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July 31, 2014

Today I am kicking off a brand new series of articles I am titling The Defenders. Through brief sketches of Christian leaders, I hope to draw attention to believers known for defending the church against specific theological challenges or false teachings. I will be focusing on modern times and have chosen to begin with James Montgomery Boice, a long-time defender of the doctrine of inerrancy.

Inerrancy

The Christian faith stands or falls on the Bible. It stands or falls on the trustworthiness of the Bible. It is no surprise, then, that the Bible has often been attacked at this very point. A long list of dissenters have maligned the Bible by insisting that it cannot be fully trusted, and asserting that errors have crept into it. The doctrine of inerrancy addresses the Bible’s trustworthiness.

Wayne Grudem defines the doctrine in this way: “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” Said otherwise, “Inerrancy is the view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrines or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences” (P. D. Feinberg). If it is true that the Bible is reliable and contains nothing contrary to fact, then it is worthy of our trust and able to guide us in matters pertaining to life and godliness.

It was this doctrine, and the attacks upon it, that drew the attention of James Montgomery Boice.

James Montgomery Boice

BoiceJames Montgomery Boice was the much-loved pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death in 2000. A prolific author, he penned dozens of books and commentaries, including a massive and influential four-volume work on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. His long pastoral ministry was unblemished and his congregants remember him as a kind and loving pastor. But outside that congregation he is remembered as a fierce defender of the doctrine of inerrancy.

In a stirring tribute to his friend and mentor, Richard Phillips says that Boice’s ministry can be roughly divided into three phases. The first of these phases lasted from the mid-1960’s to just around 1980, and it was here that Boice distinguished himself as a defender of the doctrine of inerrancy. Phillips explains:

These were the years when Boice was wrapping up the education he received in liberal institutions like Princeton Seminary and the University of Basel. In his John commentary, dating from these early years, one will frequently read Boice defending the Bible from the interpretations of liberals like Rudolf Bultmann. These were also the years when Boice was ordained in the liberal United Presbyterian Church, so that the context for his ministry was that of opposition to liberal attacks on the Bible. It is no surprise that Boice’s chief concern during these years was to defend the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, as seen in his leadership of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI).

The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was founded in 1977 for the express purpose of defining and defending the doctrine of inerrancy. Boice, who that year would publish Does Inerrancy Matter?, was asked to serve as Chairman. The Council met in 1977 and determined they would write a book-length response to Jack Rogers’ Biblical Authority, an influential work championing neo-orthodoxy and denying inerrancy. Boice served as editor for that work and in it he warned “even among evangelicals, Christian doctrine and Christian living are moving progressively away from the biblical standard and from the classical teachings of the church.” In the fall of 1978 the ICBI held their first conference with nearly 300 Christian leaders in attendance. During that conference the Council met repeatedly and wrote what came to be known as The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

July 30, 2014

We’ve got an Amish community not too far from here. It is the place to go when you need to stock up on produce, farm-grown foods, or heirloom-quality furniture. It is also known as the place to go if you really just need to see some Amish people doing what they do. And a lot of people like to do just that—to go and look, to go and gawk.

Even though we’ve got an extensive group nearby, we recently found ourselves in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, North America’s best-known Amish community. (Full disclosure: Our actual travel objective was Harrisburg and the overrated Civil War museum there, but every hotel in the city was completely full.) We did not stop on the road outside Amish farms to watch them do their work, and did not go on a bus tour, but we couldn’t help but see horses and buggies around town, and, of course, plenty of the distinctive Amish clothing.

As we headed north, back toward our home, I started to think about the Amish and why we find them so endlessly fascinating. Though they are small in numbers, everyone knows who they are and everyone knows at least a few of their unique customs; though so much of their religious practice appears insufferable, they are regarded as Christians who love and practice grace. They are the heroes of a million stories, the subject of a thousand documentaries. Why are they so fascinating? I have a few ideas.

The Amish challenge us. In a world where we are so completely dependent on our high-tech devices, the Amish somehow manage to survive without them, and even appear to thrive without them. Where we are convinced that newer is better and that we are only ever one innovation away from joy, the Amish seem plenty happy to do without. If you spend time around the Amish, or if you begin to learn about their ways, you necessarily find yourself asking questions like: Do I really need my smartphone? Are all of these devices really bringing happiness? What have I lost in all of this innovation? The Amish challenge so many of our deeply-held beliefs and assumptions.

We want to figure out the Amish. We are fascinated by the Amish because we so badly want to figure them out. Where they proclaim that they have great uniformity in their lives and laws, we see great contradictions. Their faith appears contradictory: They speak about the grace of Christ but live by law; they extend grace to those who harm them, but shun those who leave them; they rejoice in their salvation, but do not share Christ with others. Their laws appear contradictory: The men can have buttons, but the women must use straight pins; connecting to a phone network attaches them to the world, but connecting to a road network does not; they rely on doctors and lawyers, but will not allow their own children to be educated beyond eighth grade. When I see the Amish, with all their strengths and weaknesses, all their grace and legalism, I look for a key that unlocks it all. I look for knowledge that makes it all make sense.

The Amish recall a simpler time. Where life today is marked by endless complexity, the Amish are known for their quiet simplicity. As they go about their lives, they draw us to a simpler time. In some ways the Amish live in the best of both worlds—the world today and the world of centuries ago. They live their day-to-day lives in that simpler world, that quieter world, that slower world. But, when necessity dictates, and law permits, they take advantage of modern innovations. They use horse-drawn buggies to get to their worship services, but hire drivers to take them to the store. They have no electricity in their homes, but give birth and die while connected to modern medical equipment. Their simplicity attracts us. It draws us.

July 24, 2014

A recent headline proclaimed that buying a car ranks among most people’s least favorite activity. Many would rather suffer pain or be deprived of a favorite pleasure than to have to endure the car lot and the car salesman. Recently, inevitably, it was my turn to face the pain. With our old minivan ailing and a long roadtrip looming, I had little choice in the matter. I had procrastinated as long as I could.

Now there are various strategies involved in buying cars. Some people only buy really, really used cars and drive them until they can wring out the last little vestige of value. Then they rub out the VIN, drive it into a lake, and start over. Not surprisingly, these people tend to be pretty handy, and comfortable under a hood. Other people buy only new cars, drive them until the new car smell has faded, and then swap them for something newer. As you would expect, these people tend to be pretty comfortable with their checkbook.

I hold to the philosophy of buying new and driving until the serious problems begin—maybe seven or eight years with the right brand, all the scheduled maintenance, and a little bit of luck. I hold to this position largely because I consider cars magic. They exist far beyond the boundaries of science and reason and firmly within the realm of wizardry. I have no idea how they work and live with the fear that if I touch anything beyond the gas cap, I will disrupt the sorcery and cause a total breakdown. I am in awe of them, and terrified when they begin to show signs of aging. When a hear that strange whir or unusual clunk, I just assume that the engine is about to blow. (Cars still have engines, right?) Our old car was making a lot of those whirs and clunks and related sounds. I had lost all confidence in it, so it was time to go shopping.

When Aileen and I walked into the dealership and began looking at that new van, the salesman did a great job of introducing us to this amazing new vehicle. He showed us lots of buttons and screens and described all the different ways the van would beep at us while we drove it. I am quite sure it is nearing sentience and, with a software update or two, should be able to drive itself and even parent my children. He opened the hood so we could admire the engine and I nodded dutifully, pretending that I actually had some idea of what I was looking at. I think I fooled him. “Mmm. Look at that. It’s shiny.” He didn’t notice the beads of sweat trickling down my face. “Tell me more about the beeps.”

What really impressed us about this van was its reliability. He convinced us that this vehicle is very possibly the greatest and most reliable car ever made by the hand of man. He assured us that the car would never break down, that the warranty would prove bulletproof, and that if we were simply to buy it today, all our wildest dreams would come true.

We were an easy mark, I guess, and before long he convinced us. We shook his hand and he led us into the office of the finance manager. Now, the finance manager’s job was to figure out how we intended to pay for this vehicle and to verify that we actually had a reasonable likelihood of doing so. However, it quickly became apparent that he could pick up a few commission dollars by selling us an extended warranty. Suddenly we were being told that we had just agreed to buy the worst car ever built, that it was probably going to break down before we even got it out of the parking lot, that the warranty is absolutely laughable, and that we would never sleep soundly at night unless we agreed to that third-party, $3,000 extended warranty plan. “Your life will not be worth living if you walk out of here without that extended warranty.”

I called him on it. “The salesman just told us this was the most reliable van on the market; now you’re telling me it’s a piece of junk that’s going to burst into flames if I look at it wrong. What gives?” He assured me that he was just looking out for me, that he was a friend. I assured him, in turn, that there was, literally, no chance that I was ever going to walk out of there with an extended warranty, unless, of course, he was willing to give it as a gift. Since, you know, we’re friends now.

No wonder we hate to buy cars. At least I don’t need to endure the pain again for another seven or eight years.

As we drove away in our whirring and clunking old van, hopeful that the factory would soon spit out that shiny new one for us, I found myself thinking about the contradiction between the salesman and the finance manager. I was sold on the car’s reliability, but once I was in, well, that’s where I was told the truth (or a version of it, at least).

And I realized that we, as Christians, sometimes pull this very sales trick when we preach the gospel and plead with our friends. We assure our friends that God has a great and wonderful plan for their lives, that putting their faith in him will bring endless and untold blessings. We tell of all the benefits of being a Christian. Well and good.

But when Jesus walked the earth, he was no salesman. He told those who wanted to follow him that the cost would be high. He told them that it would cost them their friends, their family, their finances, their plans, their comfort, and maybe even their lives. He told them that it would cost them everything.

No wonder that our friends are suspicious. And no wonder so many are shocked when they make a profession of faith and immediately meet with pain and mockery and deep questions and the sustained attacks of a Devil who wants them back. They were won with a sales trick—won with only half the truth. They have every right to be disillusioned.

Car lot photo credit: Shutterstock

July 23, 2014

I think we all love the story of the Garasene Demonaic, don’t we? It is the story of a poor, pathetic, hopeless, demon-oppressed man and his life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. And there is something in the story I find particularly fascinating.

Though at one time in his life this man had been a normal person with a normal life, at some point demons had begun to oppress him. Maybe he was a young man still living in his parents’ home when something about him began to change. Over time his parents and family saw him start to exhibit erratic and downright scary behavior. Or maybe he was a married man and it was his wife who first began to notice that strange behavior. He began to act in ways that were out of character. He began to cry out in weird ways. Though he used to love his kids and cuddle them and tell them stories and play with them, over time he became distant, then even dangerous. Soon she had to protect the kids from their own father.

Eventually his behavior became so outrageous that the people around him acted in the only way they knew how—they chained him and locked him up. But then he grew so strong that he could break those chains and attack anyone who approached him. So they did the only thing left to do and drove him away. By the time we meet him in Mark 5 (and parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke), he is living in the tombs, roaming the hills naked, cutting and brusing himself, crying out in agony of body, soul and spirit. He can go no lower.

And then Jesus meets him. And then Jesus frees him. Jesus sends that horde of demons into a herd of pigs which immediately rushes into the sea and drowns. And then we come to a part of the story I find absolutely fascinating. The nearby townsfolk come running to see what has happened, to see this oppressed man in his right mind, to see thousands of dead pigs floating in the water. And we see two very different reactions to this encounter with Jesus Christ.

When this man has been freed by Jesus, he begs Jesus to be able to go with him. Please let me remain with you, let me learn from you, let me serve you. Where you go I will go. This man saw Jesus and wanted Jesus more than anything.

When this crowd of villagers saw this man freed by Jesus, they had a reaction that was exactly opposite. They begged Jesus to leave. Please go. Get back in your boat and leave and don’t come back. They saw Jesus and wanted Jesus less than anything.

The people wanted Jesus as far as possible, this man wanted Jesus as close as possible. And in those two reactions we see something fascinating: Jesus repulses and Jesus draws. Some people encounter Jesus and find him the most dreadful thing in the world; some people encounter Jesus and find him the most desirable thing in the world. Some beg him to leave and some beg to follow.

When we preach Jesus today, we preach for a response. And there is always a response. Jesus repulses and Jesus draws. But an encounter with Jesus never accomplishes nothing.

July 22, 2014

After almost two weeks of vacation, I am back in my own home in my own town. We had a great time and, as usual, some of my favorite times were spent reading. When I go on vacation, I tend to focus on light reading and books a little bit outside my normal reading diet. Here are the ones I liked best:

On Writing WellOn Writing Well by William Zinsser. Considering the amount of my time I spend writing, I have invested far too little time in reading books on the craft of writing. Zinsser’s is brilliant, though you will have to be willing to overlook his left-leaning ideologies (It’s time to get over George W. Bush!). Now in it’s 30th anniversary edition, On Writing Well contains hundreds of helpful lessons on being a better writer. I plan to return to it regularly.

Evernote Essentials by Brett Kelly & Master Evernote by S.J. Scott. I am a committed Evernote user and use it with near-religious fervor to organize and archive much of the information I encounter and wish to retain. To improve my use of Evernote I read two books and found them both helpful. Master Evernote is well worth the $2.99 investment; Evernote Essentials is a bit more of a stretch at $12.99 but still reasonable value. The books are helpfully contradictory at certain points (e.g. Tag everything and don’t rely on notebooks versus rely on notebooks and don’t tag everything) which shows the freedom each of us has to make Evernote conform to our preferences. Both books conclude with helpful tips and suggestions on how to use Evernote well.

Die EmptyDie Empty by Todd Henry. From the author of The Accidental Creative comes Die Empty, a new book on “unleashing your best work every day.” This is an ideal book to pillage—to read with a view to grabbing and implementing some of its most important ideas. Henry’s purpose is simply to help the reader structure their life in such a way that they can go to bed each night content that they did their best work that day. It’s not written from a Christian perspective, but is simple enough to translate.

Manage Your Day-to-Day edited by Jocelyn K. Glei. Are you noticing a theme here? Put together by the team at 99U, the book is meant to give you “a toolkit for tackling the new challenges of a 24/7, always-on workplace.” Each chapter is by a different contributor and, not surprisingly, the quality varies a fair bit. But, again, this is a book that is ideal for pillaging for great ideas, and there are many of them in there.

Flight 232Flight 232 by Laurence Gonzales. On July 19, 1989, United Airlines flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, after a massive failure in its center engine. Twenty-five years later, Gonzales investigates the accident and speaks to many of the survivors. I found it fascinating, though Gonzales may have written a book that was just a little too long and that looked at a few too many of the survivors. Still, I enjoyed it and would happily commend it to people with a morbid interest in such topics.

Samson and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin. This is the only explicitly Christian book I read in full while on vacation. Last week I shared a full review of it which you can read by clicking the link. 

July 21, 2014

Reading is kind of like repairing a bicycle. Kind of. For too long now my bike has been semi-operational. It has one brake that just doesn’t want to behave and all my attempts to fix it have failed. Why? Well it turns out that I haven’t been using the right tool. To get the bike working I need to use the right tool. And when it comes to reading, well, you’ve got to use the right tool—you’ve got to know what kind of reading to do. Here are seven different kinds of reading.

Studying. Studying is reading at its best, I think, but reading that can and should be done with only the choicest books. Life is too short and there are simply too many books to invest a great deal of time in every one of them. And this is where so many readers go wrong—they spend too much time and invest too much effort in books that simply don’t deserve it. When you study a book, you labor over it, you read it with highlighter in hand, you flip back and forth, you try to learn absolutely everything the book offers. Only the smallest percentage of books are worthy of this level of investment, so choose carefully which books you study. (Suggestions: Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen or The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul)

Pillaging. Pillaging is one of my favorite forms of reading, and especially when the book is in a familiar category and written to be very practical. I will often buy the latest and greatest books on business and productivity and read them at a rapid pace. As I do this, I am looking for tips that I can ponder and apply. I do not intend to allow these books to teach me a whole new form of getting things done—I have my system and it works well. However, I am eager to pillage these books for ideas that can tweak my system and make it better. (Consider: Essentialism by Greg Mckeown or Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott)

Devotional. Devotional reading is reading deep truths meant to make a deep impact on your faith. This is slow and meditative reading that requires an open Bible and plenty of prayer. The Christian faith has many wonderful devotional works that are drawn from the Bible and will, in turn, draw you to the Bible. Read these ones day-by-day and allow them to lead you closer to God as he reveals himself through his Word. (Consider: The Reformed Expository Commentary series or Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon)

Skimming. In recent years we have heard a lot about the evils of skimming, and it is true that for many people skimming is now their dominant form of reading. This is not a good development. But having said that, skimming still has its place. Some books are worthy of little more than a skim, and especially if you have already read extensively in that category. If you have read six books on marriage, you probably don’t need to do more than skim the seventh. Most books will benefit from a skim before in-depth reading as it will both help you understand whether it is actually worthy of study and help you better understand the flow of the author’s argument. Do not making skimming your only form of reading, but also don’t feel guilty if you find yourself skimming twice as many books as you read in depth. The more books you read, the more you earn the right to skim.

Stretch. Stretch reading is going beyond the popularizers and reading the sources. Some of us find that we much prefer reading books by the people who write on a popular level and who make their topic eminently accessible. But sometimes we ought to force ourselves to read more difficult texts—the Church Fathers or Reformation-era writers, the historians or scientists. (Suggestions: The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards)

Rerun. Rerun reading is returning to an old favorite to read it again. This may be that old novel that you fell in love with so many years ago and returning to that novel is like journeying back to an old vacation spot. It may be that formative Christian living book that meant so much to you when you were first saved. Either way, your purpose in reading this book is almost entirely pleasure; you are not reading it to learn from it as much as for the plain enjoyment of finding comfort in its familiar words and phrases.

Failed. Failed reading is an important part of any balanced reading diet. I speak to far too many people who feel it is wrong to stop reading a book before they have finished it. But sometimes you just need to admit defeat and stop reading. The more books you read, and especially the more books you study, the more you earn the right to give up on a few of them.

Book image credit: Shutterstock

July 07, 2014

I didn’t see this one coming. After over ten years of daily blogging, I tend to have a pretty good sense of which articles have the potential to cause a reaction and which articles have the potential to fizzle. I might have guessed that an article on why my family doesn’t do sleepovers would have attracted a few more readers than usual, but I wouldn’t have believed that in its first week it would be read by nearly 750,000 people. But it was, and I found myself wondering why.

I’ve spent some time reading through comments and responses to try to understand why so many people were interested in reading about sleepovers. Here are a few personal takeaways from the discussion.

1. Validation

I was surprised to realize how many parents are concerned about sleepovers and how many do not allow them. I think one of the reasons the article spread is that it validated a lot of people who had assumed they were on their own. That “Me too!” factor was important as parents realized they are not the only ones who have made the decision not to allow their kids to participate in sleepovers. On a very practical note, the sleepover discussion is binary—either you do or do not allow them, and that allows everyone to take a side. Taking sides generates controversy and controversy generates shares and clicks. Takeaway: There are a surprising number of people who do not appreciate or allow sleepovers.

2. Controversy

I would like to think that when someone writes, “Why my family doesn’t do sleepovers” or “Why my family loves sleepovers,” we do not take it as a personal affront. Articles like these can represent a helpful opportunity to sharpen our thinking, even if we do not change our position. We are never better or stronger than our convictions and face the life-long challenge of continually deepening those convictions. While I did receive a lot of very helpful feedback from people who agreed and who disagreed with me, there was also an awful lot of anger and bickering. Christians too often do poorly with controversy, even on relatively minor discussions like this one. We are quick to feel judged and slow to extend grace and understanding. If we aren’t careful, “Why my family doesn’t do sleepvers” quickly morphs into, “Why you’re a terrible parent and will ruin your children if you allow sleepovers.” Takeaway: We need to grow in our ability to deal well with controversy.

3. Experience

Perhaps the strongest theme I saw in all the comments and responses was this: Our decisions are inseparable from our experiences. I made it clear in my article that my childhood experience with sleepovers was part of the reason I dislike them. Meanwhile, I heard from many other people who essentially said, “I will never allow sleepovers because I was sexually abused during one” or “Sleepovers are great and I never faced any uncomfortable situations during one.” We are all products of our experiences and we necessarily parent out of those experiences. Parents who had difficult or tragic experiences with sleepovers tend to approach them differently from those whose experiences were only ever good. Takeaway: We do well to learn from one another, rather than assuming our own experience is universal.

4. Fear

Every parent makes certain decisions based on fear—the fear of what may happen if they make a poor decision. Sometimes we deny our children privileges out of a desire to protect them. We rate the uncertainty of a situation higher than the benefit of the situation. One of our foremost fears is making a poor decision that exposes our children to sexual abuse. For many people sleepovers introduce too much of the unknown and in that way plays right into the fear that we will put our children at risk. Takeaway: Sleepovers have a way of exposing our fears, and we respond in many different ways.

July 01, 2014

It is one of C.S. Lewis’ most powerful and most enduring illustrations: An ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. It is a vivid illustration and one that is simple enough to see in the lives of other people—those people who settle for lesser pleasures when the greatest of all pleasures awaits. But I, at least, find it far more difficult to see in my own life. You may find it just as difficult.

It is worth asking: What is your mud pie?

Is it money? You will never have a bank account rich enough to satisfy you.

Is it food? You will never have a meal filling enough to satisfy you.

Is it pleasure? You will never have a sexual experience gratifying enough to satisfy you.

Is it popularity? You will never have enough friends to satisfy you.

Is it stuff? You will never accumulate enough possessions to satisfy you.

Is it pornography? You will never find a person naked enough to satisfy you.

Is it control? You will never have enough authority to satisfy you.

Is it leisure? You will never have enough rest to satisfy you.

Is it success? You will never achieve enough to satisfy you.

It is freedom? You will never be lawless enough to satisfy you.

And in the light of all those questions and the certainty of the answers, let’s go back to Lewis.

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

June 30, 2014

I don’t watch a lot of movies these days, largely because it’s rare that I can find something that promises to reward me more richly than spending the same amount of time in a good book. That said, I do enjoy the occasional miniseries when I can catch it on Netflix or iTunes; I guess I find it easier to part with forty minutes than two hours. Even with that limited exposure there’s something I have observed and something that has spelled the end of my interest in more than a few shows: Rape is in.

I remember reading an article a few years ago where an entertainment writer was asking, “What’s next?” She wrote about how television and movies had ramped up the sexual content on the screen, first by way of innuendo and then by way of explicit display. She suggested that the next frontier might just be sexual violence, and it seems that she was right.

Recent articles at a host of publications have pointed this out, providing a long list of contemporary shows that have made rape a significant plot point: Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Scandal, House of Cards, Mad Men, The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, Bates Motel—and many more besides (including a new show called Tyrant that has several rape scenes in the opening episode alone). Sometimes this rape is shown explicitly or psuedo-explicitly, while other times it is recounted as a past event. But either way, this much is clear: Television has never been crueler to women than it is right now.

I have very little experience with most of the shows listed above. I try to screen my shows as well as I can (IMDB’s Parents Guide feature is my friend) and not even get into ones that tiptoe along the edge of morality or, even worse, go barging right past it. I have an extreme aversion to sexual violence and am so deeply affected by it that I simply have to avoid it in television or movies. But as I read these articles about rape and today’s programming, it seems that rape fulfills various plot functions:

  • Sometimes rape is used to explain why a character is the way she is. In these cases the rape is usually in the past and the viewers learn about it as a means to better understand a central character. This is apparently the case in House of Cards and The Americans.
  • Sometimes rape is used as a means of character development. If a bad man needs to be made even worse, rape fulfills that purpose and is typically shown in some detail. This is apparently the case in Tyrant and Game of Thrones.
  • Sometimes rape is used simply as a plot device meant to introduce dramatic tension, such as when the sweet and flawless character of Downton Abbey’s Anna Bates was raped, leaving the viewer to question whether her marriage would survive and whether her husband would find out and take revenge.

However it functions and however it is presented, rape is suddenly common in television programming. And it concerns me. It especially concerns me especially because so many Christians watch and enjoy these shows.

The area of Christians and the arts is one I do not write about very often, at least in part because when I have done so in the past, there is always a person way smarter than me and way better read than me who replies with an extensive theology and philosophy of art and an explanation as to why Christians need to explore depraved themes to find the redemption beyond them. There is a part of me that understands that. The worst Christian art is the Christian art that denies the obvious—that we live in world marred by all manner of depravity. Sexual violence is a sad, sick, and far-too-common fact of life in a world like this one. But does that justify its prevalence in programming? Does that justify us watching it? Does it justify it as a common theme in our entertainment?

As a family we have been reading through 2 Samuel and have just had to grapple with the sickening story of Tamar’s rape by her own half-brother (see 2 Samuel 13). This is a story of rape that God saw fit to include in the Holy Bible—one of several biblical portrayals of sexual violence. But when I look at it closely, I see a world of difference between it and television programming.

The most significant difference is this: It is not meant to be entertaining. When we thumb the remote and turn on the television, or when we open a browser and type in “n-e-t-f-l-i-x”, we do so to be entertained. When we open the pages of the Bible we do so to be changed. Within the great drama of Scripture, Tamar’s story serves not to entertain, but to inform and reform. It is sin told sinlessly. It avoids being salacious and being explicit. It displays the far-reaching consequences of David’s sin, it highlights the sickening idolatry of mankind, it explains some of the battles that will soon come. Best of all, it calls the reader to cry out for a Savior, another Son of David, who can fully and finally put an end to such horrors. It is a far cry from rape as a shocking plot twist meant to generate buzz, rape as character development when all else has failed, rape as the explanation for vengeance.

Here is what I wonder, and here is what we ought to be asking ourselves: If Christians won’t allow explicit scenes of sexual violence to keep them from watching television shows, what will? If scenes of rape are not over the edge, what is? If we won’t draw the line there, will we draw it anywhere?

The Bestsellers
June 29, 2014

Here is another entry in a series I am calling “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez) and Paul Young (The Shack). Today we look at the only bestselling book written by a alumnus of John MacArthur’s college and seminary.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Crazy LoveFrancis Chan was born in San Francisco in 1967, the son of Chinese immigrants. After professing faith at a young age, he attended The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary, graduating with Bachelor of Arts and Master of Divinity degrees. In 1994, he and his wife Lisa founded Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California. Though the church began with only thirty people, it grew quickly and within six years numbered over 1,500.

In 2005 Chan released a video titled Just Stop and Think that quickly went viral while also setting him up for the release of his first book: Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Published in 2008, the book is a call for Christians to live an authentic faith, and it was marketed behind language like this: “Does something deep inside your heart long to break free from the status quo? Are you hungry for an authentic faith that addresses the problems of our world with tangible, even radical, solutions? God is calling you to a passionate love relationship with Himself. Because the answer to religious complacency isn’t working harder at a list of do’s and don’ts — it’s falling in love with God. And once you encounter His love, as Francis describes it, you will never be the same.”

Chan develops two substantial themes. The first is a painstaking self-examination to determine if the reader is truly saved. “A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.” The second theme is a radical obedience concerned more for future rewards than present comfort or prosperity. “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

What may sound cliché after nearly ten years and a host of imitators was fresh in its time. “This book is written for those who want more Jesus. It is for those who are bored with what American Christianity offers. It is for those who don’t want to plateau, who would rather die before their convictions do.” At the time Chan was writing, many Christian leaders seemed to be leading people away from the centrality of the local church. Chan, though, wished to express his love for the church and wanted to draw people back to it. In an interview after the book’s publication he said

As a pastor I hear a lot of emergent leaders talk about what is wrong with the church. It comes across as someone who doesn’t love the church. I’m a pastor first and foremost, and I’m trying to offer a solution or a model of what church should look like. I’m going back to scripture and seeing what the church was in its simplest form and trying to recreate that in my own church. I’m not coming up with anything new. I’m calling people to go back to the way it was. I’m not bashing the church. I’m loving it.

Crazy Love served as a call for young Christians to live obediently rather than safely. It was a message that resonated with an entire generation.

Sales & Lasting Impact

By 2009 Crazy Love had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded the Gold Book Award; the following year it crossed the 1 million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold more than 2 million copies. It is now clear that Crazy Love was responsible, at least in part, for kick-starting an entire theme in the Christian world—the theme of living radically, but doing so while being grounded in the gospel. Bestselling books like Radical and Jesus > Religion develop the same topics, though with different emphases.

Since the Award

In 2010 Chan announced to his congregation (which now numbered several thousand) that the Lord was leading him in a new direction, though he was not yet certain what it was. He explained that he was weary of being an Evangelical celebrity and that he was concerned that within his church he heard the words “Francis Chan” more often and with greater excitement than “Holy Spirit.” After his resignation he spent several months in Asia before relocating to San Francisco where he founded a church planting movement geared specifically to the city’s poor. He continues that work today.

Chan followed Crazy Love with Forgotten God, a book about the Holy Spirit, and then with Erasing Hell, a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In 2012 he teamed up with David Platt to write Multiply and to launch a discipleship movement. He has also written several books for children and travels extensively to speak at conferences and other events. While his influence crosses many demographics, his greatest popularity is among teens and young adults.

A Personal Perspective

My first exposure to Chan, at least to my recollection, was his “Just Stop and Think” video. I reviewed Crazy Love in 2008, shortly after its release, and expressed gratitude for it. Though I still think we need to focus on being ordinary Christians as much as we focus on being radical Christians, I understand how and why his book had such massive appeal, and especially among young people. While I have been a little bit concerned by some of the things Chan has said and done over the past few years, I appreciate his generosity (To my knowledge he has given away all or most of his book royalties which would now number in the millions of dollars) and his desire to escape the Evangelical celebrity culture.

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