Book Review: “Restoring Dignity, Nourishing Hope: Developing Mutuality in Mission”

This book is deceptively short but balances theory and practice in an expert way.  Published in 2016 by Pilgrim Press and edited by Jonathan Barnes and Peter E. Makari, “Restoring Dignity, Nourishing Hope”  is a primer for those who want to know what Global Mission looks like in 2016.  Gone are the colonial stereotypes, paternalism, and  bringing civilization “from the West to the rest.”  Replacing outmoded models of mission with models that recognize 21st Century realities is the main theme of the book.

Written by members of and partners in mission with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, this book understands mission as partnership.  In its concise ten chapters the book invites U.S. mainline Protestants to be attuned to the idea of mission as an essential part of the Christian ministry.  In other words, engagement with people outside the doors of the church (be it 5 feet away or thousands of miles away) is not some optional form of ministry or extra credit but essential to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The book is a good mixture of the Biblical interpretation/theology and practical applications.  In one more theoretical chapter, Beverly Eileen Mitchell grounds the idea of mission in the doctrine of the Trinity–meaning that mission takes its shape from the Triune God.  Therefore, mission is communal, relational, and dynamic.  Using the Trinity as the basis for mission also means that congregations respond to God’s action in mission wherever they are and wherever they act.  It is part of God’s plan for the world to work together for the Divine glory.

Practical stories of folks in mission make up the central portion of the book–including stories of mission in Guatemala, Kenya, Hong Kong, Hungary, South Korea, Venezuela, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A standout chapter is written by Mohammad Sammak, founding member of the Arab Group for Muslim-Christian dialogue.  For the Christian neophyte who wants RDNH.covermech_largeto understand more about Islam, Sammak provides a great amount of information about inter-religious dialogue in the Mid-East.

Tom Morse, Executive for Mission Education and Interpretation of the Disciples Office of Mission/Global Ministries has written a very enlightening chapter.  He defines the financial challenge of mission and resources and provides a practical lense through which to view Western mission offerings.  Mr. Morse provides us with a very short checklist for us to determine whether a donation of money is appropriate or not in this global, postmodern culture.   This chapter would be especially helpful to church governing bodies, treasurers, or stewardship committees because Mr. Morse asks surprising questions about our motivation in giving–in the hopes of providing just as surprising answers!

The material in this book is essential for anyone who wants to understand mission in our post-modern world but it would be especially useful for Missions Teams of Churches, Bible Study Groups, Association and Conference Mission Agencies, clergy study groups, and pastors.  Every chapter concludes with probing discussion questions.  In addition, there is an extensive bibliography for further research and discussion.




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Book Review: “Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church” by Mark Driscoll

Driscoll Confessions-1Do you ever have the experience of reading the first few chapters of a book and you think, “Wow, this author has read my mail!” and you want to tell everyone how great a book it is and how you wish that you could meet the author and share the insights with everyone you meet?  And then, after peaking early, the book begins a slow slide down to its inevitable conclusion and you think, “What happened?”  That was my experience with Mark Driscoll’s “Confessions.”

The book begins with a really powerful opening chapter entitled, “Ten Curious Questions,” which detail the cultural influences on the church and mission in 21st Century America.  Driscoll helpfully and fruitfully looks at Christianity as a missional movement, meaning that Christians can no longer pay someone ‘over there’ to do our mission work.  We Christians have to be about taking the gospel into our neighborhoods seriously.  He uses some biblical images to build up a Christian community and talks the very real divides in the church along liberal, conservative, evangelical, emerging and emergent lines.  I found all of this discussion extremely helpful.  The next couple of chapters talk about Driscoll’s plan for investigating Seattle like a missionary and how he helped to build a mega-church.  The chapters are peppered with ideas from Malcolm Gladwell, Lyle Schaller, Donald Miller and Dan Kimball.  Throughout Driscoll offers some pretty innovative ideas and Biblical concepts alongside a quirky sense of humor.  He seemed honest and upfront about mistakes he had made and how he had learned from those mistakes.

Somewhere about mid-book, though, I got a sinking feeling.  Driscoll concludes his chapter on ecclesiology by pointing out that his model is ‘biblical’ and that his insights from his ecclesial studies prove that “Jesus .  . . only appoints men to the highest position of spiritual leadership.”  Here the author seems to deny that there are a variety of biblical ecclesiologies and theologies and his holding out only one as THE biblical way is really reductionist.  (And as a UCC pastor, I took issue with his understanding of congregational ecclesiology as a church “led by . . . majority vote.” No, we are not.  Our only head is Jesus Christ the Lord.)  Driscoll’s arguments here can be reduced down to “I felt this was where God was leading us” but without a context or a tradition or a community, how does the author know any of this is God’s vision?  Could it be Driscoll’s alone?  Or as Scrooge said in “A Christmas Carol” an undigested bit of cheese?  It strikes me as very individualistic, a perspective that I would propose the Bible, by and large, does not share.

About this time the narrative really ramps up the uses of “about me,” “with me,” “my church,” and so on.  He made a lot of decisions at this point in his ministry that were of the my-way-or-the-highway-type.  The talk of biblical models and Jesus Christ starts to fade and self-talk of the author begins to build.  He seems to thrive on conflict and on people playing king of the hill.   Several faithful and ‘godly’ (Driscoll’s term) men were let go in organizational shuffles to help advance the mission.  My problem here is not so much on the nature of the re-shuffling–it happens all the time–but for one so concerned about the Biblical context for mission to use secular standards and models for hiring and firing, seems to go against the earlier groundwork laid by Driscoll when he claimed he would “repent of everything” that did not conform with Jesus’ mission for the city.  Perhaps the most revealing example of this comes in chapter six when, due to the growth of the congregation, the author pulled back from his availability by getting a new phone, email and moving to a new home (in order that most congregants could not find him)!  Although I applaud the author’s intent to draw boundaries (it is his responsibility to draw and maintain clear boundaries), I must ask what sort of Biblical model requires a withdrawal from the community of which one is part?  I can’t see it.  It seems here that the author drops the ball–it may be appropriate from secular or even a practical mega-church pastor standpoint.  However, I do have some concerns about the congruence of this withdrawal with the Biblical Witness.  It is a shame that the author did not develop this point more.

In conclusion, I like the opening chapters when it seems there was more humility and introspection.  There are some great insights before the church begins it fantastic growth spurt.  However, the book feels a little unfinished for me–like the principles laid down in the early parts of the book don’t bring the conclusions over the goal line.   Another interesting point will be relevance–the book was written in 2006–how will its conclusions look in 10 years?  Happy reading!

What to listen to while reading this book:  Driscoll name drops Dave Bazan as one time worship leader at his church.

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Book Review: “With the Grain of the Universe” by Stanley Hauerwas

“With the Grain of the Universe” is an ambitious work by Stanley Hauerwas, professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University.  In it, Hauerwas makes the case that the truly innovative theologian of the 20th Century re: Natural Theology was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who rejected any claim that such a thing as natural theology could exist.

In short, natural theology is the idea that we can get ideas about God through means other than God’s expression of God’s self.  That means we can know some things about God from biology, nature, poetry, politics and so on.  Karl Barth was at the center of a fierce theological debate in the mid-20th Century as to whether natural theology was a good idea or even possible.  Hauerwas contrasts Barth’s position with William James and Reinhold Niebuhr, two very different scholars.

Essentially, Hauerwas’ argument is this:  James and Niebuhr used the insights from psychology and pragmatism to create their natural theology.  But in so doing, they (especially the Christian pastor and ethicist Niebuhr) unintentionally jettisoned all that made Christianity Christian.  In other words, the God discovered through Niebuhr and James is not the God of the Bible.  Therefore, modern people of goodwill can take Niebuhr straight but do not need nor want his theological insights because you can get the same results without committing oneself to following Christ.  Barth, though, begins with God and what God tells us about himself, and therefore is a more useful Christian ethicist.

Still with me?  Okay, good.  Now onto analysis:  Surely, Hauerwas is on to something when he points to the innovation of Karl Barth in rejecting natural theology.  Barth argued with many of the main figures in European theology over this very point because he felt that any allowance for knowledge of God, outside of God’s own revelation, allowed for misinterpretation and misuse.  In the context of mid-20th Century theology, Nazi propaganda pointed to the natural world and the supposed superiority of the Aryan race as signs of God’s favor.  Barth warned all his contemporaries that even a little natural theology could be so exploited.  It is from this perspective that Hauerwas basically claims that Barth is a much more effective Christian witness than Niebuhr.

However, much as I love Hauerwas, I don’t think he plays fair with the theology of Niebuhr in this book.  He only cursorily examines what Niebuhr himself claimed what he was trying to do.  Nowhere does Niebuhr ever claim to be a comprehensive, dogmatic, systematic theologian like Karl Barth.  Instead, he is trying to do theology in the public square.  Although Hauerwas is surely right that much of Niebuhr’s greatest work “The Nature and Destiny of Man”  is pragmatist and humanist, rather than solely Christocentric, one must never forget that Niebuhr was writing to secular men and women who were pragmatists and humanists, as well as Christians!  Barth on the other hand, tellingly entitled his magnum opus, “Church Dogmatics.”  Clearly the two men had different emphases, so it’s hard for me to see why Hauerwas would criticize Niebuhr for failing to promote a church theology, when Niebuhr’s expressed goal was to keep theology out of a churchly ghetto.

Now this is not to say that ghetto-izing theology was Barth’s project.  Quite the contrary.  In chapters 6 through 8, Hauerwas makes it clear that his criteria for an effective theology is a clear throated witness to Jesus Christ.  And he’s right that Barth has no peer in this arena.  Barth is a great witness to Jesus Christ and certainly the greatest theological witness the Protestant Church had in the last century.  However, when you crack apart Hauerwas’ main thesis–that Niebuhr’s witness is weak and Barth’s strong–once you leave the realm of academia and the seminary there is some bumpy road ahead.  What does one do with Niebuhr’s powerful Cold War anticommunism?  Isn’t that a great witness to freedom through Christ and against totalitarianism?  How come Barth’s witness falls so short when dealing with gender roles and marriage–which are the weakest parts of Barth’s theological system?  Hauerwas is strangely quiet on the more explicitly Christian parts of Niebuhr’s theology, putting a lot of weight on the apologetic sections.

Perhaps the most unsatisfying part of the book is its conclusion.  To show how witness works in Barth’s ethics and how it is superior to Neibuhr, Hauerwas cites two non-Barthians, John Howard Yoder and Pope John Paul II.  This left me scratching my head because after many pages of critiquing Niebuhr’s natural theology, Hauerwas chooses two theologians, who Barth would never accept in his theological system.  For they both allow pragmatic, humanist, naturalist arguments about the nature of God and theology (admittedly Pope John Paul did this much more than Yoder).  Why would you bring in these two heavy hitters to show that Barth’s method is superior, when, well, they didn’t use Barth’s method?

This is a good book to read but it is not an easy one.  I found myself reading it with lots of other texts open beside me to further find quotes and ideas.  And Hauerwas’ chapter on Barth and the controversy of Natural Theology is one of the best deliniations of the issues.  Though I think Barth was wrong here, it is good to study this and Hauerwas explains it very well.

What to listen to when reading this book:  easy, Barth’s favorite composer, W.A. Mozart!

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Book Review: “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy

So, the other night I caught “No Country for Old Men” on the television.  And loved it.  Sure, it was violent, strange, demanding but it was also Blood-Meridiandeep, thoughtful, and a great story.  So I wandered over to the local library to find the book by Cormac McCarthy on which the film was based.  No luck.  However, the library did have a version of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”  I had read “The Road” a couple of years prior and didn’t have strong opinions about it either way.  So, with the idea of, “What have I got to lose?,” I took “Blood Meridian” home.

The first things that jump out at the reader are the unique McCarthy style and the graphic violence.  McCarthy uses punctuation and capitalization in an infrequent and unorthodox manner.  I found the style a bit disconcerting at the beginning but if you give the book 50 or so pages, your imagination adjusts.  And the writing style is austere and tight–it fits well for the setting of the desert Southwest of the United States.  The violence starts early in the novel and, though it begins small (hand to hand combat, bar fights), it spirals out of control–getting more depraved and graphic.

The 19th Century story revolves around a nameless “Kid” who joins a mission to scalp Apache Indians in an expedition led by John Glanton.  Though Glanton is the titular head of the expedition, the real leading personality is Judge Holder.  A giant, bald albino, Judge Holder is the true villain of the piece and his presence horrifically broods over much of the novel.  Holder is a sadist, a sexual deviant, a megalomaniac.  McCarthy’s symbolism is most adept here–with the giant Holder feeding all his immoral appetites, with no one to limit him.  He consumes and consumes, as an evil after-image of, perhaps, Mellville’s Moby Dick.

The author deftly plays with our ideas of good and evil.  At times, we wish for the Glanton gang to do well, to survive their task.  Yet, any exhilaration we feel following a victory is deflated after the reader witnesses the bloodlust and sheer nihilism of the company.  No one emerges innocent.  No one is untouched.  Indeed, I feel that is the purpose of the graphic descriptions of violence–averting their eyes was no option for the Mexican villagers set upon by the gang or the Native women and children.  The violence is everywhere.

This is not to say that “Blood Meridian” has no moral compass.  In fact, I would argue that it is a very moral book.  The author seems to be calling into question our idolization of violence as a solution to our problems as well as our easy dualism which separates the good from the bad.  I have a hunch that McCarthy would agree with Solzhenitsyn’s aphorism, “The line separating good and evil passes . . . right through every human heart.”
The penultimate meeting between Holder and the Kid is an illustration of the warring of good and evil in the soul.  Additionally, it is some of the most dramatic and gripping writing I have ever read.  The Judge and the Kid stand nose to nose (figuratively) in a scene that is reminiscent of Jesus’ 40-day temptation with the Devil.

iron-and-wine-around-the-well-300x300I can’t say that this is an easy read.  Nor can I say that I picked it up and read right through it.  Particularly in the first part of the book, I was put off by the violence and the prose.  But I stuck with it–both elements are vital to the story that McCarthy tells.  And he tells it with genius and passion.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Tough one this.  Although the music is a bit more ‘sunny’ than fits the subject matter, I’d vote for Iron & Wine, “Around the Well.” 

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Book Review: Nightfall (1991) by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg

First, I must confess my guilty pleasure:  I love pulp fiction!  There’s something about the writing of John D. MacDonald, Robert Bloch, and early Asimov that I find irresistible.  So, know that I’m not going to bash this book because of some dislike of Asimov.  I loved Nemesis (maybe I’ll review it here someday) and the Robot series is awesome!

But Nightfall was a tough one for me.  It is about a planet that has never known sunsets–it has six suns.  The major plot point is that all the suns will set at the same time for the first time in recorded history.  People who have never known darkness experience it and it drives individuals, and the society in which they live, mad.  While it sounds like an interesting premise, I feel there’s a huge hole in the plot.  Does no one on this planet have a basement?  They’ve never built a root cellar?  Or gone caving?  What happens when they close their eyes?  My wife says I’m being pedantic and that this is a novel of ideas and the idea of the primal darkness is what Asimov and Silverberg are going for here.  I just can’t see it.  Besides–the sunsets?  It’s only for twelve or so hours!  You mean we can’t wait this thing out?

I like the idea of people who have never known dark encountering it.  But this idea sounds a lot better than the complicated plot, the overly dramatic characters and stilted dialogue (never Asimov’s strong suit).  The darkness occurs midway through the novel; leaving the last third for wrapping up earlier plot points and it just draaaags.  Had they stopped the novel at the darkness–it could have been a cool thought experiment.  As it stands, there are a lot of characters who re-emerge on the far side of the dark catastrophe and, I’ve got to be honest, it’s hard to care about what happened.

What to listen to when reading this book:  You know, there is a surprising lot of rock written about outer space.  Mr. Roboto, Gary Numan, Sufjan Stevens, The Pixies.  But I’ve got to go with the classic here.  David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust.

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Book Review: Walker Percy “Love in the Ruins”

Read Walker Percy! A copy of “Love in the Ruins” costs about–what?–15 dollars which is way cheaper than a therapist appointment or reading the collected works of Freud. And it will help your soul much more.

“Lost in the Ruins” tells the story about Thomas More, a medical doctor in a futuristic and broken America. There is a race war about to erupt, the churches have fallen apart, both political parties are polarized, gated communities exist side-by-side with the communally homeless who have dropped out–hence the ruins of the the title. Yet, Thomas More seems to be the only one who notices that this world is going crazy. In the past, More has struggled with depression and been committed to a medical facility. It is then that he notes that the patients actually seem less neurotic or damaged than those outside who are wearing their ‘false faces’ or going through the motions.

There is a lot going on in this book. There’s an ‘A’ plot dealing with More’s determination to fall in love–or not; a ‘B’ plot regarding his invention which can diagnose as well as treat mental issues; and a ton of lesser plots. More (and the author) is a Christian, so there’s a great deal of Christian anthropology shot through this novel. More (and Percy, again!) is a physician–so he brings a clinical eye to the narration. On top of that, the novel, though portraying a broken society and broken people, is funny in a wicked kind of way. So, if you have struggled with depression or been close to anyone that has–this novel has been there and back. If you are tired by life and just have the blues, Percy’s prose provides an antidote. Stop reading the internet, turn off the tv, don’t answer the phone and curl up with “Love in the Ruins” as if you are spending time with an old friend.

What to listen to when reading this book: Talking Heads. “Once in a Lifetime”


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