Category Archives: Theology

Quick Review: Families Where Grace is in Place

One of the most timely books I’ve read in a while is Families Where Grace Is In Place by Jeff VanVonderen.  I enjoy VanVonderen. Quite a while ago I was deeply ministered to by his book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse in a season where I was observing a lot of spiritually abusive dynamics and tactics in some of my environments. This book on grace in the family was just as refreshing and significant.

I’ve read a few books in the last few years related to marriage and family and this has vaulted to the top for me I think so far. Some of it may be timeliness in that we are under a year from having teens in our household, but it’s more that VanVonderen grounds an approach to marriage and parenting…and really all developmental relationships in the foundational truths of the gospel and the need for grace for true change to take place.

Today there are so many ways Christians especially rationalize their legalism, shaming, and performance approach to parenting, leadership, and any exercise of authority roles. This book shines a spotlight on what does not pass the grace test and what truly reflects leadership under the Lordship of Christ. It’s convicting and even painful at points as the book fosters self-evaluation according to shame or grace-based approaches in relationships. But it offers hope and life that is grounded not in methods or control, but in love and the life of Christ as the source of all life and all authentic change.

The author uses a couple acronyms that are helpful – C.U.R.S.E. and T.I.R.E.D. to capture the reality of parenting and exercise of authority in relationships that reflect the core patterns of sin in Genesis 3. You can read the book to do a deeper dive on those – but it’s well worth it 🙂

As I’ve been researching more and more stuff related to shame, the more I’m convinced we need to ground everything we do in authentic, grace-based relationships in which the truth is allowed to do its work to heal and restore rather than harm, hurt, put down, or belittle. But sadly that is not the case for many marriages, families, and churches. This is what we are trying to prioritize in our development right now as parents and it’s been life and hope giving as well as healing in some regards as well.

 

Quick Review: Shame Interrupted

Over the past few months I read Edward T. Welch’s Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness & RejectionIt was one of those books that lent itself to casual reading over time to maximize the experience of reading it. There are about 30 chapters that all take about 15 minutes to read and they are thematically organized so taking it in short doses while I read other things as well was a quite refreshing way to go through it.

Welch is a counselor so he tackles the issue of shame from that perspective, but he also offers some solid theology to ground his writing. What I appreciate was that in addition to the theological and psychological insights, Welch shows himself aware of many of the cultural and social dimensions to shame and identity. He draws on helpful insights from both the Ancient Near East as well as cultures today. He also addresses power and majority-minority dynamics intentionally at various places, which I appreciated.

There’s a poetic and lyrical nature to how this book is written so it is very easy to read in some ways, but it’s an easy read more so because the style targets the human heart and reality so authentically that there’s not much in the book that you don’t feel like you relate to.

In Asia, shame is a more recognized and understood dynamic. People just get it – and as such, this is a great resource here in Asia. In the west, shame is not something most know their way around. Many either are not aware of what it is and its impact on identity and relationships or they don’t know what to do with it or how to find freedom.  This book helps develop awareness of how shame may be at work in one’s life and it offers a grounded and hopeful perspective from Scripture to help one understand how to see their story re-written as they place their story within the God’s story.

It’s actually a really creative and insightful book that offers an immense depth of wisdom and insight. I would recommend it to just about everyone because I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t benefit from going through this book whether for personal growth or leadership development.

 

Merry Disturbing Christmas!

Nine years ago I wrote a post entitled Herod & Jerusalem based on some reflection on Matthew 2:1-4. I came back across that passage this Christmas season and wanted to offer some new and refined possible responses to the question, “Why was Herod and all of Jerusalem troubled when hearing about Jesus?”  Here’s the text:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.“ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

This version uses the phrase “troubled,” but others use “disturbed” to describe the emotional response by Herod the Great and all of Jerusalem.  Have you ever thought of what all of Jerusalem means?  Does that mean every single person? Does it mean the rich? The religious? The powerful? The educated?  Or does it mean all? I don’t know definitively what all means here as there was no internet or newspaper service, but I would assume it includes at least the rich and powerful who had a vested interest in the politics and leadership of the day. AKA – the rich, powerful, religious, and educated.

And what does it mean that they were troubled or disturbed? Weren’t the Jews waiting in expectation for a Messiah, a deliverer, a King that would restore them to glory?  Why were these Jewish leaders disturbed rather than curious or hopeful?  And what does that matter for us today?  Here are some of my theories….

Here are some of my theories….

1.  Maybe the news of a newborn prophesied King of the Jews disturbed the elite because they feared the disruption of the social order.  The leaders of Jerusalem had established some measure of stability through Herod’s relationship with Caeser Augustus and the fear of Roman intervention. And in any system, there those who benefit from a political administration and those who may not. Maybe all of Jerusalem means those who found a pretty good life under Herod were more worried about losing their status in the face of local rebellion or Roman retaliation than about Biblical prophecies? Word of a new and promised king would mean a challenge to the political order of the day with potential vast ramifications for those with status in that order.

2.  Maybe Herod and all of Jerusalem were more disturbed than hopeful because they could not see God’s way of providing for His people.  Maybe, as people often do, they fell into patterns of belief and thought that God’s promised King would only come through “Kingly” lineage as viewed through the lens of the day. Of course, Jesus does have Kingship in his bloodlines as Matthew’s genealogy attests, but so did a lot of other people. Maybe people were blinded by their own elitism and expectations about where great leaders come from? Maybe the new King should be born a King and the thought that a baby born in Bethlehem could be a King was ridiculous. As such, this child again becomes a threat to the political and social order because he could not possibly be from the right stock.

3.  Maybe the educated and religious elite stopped expecting the Messiah because they liked their religious system they had developed and the control and status they gained from enforcing it? Maybe the news of a newborn Messianic King was disturbing because they were focused on policy rather the story of Israel? Maybe they feared the loss of their tight religious system if Rome got involved in a power struggle?

4.  But maybe there’s a deeper level of disruption involved? While Herod was disturbed no doubt because of the threat to his power and position, maybe all of Jerusalem was disturbed with him because the presence of two Kings brings the question of allegiance to the forefront. The news that a promised “King of the Jews” has come from outside the current royal line means a challenge to current authority. And for all those “around,” it means there will be a day of reckoning, a time to choose.  Who will they give their allegiance too?  In such a time, everyone has to choose. It’s only a matter of time.

Maybe it’s some parts of all of the above. Comfort, status, control, and safety seem to be factors for why all of Jerusalem began to get disturbed and anxious. But at the core, I believe all of this gets at the anxiety of allegiance. When allegiance is secure, these other things are not disturbing even in the face of risk and danger.

All of Jerusalem seemed to be feeling the anxiety of allegiance, even if they couldn’t put a name to it.  And unless we have addressed our own allegiance once and for all, we should be disturbed by Christmas as well.  But is so, is your anxiety because you fear losing power, status, comfort, or control?

This is what makes the incarnation amazing – the promised King came with no earthly power, status, comfort, and with total vulnerability. The foolish things of the world have shamed the wise.

 

Quick Review: Pursuing Justice

One of the books with the most impact on me this year was Ken Wytsma’s Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger ThingsI read it in the summer, but I re-read it over the past couple of weeks. Wytsma founded Kilns college and started The Justice Conference. I’ve started going through the last couple conferences via what is on the internet and vimeo.

This book is a primer on God’s heart for justice and offers a corrective to both social gospel as well as gnostic, all that matters is the afterlife,  approaches to the gospel. There’s a strong Biblical foundation offered for what the Scriptures really say about justice and where many of us have gone off to one extreme or the other.

There’s a few chapters I loved.  There is a chapter focused on advent, the incarnation, that was exceptional regarding the call to incarnate into people’s lives and realities as fundamental to Christian life and ministry. Given that I re-read it prior to Christmas this year, my second reading of this chapter was even more meaningful. Maybe the chapter I appreciated the most though was the chapter entitled “Empathy” that connects are hard-wired human ability to feel what other people feel and experience as a key to God’s heart for justice. Without empathy, there is no justice.  There is a paradigm offered in this chapter regarding empathy and “the other” which may come in handy in my PhD research.

Wytsma covers a lot of ground. In addition to the above, he tackles briefly the gospel and politics, the history of the evangelical phobia of “social justice,” and the range of response to justice such as apathy. This book is a great introduction to thinking Biblically about justice and it’s a convicting one that all believers would benefit from.

One of my big takeaways, while not a new conviction, is a deeper commitment that Christian ministry along with its methodology reflects what the Scriptures really teach about the gospel and justice. That’s neither the social gospel or the spiritual escapism often present in evangelicalism today. When word and deed go together, it’s a powerful thing and I’m thankful for those who are helping lead the church towards a more integrated and restorative vision of what it means to be the Church.

I will come back to this book because it also cites really great sources and work from many historical and contemporary justice practitioners. While I’ve read a decent amount regarding justice, there was much that was new to me in terms of stories and anecdotes, but the resources referenced were just as much of a blessing.

 

Quick Review: Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Paul Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change by Paul Tripp. I read Tripp’s How People Change earlier this year, which he co-wrote with Timothy Lane and I use their book Relationships: A Mess Worth Making in the Graduate Interpersonal Relationships Class I teach. But I had not heard of Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hand until it was recommended to me by the head of my peace studies program.

The book is a theology and philosophy of personal ministry and Biblical counseling. It unpacks the incarnational calling of the body of Christ to minister to one another at the heart level in the way the Scriptures describe and mandate. Tripp challenges secular models arguing that they reinforce blameshifting rather than go to the true source of our problems and need to change – the problem of sin.

Tripp uses Scripture really well to convey a thoroughly Biblical framework for personal change and the role that each of us needs to play in giving and receiving Biblical instruction and counsel.  While giving his personal philosophy of Biblical counseling, Tripp presents this book as a resource for all believers for their personal growth as well as for the role they can play in God’s redeeming work of change in people’s lives through Christ.

There is excellent material here, including practical resources of questions to ask, key Scriptures to use, and a general process of coming alongside other people in the change process.  One of the most valuable parts of the book was one of 5 appendices, which unpacked the dynamics of spiritual blindness.  Spiritual blindness is something we all experience personally and we all observe in others, but Tripp’s teaching from the Scriptures on the topic in addition to practical questions and approaches to help people face their spiritual blindness was really helpful I thought.

I think Tripp’s approach from Scripture is a needed one and it’s a model of personal ministry that would truly be transformational.  Few in the ministry really consistently teach and talk about the heart.  Fewer still really give people the tools and build a culture around how to keep Christ’s work in the heart at the center of ministry. Tripp offers great resources and paradigms from Scripture.

My only gripe is that it presents a view that all problems can be solved just addressing sin. I think his treatment of depression falls in this category – where there are sin and belief issues involved as well as other things.   So I still see the importance of specialized counseling in some scenarios that help someone navigate complex issues, but I believe this approach to Biblical counseling would cover most scenarios pretty well. The main point is that we need to let the gospel do its work in peoples’ lives and for that to happen, we need to get at the heart and the way in which we deceive ourselves and exchange worship of Christ for tons of other things.

But again – this is not just a counseling resource. It’s a great resource for discipleship, small groups, and mentoring. I’ve walked the guys I’m mentoring through some of the foundational aspects of this change model and it’s been quite helpful.  So I recommend it as an ongoing resource that can be pulled out when you find yourself in situations where god has you in a position to help facilitate change in someone’s life. There’s not going to be much better tools to help you think about the idolatry of the heart and how to help you and others shift from false worship to authentic worship of Christ in all things.

 

Quick Review: In God We Trust?

I should have posted on this book I read this summer a long time ago – it would have maybe helped my good friend Mike sell a few more copies!  But excited to share about since it still may be helpful even though the election is over – because the reality is the fallout of the election is not over by a long shot.

Mike Goldsworthy wrote In God We Trust? When the Kingdom of God and Politics Collide  after preaching through these issues in his church in Long Beach, California. Mike has been a good friend since we went to seminary together a decade ago and because he and his family live and serve in the city I grew up in and where my family still resides we have been able to keep up well over the years – except for the seasons we’re out of the country for long stretches of time!

One of the things I love about Mike is that he puts a lot of thought into controversial topics and how to lead people through them for the sake of the Kingdom of God and the witness of the church.  He has courageously preached into areas many pastors avoid altogether and a result he has been able to ‘field test’ a lot of material that now can edify and equip the broader body of Christ.

This book is not long or burdensome.  There are deep theologies and philosophies out there tackling how the church should engage society. This book isn’t trying to provide a comprehensive theology for societal engagement.  The spirit of it is more to help people step outside of their own anxiety, fear, and rigidity to consider their political positions with humility and to consider how they can continue to reflect the kingdom of God to the world with others who may have different political persuasions.  People need help thinking through these things

People need help thinking through these things because so many of us fall into the trap of equating one “pet” position we believe in and interpreting that as “God’s side” when the reality is God cares about a lot more than just our pet issues or positions.  Mike illustrates this well and helps a reader consider the narrowness or attitudes of their heart that may lead towards divisive behavior.  But he provides hope in illustrating how Jesus is greater than political parties and issues and we need to put our hope in Him rather than in any party or candidate. Furthermore, it’s a reminder that our behavior and communication comes from the heart and this political methodology either confirms or exposes that a believer truly is representing Christ in his actions (John 17).

But the book was enjoyable and I learned a lot of things drawn from church tradition and history that I did not know and the book helped me think through in some new ways how to negotiate political choices that I found difficult and challenging to make.

It’s relatively brief and definitely affordable so if you’re still stuck on politics or think half of your church sucks because they voted for the other side of the aisle, it’ll be worth your time.

I think he’s still blogging at mikegoldsworthy.com from time to time to you can check him out there.

 

Quick Review: God and the Gay Christian & Mohler’s Response

I’m not going to do a deep dive on this issue, because there’s plenty out there already for that.  I’ll just share some of my impressions and analysis of the books.  One of the things that I’ve found frustrating over the years when some well known, or even some less than well known, Christians come out with an affirming view same-sex marriage is that they seem to say the same thing.  They typically start by saying they have really wrestled with the Scriptures, but then they give an argument that is not really based on Scripture as the reason for their belief or position.

To his credit, Matthew Vines has wrestled with Scripture and I think one of the things that clearly shows through this book is a really sincere effort to ground his position while maintaining a commitment to inerrancy.  But Vines, despite the cover caption “The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships” resorts to the same default.  Because the approach or the book does not offer support for same-sex relationships. Others on the affirming side, as quoted in Mohler’s SBC response to Vines, offer freely that it’s really not possible to offer Biblical support for Same-Sex Relationships and efforts need to be made elsewhere to prove the point.  And this shows in Vines’ methodology in that he takes the 6 most referenced Scriptures related to homosexuality and then tries to offer different interpretations for each of them.

One thing I thought was very weak in the book was how much rests on emotional appeal and the logical fallacy that since Exodus International closed its doors and apologized for damage done, then it is clear that sexual orientation can’t or shouldn’t be viewed as wrong or sin. Another dimension of this argument is that because such denial or efforts to suppress perceived sexual identity leads to suicide, then such efforts or thinking that change is possible is wrong and should be repented of.  These are real issues that merit a lot of study, sensitivity, and attention.  But the conclusions drawn should not be held as a given based on that data alone.

Vines throughout is respectful in his writing, sincere in his hopes and desires, but just can’t escape poor hermeneutics and agenda driven interpretation.  For someone with little or no training in Biblical interpretation, this book would seem to provide overwhelming proof that maybe the Bible does not say what people think it says. But as some of the responders in Mohler’s book of response to this show, this is as clear of an example of letting agendas drive interpretation as anything you’ll found out there.

That being said – I think it’s an important book for Christians to read to wrestle with these texts and understand the arguments Vines is making and to wrestle with how they would respond. I suspect many would feel paralyzed to respond to such arguments and therefore it’s actually a great opportunity to help people develop more responsible and compassionate theology that represents what the Scriptures teach related to sexual identity and orientation rather than the foolish and hurtful “Adam and Eve, NOT Adam and Steve” references that get through out there from time to time. The church needs more people equipped with robust theologies of identity and sexuality that actually is anchored in and faithful to Scripture and Vines’ book I hope is a catalyst to helping people go deeper into the Scriptures and do good theology which translates to more integrity in defending the Scriptures as well as more respect and compassion in representing the Scriptures to others that have rejected what the Scriptures teach.

The church needs more people equipped with robust theologies of identity and sexuality that actually is anchored in and faithful to Scripture and Vines’ book I hope is a catalyst to helping people go deeper into the Scriptures and do good theology which translates to more integrity in defending the Scriptures as well as more respect and compassion in representing the Scriptures to others that have rejected what the Scriptures teach.

After I read Vines’ book, I read Mohler’s response. I had mixed feelings on the response.  One one hand, there was well thought out arguments from Scripture and good theological counterpoints to Vines’ that I think put Vines into proper perspective.  But I did not like the tone of a couple of the responders in their arguments – especially Mohler’s individual response.  I just don’t think these discussions require snarky jabs that come across as condescending or arrogant.  There were times I felt like the responses had a courtroom feel where they were acting like bantering lawyers rather than communicating in grace and truth.  I did not feel that from several of the responders including Denny Burke and Heath Lambert.  Lambert’s was the best of the responses in my opinion in his piece entitled, “Is ‘A Gay Christian’ Consistent With the Gospel of Christ?”

I did not feel that from several of the responders including Denny Burke and Heath Lambert.  Lambert’s was the best of the responses in his piece entitled, “Is ‘A Gay Christian’ Consistent With the Gospel of Christ?”  The whole Mohler response, which can be found online in its entirety via search as a pdf, is worth reading through.  Vines’ arguments are countered clearly, but most clearly the hope that you can provide Biblical support for same-sex marriage is dealt a heavy blow.  I just wish all the voices in the response could avoid some of the cheap shots that just don’t help the conversation or relationship building in what at times is a very hostile dynamic.

I’ve got several more books from different perspectives I’m wanting to read as I continue to refine my own positions and equip myself to engage the discussion with integrity and faithfulness to Scripture as well as with compassion, understanding, and love for real people who see things differently from me – both in terms of the issues themselves and in regards to sound hermeneutical process.

If you are are affirming in your position – I still have yet to see much work drawn deeply from Scripture that supports same-sex relationships as the arguments get redirected elsewhere.  If you are non-affirming, don’t be scared of this book – it’s an opportunity to learn and equip yourself to think more deeply and more responsibility about complex issues. This book alone will not equip someone to jump into the deep end of the pool of these issues, but it can be a resource in conjunction with others that can help sharpen one’s thinking and theology.

But I’ll say this – while I’m sad for how many may uncritically conclude from this book that there can be a Scriptural argument for same-sex marriage, I came away with an appreciation for the search that Vines is on though I do not believe his search has led him to truth as of yet.  I hope he continues to seek truth and I too hope to continue to read and study and learn as there’s so much in this arena I need to learn.

 

Quick Review: Strong and Weak

One of the richest and most practically helpful book I’ve read this year is Andy Crouch’s Strong and Weak.  It’s the third book I’ve read by Crouch this year and all three form together what I would describe to be a trilogy related to a theology and practice of image bearing. You can see some of my thoughts on the 1st of these books Culture Making here or the more recent Playing God here.

Strong and Weak is roughly an extension of Playing God.  Playing God  is a more in depth look at power and privilege. Strong and Weak continues that, but Crouch introduces a framework for understanding social ethics, relationships, and authority among other things.  This allows for a really clear conceptual understanding of much of what he unpacks in Playing God.

Crouch builds his book around a 2 x 2 chart. The X axis is represented by the concept of vulnerability, while the Y axis is represented by the concept of authority. Crouch draws from the first couple chapters of Genesis these two significant aspects of what it means to be an image bearer. Having the authority and ability to take meaningful action on one hand, and having the posture of vulnerability and risk on the other.

In the chart there are 4 quadrants, which Crouch describes as flourishing (high authority, high vulnerability), suffering or poverty (low authority, high vulnerability), withdrawal or apathy (low authority, low vulnerability) and exploitation (high authority, low vulnerability).  The book is organized around these quadrants and their implications for relationships, community, and even leadership as well.

The simple 2 x 2 chart provides a really helpful framework to understand some really complex dynamics as well as the powerful and countercultural implications of gospel action through people in different quadrants.  It provides a helpful way of understanding servant leadership, empowerment, social responsibility, and community development all in one.

This book is about 150 pages or so, very readable. I highly recommend you read this – it has something for everyone and it serves as an incredible teaching tool to help people understand how to look at the importance of both authority and vulnerability – which cover a surprising amount of the issues leaders have in negotiating the social realities of their contexts.

This is an important and helpful resource that should help people think more theologically and responsibly about the dynamic relationship between authority and human relationships.  I really encourage you to find time to read it.

 

Quick Review: Playing God

This month I worked my way through Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power.  Really this year I’ve worked through what is a trilogy essentially from Andy Crouch with three books that all revolve around the central theme of what it means to be human as God intended, as God’s image bearer. The first book in this thematic series is Culture Making, which I reviewed a few months back and I’ll review the third book Strong and Weak, which was released this year, sometime next week.

All three of these books are highly worth reading and I recommend reading them sequentially and together because of the continuity of ideas, language, and frameworks offered.

While Culture Making focused on the themes of creating and cultivating as image bearers, Playing God focuses more specifically on the theme of power and authority – related to its original design and intentions and to its abuse.

In a refreshing statement, Crouch begins the book with a clear thesis that power is a gift. It has purposes for people and communities that glorify God and that are meant to serve and honor other people.  But we all know the world is full of people who use power for their own gains, so the gift of power gets corrupted into something much worse. Actually we all use power for our own gain – that’s the power of sin in our lives. We all need to learn how God wants to redeem power for his purposes.

Crouch makes mention in several books of the importance of developing a theology of image bearing around the whole of Scripture – with special attention to Gen 1-2 and Rev 21-22. He argues that these 4 chapters guard against the dualistic theology prevalent for so many generations – where the only concern is trying to save souls from sin (Gen 3 – Rev).  I think it’s a helpful reminder to really think deeply about the whole Biblical narrative and its implications for all of life.  That’s the power of developing a theology of image bearing, whether it involves creativity or power. A solid theology of image bearing should inform all of life – relationships, power and authority, calling, and community.  This is what I appreciate about what Crouch attempts to do in his books.

Some of the sections that I think Crouch really did a great job with are his treatment of the themes of idolatry related to power. The chapters on idolatry and icons are really helpful and I’ve already gone back to a couple of those chapters.  There are some very helpful sections that help someone evaluate their hearts as the source of their behavior and what they worship in practice.

Another strength of the book is a framing and his effort to articulate the dynamics and even provide some measure of a theology of privilege. Privilege is often used pejoratively as a label. I’ve seen it misused more often than not, which is why Crouch’s efforts are really valuable.  While there are problems and limitations with the word “privilege,” no one can deny that this points to a reality which is very much true. It’s not an American thing either. Privilege exists as a social reality across the world that impacts identity and communities. Crouch offers one of the more balanced efforts to explain the blessings (opportunities) and

Crouch offers one of the more balanced efforts to explain the blessings (opportunities) and the dark side of privilege in its impact on relationships and society. These are realities we must help people understand through a more complete theological lens – not just through the lenses of social activism and social justice. These issues point us back to a more comprehensive vision of shalom, of what human life and community is meant to be.   For much of the last century and beyond, t

For much of the last century and beyond, there has been a theological gap in bias and practice between social justice and evangelistic mission.  There continues to be a divide today, albeit with different influences and forces driving some of those divides and reactions. Crouch attempts to bridge some of this gap through a theology of image bearing and power.  It is not the focus of the book to provide a comprehensive theology of the church as it relates to social action, but nonetheless there are very helpful sections to help inform how we think about the church’s role in society as part of a Great Commission vision.

Much of his work in Playing God gets elaborated on in Strong and Weak, in which he provides a helpful conceptual framework to illustrate how image bearing and power in community goes wrong….and right sometimes.

This book has very wide relevance and application so if you have not read it, I recommend getting all three of these books onto your reading list soon.