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Tim Challies

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culture

5 years 7 months ago
The internet is a minefield—there is no doubt about it. For every blessing it brings (and there are many) there seem to be innumerable dangers. For every relationship forged and strengthened, there is another damaged or destroyed. For every minute of time saved through some great technological advance, there are hours wasted in distraction and procrastination. For every good use, there are uncounted evil uses. Such is the fate of technology in the hands of sinful human beings.

We hear a lot today about identify theft and the loss of privacy it brings, but we hear far less about an associated problem—the loss of personal integrity. Daniel Lohrmann, who directs Michigan’s Office of Enterprise Security, is concerned about integrity theft. “As individuals, institutions, and a nation, we spend significant time battling identity theft online, but we neglect to fight other negative aspects of Internet life that I call ‘integrity theft.’ We need a new approach to virtual integrity.” The focus of his new book Virtual Integrity is on improving, not removing, virtual experiences. It is not about fleeing the internet, but about using it wisely and with integrity. It is about learning “to recognize and repel the many, many challenges to integrity faced by anyone who goes online.” The book seeks to introduce the challenges of cyberspace, to propose a way that Christians can use the internet while maintaining integrity, and to look forward to a hopeful, bright future of the internet.

After defining integrity theft, Lohrmann begins the heart of the book by looking to the filtering programs many people install on their computers—parental controls, passwords, accountability software. While he appreciates these programs for what they are, he shows how they inevitably fall short of perfection. A person cannot place his confidence in software that is so easily countered, so easily avoided. Such programs can provide a false sense of security. Technology is not enough and will never be enough to avoid the internet’s pitfalls.

A series of chapters look to specific online temptations: online deception, cheating and stealing, identity theft, issues related to business and career, and so on. After this survey, Lohrmann introduces his suggestion for those who would seek to use the internet wisely and with integrity—his “Seven Habits of Online Integrity.” The habits he advocates are: (1) refresh your values in cyberspace by comparing your online life with your offline life to see if the values you take online are the same you hold in real life; (2) pledge personal online integrity, simply creating and adhering to a pledge that you will maintain your values online; (3) seek trusted accountability to ensure that you will maintain your integrity; (4) apply helpful technology that will protect you and help steer you away from some of the internet’s seedy underbelly; (5) balance online and offline life to ensure that you are not being consumed by addiction to the internet; (6) practice humble authenticity through self-examination and by avoiding “virtual cliffs” in cyberspace; (7) become a cyber ambassador for good by extending Christian values and Christian character into cyberspace.

As Christians grapple with issues related to digital technology, they often tend towards one of two opposite camps—Luddites or technophiles—those who scorn all technology or those who recklessly embrace it. For all his best efforts to avoid the extremes, Lohrmann, undoubtedly because of his familiarity with internet technologies, leans perhaps just a little toward the latter. Near the book’s end he writes of the great value of a central repository of personal information which could be accessed by certain trusted companies such as Microsoft and Google. This database would have extensive information about each of us, and would be provided to certain corporations so they could help us as we seek to surf our values. The information we would voluntarily provide them would help them steer us toward content we would approve of while keeping us far from content that would tempt our integrity. Such advances are possible and perhaps even probable, but they reveal just a little bit of bias. We must very carefully weigh and balance giving away so much data about ourselves, even to “trustworthy” companies like Google.

Virtual Integrity deals well with issues related to internet technology. Lohrmann knows the internet and he knows both its challenges and its blessings. This book is a useful primer to those issues. It is perhaps not philosophical in the vein of Neil Postman, but is instead primarily practical. It would be well worth reading for any Christian who spends time on the Internet (which, by the very fact that you are reading this review includes you) and especially for parents who seek to protect their children as they explore the virtual world that exists before them.

 

5 years 8 months ago
I am an unabashed fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I enjoy his style of writing and admire his ability to not only dig up fascinating stories and statistics, but to weave them together into a cohesive whole. Blink and The Tipping Point were both excellent books that, even if not particularly deep, offered popular-level introductions into topics all of us experience but few of us think about. It is little wonder, really, that Gladwell’s books are perennial bestsellers. At the moment I write this review, all three of his titles are firmly fixed on the New York Times list of Bestsellers.

Gladwell’s third book, released just a couple of weeks ago, is Outliers: The Story of Success. Here he attempts to shed fresh light on success, asking why some people succeed while others never reach their potential. He takes the view that—our love of the “self made man” notwithstanding—success is rarely only a product of ability and motivation. Instead, he says, success comes to those who are “invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.” In other words, we are all products of hidden forces, advantages and disadvantages, culture, upbringing and even plain dumb luck. He points to “practical intelligence,” (known also as “emotional intelligence”) as a force that often separates two people who otherwise may appear equal in every way. And, of course, there is the value of hard work—just as your mother told you, practice really does make perfect. Pardon my laziness as I quote from a story at the New York Times. “Many people, I think, have an instinctual understanding of this idea (even if Gladwell, in the interest of setting his thesis against conventional wisdom, doesn’t say so). That’s why parents spend so much time worrying about what school their child attends. They don’t really believe the child is so infused with greatness that he or she can overcome a bad school, or even an average one. And yet when they look back years later on their child’s success — or their own — they tend toward explanations that focus on the individual. Devastatingly, if cheerfully, Gladwell exposes the flaws in these success stories we tell ourselves.”

In all of Gladwell’s books, I’ve been drawn to the stories and trivia he relies on to illustrate his points. I enjoyed these elements in Outliers as much as in his previous two titles. However, where I felt that in the other books the illustrations served to further his point, here I often felt that they actually were his point. If you are like me, you will enjoy reading about the great advantage hockey players have if they are born on the first few months of the year and will enjoy finding out why Korean pilots are historically the worst in the world (especially if, as I do, you have Korean friends to share this information with). But you may also find yourself a little bit disappointed that Gladwell never really comes to any great and grand conclusions. Neither does he offer any substantial answers to many of the questions raised by the book. Then again, maybe that is precisely the point. Maybe this is not a self-help book, trying to release us from the simple fact that success is more than motivation and ability. Perhaps it simply teaches us what is inevitable, what is just one of life’s realities—that we are more than our desires and more than our innate talents and abilities. There is always more to a success story than what comes immediately to the eye, but these factors are not easily reproduced, even if we can understand them.

Outliers struck me as being a bit more derived from other books than his previous titles. I am not convinced that there is a whole lot here that hasn’t already been said by others (though I’ll grant that these others did not write books that sold in the millions of copies). I guess this just proves Gladwell’s point, though. It is not always the most original or most talented or most motivated who see success. This is illustrated well in the review of Outliers printed in the New York Times. Gladwell, like anyone who has tasted success, is the product of all kinds of forces and factors that have combined to make him what he is. “It is not the brightest who succeed…nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

I greatly enjoyed Outliers and have no trouble recommending it alongside Gladwell’s other titles. It is good for us, I think, to examine success and to understand that things are not always as they seem on the surface. By digging a little deeper than the myth of the self-made man, we are better equipped to understand the forces that, combined together, lead some people to great success while leaving others in obscurity.

Outliers is a good, light read. I can’t imagine that it will change too many lives, but neither does it need to. It is a fun and harmless diversion that offers enough “A-ha!” moments to be worth reading, but not so many that it is difficult to plow through. I think it makes for perfect holiday reading.

 

5 years 8 months ago
Twilight is a phenomenon; or that is what I hear. I began to receive emails about it a short time ago and the requests for a review have increased as the release of the Twilight movie has approached. Strangely, I get more requests to review teenage fiction than any other genre. I usually reply with an apologetic email saying that I do not review such titles. But because of the popularity of this series I decided to make an exception. With great trepidation and with eyes fixed firmly on the floor, I went to a local store and purchased the whole series—four books. I read the first volume, which I will review today, and left it to Aileen (the fiction expert in our home) to read the rest of the series.

Admittedly, this is my first foray into fiction written for teen girls. Actually, it is one of my first ventures into teen literature at all. When I was young I read books for children, but largely skipped over teen fiction, opting instead to dive straight into the history books. So I admit to being largely ignorant when it comes to this kind of book.

I found Twilight surprisingly well-written, at least for the genre. This is not to say it will be supplanting Jane Austen in the university lecture hall, but merely that it is readable and reasonably good as fiction. The dialog, the characters, the pacing, the prose—all of it, at the very least, is good enough that it does not detract from the story. This is more than I can say for many novels.

The book begins with seventeen year-old Bella Swan moving from Phoenix, Arizona to Forks, Washington, so she can live with her father, Charlie. Her mother, meanwhile, is traveling with her boyfriend Phil, a minor league baseball player. A too-typical teenage girl, Bella is convinced she is an ugly duckling when in reality she is a swan (the inspiration for her last name, perhaps?). Where in Phoenix she had been a social outcast, in Forks she is immediately popular and she catches the eye of several boys.

I’ll continue this plot summary by (lazily) quoting from Wikipedia: “When Bella sits next to Edward Cullen in class on her first day of school, Edward seems utterly repulsed by her. He even attempts to change his schedule to avoid her, leaving Bella completely puzzled about his attitude towards her. After tricking a family friend, Jacob Black, into telling her the local tribal legends, Bella concludes that Edward and his family are vampires. Although she was inexplicably attracted to him even when she thought Edward drank human blood, she is much relieved to learn that the Cullens choose to abstain from drinking human blood, and drink animal blood instead. Edward reveals that he initially avoided Bella because the scent of her blood was so desirable. Over time, Edward and Bella fall in love.” Without spoiling the plot, the book concludes with some page-turning action involving a vampire tracker (which, for those who are as ignorant as myself, is a vampire who tracks humans, not a human who tracks vampires) who seeks to hunt Bella as a sick kind of sport.

I am sure that the subject matter will immediately convince some parents that the book is unsuitable for their girls. This was my initial reaction—why would I allow my daughter to read a book about vampires? But I know there are some, perhaps myself included, who may allow an older teenager to read it. It is primarily to assist such parents that I write this review.

The book is relatively clean. That is to say that there is little explicit violence and no overt sexual activity. However, I think this bears some further discussion. While there is no sexual activity portrayed in the book, it really does ooze with a kind of teen or tween sexuality. The book is, at its heart, the story of a young girl’s sexual awakening. It may be that the tween reader will be sufficiently young and innocent that this is lost on her, but I’m convinced the older teenage girl will find it in the story. The most explicit sexuality is found in a brief discussion between Edward and Bella where they talk about whether they desire one another in that way and whether Bella has ever been with another boy. Edward declares that he may be a vampire, but he is still a man. The quiet sensuality is far more pervasive and, I would suggest, far more powerful. There is scene after scene where Edward and Bella gently stroke one another, softly and slowly running their hands over each other’s bodies, exploring, pressing their heads against each other’s chests to hear their hearts pounding, feeling electric shocks as their fingers touch flesh, twisting and cavorting with their lips on one another’s faces and necks. Bella is inflamed by Edward and, while there may be no explicit mention of sexuality, it is clear that she desires Edward—all of Edward.

Edward, meanwhile, has a creepy kind of love for Bella. As a vampire he cannot sleep, so he spends his nights sneaking into Bella’s room to watch her sleep (as if this is sweet, not perverse) and often follows her unnoticed as she goes about her business. He reveals that her scent—the scent of her blood—drives him wild. His overwhelming love for her is sometimes nearly indistinguishable from revulsion or hatred. There is part of him that wishes to hold her, to make love to her, and another part that wants to attack her and to drink her blood. In one scene she has been bitten and Edward needs to suck some poison from her if he is to save her life. After he does so he discusses both her taste and her smell and how enchanting it is to him. Is this love or is this perverse obsession?

While the love between the two of them is meant to be real, it also has a strange, unearthly quality to it. It also has an obsessive, idolatrous quality. Perhaps this is true of any love story, but I wonder whether girls are well-served by reading of a young woman who is so utterly consumed with her boyfriend that she seeks and desires and thinks of nothing else. She lies, she disobeys her parents, she does whatever is necessary to be with him. She is convinced that in this boy she will find her all-in-all. All she desires—to the point of wanting him to drink her blood so she, too, can be a vampire—is to be with him forever. She would rather be undead eternally than live without him.

I just don’t know that young girls will derive any benefit from spending hours reading and thinking about such an unrealistic, unobtainable, perverse kind of love. It glories in love that is forbidden, dangerous and just plain weird. The fact that the story involves vampires may be beside the point. My primary concern with Twilight, as I consider handing it to a girl of thirteen or fifteen or seventeen, is its sensuous quality. The lack of overt sexuality means that it is not an erotic book, but it is very nearly so. It oozes sensuality even without an act of consummation.

It is not insignificant that on the cover of Twilight is the simple image of hands—female hands—holding out an apple. This clearly evokes the forbidden fruit of Genesis 2:17, verses that are quoted at the beginning of the book. This represents not only the forbidden love between a human and a vampire, but Edward himself as Bella considers partaking of him. My suggestion to parents would be to leave this book on the shelf instead of handing it to your teenage girl (and especially your young teenage girl). At the very least, read it yourself and see if your conscience is clear before you hand it to her.


Postscript: Aileen read this book and promptly read the other three volumes in the series. Her assessment of the sensuality and the violence in Twilight: “that’s nothing compared to the other three books.” It should be noted, however, that Edward and Bella marry in book four and that they do so as virgins.

5 years 8 months ago
I eventually gave in to the pressure. I had seen Three Cups of Tea on the shelves of airport bookstores, in the hands of friends and on countless bestseller lists. I thought it was only right that, if so many people were reading it, I should read it too. And so, while browsing through one of those airport bookstores and searching for some early-morning easy reading, I finally picked it up.

Three Cups of Tea tells stories from the life of adventurer, mountaineer and humanitarian Greg Mortenson. In 1993, Mortenson, having failed in an attempt to climb K2, wandered into a tiny village deep in the mountains of Pakistan. Embraced by the people of this village, and seeing that they had no school building for their children, he vowed to someday return and build a school. Being a man of his word, he did just this. The book details how he kept that promise and how he went on to build not just one, but fifty-five schools, in that area. It details the challenges he faced and how he overcame them. He is an amazing individual and one who somehow reminded me of Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) in his passion, intensity and drive. The book is part adventure, part biography. The story is so compelling, it is little wonder that it has generated so much interest.

While Greg Mortenson is credited as co-author of this book, it is quite clear that David Relin did the writing. Greg relayed stories of his life and Relin wove these together into a narrative. Unfortunately, some of what Relin wrote is so over-written, so melodramatic, that it is downright comedic. Try this for an example: “Mortenson strode across the room to the wastebasket. It was large, made of dull metal, and battered by the impurities of thousands of people unfortunate enough to have passed through this room. He held the bottle out above it, straight-armed, and then let go. The Baileys clanged against the metal can with a sound, to Mortenson’s ear, like a steel door clanging shut. He collapsed onto the bed.” I think a good editor might have shortened this to, “Mortenson threw out the bottle and went to bed.” Here is another squirm-worthy example: “After they’d traveled half a kilometer, he saw the firefight resume. The widely spaced streams of tracers leaped across the road like ellipses. But to Mortenson, who wouldn’t learn his friends had survived until the following week, when he returned to Kabul, they looked more like question marks.” That just has to rate on an all-time list (though I’ll grant it isn’t quite as terrible as last year’s winner of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest: “Gerald began — but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them ‘permanently’ meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash — to pee.”). Thankfully such examples are quite rare and the bulk of the book avoids over-dramatization.

The back cover of the book is correct when it says that this book testifies to a “humanitarian spirit.” While the Christian can be pleased to see these schools built and can rejoice to see children educated, he must be less pleased to see the concessions Mortenson made to the Muslim faith so prevalent in the area. While he does not claim any particular faith, Mortenson does seem drawn to faith in general, worshiping how he sees fit and when he sees fit. While the book is not exactly hagiographic, neither does it acknowledge God as the One who has ultimately preserved Mortoneson’s life and granted him the ability to do so much for the impoverished children of Pakistan. This oversight negates much of the power of the book, at least in my eyes.

Though Three Cups of Tea tells an interesting life story of a fascinating individual, the quality of writing and the humanistic spirit detract from what could have been a much better story. I guess I have to admit that I was rather disappointed by it.

5 years 8 months ago
Any book on worldliness faces a difficult challenge. The author who takes too firm a stand on issues may slip into legalism while the author who takes too lax a stand may slip into the worldliness he seeks to avoid. The discerning author will need to tread the line, being careful to say no more than Scripture does while still dealing effectively with issues of contemporary importance. Because such a book is long overdue I was pleased to see that Worldliness would be coming from C.J. Mahaney and those whom John Piper affectionately refers to as “his gang.”

Mahaney handles the introductions in this book, beginning with a reflection called “Is This Verse in Your Bible?” He biblically defines worldliness saying that this world we’re not supposed to love is “the organized system of human civilization that is actively hostile to God and alienated from God.” Worldliness is a love for this fallen world and, specifically, “to gratify and exalt oneself to the exclusion of God.” Mahaney is careful to point out that worldliness is not extrinsic to us but intrinsic, inhabiting our fallen hearts. Worldliness does not consist of outward actions (though such actions can certainly be evidence of worldliness) but instead is a heart attitude that rebels against God. The antidote to worldliness is the cross of Christ. “Only through the power of the cross of Christ can we successfully resist the seduction of the fallen world.” Worldliness dulls our affections for Christ and distracts our hearts from him. Hence it is so serious “because Christ is so glorious.” While resisting worldliness is the theme of the book, its aim is to exalt Christ.

Each of the subsequent chapters is meant to build on this foundation. In “God, My Heart, and Media,” Craig Cabaniss discusses issues related to the pervasiveness of media in our society. Cabaniss grounds the discussion in grace, saying “any discussion of biblical obedience, including entertainment guidelines, must spring from a robust understanding of grace.” He offers the fair warning that we must guard our hearts as the conscience is prone to become dull over time. As we relax our standards and as we engage in ungodly media habits, our hearts may slowly become dulled to the things of Christ. He warns against the temptation to see anyone with stricter standards as us as legalistic while seeing anyone with more lenient standards as worldly. He encourages us to view proactively, to view accountably and to view gratefully.

In “God, My Heart, and Music,” Bob Kauflin takes on the subject of music, beginning with the fact that music was God’s idea long before it crossed the mind of any human. He states that “listening to music without discernment and godly intent reveals a heart willing to flirt with the world.” Saying that music itself is amoral (there are no holy or unholy harmonies or melodies) he warns that music does convey three things: content, context and culture. The Christian will need to discern what is being communicated through the music he listens to in order to ensure that he is not, perhaps inadvertently, absorbing messages that would conflict with his Christian faith. Kauflin closes with some good thoughts on using music for the glory of God.

To this point I felt the book was excellent. Though in a work of this nature each of the chapters could be little more than a cursory introduction to what might have been a book-length project, I felt the authors did a great job of teaching, exhorting and illustrating while avoiding those perilous extremes of worldliness and legalism. Unfortunately I felt that Worldliness soon stalled out. And this is where the job of a book reviewer gets tough. What do you do when you have great respect for an author (or a group of authors) but just don’t like the book they’ve produced?

The fourth chapter, entitled “God, My Heart, and Stuff” was authored by Dave Harvey. While I haven’t ever met Dave (at least to my recollection) I have benefited from reading his book When Sinners Say ‘I Do’. From my experience in reading that book I had high hopes for his contribution to this one. I was disappointed. While he addressed the heart so well in his book on marriage, in this case I found little of real depth. The next chapter, from the pen of C.J. Mahaney is titled “God, My Heart, and Clothes” and discusses the issue of modesty. It had very little application to men beyond stating that this is an issue for pastors and fathers to consider. Ultimately he provided a lot of quotes and a few good thoughts on modesty and encouraged women to dress properly. Both of the book’s appendices carried on the theme, with “A Modesty Heart Check” and “Considering Modesty on Your Wedding Day.” But this was quite a superficial look at modesty and one that offered little that we haven’t heard C.J. and others say before. It did not take the issue of modesty to men (where modesty of heart and intention comes into play) but instead serves as just another encouragement to girls to check their neckline and test their hemline (see Josh Harris’ Sex is Not the Problem, Lust Is for a more thorough look at it). Jeff Purswell concludes with a chapter titled “How to Love the World” in which he reminds the reader “To impart biblical discernment in areas that increasingly escape the scrutiny of the evangelical world so intent on ‘relating to the culture.’” He offers a summary of redemptive history in the grid of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation and gives the reader a three-part charge: to enjoy the world, to engage the world and to evangelize the world. These last three chapters and the appendices were uniformly disappointing to me. Missing was the depth and intensity I’d expect from a book authored (or edited) by Mahaney.

Had I been hoping that this book might be another Humility or The Cross Centered Life, Worldliness would have been quite a disappointment. This is not to say the book is without value—there is a good bit of biblical wisdom to gain from it. But where it got off to a strong start, it quickly tapered out. In the end it just seemed a mite shallow—a work of far less depth and offering far less application than I’m accustomed to seeing from a book with Mahaney’s name on the cover. It came across as an uneven collection of essays of unequal value. I almost feel I should apologize when I say, it just isn’t that good of a book.

5 years 9 months ago
It is no small thing to take upon oneself the name Christian. Though it was first used as a form of derision when unbelievers mocked the “little Christs,” the name was embraced by the earliest believers. The term, even when used mockingly, nicely encapsulated what they sought to do, namely, to imitate their Lord and Savior. Sadly, in the centuries since then, the word has become far too ambiguous and now refers to any number of faiths that, in one way or another, honor or respect Christ or that have some historical connection to his teachings. Amazingly, some of those called by the name of Christ actually deny him—perhaps not his existence but at least his uniqueness and his divinity. In Christless Christianity Michael Horton argues that such denial of Christ may not be too far from home. More and more evangelical churches, he says, are now essentially Christless. “Aside from the packaging, there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs and self-help groups.” Many churches have tossed out Christ and continue on without him, sometimes not even realizing that he has been lost along the way.

This is not to say that American evangelicalism has already reached a point of no return or that every church has rejected Christ. “I am not arguing in this book that we have arrived at Christless Christianity,” says Horton, “but that we are well on our way. … My concern is that we are getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for ‘relevant’ quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshiped and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game plan for our victory rather than a Savior who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God’s judgment by God himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all that we can be.” Jesus has become supplemental instead of instrumental to the church. As the church has focused on “deeds, not creeds” she has become increasingly irrelevant and unfaithful. Church has become just another area in which Americans can live out the American dream. “In my view, we are living out our creed, but that creed is closer to the American Dream than it is to the Christian faith. The claim I am laying out in this book is that the most dominant form of Christianity today reflects ‘a zeal for God’ that is nevertheless without knowledge—particularly, as Paul himself specifies, the knowledge of God’s justification of the wicked by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works.”

Amazingly, it is not theological liberalism that has drawn the church away from her creed, away from her biblical foundation. Instead, it is a kind of unbearable lightness—a faith that eschews biblical theology in favor of whatever happens to be the flavor of the day. Says Horton, “My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous. … We come to church, it seems, less to be transformed by the Good News than to celebrate our own transformation and to receive fresh marching orders for transforming ourselves and our world. … Just as you don’t really need Jesus Christ in order to have T-shirts and coffee mugs, it is unclear to me why he is necessary for most of the things I hear a lot of pastors and Christians talking about in church these days.”

Horton offers a description of this brand of “Christianity” that pervades so much of the evangelical scene these days. Following sociologist Christian Smith, he calls it moralistic, therapeutic deism. It offers this kind of working theology: God created the world; God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions; The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to resolve a problem; Good people go to heaven when they die. Pause to consider much of the teaching you might find on your television on a Sunday morning and you’ll see how apt a description this is. Horton traces this through Finney, through modern day Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism and into the pulpits of Joel Osteen and other popular smooth talking preachers. He describes the kind of can-do spirit that allows such preachers to thrive. “When looking for ultimate answers, we turn within ourselves, trusting our own experience rather than looking outside ourselves to God’s external Word.” And here is where the Osteen’s of the world are so skilled—they simply reflect and direct human wisdom back at humans all the while pretending as if they gleaned this wisdom from the Word of God. He shows that such preachers, while appearing to perhaps teach a kind of freedom from the law, actually do the opposite, burdening people with a new kind of legalism. “One could easily come away from this type of message concluding that we are not saved by Christ’s objective work for us but by our subjective personal relationship with Jesus through a series of works that we perform to secure his favor and blessing. God has set up all of these laws, and now it’s up to us to follow them so we can be blessed.” This kind of Christianity makes God merely a means to an end rather than an end in and of himself.

In an insightful chapter discussing “how we turn good news into good advice,” Horton shows how Christians are prone to turn indicatives into imperatives. In other words, we take a statement of fact and turn it into an exhortation. This, too, drives people to a form of legalism in which they are ultimately responsible for their own salvation and sanctification, even without understanding or embracing the gospel message. “Across the board in contemporary American Christianity, that basic message seems to be some form of law (do this) without gospel (this is what has been done).” He deals well here with the constant exhortations in the church today to “be the gospel,” amazed at the hubris of such a statement. “[Unbelievers] may not like our message anyway, but at least they might be relieved that we have stopped holding ourselves up as the way, the truth, and the life. If the message the church proclaims makes sense without conversion, if it does not offend even lifelong believers from time to time so that they too need to die more to themselves and live more to Christ, then it is not the gospel.” St. Francis’ exhortation to “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words” has never offended a soul.

Final chapters look to “your own personal Jesus” and the resurgence of Gnosticism and to “delivering Christ,” examining the relationship between the message and the medium. Horton notes that men like Barna and so many others are advocating a wholesale abandonment of the institutional church. “Instead of churching the unchurched,” he laments, “we are well on our way to even unchurching the churched.” Here he speaks of the critical importance of the local church and says “the faithful ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline is the mission” of the church. “A genuinely evangelical church will be an evangelistic church: a place where the gospel is delivered through Word and sacrament and a people who witness to it in the world.” He calls for the church to narrow its commission from fixing all of the world’s ills to simply returning to the basics. “The church as people—scattered as salt and light through the week—has many different callings, but the church as place (gathered publicly by God’s summons each Lord’s Day) has one calling: to deliver (and receive) Christ through preaching and sacrament.” Of course Christians, the church as people, should pursue justice and peace, but this ought to be done through common grace institutions along side non-Christians rather than through the church as a place. The church needs to mind its own business and get its own house in order.

In the final chapter, Horton calls for resistance. “What is called for in these days, as in any other time, is a church that is a genuine covenantal community defined by the gospel rather than a service provider defined by laws of the market, political ideologies, ethnic distinctives, or other alternatives to the catholic community that the Father is creating by his Spirit in his Son. For this, we need nothing less than a new Christian where the only demographic that matters is in Christ.”

Through all of this I’d suggest the most important statement in the book may just be this: “It is not heresy as much as silliness that is killing us softly.” This is where the book may be most useful for the conservative Christians who are the audience most likely to read it. All of us can fall into silliness without tossing aside the gospel. We can hold fast to Christian theology, even while allowing silliness and levity to pervade the very fabric of our church. A once-serious institution can become overrun by programs and purposes that slowly erode the gravity and simplicity of the church’s unique calling. This book is a call for the church to return to its biblical foundations and to remain true to those convictions. It is a clarion call and one that Christians would do well to heed. Christless Christianity is an excellent and timely book and one I would not hesitate to recommend to any Christian.

 
 
5 years 11 months ago

Lessons from the Road - Third DayI still remember buying my first Third Day album. It was their self-titled debut album and I purchased a cassette copy of the original 9-song version released by Gray Dot Records. It was a bit rougher and, in my mind, a little bit better than the subsequent major-label re-release a year later. I loved the combination of Mac Powell’s voice with the southern rock and occasional bluesy melodies. I remained quite a fan of Third Day until Time or so. While I have since grown a little bit ambivalent about their music, I continue to respect them as a band and as individuals; I admire the fact that they have strayed true to their Christian roots despite finding a great deal of fame and popularity. They seem committed to serving God in the unique way He has gifted them.

As Third Day has traveled the world over the past fifteen years, they have often been accompanied by “road pastors” (probably not a church office you’ll find in the New Testament). One of these men, Nigel James, has just released Lessons from the Road, a book that gives insight into the band—“the excitement, the homesickness, the relentless schedule, the challenge to stay committed to God’s purpose while on the road.” Featuring contributions from the band members, the book gives an interesting inside look into the lives of the men of Third Day. James shares some of the devotionals he has taught to the band and reflects on his times spent with these men. The band members write about some of their songs, about their lives, and about their priorities. Overall, the book offers a very positive and intimate look at Third Day.

One thing that concerned me just a little bit as I read the book was an subtle, underlying assumption that pastoring a rock band is somehow a higher calling than pastoring a church. I doubt that either the band or the book’s author believe this, but James seems to regularly face people who consider him a kind of celebrity because of his role in the lives of the men of Third Day. I hope he would be the first to say that his primary calling in life and the one that excites him most is pastoring a local church. And I hope Christians understand the critical importance of the local church relative to rock bands and rock stars. I delighted to read how the band members are members of local churches and how they have renewed their commitment to these local bodies despite travel schedules that make such commitment difficult at times.

I suspect the reader’s enjoyment of this book will rise and fall in proportion to his enthusiasm for the band. Those who are fans of Third Day will no doubt consider this a must-read. Those who have little love for the band will find little to love in Lessons from the Road. And I guess I stand as proof that those who are somewhere between can still read it with enjoyment. I continue to enjoy Third Day’s music and ministry and, having read this book, understand why God has blessed them so they can do what they do. They are committed to His purposes and I pray for their continued success.

6 years 6 days ago
A.J. Jacobs, an editor at Esquire, must have a lot of time on his hands. Several years ago he decided to read Encyclopedia Brittanica from cover to cover, apparently in a quest to become the smartest person in the world (though a subsequent attempt to prove his knowledge on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” showed that he had a long way to go (he missed the $32,000 question). He documented his year-long journey through the Encyclopedia in a bestselling book titled The Know-It-All. In his second book, The Year of Living Biblically, he dedicates a year to attempting to follow every rule and law in the Bible. Like its predecessor, this book has sold very well, quickly making its way onto the lists of bestsellers.

Jacobs is Jewish by birth but grew up in a family that did not practice the faith, or not seriously at any rate. After the birth of his son, though, Jacobs began to wonder if teaching his son about religion would scar him or make him a better person. He set out on this quest to determine how religion could impact a life. To that end he decided to study the Bible and seek to understand its every rule. For the first eight months he focused exclusively on the Old Testament, looking through the Bible to find even the most obscure laws. He implemented as many of them as he could. And in the last four months of the year he turned to the New Testament. He simply overs a chronological records of his year, providing a journal entry every two or three days.

While the book claims that Jacobs lived “biblically,” the reader will soon note that he often relied in large part on Jewish extra-biblical interpretation of the Old Testament laws. Hence his practice of many of these rules was based not on a plain reading of the Bible but on age-old interpretations, many of which are almost unbelievably obscure and strangely mystical. We’ll have to use the word “biblically” quite loosely.

Jacobs is at his best in this book when seeking the heart of the biblical commandments, when rather than just blindly following the commands he is seeking the reason God gave them and attempting to obey not the letter but the spirit. He is at his worst when he is being deliberately Pharisaical, seeking to adhere to the letter rather than the spirit. Hence he finds himself in a park tossing tiny pebbles at adulterers so he can fulfill the law to stone those who commit adultery. Or maybe he is at his worst when he is searching out the most radically liberal Christians to teach him not what the Bible teaches but what he wants to hear. Thus he attends a Bible study for homosexuals where he is taught that the Bible does not forbid homosexuality but merely homosexual rape. This appeals to him as a self-professed liberal but veers far from the broad stream of Christian interpretation. There are several occasions where he essentially admits that he is finding interpretations that appeal to him even if they are not strictly accurate.

In the end of it all, Jacobs seems to be little better off than when he began. He remains agnostic but somehow feels he can and should pray (to whom? to what end?). He has discovered some cultural Jewish roots but does not seem to have found any true faith. He has discovered the value of the sacred, but continues to forsake God.

The Year of Living Biblically has many poignant moments and many that are quite funny. There are even a few laugh out loud moments. But there are plenty of others that are no doubt supposed to be funny but which fall strangely flat. This is bound to happen in a book that stretches to almost 350 pages, perhaps a hundred more than it ought to have been. Yet it is by no means all bad. It was quite an enjoyable read, even if it did drag near the end. Still, as much as he seems to attempt to make this a book the reader will take seriously, Jacobs cannot escape it seeming more like a gimmick. This experiment is really a strange form of exhibitionism where he invites the readers into his life as he deliberately makes a fool of himself. It is more entertainment than of any serious value. It is for good reason, I suppose, that you will find the book filed under the heading of “Humor.” It is a year of living loosely biblical and a year of gathering information that will lead to a bestselling book. The reader will have to decide which of those motives was foremost in the author’s mind. Personally, I suspect the latter.

6 years 1 week ago
Michael Yon has logged more time in combat situations in Iraq than any other reporter, and this despite twice being removed from Iraq for his critical statements about the U.S. military leadership. Remarkably, he has spent his time in Iraq largely as an independent reporter and blogger rather than an associate of a massive media network. As such, he offers a unique voice—one that is vastly different from what we are accustomed to hearing on CNN or reading in the New York Times. He also offers, at least in my eyes, unique credibility as he is required to follow no agenda but his own. In Moment of Truth in Iraq he offers his assessment of the conflict in Iraq so far and some prediction as to what will have to transpire in the months and years ahead if the United States is to conclude the campaign successfully.

Though Yon was at one time a critic of the U.S. handling of the war, the focus of his book is the remarkable transformation that has occurred under the leadership of General David Petraeus. Since Petraeus assumed command, he has focused on moving soldiers away from isolated bases far removed from the population and instead on placing the soldiers where the Iraqi citizens are. This strategy has proven very effective with casualty rates falling to their lowest levels in years. U.S. soldiers are working with and among the Iraqi people to rebuild the nation and to provide the security that has so long been lacking. There have been setbacks, to be sure, but the trajectory seems encouraging. He illustrates this with story after story drawn from his own eyewitness accounts at the front lines of the war. He is so close to the action that on at least one occasion he has dropped his camera, grabbed a rifle, and, relying on his training as a Green Beret, has charged into a room of militants.

Those who have not heard of Yon will surely at least be familiar with one of his photographs. He took what has become an iconic photo for the Second Gulf War. In the photo, which was voted as TIME magazine’s photograph of the year in 2005, U.S. Army Major Mark Bieger gently cradles a little Iraqi girl who has been wounded by shrapnel from a car bomb. The girl was rushed to hospital by U.S. soldiers but, tragically, quickly succumbed to her wounds. This photo stands as symbolic of the war—an American soldier brokenhearted at the devastation Iraqis are bringing to their own nation.

For those who are entirely skeptical about the war in Iraq and about the direction it is heading, this book will prove, I think, that the Americans are making some headway and are doing some good. Whether or not this is a just war will be for the history books to decide, I suppose, but the reality is that the U.S. cannot simply withdraw at this time. There is far too much to lose. Yon seeks to prove, and indeed does prove, that Petraeus’ new strategy is working and that the United States military is making great strides in Iraq. Free from the bias that pollutes so much of the mainstream media, Yon offers an account of the war that is poignant, stirring, and encouraging. It is well worth the read.

6 years 2 weeks ago
I think we all remember where we were and what we were doing when, on September 11, 2001, we first heard that a plane had slammed into the World Trade Center. It is one of those moments we will undoubtedly always remember, just as so many people have never forgotten where they were when they heard about the assassination of J.F.K.. They are seared forever into our memories. They are utterly unique moments in history. How could we ever forget?

While the story of what happened on that day has already been told in many books and in several movies, none of the accounts has told it from the perspective of the pilots of the 5000 planes that were in the skies that day or from the perspective of those on the ground who were responsible for the air-control and air-defense systems that controlled the skies over America. In Touching History Lynn Spencer tackles the story from this new perspective and in so doing writes a book that is both fascinating and riveting. A commercial pilot herself, she is well acquainted with the decisions and the responsibilities faced by pilots and controllers across the nation.

In an interesting literary decision, Spencer opted to write the book in the present tense rather than the more obvious past tense. This makes the book read less like history and more like current events. It transports the reader to the day itself, giving a moment-by-moment breakdown of the actions and decisions of the day. The book effectively takes the reader back to that day, stirring memories and evoking emotion perhaps long forgotten. Though the reader knows how the story ends, it makes the journey no less interesting.

Meticulously researched, the book actually makes some important corrections to the official 9/11 Commission Report and introduces some interesting new details to the account. Even those who have read other books on the subject will find new information here as the author deliberately covers some of the lesser-known drama. For example, she writes quite extensively about Delta flight 1989, an aircraft officials became convinced had also been hijacked. The plane was refused landing on the East Coast and was eventually forced to land in Cleveland where it sat for hours on the tarmac before a SWAT team finally approached and cleared the plane. She tells such stories from the perspective of those involved, not as abstract history but as personal narrative. She writes also of fighter pilots who, flying unarmed planes, were ready and willing to sacrifice their lives by crashing into hijacked airliners to save lives on the ground; she writes about air traffic controllers who were faced with almost unimaginable stress and the nearly-impossible task of, for the first time in history, grounding every plane in the country. Spencer has a knack for detail and for finding and describing interesting stories.

Touching History is a book that drew me in and wouldn’t let me go until I had finished the last page. In fact, I took concerted effort for me not to destroy a whole work day reading it. It is that good. Anyone who wants to have a better understanding of what transpired on September 11 will want to read this account.

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