Friday, October 10, 2008

Living Apocalypse

Greg Laughery is the director of L'Abri Fellowship, a small English-speaking community nuzzled in the breathtaking Swiss Alps. It is a shelter and a home away from home for many, myself included. I spent the past year living and working at L'Abri and had the privilege to co-edit Dr. Laughery's latest book, Living Apocalypse. As a commentary on the book of Revelation, Living Apocalypse is highly accessible. It is not a book for the Bible scholar alone, although Bible scholars will not be bored. This commentary is beneficial to all. It is a relevant-to-life commentary, hence the title, but it isn't soft; it doesn't sacrifice hermeneutics.

If you find the book of Revelation intimidating or irrelevant, I encourage you to pick up Living Apocalypse and read it side-by-side with the text. Laughery helps his reader digest the biblical text passage by passage by providing the mainstream interpretations as well as his professional assessments. The symbolism in Revelation is perhaps what makes the text so highly difficult, which is why I find this book highly helpful. Laughery does an excellent job putting the Apostle's word-pictures into perspective by providing the historical context of John's time, the escatalogical application based upon the hermeneutic of the entire book, indeed the whole of Scripture, and the significance the text has for our everyday living.

It is this idea, aptly expressed by the title, that I like most about this book. The word 'living' serves both as an adjective and a verb. The Apostle John's Apocalypse is a living revelation, and as such, those who have been born again by and in the Word respond to his word by living it. Laughery encourages his readers that the book of Revelation is relevant to how we live our lives now. Again, this is what I find most valuable and most singular about Living Apocalypse. Greg Laughery's deep, genuine love and care for people is not only evident in his many years of service at L'Abri, it also manifests itself in his books. Living Apocalypse goes above and beyond the call of most commentaries by engaging the heart, as well as the mind. It connects the heart of the text to the heart of the reader, and thereby the heart of the reader to the heart of God -- having at its heart, a cyclical growth in mind.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dangerous Wonder

Michael Yaconelli, or Mike as he likes to be called, is an unpretentious pastor of a small church in northern California who grew up under the oppression of legalism and has been fighting his way out since. He is the author of one of my all time favorite books, Messy Spirituality. Dangerous Wonder was written as somewhat of a followup, so I had to get my hands on it.

It would be years after I first bought Dangerous Wonder before I picked it up again to read it. Books do that to me. After waiting patiently among my other books for just the right time, they begin calling out to me. Sometimes in subtle ways through other things I'm reading or listening to; sometimes more directly and immediately as I stand before my bookshelf waiting and listening -- this is how it was with Dangerous Wonder, and when I took it from the shelf and sat down to read it, I finished it a few days later.

I enjoyed this inquiry into the "adventure of childlike faith." Yaconelli is honest and accessible, and in this book he uncovers the beauty of childlikeness: raw wonder, honest curiosity, wide-eyed listening, playfulness, passion, naive grace, and joy-filled terror.

Yaconelli desires to pull out all the stops; any encumbrance between his reader and childlikeness he wishes to remove, and as a result, you will find yourself (some of you more frequently than others) thinking, "But..." The author is prepared for this and addresses it outright with statements from time to time such as, "You might be saying to yourself, 'Wait a minute. You're not actually suggesting that I...'" (my paraphrase). And in response he says, "Go ahead, live irresponsibly! Forget about what is sensible, responsible and prudent and rediscover the childlike passion of falling in love with God" (118).

Though Yaconelli doesn't directly say it, it is this relationship with Christ that allows us to be irresponsible and yet thoughtful of the other. As I see it, such behavior is not irresponsibility; rather it is true responsibility, true responsiveness. In Christ we have a higher responsibility to God and man. Dangerous Wonder comes off as extreme and one-sided for this lack of emphasis on renewing what we think these ideas mean and because he ignores the person-relative aspect of living -- that is to say, the ways in which we draw such lines differently based on personality and personal history. And sometimes we need to be challenged to redraw those lines so that our framework encompasses more of what it means to live (abundantly), but other times our different boundaries are a beautiful part of our need for community in the body of Christ. Or possibly, these paths are not within the scope of this book. At any rate, I do not get the impression that Yaconelli misunderstands these aspects of the abundant life of childlike faith. In his soul he knows, even if perhaps immediate consciousness (what he would think to say right off) hasn't caught up to the deep knowledge.

Most importantly however, I think this is a valuable book. Childlikeness is essential, and it's beautiful. It's highly important to my generation's quest for authenticity because it is authentic. Dangerous Wonder is a challenge to its reader to develop inward sincerity through the liberating work of Christ's transformative way of being. Otherwise it is difficult, perhaps impossible to even know what to look for in an outward search for what's 'real' because we don't know what 'real' looks like. And certainly encountering the genuine happens from both external and internal authenticity; sometimes we do bump into reality unawares, but we recognize and respond to it because of the childlikeness hidden in our being. Furthermore, we come to recognize it more and more clearly as we engage in the lifelong process of Christ's redemptive work, the removal of the stain of our childishness to reveal our new self in Christ, our true self.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Loves Me Loves Me Not

I just realized that I typed out a post for this long ago and never actually posted it. The reason being that the book is so very good and provokes much thought in so many directions I was having a hard time feeling satisfied with what I had written. I still feel as though something is missing, but perhaps you all could help me out with that. I would love to hear from you.
I really appreciate and highly recommend Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love by Laura Smit. Right away, the subtitle lets you know this book is special because while there are countless books on mutual love and our moral responsibilities as Christian lovers, no one writes about our responsibility towards virtue when feelings are not mutual. Smit begins with a “theology of romance” in which she details God’s nature (as love), God’s creational plan (Eden), God’s plan for the new creation (New Earth), sin’s effect on those plans, and finally, virtuous and vicious romance – that is, how sin twists God’s intentions for love and how we can be virtuous by shaping our romantic lives to God’s plans (primarily for the new earth). Smit has some very powerful exhortations for the church that I appreciate on two levels: one, she forces readers to think seriously about New Testament teachings on marriage, family, and singleness (something I’ve been successfully avoiding up to now) and two, she gives singles in the church a voice.
If we believe that it is no longer the nation of Israel but the Church in Christ who is now the elect among the world through whom God chooses to reveal himself to the world, what are the familial implications of this new kingdom? Smit comments on the importance of pouring a new kingdom understanding of marriage and family into new wineskins:
Our primary loyalties shift when we come into contact with Jesus. Whereas in the Old Testament the family was one’s primary loyalty [for procreation was the means by which the message of God through his people propagated], Jesus redefines this, saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt. 12:50). Jesus is our family now and the community of faith is our primary social commitment. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son and daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39). Jesus insists that his followers live sacrificial lives that will make little sense in the eyes of the world. (65)
So, what are the implications? Think for a moment about the political implications for the Religious Right. Not that marriage and family concerns would cease to exist, but would rather exist within a broader context, under a farther-reaching banner. Smit plays with the possible implications a bit; she says,
… if all Christians everywhere were to take this teaching seriously, stop getting married, and stop having children, perhaps the church would start to grow through evangelism rather than through procreation. In this case, the church would be a blessing to the nations, just as we are supposed to be, with most of our nurturing energy going outside our own community. Finally, if we actually converted everyone in the world, and everyone in the world then embraced continent singleness so that no children were being born (a rather unlikely scenario), wouldn’t that mean it was time for Jesus to come again? All Christians are supposed to be longing for his second coming and doing everything possible to bring it about. (71)
Wow! What a thought, eh? Don’t worry, right after that she says,
I do not believe that all Christians need to be single, but all Christians must come to terms with Jesus’ teaching that marriage is not ultimate. Taking the teaching seriously will change how we think about the possibility of marriage in our own life and how we treat people around us – particularly within the church – who are single.(71)
Smit never once devalues marriage and family -- particularly within the church.
But I stray a bit. The meat of the book focuses on how to behave virtuously in loving someone who does not return your romantic love, as well as being virtuous towards someone who cares romantically for you, when you desire only friendship for him or her. Smit encourages her readers to consider true Christian charity in these situations and whether or not charity supports or rejects society's scripts for such roles. From films and literature alike we know how to behave if we find our love rejected, especially if the one in this position is male. He will hold on to his rejected love in one way or another by continuing to pursue until resignation is absolutely necessary; in which case, he must martyr himself upon the cross of love, sometimes quite literally, leaving his legacy behind on the suicide note. As women, we are to move on. It is his loss, and undoubtedly there is someone out there who is more deserving of ourselves. And certainly both can be true: sometimes we ought to continue to pursue and not give up too quickly; sometimes our love is misplaced upon someone undeserving and we must recognize the fact and move on.
But motives matter. That is Smit's point. I do think she errs a bit in overcorrecting: if society prescribes one mode of behavior which is supposedly appropriate for every case of unrequited love, Smit does too in some ways. However, her exhortation to consider what motivates our behavior is key. Are we responding lovingly or selfishly? And while motives cannot be wholly separated or distinguished, I am convinced that an honest observation of our unbalanced scales is quite enough to make an accurate judgment. For myself, honest observation into my heart nearly always requires the eyes of a faith-full friend.
So, if my review has sparked your interest, and if you want the specific, and I think rather good suggestions Smit makes as to how we can pursue loving virtue in our relationships, buy the book.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be

This, SWH, and Loves Me are, I think the three most influential books I've read since my time at L'Abri. I really appreciate this book; Plantinga is an engaging writer and does well covering the essentials of a difficult subject.
He gives a helpful working definition of sin and makes valuable distinctions between different categories of sin; he talks about the relationship (and the difference) between sin and folly and handles the tricky 'sin for me' (but not necessarily for you) aspect of sin. You'd think a book all about sin would be heavy and depressing, but Plantinga is positive; honest, not naive, but gracious.
Something I really benefited from while reading Not the Way was the way reading about sin helped me refocus on my sin. And Plantinga mentions in his introduction that this is one of his objectives: to reintroduce the subject once again for serious contemplation. He's right; partially (as usual) in reaction against the extremism exhibited by the generations before us, and partially because it's much more comfortable, the generations of the Baby Boomers and beyond focus on the Image-bearing goodness of human kind at the expense of the sin-bearing seed we also carry. We look the other way or gloss it over; we joke and shrug it off. It doesn't grieve or anger us. Dessert is sinful; I just make mistakes.
As you can tell, I recommend this book. Pick it up.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Slaves, Women & Homosexuals

I really enjoyed this book, and I recommend it. If you pick it up, I recommend you read part one and three; skip the middle. The middle is rather laborious.

In this book, Webb is suggesting a matrix from within which we can work to discern what is culturally bound in Scripture and what transcends cultural context and is "universal". Of course all scriptural texts have a cultural context and are in that sense culturally bound, but what Webb is after are those texts which no longer offer us explicit, or at least highly explicit, application for our cultural context: for example, Old Testament passages on Levitical law or New Testament passages on slavery and women.

Webb challenges the various traditional reasons given for why we no longer explicitly apply certain texts to our lives. He suggests that interpreting the slavery passages for today's context by merely plugging in the modern workplace for the slavery variable is hermeneutically irresponsible. And while appropriate, in deed necessary as a modern day application, it cannot be an interpretation. We interpret what the writer intended, and we interpret what the passages mean beyond what the author himself knew; we interpret what it means per the intentions of the Holy Spirit. There is an underlying ethic, or principle ("trajectory of redemption") that is interpreted from the text. The text is pointing us in a particular direction, and if we follow the directions of the Apostle, we will abolish slavery. How else can a master "treat [his] slaves in the same way" as Paul has instructed slaves to treat their masters (Eph. 6): "providing them with what is right and fair" (Col. 4)? We realize that the slavery texts, for example, are pointing toward the abolition of slavery while simultaneously speaking into the cultural context of the time, meeting the culture where it's at.

As far as the "women" texts are concerned, we do choose to say certain texts are culturally bound and others are not, but the grounds for choosing which is which typically continue to ignore the redemptive movement of God and his word. SLH uses this hermeneutic of redemption to suggest that there is a similar movement in the "women" texts which breaks out of the explicit words of the text given in the cultural climate of the early church and points toward egalitarianism (or at least a "soft patriarchy").

From the principles of Webb's hermeneutical matrix, he does not see evidence for such a movement in regard to the issue of homosexuality as many are now calling for. And I think Webb's arguments for this are significantly weaker than his arguments on the "women issue"; he seems to take too much for granted.

I like this idea because it considers both the whole of Scripture as well as historical-cultural context in which it was written as important in the process of interpreting individual texts. I like it because I believe the idea of a trajectory of redemption jives with the way God works in the world and in our individual lives. I'm sure Webb's hermeneutic isn't flawless, but for the above reasons I don't think it can be ignored.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Porvidence & Prayer

Tiessen, a professor of systematic theology and ethics at Providence College and Seminary, wrote this book because he noticed a consistent trend among his students. They write essays on God's providence that suggest one system of belief, but pray in class in a way that is inconsistent. I like the layout of this book. It reads left to right as Tiessen expounds on several models of providence starting with neo-deism and ending with Calvinism. Each chapter begins with the basics of the view, moves to how this particular view understands the role and value prayer, and ends with the same case study used throughout the book. The case study involves a large prayer group which includes people who hold to each understanding of providence. One of the members asks prayer for his missionary son whose recently been kidnapped by local gorilla terrorists. The others offer prayer consistent with their particular view of how God works in the world.

I liked this book. It's good and obviously thought-provoking. I think it is important to try to be consistent, to bridge gaps between our theology and our practice. But even after reading this detailed text, I still can't manage to wrap my mind around providence and free will... I don't exactly understand how the theologians' logic actually works because I keep finding myself saying, 'Yeah, but...' I have to go back to what I was saying earlier with Letters to Malcome, that mystery is essential. Complete systematized theology is impossible, and systematized theology at the cost of mystery is dead. That doesn't mean this book isn't worth reading; it is. So, check it out; see what you think; let me know.