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Overthinking Christian

Our scope here is to rattle evangelical norms that threaten Biblical norms (as well as pretend we are smarter and more "spiritual" than we actually are).

The Prayer of Protection, Joseph Prince (book review)

j-princeIf there was one word that I had to choose to describe how I felt as I read best-seller, sought-after speaker and pastor Joseph Prince’s newest release The Prayer of Protection, it would be astonished. This book has very much blown my mind like no other book I’ve come across. I have never read a book which manages to insult so many different people in so many different generations, as this reading will prove offensive to anyone who suffers, anyone with diseases like AIDS, anyone with an addiction, and anyone who takes the New Testament (NT) in historical context seriously. But Joseph Prince has succeeded in doing just that.

In all my past reviews I have engaged a book with an open mind, looking for the good (even when it’s hard to find). That said, there is no good in this book. I hate to give very bad reviews, so on that end I will provide a longer-than-usual post to defend my position that this book is a very poor read.

Undeniable Laziness

In every chapter (there are 12 total) there is at least one self-promoting testimonial listed in its entirety. These are letters from people who are thanking God for Joseph Prince and speaking of his ministry’s influence in their life. As stated, these letters are listed in their entirety! (Not a snippet or a paragraph here or there). That is a lot of pages! I counted 25 pages altogether of these testimonials, 3 1/2 in ch. 2 alone and 3 pages in ch. 11. It’s evident that besides advertising himself in his own book, Prince is trying to fill in more and more pages. That the editors didn’t point this out to him is beyond me (maybe they didn’t care?).

Laziness is also evident in the writing style, as in many parts of the book it feels as if Prince is trying to teach a very small child big grown up things. The tone of the book switches back and forth from a type of over-polished mechanical tone to a very joyous pep-talk that reminds me of someone simply trying to hype up a crowd. Phrases like “Hallelujah! Isn’t God great!” in every section are not only repetitive but also seem to indicate that Prince is just trying to insert more words in each chapter.

A preoccupation with a life of ease 

Joseph Prince evidently has forgotten which side of heaven he lives on. According to the reading, we are not (as Christians) to experience any discomfort and no amount of suffering. To defend his strange stance he mentions Job and says that Job’s suffering is abnormal for those in Christ. He says that the apostle Paul had authority over death to live a long life but gave up such authority in order to be with God sooner. All the martyrs in the time of the NT also could have lived long and fruitful lives but they, as well, gave up this authority. In making such remarks Prince spits on the grave of all those who have been martyred in history as well as in the present day: he is spitting on the cross of Christ which is about a God who suffers with humanity.

Uncountable exegetical fallacies

There are simply too many to count (I plan on having a few posts dedicated to the individual texts themselves which are, it seems, on every page).

Hyper-triumphalism is a constant motif, as Prince seems to think that those in debt just need to have more faith, those who live in dangerous places simply need to pray his special prayer of protection, etc.

Highly Offensive on (it seems) Every Page

Prince (as noted at the start) insults many different people. Anyone who is going through hardship is doing so (according to this book) because of lack of faith, or because they haven’t learned to activate God’s angels (see ch. 8, Activating God’s Angels where he makes a straw case that we actually control angels). In one chapter he makes absurd claims that we have authority over death in that we (not God) control and determine when we will die. If you have AIDS (according to the theology presented in this book) it is because you let that happen and don’t have faith. If you die young, it is your fault (as “Jesus died a young death so that we can live a long life”; once again Prince is spitting on the very cross he claims to proclaim).

All of us have a free choice to use our faith to believe God for a long life. How long a life? That depends on you–according to your faith and satisfaction be it unto you (p. 150). 

This is insulting to any Christian who has lost a Christian family member or friend prematurely, as it pretty much says they did not activate some special authority and were not in the special realm Prince apparently is in (in which he controls when he will die).

The amount of people he insults is inexcusable and unforgivable (Prince evidently does not know what it means to be pastoral, though he, in fact, is a pastor).

For anyone who experiences danger, they simply haven’t activated the Protector’s protection. If this is true, Christians in China need Prince’s book and theology! They simply haven’t activated God’s angels; or perhaps the Christians who give their lives in martyrdom don’t pray Prince’s prayer of protection and don’t live in the realm he is in (in which one can decide when one dies!). This goes beyond the triumphalism that I’ve encountered in Pentecostal/charismatic circles and from motivational speakers, as Joseph Prince tries to present the cross without the obvious element of suffering that is part of the package; after all if we want to follow Jesus we must pick up our cross daily according to Luke.

The NT shows us we are to live between the tension between glory and suffering and informs us of the expectedness of Christians to suffer. While the Western church seems to not want to always hear this, Joseph Prince in his book would blatantly deny this!  On p. 201 he notes that God’s divine protection is something we must “receive” and in that chapter also contests that God’s protection is purchased for Christians by Christ’s blood; ch. 12 insults the loved ones of anyone who has died prematurely (or hasn’t lived a long life) as it states a promise to every Christian is not only a long life but a long and healthy one, as well as “fruitfulness” in old age. Here he writes a most peculiar statement: that “Our Lord Jesus died young so we may live long” (p. 194). That sounds really great, but to anyone half-serious about exegesis this is an obvious and flat-out imposition on Scripture.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge, no plague will come near your dwelling. Protection from strains of viruses that science does not yet have a cure for–Ebola, Zika, or AIDS–is God’s promise to you and your household (p. 100).

On p. 100 Prince states that this is God’s promise for our families, stressing that this is God’s guarantee. This is an insult to any Christian suffering from a disease listed above, as it implies your lack of faith (and not God’s sovereignty) stands in the way of you being healed. Here Prince is giving false hope to those who are suffering.

There is safety and protection when we draw near to Him and dwell in His sweet presence, His Word, and His house (p. 101). It’s important to note that Prince is not talking about a kind of spiritual protection but a very literal one.

 On p. 103 he notes that protection is guaranteed to all believers of all times just as forgiveness is. (He has equated God’s forgiveness with God’s healing.) He, throughout the whole book, notes that he believes Christians should never have to suffer-they only allow themselves to suffer. From p. 104-105 he “exegetes” (can that word even be used?) the Parable of the Lost Sheep, explaining that it’s about a Shepherd who protects his sheep. Strange: I always thought it was about God finding the nonredeemable (the sinner) and bringing him or her back to his flock. I guess generations of church history got it all wrong.

After reading the book at hand I don’t think it’s speculative to say Prince has a fear of suffering and a fear of not being protected.

Prince has a very strange and scary preoccupation with being protected from any type of suffering and an evident (to me) fear of suffering. As someone passionate about the gospel and about faith in Jesus, I find Prince’s notions to be threatening to the foundations of historical Christianity. His newest release promotes an idea which is utterly contra-Christ and the cross, the idea being ‘Jesus died for you to not suffer and for you to be comfortable.’ I know of nothing which is more anti-Jesus (anti-Christ?) than that. It is evident that Prince does not take half-serious the concept of studying Scripture as he has on every page plunders Bible verses to make them captive to his own pre-determined individualistic theology. He constantly comes up with “unique” interpretations to Bible verses when Bible interpretation 101 states that if you have a “unique” interpretation of a passage, it’s probably wrong and could be more rooted in pride than in an actual revelation from God’s Spirit.

I write this review as a continuist who believes God still operates in the “spectacular.” That said, I cannot identify with the type of Christian who does not see the cross and its implications (namely that it’s normative for Christians to suffer) as central (which is what Prince does without apology throughout this grotesque and terrible excuse for a book). As a student of the Bible I must say that Prince does preach another gospel, a gospel of “think-positive-thoughts” rather than the gospel of “follow me to be crucified” (a pretty negative notion). It does not take a Bible scholar to figure out that Prince is way off in his ill treatment of Scripture.

My friend (and the newest contributor to Overthinking Christian) Alex Pasqal, has this to say about the book:

Joseph Prince goes out of his way to prove how holy and amazing he is; what a great Christian he is; how much he’s done for Christ and for the church. He even gets other people to do it for him throughout dozens of pages of his book. How clever! It is pretty despicable to brag about yourself like that, especially in a book that is supposed to be about something as holy and sacred as prayer. You do not even have to read the first page to see that what comes out of this man’s mind and mouth is lackadaisical and uninspired (just look at the titles and descriptions for his many other books provided in the reading). This book is nothing more than tepid words masquerading as life-changing principles. 

I think the worst thing about this book (and there are many bad things) is that Joseph Prince implicitly and explicitly states that you have control over your life-all you have to do is follow his miraculous advice! If you are getting on a plane, well, you can control that plane to the degree that it won’t malfunction or get overrun by terrorists! If you are in an area where a certain disease is prevalent, you can control not getting that disease (of course, the diseases he mentions are diseases that are prevalent in today’s society)! Joseph Prince seems to always go back to the fact that God is in control, but that really is not what he is saying. He truly reminds me of a salesman trying to sell snake oil. If you read enough of the book and compare and feed it through the Bible, you will see this man for what he is-a poor salesperson trying to make another buck off of someone drawn in by a sales pitch.

The amount of hubris this man has is proven throughout the book, as he states that he has the key to being protected from anything and for any reason. The “key” he mentions reminds me of magical wards that good wizards use to protect themselves from evil wizards in today’s popular books and movies. The only reason I would ever encourage someone to read this book is to understand what is being put out into the world and digested by Christians. This book is a lesson to be very careful with what we receive and process in terms of religious literature. 

*I received this from the Hachette Book Group for an honest evaluation.

“Jesus is Lord, Trump is not:” Re-examining our loyalties

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During these past months I have read some very absurd claims on social media from both a more “liberal” type of Christian and those deemed “conservative.” On the liberal side, I read a fellow Christian I greatly respect make the claim that if you aren’t a part of Black Lives Matter you’re not a Christian. I read later by someone else that you cannot be a Christian and vote democrat. One side (the former) seems to feel that Christianity is simply about mending social issues (which veers greatly towards the social gospel) whereas the other side (the latter) seems to feel that the gospel is the good news of the Republican Party. I do think both of these pictures are incomplete and are gross distortions of what the gospel really is and intends to do.

To make the gospel more about a movement of our day than about Christ and the Cross (and all the radical implications that go with this) is to water down the gospel, sanitizing it beyond recognition. When one cannot fellowship and worship alongside a fellow Christian because he or she belongs to a different party (or voted for someone other than our choice candidate), that is the moment one ceases being Christ-like; that’s when displaying a political candidate has become more important than displaying Jesus to a dying world. Or honoring our party’s virtues has become more important than honoring Christ’s. Or when our political agenda overtakes our primary agenda of pursuing love of God and neighbor.

This isn’t a call for Christians to stay out of politics and social issues of the day but rather a feeble call for a reexamination of our loyalty/loyalties. If you are a Christian and a democrat, remember that you first are a Christian (=your allegiance is first and foremost to Christ); if you’re a Christian and a republican, remember that God did not call you to be pledged to a party but to be pledged to Himself. As Christians we are called to engage issues of our day and yet always remember that Jesus is Lord, Caesar (=Obama/Trump/our party of choice) is not.

If push comes to shove, I will never die for a political party. I hope that as Christians we will bring back the heartbeat of early Christianity, which said that to live for Christ (not a finite and passing institution) is highest gain and honor, second only to dying for Him (an honor which far exceeds even dying for one’s own country).

The Bad Habits of Jesus, Leonard Sweet (book review)

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From my reading of The Bad Habits of Jesus it’s evident that Leonard Sweet is an experienced writer as well as a very creative person. Best selling author and international speaker, a unique style is definitely detected right off the bat as Sweet takes us through Matthew-John to examine Jesus’ bad (=unusual to both secular and sacred standards) habits. Ultimately this book labors to bring to the surface aspects of who Jesus was and what he did that might otherwise be forgotten, zoning in on Jesus himself rather than rushing past the pages of the gospels.

The book is a challenge to Christians to not overlook radical implications of Jesus’ words and ministry and to be reminded of these “bad habits” and the unorthodoxy (the “unprofessional” nature-one can say) of Jesus.

“Jesus wants us to go the second mile, give the second coat, and maybe even give the second kidney” (p. 30).

Each chapter systematically takes on yet another “bad habit” of Jesus and does so in a simplistic manner. In one chapter (speaking of Jesus’ “wastefulness”) Sweet writes that

“We, too, like Jesus, must cultivate the habit of being, in everything we do, wasteful in mercy, extraordinary in love, and extravagant in worship of Jesus the Christ” (p. 32).

In another chapter (focusing on Jesus’ unprofessional tardiness)  he writes that

“Though Jesus had the “nasty habit of…disappearing” (p. 43), he didn’t do so “to avoid people so much as to be in tune with his Father” (p. 47).

I have heard rumors that Sweet is a very liberal dude. I did not get a hint of that in this reading but found that Sweet (based on this book alone) leans toward conservatism. I actually find the title somewhat misleading as I was expecting a fairly provocative book and didn’t get it.

Sweet posits that Jesus’ going off on those working in the Temple was not about money but due to the fact that “they stole the grandeur away from God by serving the institution rather than God” which is what we do “when we love a denomination more than [we]…love God” and “cherish…traditions more than [we]…cherish [our]…relationship with God” (p. 65).

This new release though very basic proves to be an interesting take on Jesus, though Sweet’s style may take some time getting used to.

 

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Sweet has a huge imagination and it’s seriously a gift. But it seems to get away from him at times as what he’s trying to say seems to get lost in his effort to make words dance around on the page.

This book contains one-liners and phrases which are golden and worthy of quoting. Later in the book I was especially reminded of the high priority Jesus placed on children, which was extremely revolutionary in his day. Sweet described this in a very creative way, using here (and throughout the book) some seriously “sweet” language.

That said, The Bad Habits of Jesus is ultimately lacking in substance (if I’m to be completely honest). I feel that this book can be compared to a skeleton lacking the meat and muscle to form a complete body. It is, still an interesting read with many thought-provoking one-liners and little gems.

 

In exchange for an honest assessment Tyndale House Publishers has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.

Guardrails, by Alan Briggs (book review)

guardrails

Director of Frontline Church Planting (located in Colorado) as well as a pastor at Vanguard Church (Colorado Springs), Alan Briggs offers an interesting read on church planting and discipleship. Guardrails: Six Principles for a Multiplying Church (NavPress, 2016) proves to be highly readable as well as simple.

The author starts off with noting how churches look at (more) numbers “as solutions to our problems” when “most churches have no idea what they would or should do with the people God brings them” (p. 4). He hits the importance of contextualizing the gospel, not simply making a model of how to plant a church and sticking with it forever, making it Torah; the importance to evolve and not stagnate (p. 12). At the same time he hits on the need for balance, as while “overstructured organizations need to free up room for new ideas that will allow expansion and new movement, understructured leaders need to prepare themselves to keep their momentum from degenerating into chaos” (p. 13).

…understructured leaders need to prepare themselves to keep their momentum from degenerating into chaos.

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Early on Briggs speaks of the importance of the kingdom of God and “kingdom theology,” drawing from the late Karl Barth. Brigg writes that “the family of God…must live a different narrative in this consumer-driven, me-first, get-ahead…world we live in” (p. 20) and that “Kingdom theology has often been overlooked. Perhaps it doesn’t offer accelerated solutions in a world of quick fixes. Perhaps acknowledging God’s centrality…renders us helpless in a self-help culture” (p. 21). The book shines with many such statements, staying true to simplicity as well as practicality.

Some critiques.

I didn’t feel that Briggs added anything fresh to this topic. At the same time, it’s hard to add anything to something so greatly exhumed and excavated. Though Guardrails is not bad per say, it tends to be a generic read on discipleship. (This is just my two cents.)

The second issue I have is that though Briggs holds interesting perspectives, at times I find myself wondering what he’s trying to say, many sentences seeming like words awkwardly jumbled together. Many parts in the book could probably use a tad more editing.

 

*I received a free copy of this book from Tyndale in exchange for an honest assessment.

The Issue of Nationalism (in “10 problems plaguing modern Christianity”)

apollo-148722_1280Much word count by the apostle Paul is dedicated to the reconciliation of different ethnic groups (mainly Jews and Gentiles). To Paul, his Messiah and Lord  wasn’t crucified simply to reconcile humans to God but rather God went a radical step further. Using the detested symbol of the cross, he did what no one else was trying to do (or wanted to be done!).

Michael J. Gorman in his Reading Revelation Responsibly quotes Gregory Boyd who writes, “In our minds-as so often in our sanctuaries-the cross and the American flag stand side by side” (p. 51).* From the inception of our country to be Christian and to be American were synonymous. We are suffering the effects of that today as many in the church are far more American than they are Christian. Many believe the 2nd amendment is a “God-given right.” Even a second-hand glance at the New Testament will leave you with a sense that we’re called to the giving up of rights, not the holding on to them  with both hands clasped tightly.

 

The reconciliation noted earlier is stifled when churches become breeding grounds of nationalism. No one nation is better than another nation; at least that’s what the whole of Scripture informs us. But our nation was founded on a general belief that we (Americans) are God’s chosen people-God’s new Israel; the city on a hill. (I.e., we’re superior.) The question is, has this notion ever even left?

 

*Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest of Political Power is Destroying the church,  p. 12.

A Call to Mercy (book review)

a-callBased on M. (Mother) Teresa’s lifework and teachings, A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve (Image, 2016) is beautifully and thoughtfully written. With different stories from different sources all smoothly compiled, the book promises to not be a bore (though it is a long read, 332 pages in total). Edited by one (Father) Brian Kolodiejckuk, it celebrates the incredible lifework and thought process of M. Teresa.

Provocative and simple, this will come handy to anyone looking for a primer on this historical figure. Stressed in the book was the fact that she took the words of Christ literally-that if you feed the poor you feed Christ; if you clothe the poor you are really clothing Christ. It’s simply Christ in his “distressing disguise,” (a term used throughout the book).

Some time ago one woman came with her child to me and said, “Mother, I went to two, three places to beg some food, for we have not eaten for three days but they told me that I am young and I must work and eat. No one gave me anything.” I went to get some food and by the time I returned the baby in her hand had died of hunger. I hope it was not our convents that refused her (p.4).

During especially the beginning sections I was left with the growing sense that American Christians need a reeducation regarding how we view the poor and homeless. An event is recorded in which she (M. Teresa) is criticized for feeding the poor instead of teaching them how to fish. Her response is that too many poor people don’t have the strength to even hold a fishing pole. They first must be fed and rehabilitated; then they can fish (or be left on their own).

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She loved Jesus with all she had, and therefore would love the poor and mistreated with all she had. (As noted already, she took the notion that the poor and hungry really are Christ very seriously; her caring for the poor was (to her) a caring for her savior.) Emphasizing our call as Christians to sacrifice, she notes that if love doesn’t hurt then it’s not really love.

What I can admire most of this “saint” upon reading A Call to Mercy is not her seemingly-immeasurable compassion but rather the fact that she was prone to action. This book very well could be called A Call to Action! I was reminded immensely of the radical Christ I read about in the gospels and for that reason alone I recommend this book.

A Call to Mercy has stirred me to not neglect “the hungry Christ, the naked Christ, and the homeless Christ” (p. 37).  In its pages I was reminded of my privileged status (and therefore my responsibility to help Christ in his distressing disguise). That I don’t suffer like the least of these but (as M. Teresa said), my “sufferings are nothing compared to the suffering of the poor” (p. 45).

 

*I received this book from Blogging For Books for an honest assessment.

The ESV’s bizzare decision to never make (textual) decisions again

blogggIt’s been announced that no more changes will ever (need to be) made to the popular ESV translation of the Bible. This is all very odd since the very purpose of Bible translation is to put the words of God in the words of the common man. In twenty years we will say things very differently than we do now. And what of forty years? And sixty?

That the words of the Bible need to change with time is not some new liberal agenda but rather common sense, the very lifework of Luther, Tyndale, and Wycliffe! As to why the ESV committee seems to believe they’ve arrived at “perfection” I cannot say. But for a more thorough analysis by more qualified authors click here.

 

Go, by Preston Sprinkle (book review)

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With wit and clarity, in his new release Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith (NavPress, 2016) Preston Sprinkle argues that we have lost touch with what Biblical discipleship is all about. Vice President at Eternity Bible College (Boise Campus) as well  as a bestselling author and speaker, Sprinkle’s  dedication to Scripture is evident on every page of this book, as well as his his passion for Christ and the Church. Drawing from various studies as well as the stories of many Christians, he labors to provide an overall portrait of the America church in regards to discipleship. And the picture he paints is not a pretty one.

“While many Christians say they want to become more like Jesus, the Jesus they’re imagining is largely a modern (and American) [Jesus]” (p. 4).

Though some churches may be convinced of the effectiveness of their discipleship programs based on the numbers, Sprinkle points out that the numerical growth of many churches happens only because Christians leave another church and join theirs, not because non-Christians are being converted. Opposing “one-size-fits-all discipleship programs” (p. 91), he posits that we need to return to Scripture with fresh eyes and re-learn what discipleship according to the New Testament (NT) entails.

 

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A Plea for Holistic Thinking

Discipleship (or becoming like Jesus, his definition) is actually really simple, Sprinkle argues; it’s we who have muddied the waters. We’ve made discipleship about church programs or Bible studies (which Sprinkle never downplays) but we’ve forgotten that discipleship is actually incorporated into all of life (it’s holistic) and not just in the “spiritual” things we do.

That the American church is plagued by a deep dualism is an underlying argument throughout the whole book, a dualism which separates ‘secular’ from ‘sacred.’ It’s when we look at discipleship through this lens that we make it about certain activities instead of all of life. Ultimately this dualism is man’s addition to the Bible and is not a help but a hindrance to true and organic discipleship, standing in the way of us participating in the true kind of discipleship that Jesus prescribed.

He pleads that we “move beyond thinking of discipleship in terms of how many hours we spend doing church activities and engaging in spiritual alone time;” that “When your entire vocation is viewed as mission, there are very few hours that aren’t discipleship” (p. 77). He believes that only a number of Christians think of discipleship holistically, “where we become like Christ in the way we think about art, beauty, economics, immigration, and science (among other things)” (p. 77).

A plea for Creativity

Though, as already noted, Western Christians seem to have made discipleship solely about church programs, throughout the book many stories are shared of Christians who do discipleship in unorthodox ways (not the “normal” or “expected” ways). Some Christians may not be able to fathom that these unorthodox ways are discipleship because they think of only Bible studies (and/or “spiritual” things) as discipleship. This is because of the secular/sacred divide noted already, but also because we don’t seem to allow for creativity in how we disciple.

Based on a recent in-depth study, Sprinkle believes that “many people would not leave the church if the church was doing a better, more holistic, and more creative job at discipling its people” (p. 13). (This is not coming from some hippie liberal Christian-no offense if that’s you-but from the guy who runs one of Francis Chan’s colleges.) Of course I can already hear the objections to this statement; “If they were Christian they wouldn’t have left the church in the first place.” But this is a great generalization and oversimplification which tends to excuse inexcusable behavior from fellow Christians. I’m grateful Sprinkle seems to realize this.

A Plea for True Community

In ch. 3 he emphasizes the essential aspect of community if we’re going to become like Christ. Noted is the fact that many who have left the church express that ‘community’ is the very thing they yearned for and the very thing that was lacking from churches in their experience. Sprinkle stresses that we cannot become like Christ in isolation, that to become like Jesus we need “Authentic relationships. Relationships where people can share their intimate struggles, confess their socially unacceptable sins, and rely on others for spiritual strength. But these types of relationships are fairly rare among Christians” (p. 42).

“Relationships where people can share their intimate struggles, confess their socially unacceptable sins, and rely on others for  spiritual strength…are fairly rare among Christians.”

 

A Plea for Christians to think (for themselves)

Emphasizing the need for the church to create a safe atmosphere for discussion, Sprinkle writes “We can’t be scared of hard questions, and we need to stop giving prepackaged, canned responses to complex issues” especially since “one of the biggest complaints about Christians, especially from younger people, is that we are too scared or ill-equipped to think through the tough questions of the day. …we keep regurgitating dogmatic answers to complex questions… And many people are fleeing our churches because of it” (p. 105).

Devoting a large word count to the Christian and his/her vocation, he informs us of a study which reveals that 51% of youth teens hope to work in science-related fields and yet (in this study) in the course of a year only 1% of youth pastors discussed science in relation to faith. Sprinkle attributes this silence to fear, as “many churches tend to demonize the sciences for fear that Christians will lose their faith and become evolutionists.” But he insists that “the church should not be fearful of science; rather, it should learn how to thoughtfully engage the scientific world around it—a world that many of its members will be living in” (all on p. 79).

He stresses the need for churches to create space for healthy discussion and yes, even disagreement, insisting that “One’s interpretation of Genesis 1-2 does not have to be a gospel issue” and that “churches need to resist being controlled by fear-driven rhetoric and…explore ways in which they can nurture and train people to think critically about matters of faith and science. If the church doesn’t do it, the university will” (all on p. 80).

A Plea for a “Multicolored gospel” (his term)

Sprinkle notes the obvious-that most churches in America are homogeneous. Though America has people who are poor, middle class, and rich, usually individual churches will consist of mainly poor, middle class, or rich members. Though America has white, black, Latino, etc., usually our churches are filled with the same race of people. Sprinkle reminds us of how just much the NT deals with race and reconciliation. He notes that according to studies most churches have no problem with homogeneity. But Sprinkle argues that we should see this as a problem since

“…we understand God better–and can therefore live more like God–when we learn from and listen to a diverse group of people” (p. 138).

He also notes the importance of “gender reconciliation” in discipleship, stressing the importance of “making sure women don’t feel undervalued, underappreciated, or nonessential for the mission of the church” (p. 134).

A Plea for Simplicity

Sprinkle questions why so much of our money (as well as so much time for those on staff) is going to a weekly service. He takes us back to the NT where money was given by early Christians for things like helping those in poverty and supporting missionaries. A study indicates that around 60% of not only money from the church but time from the pastor and staff go into the “production” of the weekly gathering. I find this statistic troubling and true (having worked in churches and serving in one). Sprinkle makes clear he is not for doing away with gathering together, but he is questioning why our gathering together needs to cost so much.

This chapter is recapped perfectly here in Preston Sprinkle’s short blog post titled Do We Really Need That Chandelier?

A plea for biblical literacy

This is an underlying theme throughout the whole book. Sprinkle, like many, is alarmed at the fact that though the Bible is more accessible than ever it remains highly neglected. He’s concerned that Christians arrive at conclusions based off of what other Christians have said rather than what God(‘s Word) says.

 

Concluding thoughts

There’s a lot more than I noted packed in these 181 pages that just cannot be squeezed into one book review. But I will say that Go proves to not be yet another generic book on discipleship. Though its author holds a PhD and is vice President of a college, you wouldn’t know it as Go is thankfully very readable (I finished it in two days!). It was a real page turner for me that I highly recommend.

I love the fact that you cannot categorize Sprinkle into a “liberal” or “conservative” based on this book since he doesn’t seem to fit either mold. Rather his passion for Scripture and what it really says (rather than how it may be commonly understood) supersedes any such categorization. He is very passionate about Scripture leading the way as he grapples with what it’s really saying. Because of this, conservatives will find portions of his book offensive while liberals will be angry that he won’t side with them on certain issues. Yet he relentlessly lets Scripture (not tradition or culture) dictate his theology and way of thinking.

I regard what this book has to offer as a much-needed prophetic message, a corrective to much of our bad (Gnostic and unbiblical) theology. I agree, unfortunately, with the author’s assessment that the American church doesn’t think about discipleship the way Jesus did and therefore doesn’t do discipleship the way he did. (I personally look at discipleship differently after reading this.) This book comes highly recommended by me! Anyone who wants to better understand (biblical) discipleship should buy this.

 

(*Preston Sprinkle heads a blog which deals with hard questions and divisive issues in Christianity, ranging from the 2nd amendment to homosexuality and much more; check it out here.)

Oh yeah! I obtained a complimentary copy of Go from Tyndale Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

 

A conversation with author Dave Hickman (Interview)

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Below is an interview which I conducted with author and speaker Dave Hickman regarding his new release ‘Closer Than Close’ (a book which attempts to bring “union with Christ” back to the forefront and comes highly recommended by me).

 

Paul: You did something pretty rare in that you dealt with many abstract theological ideas in a way that a non-academic can easily understand. Was it a struggle to maintain such readability?

Dave: It was very, very difficult; I knew it would be. Almost every book on the topic of “union” with Christ is written for an academic audience. Even “contemporary” books that attempt to be more accessible are still either too long, too complex, or written with an overbearing seminary professor in the back of the authors mind. I took two years to research the doctrine of union with Christ, and in doing so, read dangerously close to every book I could find on the topic. I then took six months to process the information and filter it down into the most important “big idea” of the doctrine. I then took another six months to actually present that “big idea” in writing using personal stories, popular analogies, Scripture, and witty examples. In the end, the book is 168 pages that I (hope) average, ordinary Christians (like me) can understand and appreciate. Fredrick Buchner once said that writing is like, “opening a vein.” For me, writing Closer Than Close was more like trying to squeeze a pumpkin back into a seed. It was very hard—gut-wrenching to be honest.

Paul: I was struck by how Trinitarian your book was in that you zoned in on God as three persons with three individual roles. Can you shed some light on your own personal journey to better understanding the Trinity in this way?

Dave: Growing up in the evangelical church, I heard a LOT about Jesus. A LOT. I rarely, however, heard much about the role or persons of the Father and Holy Spirit. Because Jesus was the sole focus of the Christian faith, the Father and the Son drifted off into obscurity in my mind. This served to divorce Jesus (in my thinking and faith experience) from the life and love of the Father and Spirit, and ultimately from my own human experience. In short, the “union” of the Holy Three was not center stage, but secondary to my “personal relationship” with the second person of the Trinity (i.e. Jesus). When I discovered salvation as a “union” with Christ, it naturally led me to awaken the beauty and wonder of the union God has eternally shared with himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. This is the union of all unions. Rediscovering my personal and corporate union with Christ led me into a much more Trinitarian understanding of God in faith and practice.

Paul: Throughout the book an underlying theme is to rest in Christ, not self-effort. Why do you feel some Christian leaders are weary of emphasizing this?

Dave: Because, as one pastor fearfully asked, “If Christians are already as “close” to Jesus as possible, what’s the motivation for ongoing discipleship?” **Facepalm** The wide-swath of evangelical soteriology presents discipleship as the ongoing and perpetual attempt to get “closer and closer” to Jesus over time. This can be achieved, per most evangelical expressions of sanctification, by doing things you “should” (i.e. reading the Bible, praying, and going to church) and NOT doing the things you shouldn’t (smoking, drinking, and hanging out with people who do). This has led many into the dark (and never-ending) abyss of performance-based acceptance, and a works based proximity to the person of Jesus. The “pastoral” concern is that if salvation is communicated as a perfect union between the believer and Jesus, then Christians may become apathetic in their spiritual “walk.” While certainly logical, this is simply not scriptural OR practical. This “proximity” based logic, as some theologians have argued, is rooted in fear and control. To show this logic wanting, I like to point to my union to my wife, Monica. When I asked Monica to marry me and become “one” with me 14 years ago, it was not so I might have the opportunity to become apathetic in loving her and serving her. No! In fact, the opposite is true. I asked Monica to become “one” with me so that I may understand her (and myself) MORE and come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of my “one flesh” union with her! Therefore, the “spiritual life” is like the “married life”: It’s the ongoing process of deepening my awareness and appreciation of the union I already share with God the Father, Son, and Spirit, NOT the process by which I strive to become more and more “one” with God over time. In the words of Richard Rohr, the Christian life is one of having “already arrived.” If this is true, then the pursuit of God is over; we have been “found IN him.” We have been made one with Christ, not 99.9% “one” with the hope of being faithful enough to one day become perfectly one with him. Awakening to the freedom of our ever-now union with Christ changes our motivation for prayer, scripture reading, and the like. How could it not? Instead of approaching these disciplines with a dreadful sense of “should,” we are free to approach those holy moments with a heart full of awe and wonder at the ineffable union we already share with the Father, Son, and Spirit. If that doesn’t fire us up as believers, and provide us with a renewed sense of joy and excitement in our communion (common-union) with God, we may want to check our spiritual pulse! 

Paul: Do you find any merit to their concerns?

Dave: Of course. But again, the concern is rooted in a fear of freedom not an appreciation and thankfulness for the freedom we have. The argument that, in union with Christ, Christians will want to sin MORE, is simply not true. Why? Because, if we have died with Christ, as Paul says, we have died to sin by virtue of our union with him! If we are fearful that being united to Christ will birth a desire to sin more, we do not understand the gospel! Fear is never a healthy (or lasting) motivator; love is. When we awaken to the freedom of our union with Christ, and understand who we are IN Christ, we discover a life free from striving and one that is defined by abiding; a life not based by “proximity” to Jesus through our effort, but one of gradual and grace-filled conformity to the one in whom we are united. With that said, the spiritual disciplines, in the words of Richard Foster, are one of a “disciplined grace.” There is a work for us to do, but that work has more to do with intentional positioning than constant pressing. The work is to position ourselves (like “working” on our tan) in order for the Son to do what the Son does naturally—conform us into the image of himself.

Paul: Do you have any pointers for those of us who struggle with the tension between legalism (or “doing” for God) and inactivity?

Dave: This presumes that “inactivity” is non-spiritual. This dualistic understanding divorces our everyday lives (i.e. boiling eggs, doing the dishes, showering) from our “spiritual” lives (i.e. praying, reading the bible, and going to church). Sometimes, the MOST spiritual thing we can do is to sit alone in silence and solitude (i.e. “do nothing”). Abbot John Eudes Bamberger in writing to Henri Nowen, said it best to his dear friend:

“When you are faithful in [silence] (i.e. inactivity) you will slowly experience for yourself in a deeper way. Because in this useless hour in which you do nothing “important” (i.e. “spiritual”) or urgent (i.e. “should”) you have to come to terms with your basic powerlessness, you have to feel your fundamental inability to solve your or other people’s problems or to change the world. When you do not avoid that experience but live through it, you will find out that your many projects, plans, and obligations become less urgent, crucial, and important and lose their power over you.”

Many see “inactivity” as “useless.” This is simply not true for anyone who has spent time in silence and solitude. Brennan Manning once argued that, “Failure to simply be with the Father, as the beloved, without doing anything, is to gouge the heart out of Christianity.” Christianity is not about “doing,” but about “abiding” (See John 15). Filled with the Spirit of Christ, believers are able to produce fruit (love, joy, peace, etc) naturally; not produce (or become) these in our own effort. The branch of an apple tree does not “have” to strive to produce fruit. It produces fruit naturally as a by-product of simply abiding in the vine. Sometimes (for work-a-holics like me) being intentionally inactive is an appropriate and practical form of repentance from our constant striving. After two degrees in Theology and a lifetime huffing and puffing to produce spiritual fruit, I took an entire year off where I, in the words of Brother Lawrence, ceased “all forms of devotion and set prayers except those to which my state required.” And on the backside of that year, I can tell you that I grew MORE in my understanding of who God is and in the practice of prayer, than all my previous years combined. In short, I was forced, in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, to “accept my own acceptance.” And sometimes, that is the hardest work we can “do.”

Paul: You talk about escapism in one chapter in particular. What do you feel has contributed to the strong leanings of escapism in churches? Do you detect a single root cause? Or perhaps different factors?

Dave: Escapism is rampant in evangelical expressions of corporate worship. Services are filled with constant stimulants (lights, videos, sounds, tweeting, etc) that keep believers from having to come face-to-face with themselves and their own depravity and their ineffable belovedness. Isn’t that what escapism is all about? Filling our lives with outside stimulation in order to mute what we know to be true of ourselves—broken but dearly loved? If I had to detect a single root cause of escapism in the church, I might point to the “attractional” approach of corporate worship. Because we know human beings (in their brokenness) are most comfortable in highly stimulating, self-evading, anonymous environments, our worship “productions” offers attendees with an atmosphere perfect for escape. In doing this, however, the church mirrors a culture in which many believers (and non-believers) long to escape. We long for silence. We long for stillness. We long to “be” and not be bombarded with messaging, marketing, and noise. The more I have come to awaken to the freedom of my union with Christ, I have found myself gravitating more to liturgical and sacramental expressions of corporate worship—communal times that are just “boring” enough for me to face myself and my brokenness and come face-to-face with a God who, despite my unworthiness, gives himself freely in the midst of my insatiable desire to hide myself from him.

Paul: You cite a wide array of scholars and authors. Which scholars have most impacted your life and theology?

Dave: Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Jurgen Moltmann, Tom Torrance, John D. Zizioulas, Robert Letham, Miroslav Volf, Donald Fairbairn.

Paul: Which authors?

Dave: George Maloney, Dom Eugene Boylan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Fil Anderson, Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen.

Paul: You talk about God being a God of relation evidenced by the Old Testament.  Why do you think this gets lost in many circles which tend to view the “OT” and “NT” God as different gods, and only the “NT god” as relational?

Dave: Gosh, it’s hard to get any more relational than God as revealed in the Old Testament, in my opinion. Throughout the Old Testament narrative, God is described and experienced as a “father,” “bridegroom,” “lover,” and “husband” to his people. Even in the face their constant (and intentional) rebellion, God sends prophets, priests, and kings to comfort, care for, and call his beloved people back to himself. Certainly, there are parts in the Old Testament narrative that leaves readers scratching their heads. Yet, in light of God’s supremacy and justice (which are not subject to our approval), we discover a loving and relational God who longs to not just be “close” to his people, but “one” with them. In the Incarnation, God fulfills this eternal longing through the enfleshing of his own Son who fully assumed our nature into himself, thus healing our humanity. There, in the person of Jesus Christ, we are able to see clearly who God is and what God is like in our own nature! How’s that for “relational?” In the person of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, we see a God who hates injustice and abuse; and one who longs to stand in solidarity with humanity and heal our brokenness.

 

Thanks, Dave! Looking forward to your next book.

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