July 19, 2011

Rick McKinley, A Kingdom Called Desire

In A Kingdom Called Desire, pastor Rick McKinley takes a look at the life of discipleship to Jesus through the lens of desire.In a culture keyed in on finding the thing that will make us the most happy, McKinley calls us to carefully search out our desires, first because God in fact created them, and second, so we can honestly face up to the question of whether we do in fact desire God the most. And it is in the latter, the deep and true desire for God, that McKinley develops his picture of kingdom living. And part of this involves recognizing honestly the desires God has placed within us and recognizing and developing the God-given desire for him that rests beneath them. In a key chapter, "Life and Death," McKinley gets to the heart of what this transformation of desire entails, as he reflects on the need to face our own mortality, and as we do this, to learn to cling to the cross. "I wanted to cling to one part of the gospel: his death for me. I don't want to grapple with the implications of my death in him" (53). Instead of making our own lives into idols, we must come to grips with our own death in Christ, and our new life as Christ lives in us. It is then that we learn to focus on Jesus and desire him and the coming of his kingdom. And key to this new life is that we no longer act out of duty, of a need to produce the life God can appreciate or that can make us worthy before God, we are no longer seeking to do the right thing to avoid negative consequences, but are instead living into the life God has for us, and sin begins to loose its attraction for us. This transformation of life then begins to work itself out in our lives as we begin to recognize the God-given desires that are unique to us, and we see the way God has made us to be, allowing us to seek out things that are God-glorifying and are at the same time fitting to the way God has made us to be, a deep freedom to become who God made us to be in him.

McKinley's book has a nice conversational quality that keeps it from becoming either too academic or to preachy. He also takes an honest tone that gives credibility to his discussion. And I found his discussion of the concept of desire to be overall a helpful one, as I think finding our fulfillment through the realization of our own personal desires is a key idea in our culture today, but also has some potential as an entry point for reimagining our relationship to God. The danger, of course, is of making the gospel a self-help program or a path to personal fulfillment, though I think McKinley is aware of these dangers and steers mostly clear of them. I may quibble with a few points, but overall found his approach to have some merit. I especially appreciated his call to honestly investigate our desires, to see if we truly are desiring God or if we are merely paying lip service to our faith. IN all, this book has some good things to say to those who want to desire God and live for him.  

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

July 16, 2011

Ben Witherington III and Ann Witherington, Papias and the Mysterious Menorah

Ben and Ann Witherington have done it again in this third installment of the Art West series of mysteries. Paipas and the Mysterious Menorah is a fast-moving archaeological thriller filled with tantalizing discoveries of "biblical" proportions. Biblical scholar and archaeologist Art West finds himself consulting on a new cache of scrolls in Turkey that seem to be from the second Christian century. And as he gets involved with the dig and the newly discovered documents, it quickly becomes evident they have unearthed something of grand significance: the home, church, and writings of the famous second-century bishop, Papias. But the plot quickly thickens as Art is trapped and nearly killed in a tunnel connected to the home. As he recovers from his near miss, Art and fellow archaeologist Marissa Okur, the supervisor of the dig and a person of growing "interest" to Art, find themselves on a whirlwind journey to both understand the significance of the Paipas house and scrolls and to understand the forces that seem to be nefariously aligning against them. Meanwhile, West's friend Kahlil el Said and his daughter Hannah have chosen a wedding gift from their antiquities shop for their mutual friend Grace Levine's upcoming wedding, but the provenance and mysterious contents of their fortuitously chosen menorah come to light, even more mystery and discovery ensue.

I greatly enjoyed the first two installments of the Witheringtons' Art West Adventures, and this third volume is certainly no different. The writing is solid, the settings are uniformly enjoyable, as are the characters. Especially valuable is the obvious familiarity with both the ancient and modern intricacies of the middle east, as well as the thorough knowledge of biblical studies and archaeology that they bring. And unlike Dan Brown's imaginative fiction concerning Christian origins, the Witheringtons' imaginings are informed and plausible, even if they occasionally indulge some of Ben's minority opinions (such as the fictional confirmation of Lazarus's identity as the "Beloved Disciple" in the fourth gospel), but none of these judgments can be argued to be misleading or distorting. And for me one of the greatest values of these great mysteries, beyond their obvious intrinsic worth as fun reads, is that they bring to life the investigation of the ancient world and its documents and dramatize the revelations that can come from the pursuit and interpretation of ancient sites and documents. So I highly recommend all of three of the extant Art West Adventures, and look forward to the unveiling of future volumes.

Special thanks to Bob Todd and Pickwick Publications for the review copy.

July 04, 2011

William Kent Krueger, Northwest Angle

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

In this mystery filled with wonderful texture, Cork O'Connor and his family encounter mysterious evil forces in the aftermath of an epic storm that sweeps across the Lake of the Woods. While vacationing near the Northwest Angle in northern Minnesota, the O'Connors are caught in a fierce and destructive storm which scatters them across the lake. Jenny, Cork's daughter, washes up on a small island and discovers, in the storm's aftermath, a murdered woman and her hidden infant. This sets in motion a great chase, as unknown forces seem to be after the child. The O'Connors are eventually reuinted, but the plot only thickens as they begin to put the pieces together. The murdered woman, Lily Smalldog, worked for a reclusive band of fundamentalist Christians driven by apocalyptic visions of the End Times, and though they seemed to care for her, something doesn't seem right. Meanwhile, Lily's fugitive brother is on the loose, and Cork needs to figure out how he fits into the puzzle before more people get killed.

Krueger writes like a Tony Hillerman of the North, as Cork's Ojibwe heritage and the Native American background of the mother and baby come to play a key role in the story. He also develops a number of the characters, as each wrestles with the past, as well as trying to forge a way into the future. Jenny agonizes over her relationship with her boyfriend, Aaron, with the question of children at the center of the conflict. Cork is tring to move forward after the death of his wife, and is reluctant to be caught up in more violence. And in numerous characters, as well as in the main plotline of the book, the nature and identity of God/The Great Mystery become a key element, with the certainty of the fundamentalists and their End Times vision of God occupying one extreme, Henry Meloux and Amos Powassin, two Objiwe wise men and their vision of The Great Mystery on the other end, with Mal and Rose, Cork's brother- and sister-in law, and their Catholicism occupying a more moderate voice. Cork embodies this larger theme, with his spirituality coming "as much from the teaching of men like Henry Meloux, the old Ojibwe Mide, as it did from the text of the New Testament" (181). This honest wrestling with God's nature and purposes lends an agreeable depth and reflectiveness to the mystery genre and serves to make this a great read, both as a compelling mystery and as a work of thoughtful fiction. Though I personally may not agree with the way Cork chooses to resolve some of these themes (in what appears to be an easy syncretism between Ojibwe spirituality and Christianity), I do appreciate the authenticity of the questions and the perspectives that are being portrayed, and hope the dialogue continues in his future books.

In capturing the texture of the Lake of the Woods (I had the pleasure of reading the first half of the book while on a fishing trip there), and the people who live there, as well as building deep and interesting characters, Krueger has written a great book. I look forward to reading some of his others.