31 December 2012

Book Review: The Practice of Godliness

Over the past year or so, I have been on a Jerry Bridges kick.  He writes in an understandable, practical way sharing examples from his own life and the life of others to highlight biblical truths.  For Christmas, my wife bought me 4 Jerry Bridges books and the first one that I chose was The Practice of Godliness (1996). 

This book was essentially an exposition on the fruits of the spirit.  In his preface (p. 9), he wrote "The Pursuit of Holiness (another excellent book) dealt largely with putting off the old self--dealing with the sin in our lives.  The Practice of Godliness focuses on putting on the new self--growing in Christian Character."  It seems to me that so many of Bridges work well together, building a strong structure by focusing on different elements of the Christian faith. 

Bridges grounds the establishment of several elements of character in devotion to God, which consists of three aspects: the fear of God, the love of God, and the desire for God.  He also talks about the importance of "training yourself to be godly" (1 Tim 4:7), but as is characteristic of him, he balances this pursuit of godliness with a deep understanding of grace.  It seems to me that it is so often characteristic of modern theology to either completely set aside any striving for holiness or make a pursuit of holiness a necessary requisite of salvation.  Bridges always seems to get the balance close to right. 

The later half of the book focuses on elements of Christian character: humility, contentment, thankfulness, joy, holiness, self-control, faithfulness, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness & goodness, and love.  For each of these, he discusses their biblical importance and then suggests ways in which to grow in each element.

I would happily suggest this book.  Feel free to read it along with: The Pursuit of Holiness, Transforming Grace, the Transforming Power of the Gospel, The Discipline of Grace...really any of Bridges's books. 

30 December 2012

Book Review: Between Noon and Three

Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Robert Farrar Capon, 1997) was an unusual book.  On the positive side, Capon is a compelling writer, utilizing a unique style to present a topic of essential importance--grace.  This book essentially consists of three shorter stories (initially published as 2 books in 1982 and 1983)--Parable, Coffee Hour, and The Youngest Day. 

The first section, Parable, makes up about 40 percent of the book and sets the stage for the subsequent sections.  Capon writes a tale of a successful sexual liaison between Paul and Laura as a parable of God's grace.  The choice of an illicit affair was chosen in many ways to shock the reader so that they might better see the radical nature of God's grace.  Along the way of his storytelling, he stops and engages directly with the reader, sharing theological insights and reflections.  He anticipates challenges from his readership, which are more fully addressed in section two.

In Coffee Hour, he hypothesizes a conversation with his critics.  He creates several characters who pose challenges to his line of thinking to which he subsequently responds.  This conversational style is much more engaging than a standard refutation of criticisms.  It drew me in as a reader. What I found particularly interesting was that the critiques raised by his friends during the coffee hour were many of the criticisms that I had.  Although he engages in intellectualizing to his readers, his responses to me seem incomplete.  He ignores some parts of scripture in service to his viewpoint.  He uses intentionally shocking language (e.g., describing God as a snake oil salesman and Jesus as a glutton), I suspect to set the reader back on his heels.  Unfortunately, his effect misses the point, setting the reader committed to biblical orthodoxy in a defensive position. 

In the final section, The Youngest Day, he writes another short parable, this time about an ordered hit, perhaps to deepen the shock.  He then moves into a discussion of heaven, hell, judgment, and death.  The incompleteness in his theology that I first observed in the first two sections comes to frank inaccuracy here. He denies the propitiation of the Son, a clear teaching of scripture.  He comes out as an inclusivist, again shocking the reader by discussing Hitler and the Jews and how God doesn't keep score.  He essentially argues that one does not need to express saving faith, rather that only those who actively reject Christ (even after death) will face a life in Hell.  In other words, all are reconciled to Christ unless they specifically reject that reconciliation. 

Although this is an interesting book and a compelling read, ultimately Capon is off base with regard to his theology.  He admits to only working on the sunny side of the street, but this is a limited theology that rejects the parts of scripture which don't fit the mold, which unfortunately in Capon's case, is entirely too much. 

28 December 2012

Best Books of 2012

A lot of bloggers have posted their "best of" lists.  I thought I would share my favorites as well, but with just a brief explanation for each.  For many of them, I provided a fuller review, elsewhere on the blog.   Of the 60 or so books I read this year, these were the ones I would most highly recommend, though they are in no particular order.

Anatomy of the Soul--I responded to the author of this book at a conference in Branson this summer.  The first time I read it, I enjoyed it and was challenged by it. The more I thought of it, however, the more I wanted to go back and re-read things again and again.  Briefly, this is a Christian understanding of interpersonal neurobiology.  If that sounds boring, it isn't. 

The Transforming Power of the Gospel--I have been on a Jerry Bridges kick.  In this book, Bridges discusses how the gospel not only saves us, but also transforms our lives. 

Not the Way Its Supposed to Be--This book by Cornelius Plantinga was required reading for the Centurions program.  It is a phenomenal exploration of sin discussed by a compelling author. 

Total Truth--This is a must read book with regard to Christian worldview.  Nancy Pearcey is a sharp thinker and clear writer, challenging many of the modern secular viewpoints with clearheaded thinking. 

Think Christianly--This book, by Jonathan Morrow, is along the same lines as Pearcey's book above.  Although I suspect it will not have the same staying power as Total Truth, it was timely and very readable. 

Gospel Wakefulness/Gospel Deeps--These two books by Jared Wilson helped me to dive deeper into the gospel.  Wilson writes with great maturity of someone his age and I would commend anything he has written. 

The Explicit Gospel--Matt Chandler's book is a unique one.  He takes a look at the gospel on the ground versus the gospel in the air, essentially making the case that the gospel should not only transform people but transform culture.  The balance was excellent. 

Shame Interrupted--I have realized over the past year how much shame affects people throughout the culture and how much it has affected me.  The only remedy to shame is the truth of the gospel. 

20 December 2012

I like adoption

From the husband, "She's the gas pedal, and I am the brake."  I have said those exact words to my wife. 

Watch this video and cry.

New Film Premiere - I Like Adoption. from ILikeGiving.com on Vimeo.

16 December 2012

What happened to responsibility?

Just a few days after the tragedy in Connecticut, the Internet got about the business that it remains so good at, conjecture and blame casting.  Certainly, anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account yesterday noticed the speculations building as to what might have happened to cause this tragedy.  Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, asks if we now have the courage to stop this as he calls for tighter gun controls.  A friend of mine, also a neuropsychologist, wrote, "I then told them [his children] that I hoped one of the good things that will come out of something so sad is that our country finds a way to not make it so easy for mean guys to get guns. The hope here is that this would allow them to feel that something may happen in our society to make them feel safer. I sure hope this is not wishful thinking on my part because we cannot have another tragedy like this ever again."  Several other psychologists with whom I am acquainted are calling for tighter gun regulations.

Let me first state, as a gun owner and a conservative, I am not sure that these people are wrong about tighter limits on access to guns.  I believe it is a good idea for strict background checks for people who obtains firearms, though it seems to me that some people are under the impression that there are no restrictions in place at all.  There are background checks for legally obtaining firearms. Could, or should, these checks be stricter?  Perhaps. 

I also do not see the necessity for personal ownership of assault rifles. I have several friends who will no doubt disagree with me on this point, but I simply do not understand the need for a weapon that serves no practical (e.g., hunting) purpose. 

Having said all that, blaming guns for tragedies seems entirely misplaced. It is as misplaced as blaming the size of soft drinks for the obesity epidemic.  Or blaming the availability of merchandise at Walmart for shoplifting.  Or blaming poverty for theft.  No one wants to speak of personal responsibility or even consider other factors that are contributing to our human problems. 

One of the points I made yesterday is that Americans have always had access to guns, perhaps with even greater availability in the past.  I suspect that 100 or 150 years ago, a greater percentage of homes would own a firearm than do now.  There are countries (e.g., Switzerland, Israel) where most homes have firearms but homicides and gun-related crime rates are significantly lower.  England does have strict control on gun ownership, but in the past 10 years, the rates of gun-related violence have increased 89%. 

The psychologists that I have been reading, professional and amateur, have been blaming guns even though the role of psychologists is to examine human behavior. These psychologists have not been asking the question "what is it, psychologically, that is contributing to the increased rate of violent crime in the United States?"; rather, they are targeting firearms themselves. 

I believe that one of the first unaddressed issues is that we have a diminished sense of personal responsibility.  From early years on, children today are less often encouraged to accept responsibility for their behaviors.  If they don't earn good grades, it is the teacher's fault.  If they hit another child, they were provoked. This has been gradually bleeding into adulthood as well.  Adults have a harder time accepting responsibility for their behaviors, in part because we are a society that raises self-centered narcissists (Twenge and Campbell).  People become alcoholics because their parents were mean.  People stop working because they can't handle the emotional strain from day to day.

In days past, people took responsibility for their own well-being and the well-being of their families.  Even when provoked or dealt a bad hand, they made due. They adjusted.  When they fouled up, they would own up.

We need to get back to a time where we promote individual responsibility and collective accountability.  We need to show people how to take ownership for their actions and to hold them accountable when they falter. We need to promote other-centered service rather than self-centered narcissism.

Second, we need a bigger picture of potential influences (without downplaying the absolute importance of fostering responsibility).  Availability of guns is one piece of the puzzle, but in my opinion it is far down the list of contributing factors. We must also consider the constant availability of ultraviolent, ultrarealistic movies and video games that desensitize people to murder and mayhem, even putting young people in the position of being a "first person shooter".  To be sure, I am not blaming movies or video games any more than we should blame guns, but I think we need to understand that they may influence thinking and behavior.  Gun ownership hasn't changed over the years, a culture of exposure to and celebration of violence has.

Furthermore, the breakdown of the family unit and particularly the loss of fathers in the home, creates an environment where it is more difficult to foster responsibility.  Tired single parents, trying to fill the roles of mom and dad, often lack the physical and emotional energy to consistently and firmly promote responsibility among their children and so children, left to their own devices, expose themselves to violent games, pornography, and other media that affects their development. It seems that psychologists are much less willing to talk about the overwhelming data that suggests that fathers in homes and stable family units are beneficial in a wide variety of ways.

Along these same lines, we have lost a sense of objective morality.  It appears to me that over the past 50 years as we have seen vast increases in crime and particularly violent crime, it is not the presence of guns (even assault rifles) that have created the drastic societal changes, but a promotion of relativism.  Children are now taught in schools that values are relative and that "whatever you believe is true for you, even if it is not true for me" (for more information, look up the problems with the values clarification movement).  When children and adults are told that whatever they choose to believe is true, and if you disagree with their viewpoints you are intolerant, it creates an environment where people do whatever they want.  We have relabeled sin as sickness, much to our detriment.

In sum, it may very well be that increased restrictions on obtaining firearms is the direction in which we are headed, but it is my contention that the guns are no more the problem in violent crimes than cheeseburgers are the problems in obesity. 

Twenge J.M., & Campbell, W.K. (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Free Press.

15 December 2012

Whatever happened to anticipation?

Yesterday, even before the tragedy in Connecticut, I had begun to wonder whatever happened to anticipation? It used to be that the month leading up to Christmas, the Advent season, was celebrated the expectation of a Savior.  Many individuals and many churches continue to celebrate Advent, though unfortunately, this seems to be a tradition disappearing from more evangelical churches.  Even those who continue to celebrate have sometimes muddled it.  We have lost our sense of anticipation.  We are not a people accustomed to waiting, to longing. 

We now have an immediate fix for every want.  Two hundred years ago, one might wait months to hear a good word from someone and so words were chosen with care.  They may go years, even decades, without seeing one another.  This absence created a longing for reunion. Now, we have smart phones, Facebook, and email for immediate, constant connection.  This immediacy has brought with it an unfortunate deadening of our affections for one another.  Words are written carelessly, the sense of longing is absent. 

Think too about movies. I remember as a child the anticipation of the holiday season. We would plan out our schedules with the chance to watch Charlie Brown's Christmas or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  Now, movies are available on demand.  We can watch whatever we want, whenever we want it and so they become less exciting.

We can get whatever food we want whenever we want it.  We can access any sexual predilection on the Internet at the click of a mouse.  Thanks to websites like Amazon, we can obtain nearly any good we would like.  And so we have no sense of eager waiting for God's good gifts. 

The Jews of Old understood the anticipation of the Savior.  From the time of the fall, from the time of the exodus, from the time of King David, from the time of the prophets, from the time of the silent years, they longed for a Savior.  After the fall, the world existed in a state of sin.  No man made religion, no ritualistic rule keeping, no moral self improvement, no self-esteem programs, nothing could deliver the world from the sin that pervades every corner. And so they waited for the Promised One. 

Two thousand years ago, that promise was fulfilled. Jesus Christ came to earth, born of a virgin, so that he could do what nothing or no one else could.  He came to cleanse the world from the expansiveness of sin.  No doubt, the people of Connecticut are longing for deliverance. Every day, in every corner of the world, people long for release from suffering.  The answer to the pain wrought by sin is the Savior, the suffering Savior, who bore the sins of the whole world that whoever believes in him will be delivered. 

During this season, take time to step back from the constant distractions and immediate fixes and ask God to return to you a sense of anticipation of the only true Deliverer 

14 December 2012

The beginning and the end of Habakkuk

Friends, take some time and reflect on Habakkuk today and pray for the murdered children of Connecticut today...and the rest of the children that are murdered throughout the world everyday that slip past our consciences.  God, give us hearts that cry out to you for comfort in the midst of iniquity and that rejoice in your sovereignty in all things. 

Habakkuk's Complaint
    O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
        and you will not hear?
    Or cry to you “Violence!”
        and you will not save?
    Why do you make me see iniquity,
        and why do you idly look at wrong?
    Destruction and violence are before me;
        strife and contention arise.
    So the law is paralyzed,
        and justice never goes forth.
    For the wicked surround the righteous;
        so justice goes forth perverted.
-Habakkuk 1:2-4

Habakkuk rejoices in the Lord
    Though the fig tree should not blossom,
        nor fruit be on the vines,
    the produce of the olive fail
        and the fields yield no food,
    the flock be cut off from the fold
        and there be no herd in the stalls,
    yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
        I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
    GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
        he makes my feet like the deer's;
        he makes me tread on my high places.
    To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.
-Habakkuk 3:17-19

06 December 2012

The Greatest Story by the Greatest Author

Matt Papa with a spoken poem--the Story of God.  It is worth ten minutes of your time, twenty if you watch it twice. 

04 December 2012

John Piper: The Innkeeper

I love John Piper.  I love poetry (largely because of John Piper). This wonderful video shows John Piper reading his poem "The Innkeeper".  Please take a moment to watch it.