Sunday, September 20, 2009

We've Moved

Books I'm Reading has become Books Worth Reading at (Look for it in the categories on the left-hand side.)

Come join the discussion!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People

Messy Spirituality is about exactly that. It's a story of and a guide to rightly rejecting neat, sanitized spirituality, breaking out of the plastic shrinkwrap of systemitized religion, and embracing abundant life with all it's messes, failures, complexities, questions, joys, triumphs, tensions, paradoxes... which requires us to embrace grace. It requires the sometimes desperate acknowledgement of our constant need of grace, which turns us into people of Grace---the people we're all supposed to be from Eden, people of God.

Romans 12:2 warns against allowing the world to squeeze us into a particular pattern, a box that doesn’t let the Light in and keeps us from real living. Yaconelli recognizes that we’re not only in danger of the world trying to make us into what the world wants us to be: well-meaning Christians and churches often squeeze everybody into one-size-fits-all patterns of spirituality. This small book says big things about what it means to be spiritual and to walk with God.

Messy Spirituality derives from Yaconelli's own journey from legalism to liberty and the years of experience he has as a pastor of a small fellowship full of misfits. Jesus calls us to live faith-full lives. But too often we live fear-full lives. We're called to be radically different (as opposed to merely civily different). Yaconelli helps us think through these things, and he does so with patience and humility, humor, earthy-ness, wisdom, and love.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Phantom Island: Wind

Krissi Dallas has hit the road running with her debut novel, Phantom Island: Wind. It instantly found its way to the number one selling spot at as the word-of-mouth buzz about this page-turner spread like wild fire surrounding the novel's release. The novel is Young Adult fiction; it's full of drama, adventure, suspense, and romance. As a vested seventh and eighth grade teacher and the wife of a youth pastor, YA fantasy-fiction is something Krissi Dallas is an expert on and has a passion for. Her love and affinity for her students, as well as the openly autobiographical nature of much of the book, have allowed Dallas to "open a vein," and write from the depths of who she is, from the heart. This deep connection transfers itself to the reader. I found myself desperately curious; no, not just curious, committed and concerned about the characters. Reading until the end of the chapter wasn't enough: I had to find out what would happen next and would they be okay. I don't think I have ever read a book this size this quickly---not even any of the Harry Potter series... which I also toted obsessively wherever I went so I could read every chance I got.

Phantom Island: Wind is divided into three parts, and it's part two that really gets you. If you weren't addicted already in part one, you definitely will be when part two begins. This is also where the fantasy part of this fantasy-fiction novel really kicks in. You know how you can tell when you're reading really good fantasy-fiction? When you can't tell. If you ever find yourself questioning the reality the author's created, it isn't good fantasy-fiction. While reading Wind I never once caught myself raising my eyebrow thinking, I don't know about that. I was completely engrossed.

Wind is well written. Dallas has a captivating command of detail. Good literature is good literature, regardless of the target audience. Phantom Island isn't just for teenagers; it's for anyone who hasn't forgotten how to read -- how to imagine and empathize and create. The plot and character development; the intrigue, the tension, the romance, the journey, the discovery; every thing about the Island kept me turning pages when I should have been sleeping.

Wind is the first book in the Phantom Island series. Water, is scheduled to come out Summer 2010. It's always nice to have something to look forward to, especially the "small" things; I can't wait to find out what happens next. For more about Phantom Island visit

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Jesus Storybook Bible

I am so excited about this. It just came in the mail from Amazon, and I have been bringing it with me everywhere I go like show-and-tell because I am that pumped about it. Here's the thing; I started thinking about my first-graders and how I'd love to simply read a chapter book to them from week to week rather than individual stories. That got me to wondering if such a thing existed: a chapter-book version of the Bible. In my search, I stumbled across The Jesus Storybook Bible, which is pretty close. I love the byline: "Every story whispers his name." Every story in the Bible (even the Old Testament ones) whisper the name of Jesus, even all of the best faerie-stories we read in books and see in movies echo Jesus' story.

Listen to this excerpt from the introduction: read it out loud; it was meant to be read aloud:

No, the Bible isn't a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It's an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It's a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne -- everything -- to rescue the one he loves. It's like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!

You see, the best thing about this Story is -- it's true.

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story. The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the center of the Story, there is a baby. Every Story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle -- the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.

And this is no ordinary baby. This is the Child upon whom everything would depend. This is the Child who would one day -- but wait. Our Story starts where all good stories start. Right at the very beginning...
I'm impressed by the style and the quality of the writing and the art in this Bible. I'm impressed by the author's use of punctuation and parallelism and alliteration to make the story come to life. I'm impressed by the way she introduces ideas like God's "Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love," ideas like Home (and ontology), Good and Evil, and the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative. Sally Lloyd-Jones acknowledges Tim Keller for "giving [her this] vocabulary of faith." I'm impressed by that too. It sounds a bit high-faluting when it's described by how it has impressed me; but I promise you, it is not. It's a children's book that young children can read themselves and enjoy. But like any good children's literature, it's a good read for adults too.

Literally every story in this Bible from Genesis to Revelation hints at Jesus, speaks to the Logos, the Center of God's Story (and ours). This children's Bible is creative; it's fresh; it's intellectually ingenuous. It's what we've been waiting for.
The Jesus Storybook Bible isn't a replacement for your Children's NIV, but it's a good place to start, and a good supplement --- for your personal Bible reading as well as your children's.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Real Sex

Lauren Winner, author of Girl Meets God and recently, Mudhouse Sabbath, put out a book in 2005 titled, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. And that’s exactly what Winner designs to do: talk about sex in a realistic fashion, from a biblical worldview, that allows us to get past various myths, including the highly eroticized and romanticized beliefs on sex we frequently absorb from both the world and the church.

You’re familiar, no doubt, with the statistics on Christian sexuality. We don’t stand out as very different in our sexual behavior, which means our basic beliefs and ideas about sex must not be that different either. If all those books in the “Christian living” section of the bookstore aren’t helping us develop ideas regarding our sexuality that differ from social norms; if they aren’t helping us believe that what the Bible has to say about sex is relevant and true, something isn’t right. So what makes Winner different? Real Sex offers an alternative to the magazine-like “Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity” by stretching beyond spoon-fed “dos and don’ts” derived from proof-texting Scripture, and instead, presents the case for sex within marriage from a holistic, biblical view of who we are and how we relate in the world sexually.

From the creation-fall-redemption narrative presented in the Arc of the Gospel, Winner posits an important part of who we are is that we are embodied, and the main way in which we relate in the world sexually is communal. Chapter three is aptly titled, “Communal Sex: Or, Why Your Neighbor Has Any Business Asking You What You Did Last Night,” and helps remind us that community is a part of the creational order; we were created in and for community. And though we have fallen from God’s original order for creation, he has, throughout history, made a way for his people to live redeemed, creational lives. When Jesus Christ came embodied to earth, he came as the Way, finally making it possible for those who believe to no longer live under compulsion of the fallen, distorted patterns of the flesh, but rather in habits redeemed and restored to God’s creational intent. Winner reminds us that Scripture flies in the face of our over-individualized, over-privatized American way, exhorting the community of the faith to be intimately involved in one another’s lives. She puts it this way:

… the Bible tells us to intrude – or rather, the Bible tells us that talking to one another about what is really going on in our lives is in fact not an intrusion at all, because what’s going on in my life is already your concern; by dint of the baptism that made me your sister, my joys are your joys and my crises are your crises. We are called to speak to one another lovingly, to be sure, and with edifying, rather than gossipy or hurtful, goals. But we are called nonetheless to transform seemingly private matters into communal matters. (53)
Already we’re presented with a meaty alternative to the false views of sex, or we could say, unreal sex propagated in force by our surrounding culture. The next two chapters speak truth against the lies about sex we hear both from our culture, and some of our churches. These chapters give readers an opportunity to take a step outside of their everyday, cultural surroundings and consider them. An interesting untruth presented to us by our culture we may not have yet considered is that “sex can be wholly separated from procreation” (64). Only a person living in a cave could miss the church’s view on abortion; however, the debate on contraception isn’t quite as clear-cut. Nonetheless, one issue concerning the topic that should be clear-cut is the issue of God’s ultimate control and our joyful, even if also painful, submission. Put more clearly,

…if contraception invites us to be carefree [a potential benefit], it also encourages us to be people who think we can control and schedule everything, including the creation of our families, down to the month, down to the week. And, most important, it invites us to be people who have utterly separated sex from procreation. (65)
Why is this a danger? Well, for one, the connection between sex and making babies keeps us from being wholly wrapped up in ourselves as lovers (66); it returns sex and marriage to its communal orientation. Real sex is always open, in a general sense, to the possibility of children (67), and understands that possibility as a part of God’s good creational plan.

Opening up the conversation of sex and our sexuality to the whole of Scripture and to our Christian communities is like opening the windows of a dark room. By this light we see other lies our culture tells about sex, and we can work together to begin rejecting such ideologies, establishing a core understanding of human sexuality that, in fact, stands apart; we can develop beliefs and habits of a sacred sexuality. Winner points out that society tells lies like cohabitation is a good practice-run (68), modesty doesn’t matter (71), and “good sex can’t happen in the humdrum routine of marriage” (77).

Of those three statements, which strikes you as most dangerous? We might think it’s the prolific idea of shacking up; and in fact, the church is usually pretty clear on its position regarding premarital sex and modest dress; however, I would like to suggest that a subtle distortion is always more dangerous than an obvious one. Winner agrees; she states,

Too often we assume that contemporary American sexual life is a one-dimensional world of licentious prurience. Yet it may be more important for contemporary Christian ethics to constructively engage secular romanticism than to righteously denounce sexual libertinism. It is, after all, pretty easy for us Christians to distinguish ourselves from the sex-is-recreation ethic. The real question is not whether we can counter the message that sex is just like racquetball, but whether we can also articulate a Christian alternative to the regnant ideal of sex as an otherworldly, illicit romance, an escape from quotidian, domestic life. (80)
Sex isn’t meaningful because it’s an erotic escape from everyday realities. Rather, sex is meaningful because it’s real (81). And while romance is certainly appropriate, even important, as part of sustaining love, if it serves merely to compartmentalize our lives rather than integrate them, our lives will be less, not more, fulfilling.

This next chapter is perhaps where we get a bit more personal: “Straight Talk II: Lies the Church Tells about Sex.” In an effort to do right and protect the biblical ethic of sex within marriage, and with honorable intentions, “the church tells a few fibs of its own” (85). Winner chooses to discuss four of these fibs: “premarital sex is guaranteed to make you feel lousy” (85), “women don’t really want to have sex anyway” (90), “bodies (and sex) are gross, dirty, or just plain unimportant” (93), and finally, if we’ve gotten over Gnosticism, now we’re obsessed with technique (97), as obsessed as our secular counterparts.

I can’t talk about all of these ideas (and I wouldn’t want to give away the whole book!), but I want to address a couple of them. I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Doesn’t premarital sex make you feel lousy, full of guilt and regret? And if it doesn’t, shouldn’t it?” It’s possible there’s more truth in the second thought than the first one, because let’s face it, sex feels good, even sinful sex. If it didn’t, premarital sex would certainly be a lot easier to avoid. We wouldn’t need Winner’s book or any other book, not to mention the community of faith, the Bible, or the Holy Spirit for that matter –– at least, not insofar as we need them for our journey toward right-living (89). “What the church means to say,” posits Winner, “is that premarital sex is bad for us, even if it happens to feel great” (90).

But at least we’ve come to recognize that sex in marriage feels great and should feel great. And while it seems we may never be able to fully shake Gnostic parasites from the Gospel, I believe churches have generally come to embrace marital sex as good. However, the message from the pulpit can still be a bit confusing, especially for women. Winner notes a study of teenage girls which shows the “strongest predictor of teenage virginity” isn’t church involvement or the youth group, but team sports (18). That may seem obscure, but athletics teaches girls (and boys) something about bodies being good –– and useful for other purposes than sex. This is a message we aren't communicating well.

So what should we do? Have more church sports leagues? Maybe... but perhaps not. We can, however, begin to change the way we talk about sex and modesty. Personally, as a woman who grew up constantly hearing from youth group and other para-church media that my body was the vehicle of lust and destruction for young men everywhere, it took lots of time to unlearn negative associations about my body and become comfortable in my own skin, though perhaps less time than others; I played sports. This language isn’t only damaging to women. To suggest that men simply can’t help themselves is to suggest that men are less than human, or that they can experience the fruit of the Spirit in all areas but lust. It is essentially degrading to men to imply that men are animals and women are angels, that somehow women are morally superior to men, and therefore responsible for them (73). Certainly we are responsible to one another as brothers and sisters, but responsible for is another thing entirely.

The last few chapters of Winner’s book touch on topics such as kissing, pornography, and masturbation, and dish out practical, and I think rather good and helpful, ideas to guide us in practicing chastity within our caring, Christian communities. Winner reunites chastity with the other spiritual disciplines, and talks about what marriage, children, sex, and singleness teach the church, why each is important in God’s economy, an economy of repentance and forgiveness. Placing sexual purity back within a story that’s bigger than itself makes the issue of chastity important, rather than indifferent, and gives it meaning by giving it context.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

This is not a book.

I loved this film. Really, really loved it. It was written by the same guys who did The Matrix trilogy, which is perfect because the films were anime-inspired. Speed Racer didn't do so well in theaters; it didn't get very high reviews either -- which is why I wanted to give it a little love on my blog. The film is intense visually. I'm not sure what it would be like to see it on the big screen; maybe too much to appreciate. But I also think it's really cutting-edge stuff, artistically magical. Under-appreciated genius. I'm not a huge anime fan, but I'll tell you what I appreciated about this film. The layering, the blending, um, the racing! (I've never had such a craving for slick track go-carts; I had to really control myself as I drove home from my friends' house in Fort Worth.), the cars, the choreographed "car-fu," and, the visual image-layering -- oh, did I say that already; well, that just might have been my favorite part.

I've never seen the original cartoon, but I know enough about it to be able to tell when certain scenes and lines were paying tribute. Intuitively, the film seemed honorable; you know, the film had honorable intentions toward the original. The movie makes me want to see the original cartoon. The character development was quite good. The plot was great. I'm gonna buy the movie.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Repenting of Religion

Hi all, John here. I read the book Repenting of Religion by Gregory A Boyd while at L'Abri this past summer. Here's my review:

From the back of the book: “Gregory A. Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of twelve books, including Seeing Is Believing and the best-selling, Gold Medallion Book Award winner, Letters from a Skeptic.” If you have not read Letters from a Skeptic, I would also encourage you to read that. It is a conversation of letters between Boyd and his father, who was very anti-religion and anti-Christianity. That book is truly a picture of love and grace between son and father.

Repenting of Religion should become a very influential book in our postmodern times. It is one of the more impactful books that I have read in the past year. Published in 2004, it seeks to uncover and unpack what is wrong with the church today. Boyd begins by talking about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. His take on it is that by eating of that Tree, we are now predisposed naturally towards judging others instead of loving them. And his take is that we are in reality, as a church generally (though not overall), still trying to earn our way into Heaven (my words) by the fact that we have set up hierarchies of sin and fail to love others.

He makes the point that churches today, like in the days of the Pharisees, are mostly not a place where broken, questioning, and lost people feel safe to come. They are not places where modern day “tax collectors”, prostitutes, and drug addicts, among others, feel free to come. Instead, they go to bars, pimps, drugs, and other addicts to feel loved. Is this right? Is this loving? Why, if we are called to love others like Christ, are these people not coming in? Boyd’s answer? Because we are failing to truly love.
The church as a whole has not failed to preach the message that salvation is by grace, not by works. Generally speaking, Christians don’t try to be saved by meticulously carrying out the Old Testament law. Yet we must wonder if we have adhered to the letter of Paul’s teaching and missed its spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). For as much as we claim that our relationship with God is based totally on the work of Christ, it seems that many of us nevertheless continue to try to get life from the rightness of our beliefs and goodness of our behavior. We continue to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which the law, leading us to Christ, was meant to abolish…The fact that the collective body of the church (my note: Notice he didn’t call it the body of Christ!) is known more for its declarations of good and evil than for its outrageous love is telling. (pg 97)

He continues a little further down,

Another evidence of our spiritual pathology is that at both an individual and corporate level Christians often lack the freedom, flexibility, joy, boldness, and playfulness of a real lover. The abundant life and reckless love Jesus exemplified and came to bring is often replaced with a hypervigilance on what people ought to believe, how people ought to behave, and how the church should appear (emphases mine). We live out of our ethical maxims and religious ideas rather than the vibrant, concrete life and love of God. We live in the abstract, not the concrete.

This next section cuts to the core of the issue:

The New Testament is not about ethical behavior; it’s about a radical new way of
living. It is about life lived in surrendered union to God through faith in Jesus Christ. It is about experiencing the transforming power of God’s love flowing into and through a person. It demands a form of holiness that is far more exacting than any ethical or religious system. It demands a holiness of the heart that does not feed the fallen self by distancing itself from sinners but rather sacrifices itself to unite with sinners. This kind of holiness can never be achieved through behavior. It has to be received by grace (emphasis mine). Jesus’ ministry and the whole New Testament undermine our ethics and religion in order to position us to humbly receive this empowering and life transforming grace.

I remember reading an excerpt from Blue Like Jazz about a tent advertised as a “Confession Tent” that was set up on a widely secular, one that was almost semi-hostile to Christianity. When people entered that tent, instead of being encouraged to confess their own sins, the humble and repentant Christians inside instead confessed their often lack of love for others, lack of love for the world, lack of love for the campus. I think this is a beautiful example of the stance that Christians need to have at this time in history, one where we are on our knees, asking forgiveness for wrongs done in the past in the name of “Christianity” or “religion” that have hurt so many in unimaginable ways.

I am simply unable to do Boyd full justice of his work in this piece of writing, but I hope you, the reader, are beginning to understand Boyd’s premise that Christians have failed to love. We all fail to love recklessly, freely, without judgment.

I agree with Boyd that we need to quit judging and start living and loving. No more Christian bubble. No more putting certain sins on more of a pedestal than others. When we do that, we look down on others because we are in effect saying “Look, I don’t do these, and you do, so I’m better than you.” That easily leads into a spirit of judgment, the antithesis of love. When we fail to love, we fail to follow Christ. It’s that simple.

We are all sinners who need God’s grace. Let us look at the person, not the sin. Let’s love the person like Christ loved the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the sinners. Let us make our churches (as important as they are) places where everyone feels welcome. Let us love recklessly, painfully, sacrificially. Let us restore Christ’s good name on this Earth by living the loving life He calls us towards.

Until next time,