to this fact by our adoption of the dominant (and un-Christian) cultural narrative of consumeristic individualism. Instead of living according to this narrative, Wytsma calls the church to prophetic engagement in justice issues.

In Part III, Wytsma challenges white Christians to become more aware of implicit racial biases. Again, this goes against a commonly held narrative, and so is hard for many white Christians to hear. Wytsma writes, “I often encounter people who tell me that we may not have equality of outcome in America, but there is definitely equality of opportunity. I used to believe this, but it’s not true. Implicit racism in the United States today leads to the same results as the explicit racism of the Jim Crow era” (144, emphasis added). And again, “For Christians who are working for a society of the equality amid diversity that is God’s dream for the world, implicit bias is the battleground where we need to fight the hardest” (145). White Christians need to not stop at including different voices; we need to share power and opportunity, answering the biblical call to community. In sum,

We have to challenge the impulse and aspiration toward aristocracy—power and privilege permitting a life of leisure. We have to honor our brothers and sisters and learn to make the common good part of our aspirations. This goes against the grain of American individualism. It cuts against our deep inclinations of self-realization and advancement. Ultimately, it cuts against empire and the way we are shaped as consumers. The kingdom is a wholly different reality. None of us will get it perfectly right, but we must be committed to that narrow road where we are found in our love of enemy, love of neighbor, and life in the communion of saints. (191)

This is the first book of Wytsma’s that I’ve read, and I was impressed. He does a masterful job of anticipating objections and arguing for a biblical view of racial justice. I was most grateful for his blending of humility and boldness throughout. He knows that the privileged do not always respond well to being told that they are privileged, and he does so skillfully by calling them to a higher standard rather than simply lambasting them. He also knows that his is not the last word on the subject, and ends the book with several pages of recommended resources. I recommend this book for people, especially white Christians, who want to live out the gospel but are intimidated by discussions of race in America and don’t know where to start.

Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

FURTHER READING:

My friend James wrote a great review of The Myth of Equality a few months ago.

Ken Wytsma was interviewed on the podcast Seminary Dropout a few weeks ago.

Seeing Singles as People (Review)

When I first heard about One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church by Gina Dalfonzo, I thought it would be a book with a “how-to” bent. I know that in many churches, the response to the sexual revolution over the last several decades has been to focus on the nuclear family to the neglect of people in other stages of life (forgetting that the church itself is spoken about using “family” language in the New Testament). I thought it might be nice to get a few tips on avoiding the temptation for churches to neglect people who are not married.

9780801072932But it is not a how-to book, and for that reason I had the hardest time getting into it. It comes in three sections: The first, called “Stigmas, Stereotypes, and Shame,” states the problem: single people are too often seen in American churches as problems, pariahs, or projects. In the second, called “How We Got Here,” Dalfonzo gives a history lesson that begins in the ’90s with the courtship craze started (or at least fueled) by Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In the third, called “Where Do We Go from Here?” Dalfonzo paints a picture of what churches could look like if they did really welcome single people for who they are, rather than as potential married people.

As I mentioned, I had trouble getting into it, probably because in the first section does a bit of preaching to the choir. People who pick up a book like this are likely to be sympathetic readers, so stating the problem of how singles are often treated in the church over three chapters and 70 pages seemed excessive.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I kept going. I enjoyed her take on the courtship craze in part 2, and I note that even Joshua Harris has been reevaluating the ideas in his famous book (he has been working on a documentary film called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which he talks about here).

Also, one nugget in particular from the third section of the book has stuck with me. Dalfonzo wrote, “I really believe that a large part of the reason married churchgoers are often thrown for a loop by the singles is that, deep down, we are completely wedded to the idea that we should be able to control our own lives” (170). How can it be, the thinking goes, that you could really want something and not be able to get it? You must not be trying that hard. In this scenario, dependence on God as the source of life and giver of gifts goes out the window.

I think Dalfonzo is onto something there regarding how the American ideal of individual autonomy has played out in the area of how married Christians can treat single ones. This idea that we are atomistic individuals who ought to be able to control our own lives is a pernicious lie (not a uniquely American one, but one that is particularly influential here), and to counter it we need to believe the truth: that we are dependent on God for all things; and that the church he has started (including the singles in it!) is our true family.

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

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.

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.

How to Build and Maintain a Vision: A Review

Andy Stanley is the pastor of a group of churches in the Atlanta area that started with North Point Community Church, and he is on the list of pastors whose recorded sermons I periodically listen to (Tim Keller and John Ortberg are the others). In 1999 he wrote a book, Visioneering: Your Guide to Discovering and Maintaining Personal Vision, that was later reissued in a revised and updated version.

41mstogyjlThe book is loosely structured around the biblical book of Nehemiah, following Nehemiah’s transition from cupbearer to the king of Persia to governor of Judea as he sought to make the vision of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem a reality. The “visioneering” of the title is “the course one follows to make dreams a reality. It is the process whereby ideas and convictions take on substance. … If I were to boil it down to a formula, it would look something like this: VISIONEERING = INSPIRATION + CONVICTION + ACTION + DETERMINATION + COMPLETION” (9). It is moving from what is to what can be in any area of life, big or small, in your career, family life, or church.

Along with the book of Nehemiah, the book is also structured around the 20 building blocks that Stanley says are involved in pursuing a vision:

  1. A vision begins as a concern.
  2. A vision does not necessarily require immediate action.
  3. Pray for opportunities and plan as if you expect God to answer your prayers.
  4. God is using your circumstances to position and prepare you.
  5. What God originates, he orchestrates.
  6. Walk before you talk; investigate before you initiate.
  7. Communicate your vision as a solution to a problem that must be addressed now.
  8. Cast your vision to the appropriate people at the appropriate time.
  9. Don’t expect others to take greater risks or make greater sacrifices than you have.
  10. Don’t confuse your plans with God’s vision.
  11. Visions are refined—they don’t change; plans are revised—they rarely stay the same.
  12. Respond to criticism with prayer, remembrance, and if necessary, a revision of the plan.
  13. Visions thrive in an environment of unity; they die in an environment of division.
  14. Abandon the vision before you abandon your moral authority.
  15. Don’t get distracted.
  16. There is divine potential in all you envision to do.
  17. The end of a God-ordained vision is God.
  18. Maintaining a vision requires adherence to a set of core beliefs and behaviors.
  19. Visions require constant attention.
  20. Maintaining a vision requires bold leadership.

This is the sort of book that is more rewarding the more you put into it. In fact, I read the original version a while back and was not particularly struck by it. It had some good advice, but wasn’t life-changing. This time, I spent more time trying to apply what Stanley was saying to my own life (there are application questions at the end of every chapter, as well as a group discussion guide at the end), and I found it to be much more useful. I recommend this book to anyone, particularly any Christian, who has some idea of where they would like to be, but is looking for practical steps on how to get there.

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