Book Review: Basic Christian

John Stott had gradually slipped off the world stage over the last few years. But when he died at the age of 90 this past July, suddenly he became an object of conversation. He was without peer as an evangelical Christian leader in Britain and the world. It is a testament to his talents as a bridge-builder that tributes to him came from all over the world and all over the spectrum of political and religious belief. There was even a tribute from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. Reading it, I was reminded that David Brooks had said in the same newspaper in 2004 that “if evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose.”

This biography by Roger Steer was written in 2009, and was based in part on conversations with Stott and several of his friends. It traces Stott’s life from his early days as the son of a prominent physician, to his days at Cambridge and his decision to become a pastor, to his time as curate and rector of All Souls in London and his rise to international prominence. It gives details about his many travels, his contributions to the evangelical Christian movement and his friendships with other well-known people.

In it, Stott comes across as a man with a gift for friendship, a sharp mind, a sense of humor and a deep commitment to Jesus as Lord of all of life. The book is not afraid to present Stott “warts and all,” but there really aren’t many warts. Despite his gift for friendship, Stott could be reserved. With his great intelligence and disciplined lifestyle, he could sometimes be impatient with those who were more sloppy in their thinking or less disciplined in their living than he was. However, he was a man who was conscious of his faults and humble enough to admit them.

Stott has long been a hero of mine, and this book did nothing to change that. If anything, it made me miss Stott even more. He was able to remain biblically faithful and speak charitably with those whom he disagreed. The latter characteristic is in especially short supply these days, both in the church and the world. I’d recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Stott’s life, especially those who might be intimidated by Timothy Dudley-Smith’s larger two-volume biography.

March 2010: Books Read

1. Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain. As a fan of Twain’s, I have already read his most well-known works, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I have also read Roughing It, Life on the MIssissippi and an awful lot of his essays. It was about time, then, that I got around to reading Puddn’head Wilson.

It was not bad, but clearly there is a reason why this is not among his most-read stuff. It is about two children who were switched as infants, with one being raised as the scion of a wealthy family and the other being raised as a slave. The plot was interesting enough, but for a “mystery,” the ending was not at all surprising. The characters were not as compelling as in some of his better work. And this book was written in the 1890s, when Twain was becoming more and more of a cynic – as can easily be seen in the epigraphs at the beginning of every chapter. Though he was still talented, his later work is, with some exceptions, just not as entertaining to read.

2. Jane Austen (Christian Encounters Series) by Peter Leithart. Reviewed earlier here.

3. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. This is an excellent, short work on the interaction between Christianity and economics. It is made up of four essays, and is only 103 pages long. Cavanaugh is Catholic, and draws mainly on Catholic theologians, but his theology is not so distinctly Catholic that other Christians can’t benefit from his insights.

Cavanaugh critiques the definition of economic freedom as only “freedom from” and proposes instead that economic freedom ought to be “freedom for” participation in community and realizing our humanity more fully. He also critiques consumerism, globalization and the economics of scarcity. It is simultaneously a quick read and a dense read, and unfortunately I read it over a month ago and can’t describe its arguments with the nuance they deserve. It is a book well worth picking up, though.

4. The Glory of Preaching: Participating in God’s Transformation of the World by Darrell W. Johnson. I studied preaching under Johnson at Regent College, so it was no surprise that I found much to agree with in this book. He honed the material for this book in his preaching classes, so a lot of it was not new.

What is unusual about this book, as over against most other books about preaching, is Johnson’s confidence in the biblical text. That is not to say that other books on preaching are not confident in the Bible to change people’s lives. It is unusual, though, for a writer to say, as Johnson does, that when the living God speaks, something ALWAYS happens. Another unique thing about this book is that Johnson thinks preachers are not responsible for applying the text to people’s lives. I remember, when I was in preaching class, that some students pushed back on this. Johnson was adamant, though. Preachers can imply what the text means – they can state the truth that the text leads us to. But applying – that is, telling people what particular things they ought to do – is the job of the Holy Spirit.

This is a wonderful book, and one that I will return to over the years.

5. The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott. I decided that during Lent this year, in addition to fasting from something, I would read something that led me to focus on Jesus. I’ve had this book on my shelf since my time at Regent, and it is as good a book as any to accomplish that goal.

There isn’t a lot that I could say about this book, aside from saying that it is a classic work on what Jesus’ death meant and means. If you are interested in learning more about what Jesus’ death accomplished, this is the first place to turn.

John Stott on Social Justice

This Lent, I have been reading John Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ, to focus on what Jesus’ death means. I found this quote in the last section of the book, called “Living Under the Cross.” In light of the recent conflict between Glenn Beck and Jim Wallis on the meaning of “social justice,” and how it relates to the Gospel, I thought I would share it.

[A]s we have repeatedly noted throughout this book, the cross is a revelation of God’s justice as well as of his love. That is why the community of the cross should concern itself with social justice as well as with loving philanthropy. It is never enough to have pity on the victims of injustice, if we do nothing to change the unjust situation itself. Good Samaritans will always be needed to succour those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands. Just so Christian philanthropy in terms of relief and aid is necessary, but long-term development is better, and we cannot evade our political responsibility to share in changing the structures which inhibit development. Christians cannot regard with equanimity the injustices which spoil God’s world and demean his creatures. Injustice must bring pain to the God whose justice flared brightly at the cross; it should bring pain to God’s people too. Contemporary injustices take many forms. They are international (the invasion and annexation of foreign territory), political (the subjugation of minorities), legal (the punishment of untried and unsentenced citizens), racial (the humiliating discrimination against people on the ground of race or colour), economic (the toleration of gross North-South inequality and of the traumas of poverty and unemployment), sexual (the oppression of women), educational (the denial of equal opportunity for all) or religious (the failure to take the gospel to the nations). Love and justice combine to oppose all these situations. If we love people, we shall be concerned to secure their basic rights as human beings, which is also the concern of justice. The community of the cross, which has truly absorbed the message of the cross, will always be motivated to action by the demands of justice and love. (292-3)

March 2009: Books Read

Once again, it’s the list that proves to you that I’m really doing something when I’m sitting around.

1. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity by Nancy Pearcey. I’ve heard about this book over the past few years, and since my church is going through the Truth Project (a DVD curriculum that trains Christians to have a biblical worldview) together, I thought I’d read a book about worldviews.

This book has a lot in it. Pearcey studied under Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, and you can see his influence in the way that she paints with a broad brush, surveying all of western culture. She writes that secularism has pushed religion (specifically Christianity) to the margins of society, and Christians ought to reassert Christianity as public, all-encompassing truth. She spends a particularly large chunk of the book dealing with Darwinism, saying that it has begun with science but seeped through the rest of society as its own all-encompassing worldview. Then she tells the story of how evangelicals became so anti-intellectual, and expresses her desire that the trend be reversed.

This book also has a lot going for it. Many of her insights I thought were right on. I liked the fact that she went out of her way to be irenic when it comes to dealing with culture:

Our first response to the great works of human culture – whether in art or technology or economic productivity – should be to celebrate them as reflections of God’s own creativity. And even when we analyze where they go wrong, it should be in a spirit of love.

I also liked it that she does not seem to have been taken in by the false notion – so widespread among evangelicals – that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

In fact, if there is one factor especially distinctive of the second [Great] Awakening, it is a surprising lack of critical distance from the political ideology of the American Revolution. – 274

Instead of offering a distinctively biblical perspective on the current political culture, many evangelicals [during the Second Great Awakening] virtually equated spiritual liberty with political liberty.

And this lack of critical distance, which has a 200-year history, continues.

One area that I think Pearcey went astray was when dealing with Christians who believe in evolution. At the end of her chapter which makes the case for Intelligent Design, she claims that those who are theistic evolutionists are pawns of scientific naturalists (not her words, but I think her sentiments), allowing their beliefs about God to be shunted off to the private realm and only accepting as real the scientifically verifiable.

I’m not sure that this is entirely fair to theistic evolutionists, one of whom (Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project) she quoted favorably just 13 pages before. It is far from evident that theistic evolutionists all experience God as an optional add-on, living their lives settled in the “naturalist’s chair” (as opposed to the “supernaturalist’s chair” that Christians ought to be in). Unfortunately, Pearcey doesn’t really deal with them directly. Pearcey says

Christians are called to live out their entire lives, including their scientific work, from the perspective of the supernaturalist’s chair, recognizing the full range of reality. This is what it means to ‘walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), with a day-to-day awareness of the unseen dimension of reality.

I would like Pearcey to explain exactly how scientists ought to conduct scientific research through appeal to unobservable things. Pearcey does not seem to acknowledge that it is not just naturalists who have truncated the “range of reality” available to scientific investigation. Rather, science just deals with the observable. It isn’t atheists who came up with these rules. The bad guy here, it seems to me, is not the one who conducts science based on observable facts. The bad guy is the one who then claims that facts observable by science are all there is. Theistic evolutionists don’t claim this, and so I think Pearcey ought to be kinder to them. As it is, her brief (pages 203-205) dismissal of them is likely, unfortunately, to lead to misunderstanding and alienation within the body of Christ.

Another area where I think Pearcey went astray is in her repeated insistence that Christianity is “objective truth.”

To bring about a restoration of the Christian mind, we would do well to follow the Intelligent Design movement in challenging the Baconian model of autonomous or neutral knowledge in every field. We must reject the presumption that holding Christian beliefs disqualifies us as ‘biased,’ while the philosophical naturalists get a free pass by presenting their position as ‘unbiased’ and ‘rational.’ Most of all, we need to liberate Christianity from the two-story division that has reduced it to an upper-story private experience, and learn how to restore it to the status of objective truth.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Pearcey seems to contradict herself in this paragraph. First she says that the idea of “autonomous” and “neutral” knowledge should be challenged, and then she goes on to say that Christians should claim Christianity as “objective truth.” Part of the very definition of “objective” is that it is unbiased and neutral. Instead of trying to shout louder than naturalists that we are unbiased and rational, why not argue that naturalists are just as biased as we are, and that bias is inescapable in finite human beings? I think that this has a lot more potential to be fruitful, since it would be awfully difficult to argue that Christians are any less biased than naturalists. Bias is OK; it just needs to be taken into account.

But I’ve rambled on enough. All in all, I thought this was a worthwhile book with a couple of weak spots. If a Christian wants to know what it means to have a biblical worldview, I’d recommend this book. I would also recommend that person to not stop there.

2. John Stott: The Making of a Leader by Timothy Dudley-Smith. This is the first in a two-volume biography of the well-known evangelical leader John Stott. I’ve benefited a great deal from his writings, and when I saw this book in a used bookstore in Grand Rapids last December I snapped it up.

It follows Stott from birth to approximately age 40, following him from his London childhood to his school days at Rugby, then on to Cambridge during WWII, theological studies at Ridley Hall, curacy at All Souls Anglican Church in London and finally his promotion and subsequent career as Rector of that church.

A couple of highlights for me were reading about his “instinctive pacifism” as he was preparing to and beginning to study theology during WWII, and his deep concern for evangelism. Within his own parish he began training laypeople in evangelism and led regular Guest Services for outreach. Outside, he met and befriended Billy Graham during the 1950s, and even led a few university missions of his own, both in the UK and overseas. The book also spends some time on his lifelong interest in birdwatching.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and the pages flew by. The only thing I wanted more of was discussion of Stott’s theological shaping. There was some talk of why he was drawn to pacifism during his student days, but once he entered parish life there is much discussion of his actions and little direct discussion of his theological growth and deepening.

January 2009: Books Read

1. Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century by John Stott. This book has been re-issued recently with the more up-to-date subtitle “The Challenge of Preaching Today,” but the version I read was the older one. I’ve long admired John Stott, and when I read this book, I found that he had some sensible things to say about preaching. He begins the book by giving a brief sketch of the history of preaching, and then addressing some contemporary objections to preaching. He continues to flesh out his reasons for thinking preaching is so important by giving some theological foundations for preaching. The next three chapters I found the most practical, the first of which was called “Preaching as Bridge-Building.” In it he talks about how a preacher might make the Bible more relevant to a contemporary audience. The next two chapters, “The Call to Study” and “Preparing Sermons,” deal with the nuts and bolts of putting together a sermon. He then closes the book with two chapters dealing with four characteristics that a good preacher should have: sincerity, earnestness, courage and humility.

These last two chapters, in my mind, set this book apart from other books on preaching that I have read. Stott, a long-time preacher himself, knows where good preachers get their power from, and it isn’t (just) eloquence. It is the character of the preacher and the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the listeners that give a message its force.

2. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark. I bought this book in the late ’90s for a religion class in college, but only had to read about three chapters. I heard so many good things about it in seminary that I decided to get it off my shelf and read the rest of it that I didn’t originally have to read for class.

Stark is a sociologist of religion who, before this book, had not spent much time looking into the history of religion. He insists in the preface that he is not a historian, nor is he a New Testament scholar; he’s just a sociologist who uses this book to look at the early history of Christianity with a sociologist’s eye (since this book was published in 1997, though, he has made several more forays into the history of religion).

It would take too much space to review the book in detail, but suffice it to say that it was eye-opening. A few things that Stark argues are: that Christianity was not initially a proletarian movement, but it appealed to the privileged classes, that one of the reasons why people in the ancient world were so drawn to Christianity was the way Christians cared for the sick during epidemics, that Christian women enjoyed higher status in the community than their pagan counterparts, that one reason why Christianity thrived in cities was because it had a better capacity to solve chronic urban problems than anything else, and that “Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death” (214). Definitely a great read, even for someone who doesn’t have a background in sociology.

3. Not Even A Hint: Guarding Your Heart Against Lust, by Joshua Harris. Like many Christian young men, I’ve had my struggles with lust (that’s not to say that these struggles are all a thing of the past, but I hope that the worst struggles are over). So when I was in the library a few weeks ago, this book by Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame) caught my eye. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye about 10 years ago, when it was making big waves in my circle of friends. I thought it was a pretty good book, but I had never done the casual, aimless, “looking for a good time” dating that Harris had kissed goodbye to, so it didn’t change my life.

This is a small book, and a quick read. It comes in three parts: “The Truth About Lust,” “In the Thick of the Battle” and “Strategies for Long-Term Change.” The best part of the book, I thought, was chapter three of part one, called “You Can’t Save Yourself.” In it, he makes the case that a person can’t overcome struggles with lust (or any persistent sin) merely by deciding to. Legalism leads either to disillusionment and self-loathing (if you fail) or self-righteousness (if you succeed – and you will never succeed for long if you have fallen into self-righteousness). Instead, the Christian should realize that he or she is justified and forgiven by Christ’s work on the Cross, and that he or she is being sanctified, made holy, by his Spirit:

And only the Spirit can transform us. Our job is to invite His work, participate with it, and submit more and more of our thoughts, actions and desires to Him. (p. 57)

Harris goes on in the rest of the book to give practical tips on what that can look like: creating a custom-tailored plan, understanding how men and women are different in this area, dealing with masturbation, dealing with temptations in media, becoming accountable to others, using Scripture to fight lies and sowing so that we reap holiness. I particularly found his list of Scriptures helpful, so here they are: Job 31:11-12, Romans 8:6, Galatians 6:7-8, Romans 13:14, Matthew 5:29-30, 2 Timothy 2:22, Colossians 3:5-6, Ephesians 5:3, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6, Proverbs 6:25-27, Psalm 101:3, Romans 14:12, Hebrews 12:6, James 1:15, Proverbs 5:3-5, Proverbs 5:8-11, Psalm 84:10-12, Lamentations 3:24-26, Proverbs 19:23, Matthew 5:8, Psalm 11:7, Isaiah 33:17, Psalm 119:9-11.

All in all, I think this is a great little book to give young men and women encouragement and help in defeating lust.

4. A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church, by Gordon T. Smith. I preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 recently at my church, and read this short (124 pages) book as part of my research. Smith is a professor at Regent, and one of my regrets about my time there is that I never got to take one of his classes, especially the popular “Spiritual Discernment” and “The Meaning of the Sacraments.”

However, reading this book seems like the next best thing to taking the latter class, since he spends the time expanding on what the Lord’s Supper is all about. Chapter 2 (“The Sacramental Principle”) alone is worth the price of the book. I found his discussion of signs, photographs and symbols immensely helpful in understanding what is going on at the Lord’s Supper. The bulk of the book is taken up with looking at seven different aspects of the Lord’s Supper, based on seven different Bible texts: The Lord’s Supper as memorial, as fellowship with Christ and with one another, as a table of mercy, as a renewal of baptismal vows, as bread from heaven, as a declaration of hope, and as a joyous thanksgiving celebration. Although short, there was enough to chew on in this book that I could have preached a whole series on the Lord’s Supper.