Friday, December 31, 2010

Review: Jane Austen

Jane AustenJane Austen by Peter J. Leithart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book as a present for my wife. Of course, I also (secretly) wanted to learn more about the genius who created the lovable Mr. Bennett! Leithart is an excellent writer himself.

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Review: Original Sin

Original Sin: A Cultural HistoryOriginal Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the introduction, Jacob notes that of all religious beliefs, none provokes more criticism and repulsion than the doctrine of original sin. Original sin is irreparable, irreversible, and unpredictable (x-xi). It is the belief that every human being is born with sin already in them. That we all inherit sin, and are culpable. The history of original sin is a history of resistance to it. So why, over the centuries, have so many stubbornly believed it? Well, as Chesterton noted, original sin has enormous empirical evidence (“it is the only doctrine of the Christian faith that is empirically provable” [x])! But the main reason it has been adopted by some of the greatest thinkers in the history of the world is its vast explanatory power. All other explanations for human evil and selfishness fall short.

Original Sin is, in Jacob’s words, “an exemplary history” (as opposed to an exhaustive one), and “a specifically cultural history” (as opposed to a theological history). Thus Jacobs mines the literature of centuries and turns up story after story of people who either fought or defended the doctrine of original sin. The stories range from the ancient past (King David and Bathsheba) to the more recent dawn of eugenics and genetics. Those who are resistant to belief in “a divided self” will need to overcome a barrage of fire to maintain their skepticism by the final page.

One thing that stands out in Jacob’s brilliant treatment is the theme of original sin’s positive contributions to history and life. He introduces us to Pascal, who realized that only the fear of God that comes from being corrupt sinners in the sight of God enables us to have proper wonder at God’s love (116). The power of original sin to bind humans together in a “confraternity” is seen throughout the book, but especially in the chapter on American slavery. Original sin is a brake that can slow and restrain the course of evil (209-10).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet prisoner who was brought to faith by being persuaded of the truthfulness of original sin. How he was persuaded of original sin is most interesting. As he watched a habitually-brutal prison guard, he realized over time that

given the same power in the same circumstances, he himself would surely have behaved with equal cruelty. “In the intoxication of youthful successes” he had believed himself “infallible”; it was the Gulag that taught him that he was “a murderer, and an oppressor.” It was the Gulag that taught him that everyone has the capacity to become a Stalin and that therefore “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but through every human heart.” (224)

Jacobs mines Rebecca West’s work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (which he believes to be “the greatest book of the twentieth century” [283]), to provide us a vivid illustration of the human heart. West visited a biological museum and sees a two-headed calf. One head was lovely, the other hideous. The owners had fed the beautiful head milk, but the ugly head would spit the milk out, preventing the food from reaching the calf’s stomach. According to the custodian, the calf would have been “alive today had it not been for its nature” (223).

I found the stories where original sin intersected with science to be very interesting. The final chapter features this intersection the most because it deals with genetics. But it also appears in the chapter on American slavery. Interestingly, it is science, not the religious belief of original sin, which gets the bad rap. Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz was

a progenitor of “scientific racism”—the view that, setting aside any biblical narratives or doctrines that support the unity and common origin of human beings, there is no such thing as the human race; rather, there are several races that, carelessly and unscientifically, have been lumped in a single category. It was the task of science to disentangle the confused strands, to establish clear distinctions among races, to rank them according to intellectual capacity, and to insist that those rankings be reflected in law and public policy. And so the superstitions of biblical literalism would be set aside in the name of scientific progress, which is also, of course, social progress. (203)

Few questions can be more important than what is wrong with us. An incredible journey awaits anyone willing to pick up this book. I highly recommend it.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

ESV Study Bible articles

My Bible reading plan this year is to read through the entire ESV Study Bible. It's a big project so I've been getting a jump on it and reading some of the articles, which are top-notch.

This morning I read the article Jewish Groups at the Time of the New Testament and found this interesting paragraph about Gamaliel:
Gamaliel, the son (or grandson) of Hillel, was a renowned teacher of the law in Jerusalem. The apostle Paul had been a disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel is remembered for his wisdom (Acts 5:34) and careful management of the Jewish calendar. Most Jews followed a lunisolar calendar, which consisted of 12 lunar months, totaling 354 days. Every three years or so a thirteenth month had to be added, in order to bring the average total days of the year up to the 365.25 days of the solar year. Otherwise, the seasons would not have matched the festivals and sacrifices in the temple. Gamaliel determined when to add the thirteenth month (Mishnah, Rosh Hashshanah 2:8; Sanhedrin 2:6). Ironically, if the Galatian Christians had adopted the calendar of Jewish religious holidays advocated by Paul's opponents (Gal. 4:10), they would have found themselves under the authority of his old teacher!

Changing church in love

Dave Black's advice is applicable to more than just how to go about encouraging participation in church:

My suggestion? Here it is, for what it's worth. If you'd like to see more participation during or after the sermon time in your church, get to know your pastor. Pray for him regularly. Develop a close, personal friendship with him. Let him know how greatly you respect him, as you are commanded to do in 1 Thess. 5:12-13 (CEV):
My friends, we ask you to be thoughtful of your leaders who work hard and tell you how to live for the Lord. Show them great respect and love because of their work. Try to get along with each other.
Then, within the "safe zone" established by that relationship, you will, I believe, discover opportunity after opportunity to talk with him about church life. I enjoy such a strong and healthy relationship with my pastor at Bethel Hill that I feel free to ask him for the privilege of "saying a word" during the teaching time, and he is glad to grant me that privilege. And not only me. I've seen him gladly accommodate requests from moms and teens and just about anybody who has something the Lord has put on their heart. You see, the context is one of undeniable mutual love, and love makes all the difference.
Friends, if we rush into matters in a confrontational manner, we may soon regret what that does to our testimony. This makes for shallow and inadequate renewal because we have not touched the heart of the matter. It's easy to say to our pastor, "I believe I have the right to speak up this morning during the sermon time, and I'd like to know on what biblical basis you think I'm wrong." And, in some contexts, that may be the right thing to say. But -- and this is just my opinion -- unless it is spoken within the context of a healthy personal relationship, it will fail to accomplish its purpose.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Learning how to die by John Foreman

My Grandpa's death a week ago has been bringing some of John Foreman's songs to my head.

What I should have got for Christmas

This is the alarm clock I need! Clocky, the alarm clock on wheels.

From the Amazon product description:
Never over-sleep again! Clocky is the alarm clock on wheels that runs away beeping! You can snooze one time, but if you don't get up, Clocky will jump off of your nightstand up to 3 feet high, and run around your room as if looking for a place to hide. You'll have to get out of bed to silence Clocky's alarm. Clocky beeps in an R2D2-like robotic pattern so that you are sure to hear him. He's kind of like a pet, only he will get you up at the right time! You can set Clocky to run away right when the alarm sounds, or set to snooze one time before he runs away. Clocky features a customizable snooze time up to 9 minutes long. You can also turn off Clockies wheels if you don't want Clocky to run away one morning. A backlight helps you see Clocky at night. Clocky is perfect for those of us who have trouble waking up in the morning! He is compact, clever, and playful. He will never cease to amuse you as you wake up in the morning.
HT: Matt Perman

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission

The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our LipsThe Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips by John Dickson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dickson begins with four confessions. I’ll repeat the two that I find most significant. First, when he was a budding evangelist, he was guilty of reducing the gospel to a couple of theological truths, ignoring the fact that the gospel is a story. Second, he “came to assume that the only important means of promoting Christ was talking about him” (22).

Before tackling either of these early mistakes, Dickson grounds mission in the Bible’s most basic doctrine, which is that there is one God (26). And what does this monotheism have to do with mission? “If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord” (27). What follows is an exploration of Psalm 96 and Matthew 28.16-20. The following quote pretty much sums up the significance of tying missions to monotheism:

We promote God’s glory to the ends of the earth not principally because of any human need but fundamentally because of God’s/Christ’s unique worthiness as the Lord of heaven and earth. Promoting the gospel is more than a rescue mission…it is a reality mission (35, emphasis added).

Now Dickson is ready to tackle his second mistake, which was to think that the only activity that promoted the gospel was talking. He makes an important distinction between proclaiming the gospel and promoting the gospel (23).

Then he focuses on the example of Jesus. Jesus’ mission is captured perfectly in his words: “to seek and to save what was lost”. Note the emphasized verbs: “Through his preaching Jesus declared that salvation, through his death and resurrection…he would accomplish that salvation, and through the generosity of his social life he embodied that salvation” (51, emphasis added). Dickson calls us to a “‘salvific mind-set’, that is, an outlook on life that cares deeply for the salvation of others” (60).

What other activities promote the gospel besides talking? We can promote the gospel with our praying (chp 4), our giving (chp 5), through the good works of the church (chp 6), Christian behaviour (chp 7), public praise (chp 10), and in daily conversation (chp 11).

In the chapter on Christian behaviour, Dickson has this to say after mentioning the atheists Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkings:

In the end, the only way to dispel the story that Christianity has been imperialistic, arrogant and harmful is to offer a powerful counternarrative in our lives, day by day committing ourselves to Jesus’ vision of a kingdom marked by meekness, peace-making and love. (105)

Dickson handles his first mistake in chapter 8, What is the Gospel?

“The modern media term ‘newsflash’ probably comes closest in meaning to the ancient word gospel” (112). The theme of the gospel is the kingdom of God, that God reigns through Jesus Christ.

To put it in simple and practical terms, the goal of gospel preaching-–and of gospel promoting—-is to help our neighbours realise and submit to God’s kingship or lordship over their lives. (115)

The content of the gospel is the deeds of the Messiah, as shown by a quick analysis of 1 Corinthians 15.3-5. In this passage, there are five parts to Paul’s summary of the gospel (117):
•    Jesus’ identity as the Christ
•    Jesus’ saving death
•    Jesus’ burial
•    Jesus’ resurrection
•    Jesus’ appearance to witnesses

The third part, Jesus’ burial, is especially helpful in showing that the gospel “is not only a theology—a message about atonement and lordship—it is news of events (121).

The Christian gospel was a news report:

The earliest Christians never said simply, “Here’s the message: see if this rings true for you,” or “Try our doctrines and see if they improve your life.” Believers always said, “Look, these things happened in Palestine recently and a whole bunch of witnesses saw them with their own eyes.(122)

Recently, much has been made of the difference in Jesus’ gospel and Paul’s gospel. I like Dickson’s solution:

The connection between Paul’s gospel and the books we call the Gospels is obvious. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all demonstrate Jesus’ messianic credentials before emphasizing his atoning death and glorious resurrection. (123)

The rest of the chapter keeps getting better and better. It is worth the price of the book. But to avoid copyright infringements, I will skip to the author’s summary of the “core content” of the gospel (139):
•    Jesus’ royal birth secured his claim to the eternal throne promised to King David
•    Jesus’ miracles pointed to the presence of God’s kingdom in the person of the Messiah
•    Jesus’ teaching sounded the invitation of the kingdom and laid down its demands
•    Jesus’ sacrificial death atoned for the sins of those who would otherwise be condemned at the consummation of the kingdom
•    Jesus’ resurrection establishes him as the Son whom God has appointed Judge of the world and Lord of the coming kingdom.

To return to the question asked by the chapter’s title, here is the author’s definition from the introduction:

The gospel is the announcement that God has revealed his kingdom and opened it up to sinners through the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity. (22)

Chapter 12 (A Year in the Life of the Gospel) is an innovative chapter in which Dickson weaves the principles he’s been writing about with some stories he’s combined and tweaked to show us what can happen when Christians live according to a salvific mind-set. Appendix 1 provides gospel sound bites—short responses to different topics that come up in conversation. In Appendix 2 Dickson attempts a modern retelling of the gospel.

This book is undoubtedly the best book on evangelism and promotion of the gospel that I have ever read. I highly recommend it.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

David Gooding article on Daniel

David Gooding is one of my heroes, so I'm always delighted to come across another article he's written. In the The Word Became Fresh, Davis references the following article in a footnote:

 David W. Gooding, “The Literary Structure of the Book of Daniel and its Implications,” Tyndale Bulletin 32 (1981) (n.d.): 43-80,

Reivew: The Word Became Fresh

The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative TextsThe Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts by Dale Ralph Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is another of my favourite reads in 2010. Davis is a breath of fresh air. “I simply want to stir up the biblical juices of preachers and students, to help people walk away from the text muttering about what a delightful book God has given us” (3). With his down-to-earth approach, breezy style, and innovative illustrations and applications, Davis is a joy to read. And for the preacher, there’s a potential sermon hiding on every page.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review: Paul

Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His MessageIntroducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message by Michael F. Bird

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a short and delightful introduction to Paul. I wish American publishers had followed the British publishers in naming it A Bird’s Eye View of Paul!

Bird’s objective “is to get people excited about reading Paul’s letters, preaching Paul’s gospel and living the Christian life the way Paul thought it should be lived” (6).

In studying Paul, the goal is not Paul; we study Paul because of what he can do for us in our pursuit of Christ. “To venerate Paul is to denigrate the Saviour whom he so passionately serves” (11)

“A fresh encounter with Paul will leave your assumptions shaken to their foundations, your theological world turned upside down, your spirituality revitalized, your faith quickened, your love for God and Christ renewed, and your labour in the kingdom refocused. This is Paul for the people of God.” (15)

Paul is not just an apostle to the Gentiles, “but among them as well” (19).

His theological centre is somewhere close to “the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (22).

I love the chapter on Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road. “That grace event killed Saul the Pharisee and birthed Paul the apostle” (37).

“The invitation to believe in Jesus and join the church was ultimately an invitation to identify with a certain story and to order one’s life according to the story, symbols and praxis of Jesus the Messiah.” (39)

In chapter 4 (Reading someone else’s mail) Bird provides a brief tour through Paul’s letters (which Bird calls “pastoral postcards”! [12]).

Chapter 5 looks at what the gospel is. The gospel is not a formula or a syllogism, but a story (77).

The gospel is about both the person and work of Christ. God promised in the Scriptures that he would renew creation and restore Israel. The gospel is the good news that God has made these promises good in Jesus, the Messiah and Lord. Jesus died and rose for the purpose of atoning for sins and through faith in him and his work believers are reconciled to God. The new age has been launched and God has revealed his saving righteousness in the gospel so that he justifies and delivers persons from the penalty and power of sin and death. (83)

Bird explores some of the concepts used by Paul in his thinking and teaching about salvation in chapter 6. Here is where justification is discussed by someone who appreciates both Piper and Wright, but follows neither: “In sum, justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age” (96).

Additional chapters discuss Paul’s teaching on eschatology, Christology, ethics, and spirituality.

Throughout the book Bird is unable to keep his humour and wit in suppression. He discovers a new position on the millennium (“‘pan-millenial’, the belief that it will all out pan out at the end” [116]!), and he composes the following ‘hymn’ in order to illustrate how strange the gospel would have sounded to those who first heard Paul preach it (please read the context before calling Bird or me disrespectful):

Carlos was there on that horrible chair
They tied him down with bolts and then zapped him with 40 000 volts
It was for you that our saviour fried and died
Despite the fact that his hair caught on fire, this one is God’s true Messiah.
The wisdom of the world has been refuted because Carlos was electrocuted
He is my saviour and my lamp, because he absorbed every deadly amp
Now I know that God does care, ‘cause he sent Carlos Hernandez to the electric chair.

This book is one of my favourite reads for 2010, and I know I’ll be picking it up frequently in the future.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Apocalyptic Christmas Story

Michael Bird's intro to his Christmas sermon from Revelation 12 leaves me wanting some more.

Why Paul got 39 lashes

Paul is not given the thirty-nine lashes by his fellow Jews because he asks them to ‘try’ Jesus in the same way one might try a kebab (2 Cor. 11.24). He is not executed for suggesting that Roman citizens may wish to invite Jesus into their hearts. No, Paul has the courage and conviction to proclaim that the one who is to come again, the Messiah, is Jesus, who has fulfilled Israel’s hopes by being cursed on a cross and raised from the dead.

Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul : The Man, His Mission, and His Message (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 28-9.

Review: The Letters of John

The Letters of John (Pillar New Testament Commentary)The Letters of John by Colin G. Kruse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A responsible and helpful commentary on John’s letters. Our church has been studying through these letters this past year, and this was the main commentary I turned to. Kruse succeeds in tying everything back to the main occasioning incident: the defection of certain teachers whose “advanced progress” was actually proof that they had never grasped the ABC’s. And the Christians still hanging on to the ABC’s are constantly encouraged and assured.

Two strengths of this commentary are its careful inclusion of background texts, and its treatment of the aspect of Greek verbs. For an example of the latter, see Kruse’s remarks on the traditional way of resolving the tension between 1 John 1.5 – 2.2 and 1 John 3.4-10 on page 129. Many have argued that the present tense verbs in chapter 3 denote habitual sinning, which, unlike occasional sinning, is impossible for the true Christian. Kruse writes: “However, the use of the present tense says nothing about the habitual or nonhabitual character of the sinning, but only shows that the author has chosen to depict the sinning as something in progress, rather than as a complete action” (emphasis added).

Another good feature is the many Notes that interrupt the commentary. One of the best is the note on the role of the Holy Spirit in John’s letters. Here’s the final paragraph:

In conclusion, we may say that this survey of the Spirit texts of 1 John indicates that the author has portrayed the role of the Spirit primarily as testimony to the tradition, not as a source of new revelation. In all probability he did this because the secessionists were claiming the Spirit as the source of their new and heretical doctrines concerning Christ. The author, therefore, felt that it was necessary to hold together the word and the Spirit, or, put in other words, he felt that it was necessary to stress the Spirit’s role as witness to the truth of the gospel concerning Jesus as it was proclaimed from the beginning. (155)

The only thing I was left wishing for from this commentary was more insight on applying John’s letters to the church today.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Marks of the Messenger

Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the GospelMarks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel by J. Mack Stiles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This little book puts being evangelists before doing evangelism.
The process of losing the gospel (40):
    * The gospel is accepted

    * The gospel is assumed

    * The gospel is confused

    * The gospel is lost
I give this book five stars out of five. The fifth is for having a chapter on the church in a book on evangelism. The final chapter (A Manifesto for Healthy Evangelism) is also excellent. It is chalk-full of practical suggestions.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Amazing testimony from North Korea

Check it out here. Boy, does this ever fire me up for missions!