Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Church Awakening by Charles R. Swindoll

Right after I read The Great Emergence, I read The Church Awakening: An Urgent Call For Renewal by Charles R. Swindoll. The Church Awakening is written in answer to Phyllis Tickle (she is quoted once in the book) and other advocates of the "emergent" church by this prominent evangelical pastor and author.

Swindoll's book is aimed at both church members and pastors, and its purpose is to persuade them to stand against the tide of postmodernism and to engage the culture for Jesus Christ.

Readers like me, who are of a conservative, evangelical, reformed theological viewpoint will appreciate this book. Those who identify with progressive, postmodern, or emergent theological beliefs will either dismiss it or find it challenging.

Swindoll calls for a return to expository preaching from the Bible as the centerpiece of Christian worship and challenges the drift away from it. In other words, Swindoll believes sola scriptura is a fundamental truth.

In response to those who fear the Bible has become an idol, he replies " we do not worship the print on the page, the paper and ink lead us to a knowledge of the One whom we do worship--Jesus our Master and Savior." I loved this quote, too:
If you need direction in life, you don't need to look for Jesus' face in a burrito, or try to interpret the clouds in the sky for a sign from God, or rely on the advice of a professor with three Phd's. When you are not sure which direction to go, read your Bible. Seek the scriptures and pray to your God.
Swindoll's criticism of the emerging church movement is that it engages the culture in "conversation" instead of preaching transformation of the culture. He is also critical of creeping professionalism: " the people pay the pastors to do the work of ministry, while they sit and watch and offer critiques". As for the marketing of the church, "Jesus is not a brand", Swindoll declares, " Churches don't need to try so hard to be creative and cute that folks miss the truth."

Swindoll is not a hide-bound traditionalist. In the chapter Worship: A Commitment...Not a War, he encourages those who seek to dispense with self-serving traditions and defends good contemporary hymns and praise songs.

In the end, it comes down to the question of authority, as Tickle and Swindoll would both agree. Is authority found in the culture or scripture? Their answers are very different.

One of the oldest symbols of the early church was a sailboat. The sailboat represented the church of believers sailing upon the sea of this world under the guidance of the breath of the Holy Spirit that directed its path. As Swindoll observes, the danger to the ship is not sailing on the waters of the culture, but taking too much of that water on board.

GIVEAWAY!! A review copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher, FaithWords. I am also able to offer a copy to one of my readers. So if you are interested, please leave a comment to this post. The winner will be chosen by a random drawing one week from today! Include your email address (spell it all out so you don't get spammers) and I will contact the winner to make arrangements.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

And the Winner Is...

Roberta won the drawing for a copy of What Good Is God? by Philip Yancey. Thanks to those of you who commented on that review and entered the drawing.

Roberta, I hope you enjoy the book.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle spoke at an event during the General Assembly of the PCUSA on the subject of her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Subsequently I engaged in a discussion on my blog (Quotidian Grace)  and in a podcast with Rev. Landon Whitsitt, the Vice Moderator of the PCUSA, about her statement in the book and during her speech that "sola scriptura" is dead.

I was not at GA to hear her speak but I have now read her book. A copy was given to me by a friend at presbytery who was very enthusiastic about it, so I took it as as sign that I needed to read it.

I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about The Great Emergence as my friend.

This is a short book packed full of sweeping generalizations, which the author readily admits can be nit-picked, so I will spare you my lengthy list of nits. Tickle begins with a quick overview of the history of the church since the time of the apostles until today. She deduces that the church goes through a big upheaval ("emergence") roughly every 500 years in which it "cleans out its attic" of non-essentials and disposes of the non-essentials which have cluttered up and impeded its mission and purpose.

That's a reasonable general metaphor. However she totally loses me when she says "we begin to refer to Luther's principle of 'sola scriptura, scriptura sola' as having been little more than the creation of a paper pope in place of a flesh and blood one." Tickle throws out fundamental principles of faith along with the barnacles of human history and tradition.

Tickle is an Episcopalian and that denomination views Scripture, Reason and Tradition as having equal authority for the Christian believer (the "three-legged stool" of Episcopalian theology). As a Presbyterian, I do not believe that human reason and tradition have the same authority as scripture. This is where she and I part ways.

Tickle, like many progressive Christians,  makes the mistake of conflating those who hold to the five solas (sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus and soli Deo gloria) with those who adhere to inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible. They are not the same groups although there is some overlap between them.

My fundamental disagreement with Tickle's theological point of view, aside, I also question her emphasis on the influence of the PBS series "The Power of Myth", the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Timothy Leary as major contributors to the emergence she describes. She does do a good job of analyzing the influence of the automobile, the birth control pill and the move of women into the workforce in large numbers at the end of the twentieth century on the life of the traditional churches in America. However those points have been made before.

I stumbled around page 35 with Tickle's diagram and description of the cable of religion. I found it unintelligible and put the book aside for a few days. There are several more diagrams at the end of the book which were likewise abstruse. Readers with an affinity for that sort of thing  may find them helpful.

 One of the reasons I read the book was to learn what the "emergent church" is. Alas, this is the closest Tickle came to enlightening me on the subject:
"...when pinned down and forced to answer the question, 'What is the Emergent or Emerging Church?' most who are will answer 'a conversation' which is not only true but which will always be true. The Great Emergence can not "be", and be otherwise.
Excuse me?? Say that again?? I'm afraid that for me parts of this book are an exercise in imprecise thinking lurking beneath  a pretentiously intellectual presentation.

Tickle is correct when she observes that many within the church today are questioning or rejecting the authority of scripture as the guide for faith and life as well as what she terms the "exclusivist" claims that Christ alone is the way to salvation. That should be decried, not encouraged.

I've attended my share of conferences that focus on reviving/awakening/reforming the church over the years and seen many trends come and go. I'll be surprised if the "emergent church" isn't just another one.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

America's Prophet by Bruce Feiler

I'm a fan of Bruce Feiler, the prolific journalist and author whose recent books Walking The Bible, Abraham, and Where God Was Born reveal his increasing knowledge and commitment to writing about the roots of his Jewish faith and culture. So I happily accepted the invitation to read and review his newest book for the TLC virtual book tour.

His latest work, America's Prophet is a meticulously researched and well written survey of the adoption by America of the story of Moses from the early days of the first Pilgrim settlers to the Revolution, to the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the eastern European migrations of the end of the nineteenth century, and on to the civil rights movement of the mid to late twentieth century. America's Prophet is written in a more academic style than Feiler's other popular books.

Feiler reveals how this Moses metaphor was invoked by the early Pilgrims and explicitly used to describe the most revered figures of American history such as Washington, Harriet Tubman, Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Feiler reminds me of Lee Strobel (author of The Case For Christ among other books). Both writers use the journalistic tool of interviewing experts on the subjects they are writing about as well as engaging in personal explorations of their own. For example, Feiler records his observations and emotions while re-enacting the escape of slaves across the Ohio river along the Underground Railroad to safety in Ridley. Then he interviews the curator of the home of an abolitionist who was a conductor of the Underground Railroad and assisted many slaves to freedom.

Feiler covers not only history, but also cultural icons that were influenced by the story of Moses. These include the inscription on the Liberty Bell, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Superman, and the 10 commandment monuments in statehouses across the country (which have become the subject of lawsuits) were placed as a marketing tool by the producer of the movie The Ten Commandments.

 One of the sub-texts of the book is Feiler's attempt to  compare the influence of Jesus and the influence of Moses on this country's development. He takes this issue to Professor Allen Guelzo, who teaches Civil War history at Gettysburg College: " I would have thought Jesus was a much more influential figure in America. But I'm starting to believe the themes of Moses may echo more."

Guelzo's response is that the question is not why Christ is so attractive, but "how did Moses get on the stage and why is he still here?" His conclusion is that it is because Moses represents deliverance and Jesus represents redemption. In other words, Moses is a political figure while Jesus is a spiritual one.

As Feiler concludes his book, he says that although he expected to find the themes of Moses' life in America's history, he did not expect to find the extent to which the Exodus story permeates the American experience as Moses has been invoked from the earliest days of the colonies to the present by American political leaders.

Who will be our next Moses? Feiler asks towards the end of the book. I don't know the answer to that, but the next Moses can expect to lead his people into something new and better, to persevere despite complaining from them, and to pave the way forward into the Promised Land but not entering it himself or herself.

America's Prophet is a challenging but worthwhile and thought-provoking. It gave me a whole new perspective on American history and the development of American culture.  I could see it becoming required reading in college courses on American civilization. The book would also make be a good choice for a book club or church adult study group that is interested in tracing the influence of Biblical themes on American history and modern culture.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What Good Is God? by Philip Yancey

What Good is God: In Search of a Faith That Matters is the latest book by prolific popular Christian author Philip Yancey,. It will be released tomorrow in both hardcover and e-book formats.

The meaning of grace and the question of whether or not belief in God really makes any difference in a broken and hurting world are the twin themes of this book. Yancey has written extensively on these two themes before in previous books such as Where Is God When It Hurts, What's So Amazing About Grace, Grace Notes, and Disappointment With God.

What Good is God is a collection of Yancey's speeches (or sermons) given to audiences around the world. The book is divided into ten parts and each part has two chapters: one which explains who the audience is and one which contains Yancey's remarks. Audiences include survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre, Chinese Christians, survivors of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and post-apartheid South Africans. 

I had to read several chapters before I figured out how to approach the book. Each part stands alone, but all are related in that Yancey explores the question of what difference God makes in the unique circumstances of each audience. This is not a book you can sit down and read straight through, but one that is more like a book of devotions  which is read one complete part at a sitting because each part prompts a lot of reflection.

Each reader will find different parts of the book more compelling, depending on one's own experiences and concerns. 

I found Yancey's address "Why I Wish I Was An Alcoholic" before an AA group in Chicago a thought-provoking comparison of the way an AA group accepts and supports its members versus the way church congregations tend to respond to members with chronic and difficult challenges in life. 

The chapters about the church in China and the stalwart Christians Yancey met there were a timely and inspiring reminder of the struggles of that growing church today in the face of oppressive persecution. Just this weekend I read a story in the newspaper about a group of evangelical Chinese Christians being denied permission to leave China to attend a Christian conference abroad for "their own good."

Yancey visits a small group of Christians in the Middle East  who represent a faithful remnant in the area of the world where Christ was born, and encourages them:
"those of you who work and pray in this hostile part of the world may sometimes feel as if you do nothing but move rocks, or dig furrows. Maybe so. God alone controls the harvest. Most of the Westerners who come here represent something other than Jesus...But you have a different calling: to make known the spirit of Jesus and to join the stream of liberation that broke free two thousand years ago."
What Good is God is a challenging journey with this popular journalist and Christian apologist that is sometimes uncomfortable because it forces reflection on your faith and actions. Yancey takes his message not only to those reeling from inexplicable tragedy, but also to those struggling with poverty, discrimination, sinful and addictive behaviors, and cynicism.

This book would be a good choice for a book club or a Christian adult study group because each part will elicit good discussion. Yancey's books are popular choices for adult Sunday School classes, but this one does not have a readers' or leader's guide or video to go along with it. (At least  there was none in the review copy I was furnished by the publisher.)

GIVEAWAY!! FaithWords, the publisher of this book, will send a copy of What Good is God? to one of my readers. If you are interested, leave a comment in the comments below with your email address (spell it out to avoid spammers!) so I can contact you. The winner will be chosen by a random drawing a week from today.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Welcome to QG's Book Reviews!

For several years I have posted frequent book reviews on my personal blog, Quotidian Grace. In the last several months I began receiving requests from publishers to read and review their books and decided that it was time to create a second blog just for book reviews.

For the time being, I will continue to post my reviews on both blogs. In the future I may decide just to post them here. Welcome to my QG readers! I hope you will enjoy this book blog as well.

My primary interest is books on religion and faith. However I am an eclectic reader and will also review good contemporary and historical fiction as well as books on history and current events. And anything else that strikes my fancy!

Although I always try to find something good in any book I review, sometimes I will post a negative review. Usually the books I review are ones that I think will appeal to my friends and readers. 

I'm always interested in my readers' opinions, so please leave your comments--especially if you have read a book I review.

The first book review will be posted this Monday and includes a giveaway of Philip Yancey's new book What Good is God? Check back then and leave a comment if you would like to enter the drawing for the book.