Category Archives: Christianity

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, books, Christianity

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, books, Christianity

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”


Filed under Book Review, books, Christianity