October 17, 2013

Four Views of the Role of Works at the Final Judgment

This book, edited by Alan Stanley, is another nice entry in this very solid series. The four views are all relatively well defended (I found Wilkin's case for works playing no role to be rather feeble). Many Christians (and especially evangelical protestants) will be surprised at the similarities between the views expressed by Schreiner, Dunn, and Barber (a conservative calvinist, a progressive evangelical, and a catholic): they agree that Christians will stand before God at the final judgment and that our works will matter. They do disagree on how those works will be understood (fruit/evidence, necessary condition, meritorious), but the unanimity on that basic point will probably surprise many. Paul is the primary focus in a number of the essays and responses, but the whole New Testament is kept in view. The book could have benefited from a Lutheran perspective, I think, given Luther's watershed role in the formation of protestantism and the role of works in that key moment, and also given the centrality of justification in Lutheran thought. Criticism aside, I think this book is a very worthwhile read. It is nicely positioned to be easily understood by nonspecialists, but is still solid scholarship. In the end, I think Dunn is right when he writes, "It is hard to avoid the conclusion, then, that as Paul insisted on the need for faith, so he was equally insistent that his converts should demonstrate their faith by the quality of lives they lived" (130). God is gracious, and salvation is in and through Christ, but believers remain responsible before God for their doings. We may not be able to fully piece together how this is so (as Dunn affirms), but we clearly see both streams firmly present in the New Testament. There's lots to ponder here. Enjoy.

P. D. James, Unnatural Causes

Just had to throw a quick review of a great mystery up here. This early entry in the Adam Dalgliesh series certainly has all of the hallmarks of James's best writing. Dalgliesh takes center stage, even though he's not the lead detective on the murder in question. He is on vacation in the quiet Monksmere area at Pentlands, the home of his aunt, when one of the locals floats ashore in a small boat dead with his hands cut off. This sets off an odd yet interesting investigation, as all of the members of the small local community are the inevitable suspects. There were a few parts that seemed to drag for me, but the finish was satisfying and the characters were well wrought. A great classic mystery. Not in the class of some of James's best, but still worth the time.

September 23, 2013

John Fea, Why Study History?

In this introduction to the study of history, Fea gives a really clear outline of why the study of history is so important as a discipline and as a practice. The book seems aimed particularly at students embarking on the study of history, but its appeal will be far beyond that. Fea argues that the study of history can impart virtues that have broad application. In confronting the otherness of history, we learn to break outside our own context and perspective and appreciate the complexity of life, both in other times and in our own. We also learn to truly listen to others, instead of simply hearing what we expect to hear. Fea's introduction is intentionally from a Christian perspective, and he reflects both on how Christianity does (or does not) influence the study of history, but also on what the study of history can bring to the church. Much like Mark Noll, he calls for robust Christian engagement in scholarship and equally robust engagement with scholarship in the church. On the topic of providential history, he asserts that it is an "unhelpful category" for the study of history, cautioning that history shouldn't become a subcategory of theology. But he also grants that it is possible, as long as it is done with a humble "perhaps," lest God break in and say, "Well, actually, no." Fea also expresses hope that the study of history could be an important tool in moving past the culture wars and ascerbic political climate in the United States today. In learning to listen, in learning to see ourselves as part of a larger story, and learning to question our own views and assumptions instead of sealing ourselves off from any doubt or debate, a way forward could be opened: not a way to easy agreement but a route to real and genuine argument (instead of simply shouting down opponents) that could actually lead to changed minds and a transformed future. Fea's book is very readable, and is full of both hope and wisdom. Recommended. (I work for the company that publishes this book, but I did not work on this book, and my review expresses views that are strictly my own.)

August 06, 2013

Musing on the problem of evil

I'm editing a book that considers atheistic arguments against God. And one of the big arguments marshaled against the Christian conception of God is the problem of moral evil. And a key part of the discussion has to do with envisioning God's rationale in creating a world in which such evil and suffering can and do occur. Doesn't that evil sit squarely on God's lap. It is an important argument, one which Christian thinkers far better than I have engaged over the centuries. But one aspect of it struck me today. The assumption here is that life is self-evidently not worth living. In order for the argument to hold up, that God was fundamentally and culpably wrong to create a world like ours, and thus, God is either evil/weak or not there at all, the underlying assumption must hold up, that all of our lives are not worth living, that someone is at fault that a life such as ours exists in the first place. Now I grant that far too many people live lives of inexplicable suffering, and it is a far-too-common occurrence that people despair of life itself (I don't see this feeble reflection as answering the questions surrounding moral evil), but isn't it true that most people love and enjoy life and fight to keep it. And doesn't that undermine a basic but unstated premise in the argument? I certainly agree with the atheist to the extent that there are many things in our world that can and must be called evil. But I contest that the existence of evil categorically disproves the existence of God. So much more could (and, granted, must) be said, but just a random thought for the day.

July 02, 2013

Ajith Fernando, Reclaiming Love

In Reclaiming Love, distinguished Christian leader and scholar Ajith Fernando engages one of the most profound and familiar (maybe too familiar) passages in the New Testament, the "love" chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. He moves systematically through the chapter, particularly focusing on verses 1 through 7, in a series of reflections. These focus on the various aspects of love Paul describes, often taking on only one word or idea. There is no doubt that the theology here is deep and rich, and that it is moreover theology that begs to be lived, even if it isn't easy to do so. Fernando often does a good job of teasing out practical implications of what this type of love actually looks like in practice. He often draws on his own experience. This is a book I really wanted to like, but I continuously found it tough going. There is no doubt that Fernando brings great wisdom to bear in many of the discussions, and the book contains many helpful and at-times profound reflections. But I just didn't catch a strong stream or progression tying them together, or tying them to Paul's original situation. It seemed like there were sometimes opportunities lost to either make a profound connection (say to love as integral to the trinitarian being of God) or a challenging application (on exercising love that costs us something) that just didn't get made. One example will suffice. In the final chapter, where he is bringing the arguments home and summarizing the final six verses of the chapter (they don't really get discussed in more than a cursory way, another omission), he talks about how love brings "joyous brightness." The example of this transformative love is a story of when the wife of a well-known pastor who tripped while bringing dinner out from the kitchen. The food splattered everywhere, and the pastor was immediately concerned for his wife, instead of mad about the mess she made. While I agree that such loving concern is admirable, the example seems so shallow as to border on mere courtesy that would be afforded to anyone, wife or stranger. Many other examples are better suited to their tasks, but this one certainly could have been improved. As I've said, there is much wisdom here, but the whole was lacking in a compelling thread that binds it all together. The good easily outweights the less good, but it could have been so much better. Thanks to the publisher, Zondervan, and the BookSneeze program for the review copy of this book.

June 25, 2013

Child sponsorship and hope

Christianity Today has a number of articles in their June 2013 edition about child sponsorship programs. The lead article touts research published in the Journal of Political Economy concerning the outcomes of child sponsorship. The supervising researcher, Bruce Wydick, notes of the initial study on kids in Uganda, "You could beat the data senseless, and it was incapable of showing anything other than extremely large and statistically significant impacts on educational outcomes for sponsored children" (22). Because the initial study was so promising, it was expanded to countries around the world. The results were the same. Wydick summarizes, "We're not just finding positive correlations, but substantial causal effects from the program--in every country--especially Africa." Simply, child sponsorship works. Especially for the poorest, but it works for everybody. Wess Stafford, the former president of Compassion International, the organization that was confident enough in what they were doing to open themselves up to this type of scrutiny (kudos to them for being willing to confirm their stewardship of our resources and of our God-given vision for bringing about change and relief to so many who need it!), says he attributes much of the improvement to one thing . . . hope. "The big difference that sponshorship makes," he reflects, "is that it expands children's views about their own possibilities. . . . We help them realize that they are each given special gifts from God to benefit their communities, and we try to help them develop aspirations for their future" (24). Compassion, hope, fulfilling basic needs, all permeated with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That's exciting stuff! So if you aren't already doing it, sponsor a child.

March 22, 2013

Jim Gavin, Middle Men

In this outstanding collection of short stories, Jim Gavin brings to life an array of men (and a few supporting women as well) who are struggling to find their way through life. The central characters range from a high-school basketball player to a plumbing-products representative on the verge of retirement, though his main focus is on men in their late twenties and early thirties. In we are given a window in to the lives of each, their hopes and dreams, as well their struggles. The composite picture that emerges presents plenty of futility and listlessness, though it isn't completely without hope. These stories provide an insightful portrait of life that is coming to typify a generation, though it certainly isn't restricted to today's twenties and thirties. Gavin also wrestles with the question of role models and influences. I think the question of what it means to be a man in today's Western culture is an essential one. I too have lived the listlessness of a uncertain future and no clear plan, and these characters certainly ring true to that. But this is an even bigger issue for me as a father to three young boys. So savor these stories, and wrestle with these questions. We must.

Thanks to the publisher and the Amazon Vine program for the review copy.

March 20, 2013

Richard Schultz, Out of Context

Richard Schultz, a professor of OT at Wheaton College, takes readers on a journey of learning. The terrain is biblical interpretation. This book, intended for the general reader, is full of very sound advice in how to approach the biblical text. Key to his argument is that misinterpretation is all to common in the church today. After a brief by entertaining introduction based on the Jabez prayer phenomenon, he helps readers appreciate why misinterpretation is dangerous. He then gives a very well-rounded set of instructions for how to pursue a sound interpretation of the text that appreciates its cultural and biblical context, harnessing a broad array of hermeneutical tools in a helpful and friendly way. I think this book does a great service in both laying bare the misuse of Scripture that is too often let pass in the church and in popular Christian literature and at the same time making a case that anyone can handle the Bible in a responsible manner. Schultz's work can help give confidence (and also some important caution) to anyone who desires to treat the Bible with the respect it deserves. This is an important way we can all show the true value of God's Word.

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for the publisher of this book, though this was not one of my projects (though I do look forward to working with Dr. Schultz on a Proverbs commentary in the future). All opinions are expressly my own.