not done yet

Somehow, over the past month or so, four different books on Christian spirituality found their way into my hands. It isn’t that unusual for me to read that sort of thing, but it is strange that I would read four almost back-to-back so narrowly focused on one particular issue. The question that each was answering in their own way is “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Now you might think that it shouldn’t take me four different books to help me answer this question. Doesn’t there come a time when one doesn’t have to read any more books about it? I’ve been involved in ministry for nearly twenty years now. So haven’t I figured it out yet?

I suppose as the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I certainly have some convictions about what the Christian life is suppose to look like, but I don’t have all the answers. And each of these four books challenges me to look with fresh eyes at things that may have been previously ignored concerning the journey of faith.

While each brings a unique perspective, all four writers agree on at least one thing… that being a Christ-follower is about more than being able to check off the “I prayed the prayer” box. You may not be familiar with this sort of Christian spirituality, but it basically says that once people pray the “sinner’s prayer,” they have arrived. God has no further work to accomplish in an individual’s life. He or she is now “saved.”

Not that any of the writers are against that sort of thing. They probably even think that praying that kind of prayer is a fine sort of thing to do.  And yet, each was very clear to affirm that the Christian life is certainly about more than that. Much more.

So in an effort to turn this into a post that is actually helpful, I’ll offer up a few words about each book.

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream
by David Platt
(sample chapter)

I would largely agree with what my good friend Bobby had to say about it, so I’ll be brief.

The sub-title says it well. This book is meant to wake the church up to the reality that the version of Christianity that much of the West has bought into looks a whole lot more like the American Dream than Jesus. Perhaps you are familiar with the phrase “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This book does the second half very well.

If you were to ask the average Christian sitting in a worship service on Sunday morning to summarize the message of Christianity, you would most likely hear something along the lines of ‘the message of Christianity is that God loves me.’ Or someone might say, ‘The messages of Christianity is that God loves me enough to send his Son, Jesus, to die for me.’ … ‘God loves me’ is not the essence of biblical Christianity. Because if ‘God loves me’ is the message of Christianity, then who is the object of Christianity? … Me.

Follow: A Simple and Profound Call to Live Like Jesus
by Floyd McClung
(sample chapter)

This book’s sub-title is half true. This is a clear cut, no nonsense approach to one’s life with Christ.  After reading a sentence or chapter, no one is in any way left scratching there head saying, “I wonder what he meant by that?”  McClung says what he means and means what he says. I would put this in the hands of anyone who has recently begun their journey with Christ, has an earnest desire to grow, and wants some handles on moving forward.

While long on simplicity, I feel like it comes up short on profundity. This book is so clear and certain, that I think it doesn’t do justice to the mystery and wonder of who God is. While I would whole-heartedly affirm that God is a God of order, I would as strongly argue that life with God can’t be reduced to formulas or bullet-points. I in no way think that the author believes that it can. I do think he has succeeded in making the complicated accessible. And that’s a good thing. Sometimes.

So this is our choice: Either we model ourselves on gods of our own making, or we allow God to mold us into His image, the very model of which is Jesus. Which will it be for you?

One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow
by Scot McKnight
(sample chapter)

I meet with a group of men on Monday mornings, and this is the one we are working through right now. These guys more or less trust me. So when I suggested we read and discuss it, no one balked. That is until they got to the first chapter. It was all about chasing after our dreams, and I could tell that they were inwardly rolling their eyes. For a couple, their outward expressions matched their inner feelings. “Really, we’re going to talk about our dreams? That’s original. Doesn’t nearly every book on Christian spirituality sound that same tired note.”

However, I had the benefit of having read the entire book. And what I knew was that McKnight’s re-look at the Christian life is broader in scope than the others I had recently read. There are fewer stones left unturned. And as this book seeks to expand one’s understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him, it lends itself well to discussion. Not just discussion of the ideas, but the way in which our lives intersect the issues being raised. We’ll see.

When I hear Christians describe the Christian life as little more than soul development and personal intimacy with God, and I do hear this often, I have to wonder if Christians even read their Bibles.


Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation
by Gordon T. Smith
(sample chapter)

I think it important to make a habit of reading a book’s sub-title. They not only tell you what the book is really about, but also give you a flavor of the book itself. As you might guess, this is of the nerdier variety. Several years ago, I read another book by Smith on conversion called Beginning Well. I had never read an entire book on the subject. So when I saw this one, I thought “What more could he have to say?” The answer… plenty. I would recommend it for anyone who wants (or needs) to think deeply about the nature of conversion. Another book title could have easily been Conversion: 301.

God’s salvation is always portrayed in corporate terms, never to the exclusion of the individual, but always with the assumption that the individual is an integral member of a community of faith. Thus we cannot in the end conceive of or portray a biblical doctrine of conversion except with a distinctly ecclesial character. Religious experience, in other words, is never purely individual, personal, and interior. It will (and must) be individual, personal, and interior, but it will never solely be individual and interior. Further, it will not be individual and personal and interior unless it is grounded in the common experience of the people of God, unless it has a corporate dimension. True Christian experience is anchored in the common faith of the church, and it is the common faith that gives authenticity to our personal and individual faith. It is the church’s ancient and historic experience that gives meaning to our personal experience.

Yeah. What he said.

I guess what I really want to say about these books is that any of them are worth reading. It all just depends on who you are and where you are in your understanding of what it means to follow Christ. And since I’m not “done” yet, I’ll keep seeking out books that help me understand that journey better.

Atonement Theology

Several weeks ago, as I was sharing about some of the better books I read in 2010, I put together an emotionally stirring post in which I discussed three different books on or related to the doctrine of Justification.

However, there was one book on the subject that managed to slip through the cracks. And normally, I wouldn’t feel the need to mention it here, because honestly…  no one really cares. But since this blog is as much for me as it is for you, I’m coming back to it for the sake of completeness.

If I haven’t mentioned Scot McKnight around here, my apologies. He is someone worth being familiar with.  He maintains a popular Christian blog. He is a professor in New Testament at North Park University. He writes prolifically on both an academic and popular level. Add to all that a busy speaking schedule at various conferences and such. Think of him as a North American version of N.T. Wright.  I think he would take that for the compliment it is meant to be.

Anyway, if you are only going to read one book on Justification/Atonement, his is the the one.

I know I said that Michael Bird’s was the understanding of Righteousness/Justification/Atonement that I found most compelling, and it is.  But no one is reading that.  You’ve got the problem with the cover.  But let’s be honest, the only people picking up this book didn’t even notice that there was a cover – myself included.  That is to say, the book is all content and written for the extreme Bible nerd.

The beauty of McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement is that you get many of the same ideas, but in a much more accessible way. That isn’t to say it is dumbed down. Not in the least. It is just that McKnight’s book has a different purpose and a different audience.

I’ll try to sum up what is going on in the book in a few sentences.

There are a number of theories that try to explain what the Bible is affirming about Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection.  A book that I read a year or so ago outlined four views

  • Christus Victor – Which more or less says that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God won out over the cosmic powers of evil.  Which of course includes evil in individual’s lives, but that is secondary.
  • Penal Substitution – This would be the view that most evangelical Christians in the South are exposed to on a regular basis.  This view highlights the need for an atoning death to appease the perfect justice and wrath of God.
  • Healing View – Not a widely held view that I am aware of, but the idea here is that humanity has a sickness.  Call it sin, call it brokenness, or whatever.  In Christ’s death and resurrection, humanity’s problem is fixed or healed.  If the focus of Penal Substitution is on what is going on with God in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the healing view stresses what is happening in people.
  • Kaleidescopic view – You probably saw this coming, but this view more or less says they are all good and necessary. Can’t we all just get along.

Ok, so gross over-simplification for sure. It looks to me like McKnight holds something of a modified Kaleidescopic view. But the modification is important. He, like Bird and others, would say that the important thing is being “found in Christ.”  I know that when we read (or memorize) the New Testament, one can easily skim over the phrase “in Christ,” but it is in there a whole, whole lot.  Paul never really struck me as one to waste his words.

McKnight argues that being “in Christ” is foundational.  Everything else flows from that.  Imputed righteousness.  Justification. Healing.  And so on.  In his discussion of the classic Reformed doctrine of “double imputation” he says…

I not only agree with double imputation, I up it. I think being “in Christ” involves multiple imputations: every thing we are is shuffled to Christ and all that Christ can offer us is shuffled to us. It is that big.

And in search of language to hold all the theories of the atonement together, he lands on “identification for incorporation” which is not so unlike Bird’s “incorporated righteousness.” I’ll let McKnight sum up his understanding for himself…

Jesus identifies with us and we gain access to everything he is by being incorporated into him, by entering into this “in Christ” realm. Every theory of atonement emerges from this central, life-giving identification for incorporation.  Atonement is what happens to a human being who is united with Christ. Union with Christ, in other words, is the foundation of atonement, and those who are so in union form the new community where cracked Eikons can be restored to God, self, others, and the world.


revising resolutions

Now that we are just a little over ten days into 2011, it seems appropriate to re-look all those resolutions made in the euphoria of a new year.  I’m not bailing on any that I’ve made.  At least, not yet.  No, I’m resolutely convinced that the things to which I’ve committed myself are entirely worthwhile.

And yet, I want to be careful to guard against a certain mentality that comes with spiritual commitments of this type.  I am all to aware of how prone the human heart (and yes, that includes my own) is towards twisting something good and life-giving into a caricature of what it was meant to be.  I don’t want to end up there, nor do I want to lead anyone down that path.

These gifts of the Word and prayer were meant to lead us to the One who gives life.  They don’t do so in themselves.  Over the past couple days, I’ve been wrestling with how to express my concern for putting too much stock in these sorts of spiritual practices, but I wasn’t quite able to find the right words.

Thankfully, I found those words (as I often do) in the writing of another.

I’ve been looking forward to cracking open Scot McKnight‘s One.Life for a couple weeks now, and when I did he had this to say early on…

we will also see that the personal practices of piety, like Bible reading and praying and going to church and other spiritual disciplines, have a place but they are a means to the end.  They are not the goal, and they can’t measure adequately who is a Christian or who is a follower of Jesus.  p. 24

Or as Richard Foster described the pathway of spiritual disciplines in his classic The Celebration of Discipline...

The path does not produce the change; it only places us where the change can occur.  p.8

So with reminders like these, hopefully I’ll be able to avoid that thing that exists inside each of us, especially religious people, and most especially professional religious people, to draw attention to “spiritual” achievements.  “Look at me!” “Think highly of me.” “Be like me.”

Too easily my grandiose goals of reading and memorizing and praying are motivated out of a desire to impress God and/or others.  And while we may have some success with the latter, with the former…  well, not so much.

Cover-to-Cover – Ezekiel (2)

We are still churning through Ezekiel, and by all accounts it is a tough read.  Not exactly sure what exactly Ezekiel was like as a person, but I’ve got a pretty good mental picture going.  A couple quick thoughts about what we’ve been reading this week…

First, lots of comparing Israel to a prostitute.  And not just subtle hints either.  Full on graphic descriptions of their “unfaithfulness” that make me cringe a bit as I read.

Which is exactly the point.

Idolatry is no light issue for God.  It is number one in God’s top ten.  Apparently, it isn’t something God shrugs his shoulders at or turns a blind eye from.  He knows that it not only robs Him of honor and glory, but it always leads to the de-humanizing of the people whom he loves.

I know that the last few words might seem out of place in our discussion of Ezekiel.  Almost as out of place as a verse read earlier this week…

“As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign Lord, “I take no delight in the death of the wicked, but rather they they turn from their ways and live.  Turn!  Turn from your evil ways!  Why will you die, O house of Israel?”

Ezekiel 33:11

A couple days ago, while reading from Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement, I was reminded that God’s holiness and his love are not in opposition to one another.  Rather, they are meant to be held together.  They are connected.  Forgive me for quoting at length:

Herein lies the danger of bipolarizing God … God is either loving holiness or holy love, but God is not dualistic in attributes.  If one plays this dualistic game very often, one courts the danger of turning God into a confused being who struggles over what to do with sinners.

God’s wrath – and we’ll leave its meaning open for now – springs as much from God’s love as it does from his holiness.  As Miraslov Volf puts it so well, “God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love.  God is wrathful because God is love … The world is sinful.  That’s why God doesn’t affirm it indiscriminately.  God loves the world.  That’s why he doesn’t punish it in justice.”

Ok.  I guess that’s enough for now.  I’ve got the all important Four for Friday to get to.

Resources for Lent

Grizzly Bear – Two Weeks

It’s strange how the Christian calendar has grown in significance for me over the past several years.  I don’t remember when I was first introduced to the idea of Lent, but something about it resonated with me from my initial experience with it.  I’ll be talking more about that in the next week or so.

However, with Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) just a couple weeks away, I wanted to make you aware of some resources that can help focus your heart, mind, and soul during the forty-six days leading up to Easter.

Last year, I used this great book by (of course) my man N. T.

Over Christmas, my beloved bought me Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent.  It is a collection of readings by various authors who in turn speak to the truths that are prominent during the Lenten season.  The line up is impressive…  Kathleen Norris, Thomas a Kempis, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, Kahil Gibran, Jurgen Moltmann, Wendel Berry, Mother Teresa, to name a few.  Knowing that I’ll be “sitting down” with these folks during the days leading up to Easter has helped me to look forward to it all the more.

I was also recently made aware of another book that isn’t necessarily a Lent reading, but since it follows a popular “40-day” format, it will certainly fit for the season.

I realize that several of us already have a bit of a reading project going on, but I like to think that there is always a little more time for reading.