Books


It felt like Christmas a few weeks back: I got a free book in the mail. I got ‘the Naked Gospel: the truth you may never hear in church’ by Andrew Farley. My hopes were immediately high as the cover art and design are pretty slick. It has a plastic cover on which is imprinted a picture of a leaf, with the title printed over the leaf (presumably the same kind of leaf that was the substance of the first fashion statement, with the table of contents printed on the paper cover. Slick design, but perhaps a little heavy on the usuage of resources just to achieve a look. I think the title along is enough to catch the interest of a potential reader.

The book opens with the author describing his spiritual guilt complex. If he didn’t share the gospel with someone verbally every day he couldn’t sleep at night, often he says he’d have to go out into the dead of night just to find some unsuspecting stranger on which he would relieve his guilt. His premise seems to be that many in the church are consumed with spiritual guilt because of an emphasis on legalism.

If I’m honest, I can understand where he’s coming from, but I just don’t see it. If anything, as a church, we are more marked by the lack of adherence to anything that makes any sort of noticable impression on our day to day lives. This is the theme of another book that is currently out right now by another reasonably well known author: Recovering Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel.

I’m not sure I disagree with anything that Andrew Farley is saying in ‘the Naked Gospel’. In a time where the church finds itself in the midst of some heady discussions in terms of it’s orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it feels a little dangerous to say your reader (I’m sure the average age of the reader of this book is in the 25-35 range) we’re all off the hook when it comes to the 10 commandments and the other OT laws. What might be read and understood through this is that we can live anyway we want as long as ‘we love Jesus’. When what I think Farley is attempting to say is something like: if we are authentically loving Christ and entering into the New Covenant, becoming less so that he will become more, our lives will be marked by a wholeness and holiness that embodies the OT and the requirements of the Old Covenant, as opposed to being whole and holy because of the OT and the requirements of the Old Covenant.

I think this book could be a great resource for people who struggle with guilt and shame due to a legalism they can’t live up to and need to hear the message of grace in a new way. In which case however, they ought to read this book with someone who can help them dialogue with the material and come to grips with what it means in their own life.

For more info go to the Naked Gospel website.

I’ve been reading Wendell Berry lately. If you don’t know Berry he’s an american writer/farmer who is neither liberal (he hates big government), or conservative (he hates big corporations and loves the environment), not libertarian, but is very sharp and funny.

In his book Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community he opens with a bit of a diatribe against traditional education. At first this gave me an uneasy feeling as at the age of 37 I’m still going to school for yet another piece of paper that would give me a ridiculous title (for those who know me personally, the title received with this degree doesn’t fit me at all) and a knowledge about things that no else cares about). But in the midst of Berry’s semi-sarcastic diatribe on undergraduate/graduate/post-grad education is alot of truth.

Quoting Berry:

‘I’m more and more impressed by the generality of the assumption that human lives are properly to be invented by an academic-corporate-governmental elite and then either sold totheir passive and choiceless recipients or doled out to them in the manner of welfare payments.’

‘Actually, as we know, the new commercial education is fun for everybody. All you have to do in order to have or to provide such an education is to pay your money (in advance) and master a few simple truths:
1. Educated people are more valuable than other people because education is a value-adding industry.
2. Educated people are better than other people because education improves people and makes them good.
3. The purpose of education is to make people able to earn more and more money.
4. The place where education is to be used is called ‘your career’.
5. Anything that cannot be weighed, measureed, or counted does not exist.
6. The so-called humanities probably do not exist. But if they do, they are useless. But whether they exist or not or are useful or not, they can sometimes be made to support a career.
7. Literacy does not involve knowing the meanings of words, or learning grammar, or reading books.
8. The sign of exceptionally smart people si that they speak a language that is intelligible only to other people in their ‘field’ or only to themselves. This is very impressive and is known as ‘professionalism’.
9. The smartest and most educated people are the scientists, for they have already found solutions to all our problems and will soon find solutions to all the problems resulting from their solutions to all the problems we used to have.
10. The mark of a good teacher is that he or she spends most of his or her time doing research and writes many books and articles.
11. The mark of a good researcher is the same as that of a good teacher.
12. A great university has many computers, a lot of government and corporation research contracts, a winning team, and more administrators than teachers.
13. The main thing is, don’t let education get in the way of being nice to children. Children are our Future. Spend plenty of money on them but don’t stay home with them and get in their way. Don’t give them work to do; they are smart and can think up things to do on their own. Don’t teach them any of that awful, stultifying, repressive, old-fashioned morality. Provide plenty of TV, microwave dinners, day care, computers, computer games, cars. For all this, they will love and respect us and be glad to grow up and pay our debts.
14. A good school is a big school.
15. Disarm the children before you let them in.

Go into a Christian bookstore or parouse Amazon looking for ChristianTheGodDelusion books and you quickly realize that Richard Dawkin’s ‘The God Delusion’ has Christians, or I should say Christian authors, either quaking in their boots or salivating over ready made book ideas. ‘The God Delusion’ has struck such a chord culturally that authors are queuing up left and right to write their own rebuttal. There’s Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’, Tim Keller’s ‘The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism’, and I”m sure that Joel Osteen would write one in response if he could only understand multi-syllabic words other than ‘prosperity’ and ‘home teeth whitening kit’.

But honestly, what are we so worried about when it comes to Richard Dawkins and his ideas about God or the lack of any god? 2 Corinthians 12 gives us this great reminder, 9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’
When someone like Dawkins attacks, we should celebrate, surely it means it’s something worth attacking.

And when Christians are under attack, sometimes we find allies in some unlikely places. Like Marxist Terry Eagleton.

In the July/August ‘New Humanist’ magazine interviewed Terry newhumanistEagleton and he had some very interesting things to say about Richard Dawkins. Eagleton is quoted as saying, “Imagine,someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” And this is only in the first paragraph of the interview.

Read the rest of the interview here.

For an ex-Catholic Marxist, Eagleton is very well read in theology and at least warrants a review of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate”. He provides lots to disagree with, but appears to be an unlikelly ally who reminds us that while Dawkins and counterparts (like Christopher Hitchins) are making alot of noise about the ‘non-existence of God’ they are just voicing their beliefs which “have no unimpeachably rational justification, but (they think) are nevertheless reasonable to entertain.”

There is a pretty endless list of books out there whose intention is to help churches grow. Typing the words ‘Church Growth’ into Amazon’s search engine yields ‘The Road To Growth: Towards A Thriving Church’towards church growth by Bob Jackson,

“Basic Business Principles for Growing Churches: Accounting andbasic business principles Administrative Guidelines That Promote Church Growth” by Arnold Cirtin,

“Ignite: How to Spark Immediate Growth in Your Church” by Nelson Searcy (how fast isignite immediate? does it come with a money back guarentee if the growth isn’t immediate or comes only after minutes or heaven forbid months?),

“If He Builds It, They Willtrue growth Come: The Secret to True Church Growth” by Greg Holmes (this one is on ‘true’ growth not the fake, false or untrue growth)

and of course, surprisingly though that it’s not at the top of the list, “The Purposepurposedriven Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission” by my friend and yours Rick Warren.

I don’t often read many of these books, because they often feel as if they are books written on the backs of personal success using scripture to justify their practice. I find they often lack a cohesive practical theology of their methodology and there is more often than not no substantive research to support anything they are espousing to show that their practices and ideas work anywhere outside of their context and experience.

So when I come across a study done on over 1,000 churches in 32 countries to try and discover if there are principles behind basic, healthy church growth regardless of location, theology, denomination, church size, leadership model or ministry style and they find that there are common principles…I tend to get very interested.

From 1994-1996 The Institute for Natural Church Development conducted a study and it yielded some fascinating and exciting ideas. Based on 4.2 million responses they found 8 consistent characteristics in healthy growing churches (all 8 were found in every church).
1) Empowering Leadershipnaturalchurch
2) Gift-Oriented Ministry
3) Passionate Spirituality
4) Functional Structures
5) Inspiring Worship
6) Holistic Small Groups
7) Need-Oriented Evangelism
8 ) Loving Relationships
(Read parts of the book online free with Google Books by clicking here).

The survey found that all 8 were present in every growing healthy church, the growth was not dependant on any on characteristic but on all, and there was not a single exception in the 1,000+ churches they surveyed yielding the astonshing conclusion that if these 8 characteristics are present in a church and they reach a ‘quality index of 65’ out of 100, then there is a 99.4% chance the church is vibrant and growing. The results were so intriguing that NCD continued doing research until 2002 with over 12,000 churches in 50 countries and 45,000,000 responses.

A similarily astonishing find, especially for western churches bit by the ‘bigger is better’ bug is the idea that small churches have an equivalent health index as larger churches but tend to be more effective when it comes to missional growth and evangelism.

The tough part is, as soon as I read this and think ‘If I were in a church like this, how would it look’, I’m already off the mark. I think these healthy growing churches didn’t create or implement this formula, it happened naturally and organically and under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

With a quick review of these 8 characteristics it’s also easy to see why they lend themselves to smaller churches as well. The larger the church the more difficult it becomes to avoid become leadership that is powerful rather than empowering, harder to help others find/utilize their spiritual gifts, and loving relationship begin to become harder to model because the community gets larger and tends towards the superficial.

These 8 characteristics do sound like the guiding principles behind the church we read about in Acts 2:42-47. “42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The best example and ‘formula’ for a naturally developing healthy growing church we can find.

Lately I’ve been trying to spend a little more time reading stuff I know that I’ll disagree with or is on the more ‘radical’ side. The hope is to sharpen some of my thinking and help me be more reflective about what I actually think.

Two periodicals that meet this criteria are ‘New Scientist’ (some interesting ideas but tend to ridicule anything that is faith based) and ‘Adbusters’ (more great ideas, but pretty out there). I like reading New Scientist because they have some very progressive ideas of how to deal with ecological degradation creating global warming and I read Adbusters because I think in some ways they are emblamatic of the ‘in the world but not of it’ thinking that Paul emplored Christians to have.

Reading Adbusters the other day in the most recent issue ‘The Virtual adbustersWorld’ I read a quote that made me question my hope for a natural solution to the problem of global warming because of the truth in the statement. The author (not known to me) wrote ‘For all the talk about the environment these days, I don’t think human beings have ever been so distanced from nature. And much as I hate to say it, I don’t think this trend is going to reverse itself. It just seems inevitable that people will continue to live more and more through technology.’ How can we realistically expect people to be committed to finding a solution to the problem of global warming (whether you think it’s real or not) when our culture is relying on advancements that distance ourselves from the problem more and more?

newscientist
If that weren’t enough, in New Scientist magazine James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis and scientist, is quoted as saying, ‘Climate change is happening and will shape the future world. It is unlikely that we will slow the pace of change, mainly because we are too slow and unable to make effective responses in under 20 to 40 years. More than this, the Earth itself will soon be in the driving seat and aiming at a 5C hotter world. I think that our best course of action is to spend as much effort adapting to global heating as in attempts to slow or stop it from happening.’

HUH? Really? Sounds to me like some very forward thinkers believe we can’t get the job done? This isn’t good enough for me and it is theologically unacceptable. Based on Genesis 1 we have a responsibility and simply finding an easier solution to avoid the real problem isn’t an option. If technology is ultimately causing us/me to lose touch with the creation that God made and with each other, then I want less of it (yes, I see the irony in making that statement on a blog on the web).

Rather than taking the same rather pessimistic view of things that these two authors have taken, I prefer to be optimistic, hopeful and action oriented about the problem of global warming and isolation, lonliness due to an over-emphasis on technology.

In a previous post I’ve commented on how much I like Douglas Coupland and his novels. I’ve just finished reading Hey-Nostradamus-0679312692another one of his books, Hey Nostradamus!, and while it feels like quite a departure from some of his other novels, this novel only confirms my appreciation of him and his work.

On the introduction page Coupland quotes 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: ‘Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.’ Even in the context of the rest of the novel, this is a remarkable set of verses to quote, especially for an author who claims that his greatest fear is that ‘God exists, but doesn’t care very much for humans’ (does Coupland intend this statement to be more about God or more about humans?). But these are remarkable verses to quote none the less because of the inherent hope that lies within them.

Hey Nostradamus! chronicles the journey’s of four people whose experiences are all related. Cheryl and Jason, who are high school sweethearts and are secretly married. Cheryl in confusing bout of adolescent spiritual exploration doodles on her school binder ‘God is nowwhere, God is now here’ is killed, and Jason in a similiar bout of adolescent spiritual exploration never gets over Cheryl. The third character is Reg, Jason’s father, who is still struggling years later from adolescent spiritual battles with his own father and Heather who falls in love with a lost and lonely Jason.

This book is wierd, but it’s a Coupland so it’s normative, deeply depressing, because the humanity that Coupland portrays feels too real and yet so hopeful ending with the declaration of the father of the prodigal son; ‘Awake; Everyone listen, there has been a miracle-my son who once was dead is now alive. Rejoice! All of you! Rejoice! You must! My son is coming home!’

There is a quote that sums up Coupland’s book perfectly, especially in the uncertainty of our post-modern culture: ‘This is far too wise a book to offer answers, but affirms that seeking them is a necessary part of our humanity.’ This to me is what the church needs to do a better job at…we need to stop thinking we have the answers and spend more time encouraging the search allowing the spirit to provide the answers.

I like fast food. I like riding my bike really fast. I love a good fast internet connection. I think the movie ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ is hilarious.

But I don’t think everything needs to be fast. There is a new Samsung phone out in the UK called the Jet. samsung-jet The tag-line for this new phone and it’s advertising campaign is ‘Impatience Is A Virtue’. Apparently you can never have a fast enough phone and phones that allow you to do more things faster is best.

At the moment I’m also reading a pretty interesting counter-culture book called In Praise of Slow: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging The Cult Of Speed by Carl Honore. slow I’ve only just started it, but the author is making the point that for the past 150+ years our culture and our way of living has been accelerating in a way that is neither healthy or sustainable. When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931 he spoke of a world where people complained and moaned about air travels and flights were seconds late…what then must have sounded ludicrous and far-fetched doesn’t seem so distant especially as I sat here this afternoon silently complaining about the lag my computer is experiencing booting up, not responding instantaneously.

I wonder why we settle for living in a culture who says Impatience is not only to be tolerated, but that it is virtuous. Do we really like having to work more, harder and longer to accomplish more in less amount of time to be ‘successful’? Do we like the constant feeling of being in a hurry, rushing from one place to the next, rarely savoring the moment?

I’ll admit I have tech-lust…but do I like that I think I need a cool touch phone? Especially because then I can read the bible on the train on my phone, or even while I walk, get email immediately, respond immediately, or do more things in those rare down moments when I could be…….daydreaming, musing, savoring the moment, or resting? All this to consider and I haven’t even asked what all this hurry, virtuous impatience and busyness does to me spiritually.

Eugene Peterson wrote in one of his books, The Contemplative Pastor, that ‘busyness is laziness’. If there was ever a backwards quote in this world it seems to be this one. But it is a quote that challenges the value system that we build our lives, specifically our spiritual lives, upon. Busyness is a tool that keeps us, willingly, from investing in that which we know to be more important but always seems to take the back seat.

I enjoy being busy sometimes, who doesn’t, it makes us feel important. But do I take joy in it? No. I take joy in the things that really build me up and build up others that I care deeply about.

Is it possible to work harder but to slow some things down like Carl Honore talks about in his book, ‘In Praise of Slow’? I think so…

I think in a world that is consumed with speed and believes efficiency is when something is done as fast as possible I think Christ and the church have an alternative that many would embrace. Have you ever wondered why God took 6 days to create the world (ok, we don’t know if it took 6 24 hour days, but He inspired the human authors to pen it that way) when he could have done it instantly? Have you ever wondered why Jesus only picked 12 disciples to spread the Good News and taught them for three years when he could have done it more quickly and more efficiently?

Emphasizing speed and busyness in so many things can have a serious and unintended impact on our theology and I must take some time to reflect on why I’m always in such a rush, feeling so busy and what it says about my relationship with God and what it communicates to others…and do it slowly.

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