Archives For Books

On December 30, 2013

May I Recommend from 2013

Playing God pictureBook pictureAs 2013 comes to an end and I think back over the past twelve months, I wanted to share with you some of the best books I read from this past year.

One of the things that I love about my job is how the Church gives me time to study and prepare. It’s a real blessing, I get paid to go off every year to pray and study (or maybe they just want me to get out of their hair) But I know it’s not just to write sermons, it’s to equip the priesthood of all believers for ministry, and  when people ask me if there are any books I recommend I want to be as helpful as possible.

So for those of us who are looking for new reads in 2014, here are some of my favorite resources from this year (in no particular order):

Playing God by Andy Crouch. I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. The Christian relationship to power is always strained, but we use power all the time, and we’re not always conscious about how the Jesus story should inform what we do in leadership, serving and how we think about institustions. Crouch is one of my favorite writers, and this book is one of my favorites of the year.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes I think this book is one of the most helpful ones I read this year for Bible readers, teachers or preachers. The authors grew up in the Bible Belt, and then served as missionaries on the other side of the world. This book does the one thing that most of us who have grown up in Church and with reading the Bible need, it makes the familiar strange again.

Disunity in Christ by Christina Cleveland This book is painful in many parts as a reminder that our Churches, by and large are the most segregated places in the country. And not just in regard to race or socio-economics either. We carve the world up into such narrow categories, that we actually never have to worship with and serve along side people with disagree with. Cleveland’s question is, “Can we really call that church?”  It’s written with a hopeful and helpful tone. It’s a great resource to remember what it really means to be the church, and why every church should care about it.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller. I’m not a Calvinist and I don’t like Systematic Theologies, but I really appreciated this book. Keller is one of my favorite writers and preachers because he is so good at reading his context, and here he’s on point. The first part of his book, he reframes the whole question about the secular approach to suffering, and I think it’s brilliant. Then the last third of the book is very helpful on a pastoral level. So much of ministering to people feels like trying to disarm a bomb. You are always wondering about which wire to cut, Keller acknowledges this and points out why some people find the Calvinist views of God comforting in their suffering, and others don’t, and gives some practical advice on how to walk with people in their suffering.

The God of Old by James Kugel. If you want to believe in Jesus you should read your Bible, if you want to believe like Jesus did this is a good book. It’s a window into how people in ancient times thought of God and the stories they told about Him.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. I want to carefully recommend this book, because it is not for everybody. I want to call Spufford irreverent, but that’s not right, he’s obscenely reverent. An atheist turned Christian, Spufford is writing to post-Christian England, and he speaks their language. If you are easily offended, skip on down to the next one. If you wrestle with faith, or are wanting to have better conversations with your friends who don’t believe in God, check this book out. Spufford is a word-surgeon and his description of the human condition is profound. unapologetic

Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley If you are an opinion leader/teacher/minister/preacher of a local church read this book. Written in an incredibly honest and vulnerable way. If you care about Churches being hospitable, welcoming places, this book helps you ask better questions about why we sometimes aren’t, and what we can do about it.

Loves God, Likes Girls by Sally Gary. Sally is a friend of mine, but I think this was one of the better memoirs I’ve read. She’s a member of the Churches of Christ who deals with same-sex attraction. She leads a ministry called CenterPeace that helps Churches create safe places for people who are wrestling with their sexuality (which really should mean all of us) In a world where we like to talk past each other throw truth bombs at one another, Sally story and ministry helps build bridges and create kinder and more loving Churches.  Earlier this year, I reviewed this book, but still want to recommend it now.

When Donkey’s Talk by Tyler Blanski. This guy has got a Masters in Medieval Church History and paints houses for a living. He writes about wizards and saints and witches and why the medieval world might make more sense than today. I love the way he writes and the tone of this book, Blanksi gave me language about how God’s world is enchanted.  This book wasn’t as good as his first one, Mud and Poetry, but still a great read.

The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse by Michael Gungor. Fans of the band Gungor may have already read this, but it’s one of the surprise books of the year for me. If you are an artist, musician or creative of any type get this book. His story about a one man band named Emo-tron is worth the price of the book.

Prototype by Jonathan Martin. Martin is the son of a Pentecostal preacher,  who became a Pentecostal Pastor himself, and then went to the Duke School of Divinity. He’s a Pentecostal mystic who loves Thomas Merton. He also planted a church called Renovatus: a Church for liars, dreamers and misfits. If he can name a church, just imagine what he can do with a book. It’s a memoir/testimony/theology book of sorts. But it’s really all about Jesus and ways Martin has seen God moving in the world.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs has always fascinated me, and this book was a great portrait of one of the most enigmatic and influential and bizarre people the world has seen. If you read this one, be sure to go back and read Playing God…they go well together.  As does this next one…

The World is Not Ours to Save by Tyler Wigg Stevenson. Only a guy with a dream as big as “Getting rid of Nuclear weapons” could write a book quite like this. For all the non-profit leaders, ministry deacons and people who want make the world a better place, this is a good book to help temper our Messiah complex, and keep us serving for the right reasons. Plus there’s an awesome story about how Patch Adams starting a parade of naked people through San Francisco.

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. If you’ve read Gladwell’s earlier stuff, you won’t be surprised…or let down. Writing this book actually led Gladwell back to being a person of faith. It’s impressive, and if you teach or preach, it’s fill with great stories that are immediately applicapble.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell. I think this is one of Bell’s better books, especially for the conversations I’m hearing these days. For all the grief Bell gets and gives, he is answering the questions that I think people who won’t go to Church are actually asking. I recommend this book often for parents who have kids who have started to question their faith. It won’t stop our questions, but it will get us to ask better ones, and be skeptical of our skepticism.

So those are my top reads from 2013, What did I miss? Any suggestions for 2014?

strange-fire-image

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” -C.S. Lewis

Maybe you’ve noticed that over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk around charismatic vs. not charismatic protestant Christians. Some people held a conference, and John MacArthur wrote a book about it. Mark Driscoll even showed up at the conference and started giving away his newest book and just confused everyone.

But what caught my eye is what these non-Charismatics called the conference.

They called it, “Strange Fire”

Which may not mean much to you, but it means a lot to me. Because growing up in the Restoration Movement, that is a reference to an obscure little story in Leviticus that no other branch in Christian tradition really paid attention to.

It’s the story of Nadab and Abihu, some of the first priests in the Torah. It’s 10 little verses that end with God smiting Nadab and Abihu because they offered “Strange” or “Unauthorized Fire.”

When I heard the name of the conference it felt…reassuring. I thought, “Hey, we’re not the only ones who misread the Bible after all!”

And let’s call that’s what it is.

To name this conference that, is a way of misreading the Bible. I don’t care where you go from there, but if you start with that story as your metaphor, you will have a  bad view of God when you’re reading the Bible.[1]

Trust me on this.

But when I saw in Christianity Today, that Mark Noll actually compares this new anti-charismatic movement to Restorationist I had two thoughts, “Christianity Today knows about us?” and then as I read the comparison I realized “Yes, they know us well.”

Here’s what they said:

“Perhaps the major flaw of the book is more attitudinal than methodological. In claiming to see things so clearly–so black and white–MacArthur falls into a restorationist mindset, identified by historian Mark Noll as “intellectual overconfidence, sectarian delusion, and a stunningly naive confidence in the power of humans to extract themselves from the influences of history…”

Apparently Mark grew up in my church.

Now I love Churches of Christ, and the Restoration Movement, I’m not just saying that. I  really do. And I’m glad to be a part of Protestant Christianity…except for this one tiny slice of it. We protest…a lot…and often.

We love to argue and parse words and ideas, and I love the idea about Sola-Scriptura, but like Mark Noll hinted at, Sola Scriptura is naïve if you don’t acknowledge that you are a person culturally conditioned to read the Bible in certain ways and ask certain questions (one that the Bible might not be trying to address) and not ask the questions the Bible is trying to answer.

I get the Cessasionist argument, and I really respect John McArthur, his writings and ministry have blessed me. I love Joni Erickson Tada (who spoke at the conference) and I very much understand why someone who has endured the suffering of both physical limitations, and the suffering of spiritual bullies who might say, “If you just had enough faith…”

But I believe I’ve heard the voice of God, and I’ve prayed for people who I believe have been healed, and several who haven’t.  But I didn’t always think this way.

The problem for me started about 9 years ago, when I went to Sri Lanka to do Tsunami relief. We were with a small gathering of Christians there, and a blind woman came up to get prayed for, and God opened her eyes.

I’ve got a bachelors and a graduate degree in Bible, and I immediately said to myself, “I know seven reasons why that cant happen.”

But as I started to think about it, I realized that the reasons I knew that this couldn’t happen had nothing to do with the Bible. It had everything to do with the philosophy and ideology I was reading the Bible through.

The problem was I had been using the Bible, to be right, to make a living. I was standing on it, but the Bible is telling about a world that we are supposed to inhabit.

And in that world anything can happen.

Because God is in it.

As an aside, there is a reason that Charismatic Chrsitianity is spreading all through the third world. Last week, a few Christians and I were having a bible study with a Muslim man from Sierre Leon when we got to one of the excoricisms in the Gospel of Mark. I told him, that none of us at the table had ever seen anything like a demon possession, and maybe he could speak more to the issue.

So he started talking about the Witch doctor in his village. How he could point at a goat and kill it with his voodoo, and about how he put spells on people making them go crazy.

When my friend read the Gospel of Mark, he was glad to see that demons obeyed Jesus. Because he knew what a demon was in a way that we don’t.

My friend sure hopes God hasn’t ceased working in the world, because he knows first hand that evil hasn’t.

Anytime we start having a conversation about God that only works in certain parts of the world (the wealthiest, most educated and the most access to medicinal resources) we are going to miss large parts of the Gospel.

Love and Elitism

The real problem that I believe MacArthur is trying to address is the division that has happened around the way we talk about the Holy Spirit and God’s activity in the world. I spend a lot of time with some Charismatic brothers and sisters, and I understand the critique.

It’s very possible to think that you’ve arrived at a place superior than others because of your spiritual experience, or what you’ve sensed God work through you to heal or prophesy. It’s very easy to fall in love with the gifts more than the Giver.

I’ve also been around Cessationalists enough to know that this isn’t just a “Charismatic problem” Knowledge, after all, does puff up.

And it is ironic, that the main verse in the Bible that Cessationalist and Charismatics argue about is in Paul’s magnificent chapter of what Christian love looks like.

And that context matters just as much as anything else in this conversation. Christian love defers to one other, it esteems one another, it doesn’t accumulate priviledge and status when God gives you gifts like healing or preaching or the gift of knowledge.

Christian love shouldn’t crash someone’s conference or take away someone’s books and then tweet about it.

In fact, I believe that for these two groups to be able to reconcile and apologize and humble themselves before the other, that would be a miracle. Perhaps the best kind of miracle.

I Can’t Only Imagine

It seems to me that the way most Christians talk about God in the world today is either that God is something like magic (good for the occasional miracle, if you just pray the right prayers, believe the right way etc.) or we are Deist’s (the idea that God created the Universe, wound it up like a top, and stepped away.) The universe is either empty of God, or God is someone we can control.

This is a problem.

I was talking to an Anglican priest friend last week about this, and his answer was so good I think it might be helpful here.

He said something like, the main problem really isn’t what we think it is. The real problem is that we’ve lost our imagination.

There is a fundamental difference between a Catholic Christian’s imagination and a Protestant Christian’s imagination.  In Catholicism, the whole world in enchanted, God is closer than we are to ourselves, and the entire Creation is dripping with the Glory of God.

So back to us Protestants, both the Charismatics and the Cessationists are basically talking with the same limited imagination. We believe that either God punches a whole in the roof of the world and tinkers in from time to time in order to heal our Aunt’s cancer or give me a better parking space…or we believe that He doesn’t do that.

But both are operating from a posture that fundamentally believes God is somewhere else.aslan3

This is why we use language like, “And then God showed up.” As if there are places in the world where God wasn’t!

And don’t think for a second I’m trying to ignore the Bible. I’m just trying to start reading it better. Think about how the Psalms talk about Creation, the mountains clap for joy, and the rivers sing!

According to the Bible the whole earth is enchanted!

And the danger of having conversations like this, is that we strip God out of the world He made and we do it, not by using the Bible, but coming from an “Enlightenment Worldview” that has very little to do with imagination, and very much to do with scientific reductionism of the Good world that God created and still inhabits.

Think about the words we use in this argument. It’s words like Natural vs. Supernatural. Where did we get those words from? It’s not Scripture, so if we are going to have this conversation then lets at least admit that it’s not Sola Scriptura we are arguing with.

We are humans, located in certain places and ideologies.

And God help us if we make boxes so tight that God can’t help us.

The Catholic (think Pre-Enlightenment) imagination is rich and filled with different ways of talking about reality. It is what Tolkien and Lewis drew from to tell about the Enchanted world of God.

I’ve spoken in tongues, because all Art is speaking in tongues, I’ve seen God heal people, and I see God sustain the Billion miracles everyday that hold our intricate hearts beating just because of His creative word. I’ve seen babies born and people sacrifice their lives, I’ve seen people healed in “normal” ways like through doctors at hospitals and people healed in unusual ones.

Am I a Charismatic or a Cessasionist? Neither. Because I think both of those stories are two small to contain God.

I believe Aslan is on the move.

The Fire of God is real, the world is ablaze with it.

And when Christians are unable to see that, I think that’s strange.


[1] Rabbinical tradition teaches that this story in Leviticus isn’t about them disobeying or misunderstanding God, it’s about them not revering Him. The very next verse after this story is a prohibition against drinking while performing priestly duties, so the Rabbi’s have said that was Nadab and Abihu’s sin.

On January 2, 2012

May I Recommend from 2011

One of the best benefits of being home schooled was that my mother let me read all the time growing up. My curriculum for a year or two consisted of my parents dropping me off at the Benton Library and leaving me there all day. It was kind of a dream education. It almost outweighed the whole being terrified of girls and social situations.
All that to say I like reading a lot. And I thought I’d share with you some of the best books I read from 2011:

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God has given us much to celebrate. And yes there is time to dance and a time to mourn, but each season has it’s rightful place, but what we’ve seem to have done is a lukewarm mixture of both. The spirit of Despair is so easy to give into. Cynicism is the currency that we deal in, and Christians are no different. So I would like to suggest that churches pay attention to this more as a spiritual discipline. Because the Kingdom of God has come and is coming.

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On September 6, 2011

Separation for Church and State

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but lately it seems like the amount of scandals among politicians and public leaders have gone up exponentially. We tweet dirty pictures, or have sex with pages, or leave our wives for women in Southern America, or yell “You lie” at the President. It’s getting ugly out there.
We don’t just need a particular kind of ideology in politics. We need a particular kind of person.

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Rowling’s books have outsold anything in printed history that wasn’t written by God. And it’s just getting bigger and bigger. Because people in their bones are hungry for a good story. In the words of Stephen King, “Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, finding inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

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On May 17, 2011

Mere Mortals

In a world of self-esteem and health and wealth gospels, it’s good to remember what makes us important is the One who made us. In the words of the Psalmist, we are Mere Mortals.

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On April 26, 2011

The Finger Is a Gun

Tina Fey’s new book BossyPants, has a fantastic chapter where she talks about working with improv class. She says it’s more than just a way of comedy, it’s a worldview. This is what that means:

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On March 22, 2011

The Age To Come

Rob Bell’s new book has caused quite the controversy. And while most people might say that Hell is at the center of the debate. I’d like to offer a suggestion that it’s something else entirely. The question of certainty.

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On January 21, 2011

Mistaken Arrangements

I stumbled upon this video by Walter Brueggemann a few days ago. He’s describing the kind of prophetic vision of what Justice means in the Scriptures. And he’s doing it for a conference that is all about Justice. Which from looking at, sounds like an amazing conference. But it did get me thinking: Since when did Christians hold conferences on Justice? Since I’ve been around, most of our conferences are on preaching, or church leadership. But then it struck me, this conference isn’t for churches. Not once in the brochure did the word church show up. It’s a Christian conference for Jesus-followers, complete with worship leaders and Christian speakers talking about Biblical Justice. But it’s not for churches.

Because church leaders probably won’t show up.

Several times this week I have had significant conversations, with different people, about what Justice looks like in this time and place. Now these conversations are not new for me to stumble into. Unless someone has their head in the sand, it’s easy to recognize that God is stirring this passion up in the world again. Unfortunately, some (but not all) of our churches are the final ones to recognize this.

But I’ve been lucky. Continue Reading…