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Tim Challies

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6 years 3 months ago
“This book deals with a question that no twenty-first-century Christian can afford to ignore: does God-given prophecy continue in today’s church, or doesn’t it? And, if it does, can those who announce such prophecies sometimes get things wrong?” So says Stuart Olyott in his Foreword to Prophecy Today. In this brief book, Jim Thompson lays out his argument against contemporary prophecy. He does so in three chapters, presenting a logical argument that is both simple to understand and easy to follow.

He begins by turning to the Old Testament and to the gospels, laying out the distinguishing characteristics of prophecy in Israel. He focuses on the messenger formula so prominent in this kind of prophecy in which the prophet makes it clear that he is speaking not his own words and not a mixture of God’s words and his own words, but words that are wholly and entirely God’s. “Thus says the Lord,” is the call for men to pause and to listen to the very words of God. He shows that this formula continued through the gospels and that even there men understood that prophets spoke entirely for God. Though there were many different kinds of prophets, many kinds of prophecy, many kinds of behavior among prophets, what remained the same was their insistence that they spoke infallibly for God.

In the second chapter, Thompson builds on this foundation as he turns to the New Testament, asking and answering two questions: Is there evidence in the New Testament church for a lower view of prophecy that would accept some margin for error?; and Is there evidence for continuity in the nature of prophecy between the Old and New Testaments? As the reader might expect, he looks to the New Testament and concludes that New Testament Christians understood prophecy in the same way as their Old Testament forebears. He argues directly against Wayne Grudem and his understanding of the nature of fallible prophecy where God communicates a message that men may muddy and then transmit with errors. He teaches that there is a clear continuity in the prophetic calling.

In the book’s final chapter, he looks to prophecy in our day, turning to several passages of Scripture and concluding that after the closing of the biblical canon, prophecy, being no longer necessary, ceased . All that God demands and expects that we know about Him is contained in the Scripture; any new form of special revelation serves to detract from the Bible. Here Thompson provides a long list of Christians from days past who have agreed that the age of prophecy has passed and that we should no longer expect this kind of fresh revelation; here he looks at and responds to arguments held as proof that prophecy continues today.

Prophecy Today is a short book and one that is effective, at least in part, for just that reason. Though it deals with a difficult issue, it does so with grace and in a way that anyone can enjoy. Thompson lays out the cessationist argument, at least as it pertains to prophecy, and does so with skill. Those wrestling with the issue and those seeking to understand the contrary view will find this a valuable little book.

6 years 3 months ago

Jake Colsen is the author of So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore. Jake Colsen does not exist. Rather, he is a pseudonym for the combined work of Dave Coleman and Wayne Jacobsen. You may recognize Wayne Jacobsen as one of the founders of Windblown Media, the company that published a little book called The Shack—a little book that has gone on to sell well over a million copies. As The Shack has found international renown, it has pulled in its wake Windblown Media’s two other titles, both of which are written or co-written by Jacobsen. At the moment I write this review, So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore is ranked #259 in Books at Amazon and #4 in Religious & Spirituality Fiction (placing behind three editions of The Shack). Its success is very clearly related to that of The Shack (where it has an advertisement on the back page).

While So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore must be evaluated on its own merits, comparisons to The Shack are inevitable. Both are works of fiction but fiction designed to teach theology; both involve an ignorant Christian who meets a wiser person who explains to him the truth about Christianity (in The Shack this person is God while in this book it is a man named John); both books focus primarily on dialog and are in no way Ted Dekker-like thrillers where the theology is veiled in the story; both are successes for their publisher and, in their own way, most unlikely successes.

So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore is a story about a man named Jake (the book is meant to be fictitiously autobiographical where the author, Jake Colsen, writes about his own experiences). Jake is an associate pastor at a fast-growing mega-church. In the book’s early pages he encounters a man named John whom he comes to believe may just be the Apostle John (though this question is never actually resolved). While he does not have much of an opportunity to interact with John at first, he hears words which set his heart and mind reeling. He realizes quickly that his Christian faith is almost hopelessly rote and anemic. “Although I had been a Christian for more than two decades, I had no concept of who Jesus was as a person and no idea how I could change that.” This book covers a span of months or years which sees him grow from a pastor of immature faith to a man of wisdom and mature faith.

The book is framed around continued encounters with this character John. In fact, almost every chapter begins with Jake thinking or worrying about a particular issue, only to have John quickly and mysteriously materialize. John helps Jake overcome his fears and his questions and then disappears to leave him to think about and to implement the things he now knows.

The predominant theme of the book is issues surrounding the local church (and because I would like to keep this review reasonably short, I will deal only with this issue in the review). The overall teaching is that the church as most Christians understand it is a human institution and one designed primarily to gain and to protect power. The Bible, according to the authors, does not teach that Christians should be part of any kind of institutional church. This is not to say that we should leave mega-churches to join smaller house churches; rather, we should abandon this kind of church model altogether. While the authors do not clearly or precisely share what Christians should or can do in its place, it seems that it would look something like this: “Instead of trying to build a house church, learn to love one another and share one another’s journey. Who is he asking you to walk alongside right now and how can you encourage them? I love it when brothers and sisters choose to be intentional in sharing God’s life together in a particular season. So, yes, experiment with community together. You’ll learn a lot. Just avoid the desire to make it contrived, exclusive, or permanent. Relationships don’t work that way.” The book’s appendix is a pamphlet written by Jacobsen which addresses his view of church life. Here he says, “Fellowship happens where people share the journey of knowing Jesus together. It consists of open, honest sharing, genuine concern about one another’s spiritual well being and encouragement for people to follow Jesus however he leads them.” By the book’s closing pages, Jake has left the church and now meets irregularly with an irregular group of people from his community. This is presented as being a form of authentic spirituality that is closer to the biblical model than that which is practiced by the vast majority of Christians today. It is the better alternative to church as most Christians know and experience it.

Of course I would be drawn to this model, too, if my church was anything like the one Jake comes from. His congregation is much like a drunken fraternity. The pastor is an angry man who holds tightly to his power, who expects people to lie to protect his reputation and who is having an abusive affair with a vulnerable congregation member. The members of the church are petty and divisive, heartlessly shunning those who disagree with them, demanding immediate restitution for any perceived wrong, persecuting children who do not properly memorize their verses, and fighting for positions of prominence within the local church. Overall, the authors give an exceedingly negative portrayal of the local church. It is a portrayal that includes all the stereotypes so treasured by those who hate Christianity. The church members are hopelessly ignorant, able to recite chapter and verse but knowing nothing of the “heart” of Scripture. Hence even two lifelong pastors react with apparent shock when they learn that “church” in the Bible primarily refers not to an institution but to a people (as if no Protestant has ever bothered to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church). Against this brutal portrayal of Christian community, the authors present their alternative. And needless to say, it looks awfully good in comparison.

But what if Jacobsen, instead of fabricating a ridiculous parody of a church, had looked to the New Testament church? While So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore is theological fiction, the reader may well note that there is little reference to the Bible. Because it is fiction we might not expect to see direct references to particular passages (and, indeed, we do not) but there is little by way even of indirect references. John assumes a certain knowledge of Jesus and common sense spirituality and uses this as his bridge to the hearts and minds of the reader. Rather than saying, “The Bible says this…” he tends to say, “This is what the church is like… Doesn’t my version look better?” And of course, with such a dysfunctional church in mind, it really does look better. He looks to the New Testament church on occasion, but is awfully selective, taking only those elements that further his case. He eschews any kind of church hierarchy or office (such as elder and deacon) and in its place leaves only peer-to-peer relationships. If it is in any way formal or organized, it is wrong, it would seem.

Though Jacobsen does occasionally affirm that institutional churches may do some good, the theme of the book comes through loud and clear. In the appendix Jacobsen says, without any apparent trace of hyperbole, “I can tell you absolutely that my worst days outside organized religion are still better than my best days inside it.” And from cover-to-cover, the book is heartlessly negative towards the local church. Christians should, and perhaps even must, withdraw. But the case is made through emotion and through false comparison. Those who hold closely to Scripture may affirm some of what Jacobsen teaches in this book, but they must reject its overall message.


Here are a few interesting quotes from the book:

“Most of what we call ‘church’ today are nothing more than well-planned performances with little actual connection between believers. Believers are encouraged toward a growing dependency on the system or its leadership rather than on Jesus himself. We spend more energy conforming behavior to what the institution needs rather than helping people be transformed at the foot of the cross!”

“Jesus indicated that whenever two or three people get together focused on him, they would experience the vitality of church life.”

“My favorite expression of body life is where a local group of people chooses to walk together for a bit of the journey by cultivating close friendships and learning how to listen to God together.”

“By providing services to keep people coming, [an institution] unwittingly becomes a distraction to real spiritual life. It offers an illusion of spirituality in highly orchestrated experiences, but it cannot show people how to live each day in him through the real struggles of life.”

“The more organization you bring to church life, the less life it will contain.”

“As long as we see church life as a meeting we’ll miss its reality and its depth. If the truth were told, the Scriptures tell us very little about how the early church met. It tells us volumes about how they shared life together. They didn’t see the church as a meeting or an institution, but as a family living under Father.”

“Any human system will eventually dehumanize the very people it seeks to serve and those it dehumanizes the most are those who think they lead it.”

“[God’s wrath at the cross] wasn’t an expression of the punishment sin deserves; it was the antidote for sin and shame.”

“Religious systems prey on people’s insecurity. They haven’t learned how to live in Father’s love, to follow his voice and depend on him.”

6 years 5 months ago

There are many books available today that address the needs, the responsibilities and the health of the local church. While The Purpose Driven Church is probably the best-known of these, there are plenty of others as well, many of which were written in the aftermath of that book’s unparalleled success. To this point the books have been largely focused at pastors and church leaders.

Where many books have been written describing a healthy church (among the most useful of which are Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church), I cannot think of any that describe the state of a healthy church member. But that has changed with Thabiti Anyabwile’s new book What is a Healthy Church Member? In this small 120-page book, Anyabwile one-ups Mark Dever’s nine marks of a healthy church by providing ten marks of a healthy church member. The goals for this volume are made plain early-on. “This little book is written,” he says in the Introduction, “in the hope that you might discover or rediscover what it means to be a healthy member of a local church, and what it means to contribute to the overall health of the church. … While Nine Marks of a Healthy Church primarily addressed pastors in the task of church reform, this book seeks to address the people that pastors lead and to encourage those people to play their part in helping the local church to increasingly reflect the glory of God.”

Here are the ten marks Anyabwile focuses on:

  1. A healthy church member is an expositional listener
  2. A healthy church member is a biblical theologian
  3. A healthy church member is gospel Saturated
  4. A healthy church member is genuinely converted
  5. A healthy church member is a biblical evangelist
  6. A healthy church member is a committed member
  7. A healthy church member seeks discipline
  8. A healthy church member is a growing disciple
  9. A healthy church member is a humble follower
  10. A healthy church member is a prayer warrior

Each of these ten marks receives a chapter-length treatment that concludes with questions for reflection and application. I do not think Anyabwile will be offended to read that I found little that is truly original in this book. There is little that has not been said elsewhere—Anyabwile offers nothing shockingly novel or original. Instead he turns to the basic requirements and responsibilities of those who seek to honor God through their commitment to the local church. He writes clearly and winsomely about these ten marks, encouraging Christians to be committed and to remain committed to their local churches. He gives them a list of marks, a list of characteristics, that they can use to gauge their effectiveness in serving Christ through His church.

While the book is valuable to individual readers, it is also ideally suited for small group study. In my church we often read books together and I am sure this is the kind of book the leadership is likely to consider for future study.

What Is A Healthy Church Member? is a valuable little volume and one I commend to you. Those who read it are sure to benefit from it.

6 years 5 months ago
In his rather unique ministry, Mark Driscoll has come across some rather unique challenges. Among these challenges has been finding a way of addressing some of the fundamentals of the Christian faith with a fast-growing church body comprised primarily of men and women who have no Christian background whatsoever. Because Driscoll found that he would not able to meet with each of these people one-by-one, he began to write booklets which were subsequently distributed by the thousands. Crossway happened upon these books and entered into a publishing agreement to print and distribute this series they’ve called “A Book You Will Actually Read.” The booklets are part of the literature ministry of Resurgence, called Re:lit (which, in turn, is a ministry of Mars Hill Church).

The “A Book You Will Actually Read” series is a growing collection of short books (under 100 pages) written by Mark Driscoll and addressing various foundational aspects of Christian theology. These are books that you will actually read and books that you can read in just about an hour. “The hope is that the big truths packed into these little books will make them different from the many other books that you would never pick up or would pick up only to quickly put down forever because they are simply too wordy and don’t get to the point.” They are meant to be a quick infusion of theology that invites the reader to investigate further. The first four titles available are On Who Is God?, On the Old Testament, On the New Testament and On Church Leadership.

On Who Is God?

This volume is divided into five sections: Knowledge about God (how we can know God exists), Perspectives about God (how different people relate to God), Nature of God (the attributes and names of God), Incarnation of God (prophecies of God’s incarnation and their fulfillment in Christ) and Worship of God (how we are to worship God). A lengthy appendix offers a list of books appropriate for further study. Driscoll says “This modest book is an attempt to briefly and simply explain who God is through the lens of both philosophy and theology. Certainly this book could be an entire library of books explaining in great detail the person and work of God, and this is therefore not intended to be exhaustive, but rather introductory in nature.”

On the Old Testament

On the Old Testament seeks to provide an overview and basic understanding of the Old Testament scriptures. The first section of the book answers nine common questions about this portion of the Bible (e.g. Who Wrote the Old Testament? What Is the Central Message of the Old Testament? Why Are There Different Bible Translations?) while the second section offers advice on how to read each of the literary genres. Driscoll explains this book’s genesis as being his own growing understanding of the Old Testament in the months immediately following his own conversion to the Christian faith.

On the New Testament

On the New Testament mimics the pattern established in On the Old Testament. Once again the first section of the book answers nine common questions about form, format and theology of the New Testament (e.g. Can Books of the New Testament Be Written Today? How Were the New Testament Books Chosen as Scripture? What Principles Can Help Me Interpret the New Testament?) while the second section offers advice on how to read each of the literary genres. Driscoll says, “My intent in writing this book is to be of service to you as a pastor. I have had to read a great number of books and spend thousands of hours in study since my conversion in order to arrive at the conclusions that I’m sharing with you. I wish someone would have given me this book as a non-Christian or new Christian because it would have been quite helpful to me. I pray that you will find it helpful as well.”

On Church Leadership

Whatever the agenda of Driscoll’s critics, they always seem to raise the issue of his complementarian understanding of church leadership. In On Church Leadership he outlines his understanding as clearly and thorough as he has ever done. He does so in six brief chapters entitled Pastor Jesus, Elders, Women in Ministry, Deacons, Members, Leadership Teams. Driscoll explains that he wrote this book to address the fact that so few of the people converted through the ministry of Mars Hill Church had any real understanding of leadership and gender roles within the church. “To help our people understand how we are governed, I wrote a booklet that we published internally to answer their questions.”

The books live up to the claim that they can be read in just about an hour. In fact, I read all four of them in a single five hour flight with time left over to read the airline magazine I found in the seat pocket ahead of me. In general I found them valuable reading. They are, by design, only a basic overview of the topics, but they still manage to cover those topics well. In most cases I found the appendices nearly as valuable as the books themselves. This is especially true for On the Old Testament and On the New Testament where the appendices (which are nearly the same) contain a great deal of excellent information on improving Bible study and building a study library. There is much wisdom to be gleaned. If there is a weak spot in the series, I would have to point to On Church Leadership which I felt did not deal as well with the subject matter as did the other volumes.

Two things should be noted. First, there is a fair bit of overlap in the books and several times the reader will find sections that have been copied and pasted from one to the next. But since the books are not necessarily meant to be read in sequence, this is more a note than a critique. Second, the reader will want to bear in mind that these books were written by a pastor specifically to his own congregation. Hence, while the theology is generally sound, the teaching and the format may not be transferable in all cases. The books may well be appropriate for placement in church libraries and elsewhere, but it would be wise for pastors and leaders to read the books carefully to ensure that they are suitable for that specific congregation.

Writing about these books Bruce Ware says, “Mark has a gift of taking weighty ideas and expressing them in clear and lively language” while D.A. Carson says the books are, “serious, informed, reverent, but not technical discussions of great themes.” I agree with both of these men. These books are uniquely valuable in their lively and relevant discussions of important theological themes. I look forward to further entries in the “A Book You Will Actually Read” series.

You can purchase them, of course, at Amazon.

6 years 8 months ago
My interest in reading good books came a little bit too late to read David Wells’ four part series of books as they were released (No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue and Above All Earthly Pow’rs). I now have the four volumes sitting on my bookshelf and have often thumbed through them wishing I could muster up the motivation to dive into the series. The problem is that I am intimidated as I look at them and consider that each of them weighs in at several hundred pages. I know that twelve hundred or more pages of dense content would prove quite the challenge to me and to my too-short attention span.

This is the very reason Wells chose to write The Courage To Be Protestant. This is not a fifth entry in the series as much as it is, or as much as it began at least, as a summary of them. “Once this work got under way,” Wells writes, “I found myself not so much compressing as recasting all that I had done and then updating it. The result is that this book is less a summary and more an attempt at getting at the essence of the project that has engaged me over the last fifteen years. And, hopefully, it will be more accessible than the previous books, not to mention less taxing on readers!”

Wells gets straight to the point. “It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant…To live by the truths of historic Protestantism, however, is an entirely different matter. That takes courage in today’s context.” The truths that Protestants have lived and died by have somehow become no more welcome within a Protestant context than in the outside culture. Those who would seek to live by the distinctives of the theology of the Bible must have courage to stand not only against the world but against much of the church.

In an opening chapter Wells describes the lay of the Evangelical land and here he refers to three distinct constituencies into which Protestantism seems to be dividing in our day. These constituencies, though, are not drawn around issues of theology as they may have been in days past. “When all is said and done today, many evangelicals are indifferent to doctrine.” What rearranges the evangelical territory in our day is the culture around us and our engagement with it. This is not a serious engagement with culture, but instead a pragmatic catering to it. “This quest for success, which passes under the language of ‘relevance,’ is what is partitioning the evangelical world into its three segments.” The partitions Wells refers to are classic evangelicalism, marketers and emergents.

Having described how marketers and emergents arose out of classical evangelicalism, he provides a chapter called “Christianity for Sale” in which he shows how in recent decades churches became convinced that they must change their way of doing business or face inevitable extinction. This “church as business” model transformed the way churches perceived themselves and led to the raising of methodology over theology. “What began as a simple recognition by church marketers that parking should be convenient, signs evident, and bathrooms clean has somehow begun a migration.” The migration eventually led to the transformation of not only the traditional church but also the traditional theology it lives by. The church began to look at the unchurched men and women around them as customers and those customers soon became their theology. The Bible fell out of favor as pragmatism took over.

The bulk of the book looks to the five predominant themes arising from Wells’ previous four books. The themes are truth, God, self, Christ and church. Each one is treated in a substantial chapter. Time would fail me to describe each of these chapters. Suffice it to say that this book is much like watching Sportscenter or another sports highlights show. It is a highlight reel of the previous books. Where during the course of a typical ballgame you can expect there will be stretches where you will witness little of great importance, during the highlight shows you need to pay attention as you’ll see only the most important moments. This book is similar. Every page is important and every chapter is packed with fascinating content. Rare is the page in my copy of the book that is not stained with substantial amounts of highlighter.

The Courage To Be Protestant marks the end of Wells’ magnum opus—the work to which he has dedicated himself for almost two decades. It is an utterly brilliant book and one that I feel is a recommended read, and maybe even a must read, for any Protestant. Wells kept me glued to his text for page after page as he challenged me, as one who seeks to be a classical evangelical and who seeks to hold faithfully to the theology of Scripture, to display the courage it takes to be Protestant in the church today.

6 years 9 months ago
“What is this emerging church I keep hearing about?” If I had a dime for every time I have been asked that question or one like it, well, I’d be several dollars richer at least. Emerging is one of the buzzwords in the church these days and one that begs for greater explanation. Unfortunately it is not an easy term to define. To borrow a tired cliche, defining the emerging church is much like trying to nail Jello to the wall. It’s a near-impossible task, but one Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck attempt with great success in their new book Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be). These are two young men who, if we were to look to demographics, would be top candidates for involvement in the emerging movement. Yet they’ve turned away from it, opting instead to commit to ministry and service within more traditional churches. In this book they explain why and in so doing explain what the emerging church is about and warn of the danger it poses.

In an editorial decision that turns out to be quite successful, DeYoung and Kluck alternate chapters throughout the book (though you’ll want to watch for an exception at the very end where Kluck writes two consecutively). DeYoung’s chapters are the more academic ones—they provide some in-depth interaction with the theology of the emerging church. Kluck’s chapters, on the other hand, are less formal and more reflective. They actually read, perhaps ironically, not unlike something Don Millar might have written.

Kluck typically begins his chapters by discussing a book he has been reading or an emergent speaker he has heard. He bridges to some of the shortcomings of the emergent movement and some of the ways it has proven unbiblical. He includes several poignant and profound descriptions of his church and the kind of classical Christianity that has fallen out of favor among emergents. Speaking of his search for a church he writes, “I was looking for a theology and a body that I could give my life to and entrust with my children. The reason I love Christianity and the Bible is that I think they are really the only things in this world that don’t need to be periodically ‘repainted’ or reframed.” Quoting a friend, Kluck writes, “My other main concern is [emergents] seem to have adopted the American demographic marketing model. I may be wrong, but I’m afraid that a movement that claims to care about justice, community, and inclusivity seems to just be tailor-made for white, suburban, affluent professionals in their twenties and thirties. That concerns me from a self-delusional standpoint.”

Meanwhile, DeYoung’s chapters are the real heart of the book. He covers a variety of topics of great theological importance including the Bible, Christian doctrine, the impact of modernism on theology, and the doctrines of Jesus Christ. He shows the danger inherent in the emergent unwillingness to take stands even on doctrines closest to the heart of the Christian faith. The claim that emerging theology is still in process is no excuse. “It’s one thing for a high school student to be in process with his theology. It’s another thing for adults to write books and speak around the world about their musing and misgivings. I agree there must be space for Christians to ask hard questions and explore the tensions of our faith, but I seriously question that this space should be hugely public where hundreds of thousands of men and women are eagerly awaiting the next book or blog or podcast arising from your faith journey. No matter what new label you put on it, once you start selling thousands of books, speaking all over the country and world, and being looked to for spiritual and ecclesiastical direction, you’re no longer just a conversation partner. You are a leader and a teacher. And this is serious business…” Neither can emerging leaders simply claim that they should not all be lumped together. “Call it a friendship, or a network, or a web of relationships, but when people endorse one another’s book and speak at the same conferences and write on the same blogs, there is something of a discernible movement afoot.”

Ultimately the authors conclude, as have many Christians, that “Emergent Christians need to catch Jesus’ broader vision for the church—His vision for a church that is intolerant of error, maintains moral boundaries, promotes doctrinal integrity, stands strong in times of trial, remains vibrant in times of prosperity, believes in certain judgment and certain reward, even as it engages the culture, reaches out, loves, and serves. We need a church that reflects the Master’s vision—one that is deeply theological, deeply ethical, deeply compassionate, and deeply doxological.” We serve a God who is knowable and who wants to be known. We do not need to establish doubt as the essence of faith, but can have confidence in what God teaches about Himself. We need to be Christians who are first deeply theological and who allow ethics and justice and compassion to grow outward from that theological base. This has been the great failing of much of the emergent church.

Why We’re Not Emergent is not a scholarly treatment of what is largely a popular-level movement. Instead this is an eminently accessible book and one that should have very wide appeal. It will introduce you to the key leaders and foundational books of the emerging movement. It will show you why this emergent movement is so deceptive and so dangerous. If have been searching for a book that will help you to understand the emerging church or if you have been seeking to answer a friend’s question “What is the emerging church?,” this is just the book you’ll want. I heartily recommend it.

 

6 years 9 months ago
“It would be a safe but sad bet that someone, somewhere in the world, is killing someone else at this very moment in the name of religion or ideology.” Thus begins The Case for Civility by Os Guinness. Every day the media brings us stories of death and mayhem and often religion and ideology are to blame. The bookshelves at your local bookstore are groaning under the weight of books by atheists—Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins—who blame religion for many of the world’s ills. But the record of nations that turned from religion have fared even worse. Guinness says, rightly I’m sure, that no question today is more urgent than this one: how do we live with our deepest differences—and especially our religious and ideological differences. This book is a proposal for restoring civility.

But it is deeper than that. It is a proposal for restoring civility first in America is a model for the rest of the world to follow. It is a call for the United States to take the lead in restoring civility. “The place at which we must begin to search for answers is the United States. Not because the problem is worse here than elsewhere—on the contrary—but because America has the best cultural resources, and therefore the greatest responsibility to point the way forward in answering the deepest questions.” America is uniquely equipped to take the lead and Guinness urges her on.

Much of the answer to whether or not we’ll learn to live with our deepest differences depends on rejecting two erroneous responses to the culture wars. First, we must say no to a “sacred public square”—a situation where one religion has a position of privilege or prominence that is denied to others. As he refutes the sacred public square, Guinness laments the state of the Religious Right and the damage it has done to faith in America. We must also say no to a “naked public square”—the situation where public life is left devoid of any religion. This is what is advocated by the new atheists. Both of these responses to the culture war are in contradiction to the Constitution.

The alternative to both is a “civil public square.” “The vision of a civil public square is one in which everyone—peoples of all faiths, whether religious or naturalistic—are equally free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faiths, as a matter of ‘free exercise’ and as dictated by their own reason and conscience; but always within the double framework, first of the Constitution, and second, of a freely and mutually agreed covenant, or common vision for the common good, of what each person understands to be just and free for everyone else, and therefore of the duties involved in living with the deep differences of others.” If we are to have a civil society, we must first have a civil public square.

Anticipating an objection that is sure to arise, Guinness makes sure the readers knows that he is not advocating some kind of false tolerance, the likes of which is too often advocated in our society. The tolerance he advocates is true tolerance—one that understands and affirms that there must be differences. It does not seek to eradicate differences, but instead seeks respect despite differences. It is important to understand that “the right to believe anything” does not mean “anything anyone believes is right.” Though we need to respect a person’s right to believe anything, there are times that we have a right and a duty to disagree with them.

Guinness concludes the book with a short list of challenges—places to begin in the quest to restore civility. These are things society must do, but things that must be spearheaded by individuals just like you. As an afterword Guinness includes the text of the Williamsburg Charter which he helped draft.

A particularly interesting thing about this book is that it is written by a man who, by virtue of his British birth, is excluded from being a leading part of the solution. He can write and propose, but not act. What he proposes, he proposes to American citizens. Meanwhile, I read and reviewed this book from a Canadian perspective. And I agree with much of what Guinness states here. America, it seems to me, is the nation best equipped to champion and to model the restoration of civility. Though not revered as she once was, America continues to be a nation that is looked to with respect and which has a global presence. She is a nation who has the constitutional foundation to model a truly civil public square. But the question remains: will she show the way forward?

6 years 9 months ago
I try not to make a habit of posting book reviews two days in a row, but in this case I felt this book was so special that I needed to bring your attention to it.

There are some Christians whose ministries God blesses in extraordinary ways. They preach to thousands and their books are read by millions. But this is the exception far more than the rule. Most Christians labor in relative obscurity, largely unseen and unnoticed. In the past couple of years I have read biographies of some truly great men—William Wilberforce, William Tyndale, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards. It is good to study the lives of great men and to seek to understand how they were able to gain such prominence. Biographies teach so much about character, opportunity and just plain hard work. Rarely, though, do we read biographies of ordinary men—men who gained no earthly fame and who lived their lives in the shadow of obscurity. In Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, theologian D.A. Carson shares the life of his father, Tom Carson. He was an ordinary man, an ordinary pastor, who labored in a unique mission field surprisingly close to home.

Tom Carson served the Lord in Quebec—the French-speaking province in Canada. He ministered there during an extraordinary time where the population transitioned from being among the most religious people on earth, held firmly by the grasp of the Roman Catholic Church, to a population almost entirely secular. He labored there faithfully, despite adversity and despite both pain and failure.

Part of the appeal of this book is its sheer “ordinary-ness” (I couldn’t find just the right word so decided to coin one). I may have to admit a measure of bias toward the book as the area in which Carson labored is Les Cantons de l’Est or the Eastern Townships. This is the region of Quebec where my mother grew up and it is not far from Montreal where my father was born and raised. The story takes place in a familiar setting, something I’ve never before experienced in reading a biography. Yet there was also comfort in the ordinary nature of Tom Carson himself. He was not extraordinarily gifted—not the kind of man who typically merits a biography. Instead, he was a very ordinary person, one who labored long and who labored faithfully. The power of this biography is not in the great accomplishments of its subject but instead in his faithfulness and his enduring love for the Lord.

The book closes with some beautiful and memorable words that aptly summarize his life and ministry.

Tom Carson never rose very far in denominational structures, but hundreds of people … testify how much he loved them. He never wrote a book, but he loved the Book. He was never wealthy or powerful, but he kept growing as a Christian: yesterday’s grace was never enough. He was not a far-sighted visionary, but he looked forward to eternity. He was not a gifted administrator, but there is no text that says “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you are good administrators.” His journals have many, many entries bathed in tears of contrition, but his children and grandchildren remember his laughter. Only rarely did he break through his pattern of reserve and speak deeply and intimately with his children, but he modeled Christian virtues to them. He much preferred to avoid controversy than to stir things up, but his own commitments to historic confessionalism were unyielding, and in ethics he was a man of principle. His own ecclesiastical circles were rather small and narrow, but his reading was correspondingly large and expansive. He was not very good at putting people down, except on his prayer lists.

When he died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on the television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one by his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he had stopped breathing and would never need it again.

But on the other side, all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne-room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man—he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor—but because he was a forgiven man. And he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.”

Oh, that each ordinary pastor and each ordinary Christian may be so faithful and enter into that same reward. I can only hope that many young pastors will commit to reading this book. But it is not just they who can benefit. Any Christian will appreciate reading about this ordinary man who somehow seems so much like you and me. Though it is good to read about Calvin and Edwards and Whitefield, men who had extraordinary ministries and who continue to exert a worldwide impact through their writing and preaching and evangelistic efforts, it is good to see as well how God has more commonly used ordinary men to do His work. Tom Carson was an ordinary pastor, a man who struggled with depression and who saw his ministry bear visible little fruit, but he was a man who remained faithful and who served the Lord with all his heart. More aware of his faults than his strengths and more prone to humility than pride, there is much we can learn from this man.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is a book I enjoyed reading from the first word to the last. It strengthened me, challenged me, moved me (to tears, even!) and ministered to me. This book is a gift to the church and I hope that you will read it too. You’ll be glad you did.

The book is currently available for pre-order but it is already printed and ready to go. It should ship in the next day or two. Order one for yourself and one for your pastor!

If you’re a Westminster Books shopper, you can get it here. Amazon shoppers can click below:

7 years 3 months ago

Worship in the Light of Eternity

Any time I set out to write a review of a book by R.C. Sproul I feel compelled to begin by lauding his accomplishments. But surely I can dispense with that formality this time. I am confident most of my readers know of Sproul and have benefited from his ministry and from his almost unparalleled teaching ability. We talk these days about a Reformed revival and about “Young, Restless, Reformed.” No discussion on the modern revival of Reformed theology can ignore the role of Dr. Sproul. While perhaps less visible in ministry than in days past, he continues to be profoundly influential.

Though he has written more than 60 books for a variety of publishing companies, A Taste of Heaven is Sproul’s first for Reformation Trust, Ligonier Ministries’ own publishing imprint. Subtitled “Worship in the Light of Eternity,” this book “examines the key components of prayer, praise, and sacrifices that God gave to His people in the Old Testament.” It turns to the Old Testament to find there principles that can direct our worship even in this New Testament era. Of course Sproul is insistent that we cannot simply import Old Testament worship into the church today or we might be guilty of missing the shadow for the reality, the elements that pointed forward to Christ rather than Christ Himself. Yet in the Old Testament we find God’s clearest teaching on how we are to worship Him and what kind of worship pleases Him. To simply reject these words out-of-hand would be to leave ourselves impoverished.

Dr. Sproul ranges through a variety of topics, from sacrifices to prayer, symbolism to baptism. One of the most interesting (and probably most controversial) subjects deals with using all five senses in our corporate worship. Old Testament worship was, after all, much more multi-sensory than we are accustomed to as Protestants. Jewish believers of old would experience sites, sounds, tastes and scents that are foreign to us today. Sproul suggests that perhaps the Protestant rejection of elements such as incense is little more than an over-reaction to Roman Catholic worship and something we may do well to recover. The rest of his suggestions are perhaps a little bit less surprising to a Protestant reader, but no less challenging.

My only complaint (if we can even call it that) is that the book seems to end rather abruptly. One moment Sproul is discussing the use of incense in worship (a practice he feels we can not ignore based on his studies of Scripture) and the next moment the book is done. A brief two-paragraph Epilogue provides a very short summary of the book’s major point, but doesn’t quite wrap things up. It seemed to me rather a strange way of end a good little book.

A Taste of Heaven was an enjoyable read and one I’m glad to recommend to others. I’m not sure that any one Christian will agree with all that Sproul teaches or suggests, but I do know that the book will cause every reader to pause and consider. If Sproul can cause the reader to worship with just a bit more of a sense of the eternal nature of worship, I’m sure he’ll consider the book a success.

7 years 5 months ago
I found Letter to a Christian Nation a difficult book to read. It is, after all, a book whose purpose is to criticize one of the things I hold most dear—the church of Jesus Christ. While certainly deliberate and measured as these things go, it is still something of a rant against religion in general, Christianity in particular, and, at its narrowest focus, those who call themselves by the name of Christ (and hence, the one they call themselves after).

With the publication of The End of Faith in 2004 Sam Harris became one of the more prominent American atheists and he is often grouped together with his British counterparts Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Though no less militant than these Brits, he has a measure of American charm that makes him appear a little less hostile and perhaps a little more credible. Not too many people, having seen Hitchens or Dawkins in action, would like to sit down and converse with them. Harris, though, is more affable; more personable. He is also a capable writer and a clear communicator. And where the latest volumes from the other men have been criticized for long-windedness, Harris’ book is a mere 91 pages. The book is original and interesting more for its format than for its arguments. In terms of content, it offers little that is new in the genre. It is the same arguments Christians have faced and refuted time and time again.

The book is really a letter. This letter is a response to arguments Christians use to defend their beliefs and an attempt to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” It’s a letter to a Christian nation calling it to secularize, to wake up and understand the danger posted by Christianity and other religions.. Religion, it seems, is the enemy of reason. Reason is, of course, the hope of humanity. But Harris’ disgust towards Christianity seems not to allow him to maintain his focus. This letter to a nation is really a letter to religious people who may or may not be Christian; certainly the “Christian” as Harris uses it would apply to the majority of the U.S. population whether or not they show the marks of a Christian as defined by the Bible.

And so Harris moves quickly but deliberately from point to point, touching briefly on many of the common arguments used against Christianity and against religion. It is one of thousands of religions each of which claims to hold the truth; the Bible is a grossly immoral and imperfect book; the Bible is unnecessary as a foundation to our morality; that people of all stripes to good deeds and more good deeds than Christians; that God, if He is real, would be horrifically unjust and powerless were He to allow or inflict all the suffering we see in the world; that religion is an opponent to science rather than being able to coexist with science; and so on. These are all arguments we have heard before (as recently as last year’s release of The God Who Wasn’t There it seems to me.). As I said, there is nothing really new in this book’s content. Its appeal and success owes, in my view, primarily to the author and his style combined with the utter accessibility of the volume. And, of course, atheism is a hot topic these days, perhaps particularly among young people.

Because this is simply a review, I will not take the time to answer Harris’ charges. Truthfully, because there are so many, it would take a similarly-sized volume to answer them successfully. And, in fact, Douglas Wilson has done just this in his newly-released Letter from a Christian Citizen, a book that will be reviewed right here in the very near future. For now, suffice it to say that Letter to a Christian Nation is valuable in providing a concise summary of the common arguments against Christianity. They are all here and are explained well. As mentioned at the outset, I did not find it easy to read simply because it cuts deep to have someone attack something (and Someone) I love so much. Yet I’m glad I took the time to read it. It leaves no doubt where Harris stands and where the points of conflict are between Christian and the modern atheist.

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