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.

Timothy Keller, Galatians for You

In this mini-commentary, well-known pastor Timothy Keller seeks to illuminate the text of Galatians in a way that any Christian can better understand the message in the text and be challenged to know God more deeply. Galatians is divided into thirteen units, and each unit is then subdivided into two parts. For each part, Keller discusses the major themes in the text, always paying quite close attention to what the text actually says without necessarily commenting on every phrase or verse. Each section concludes with a few questions for reflection. Keller is a clear writer, and this book showcases that well. He is also a perceptive reader of Scripture, and it is here that this book shines. It is not a commentary, and certainly doesn't engage every important academic debate, but at the same time Keller is able to bring to bear a lot of learning about the text in an unassuming way.

The book is meant for three different purposes. First, it is meant for reading, and for that purpose, it is quite adequate as a guide to understanding Galatians better. Second, it is meant for study and devotions, and the division into similarly sized units and questions for reflection can help take learning deeper. Third, it is meant as a leadership resource, to help group leaders prepare studies or pastors prepare sermons. I think it will work fine in all three contexts. Because there are only three reflection questions at the end of each unit, study leaders will have to plan on either using it alongside another study guide or writing a number of their own questions to supplement and help group members get into the text and cover some of the themes, tough the questions he does have are often useful for digesting the message and importance of Galatians and how it can be applied. Keller deftly balances commentary with perceptive interpretation and application in a way that makes this a useful guide for people at all levels of familiarity with Scripture. I will certainly draw on it when I prepare lessons on Galatians.

Thanks to the publisher and Cross-Focused Reviews for the review copy.

January 22, 2013

Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger

I think immigration is going to be an important political issue in the US in the coming months (if Obama's inaugural speech is any indication, this seems to be on his agenda). I have come, over the past few years, to have a growing awareness of the need for a robust comprehensive solution. I had the chance to hear Jenny Yang (she wrote under the name Jenny Hwang) speak at Calvin College's January Series a coupe of weeks ago, and I appreciated her perspective. Below is a review of her book, Welcoming the Stranger. Please take and read.

This book gives robust answers to many Christian questions surrounding issues of immigration. Hwang and Soerens start with biblical issues, as they help Christians to think "Christianly" about the issues, a study that leads them to advocate for a generally loving and open approach. But this book is set apart from many similar studies in that it doesn't stop there. Soerens and Hwang both have intimate knowledge of real immigrants, and they help humanize the issue by telling the stories of real people caught up in the "debate." They also are knowledgeable about issues of current law and major policy proposals (though it is a tad dated now, since it was written back in 2007, though the general contours of the debate haven't really changed), lending a ton of specifics that help make the book's arguments concrete. This specificity helps them tackle major questions that often dog the debate, such as Why don't these people just immigrate legally? or Are immigrants a major drain on our government? I'm sure they haven't given the last word, but this is a robust Christian approach to this important issue that ought to be in the hands of all concerned Christians, and I highly recommend their approach.

January 21, 2013

A quote to reflect on; On my appalling silence

Reading a blog post this morning by William Mounce, who was writing for Zondervan's Koinonia blog in his son Bill's absence, I came across this quote, which concludes his brief discussion of whether theology or context should take pride of place in our interpretation:

 If there is any “trumping” to be done, let it be what God has said.
Obviously, it's more complicated than that, but there is still a key impulse there that I need to hear, a wise refleciton I need to imbibe and assimilate in all things.

I've been extremely silent of late as a blog author. Life has been, as always, busy (I'm sure none of you are busy, so that's obviously a good enough excuse). I've been taking Greek at Calvin Seminary this past semester, filling in a long-overdue lacuna in my education, and I've been loving it. But it certainly drains off some of my free time and excess intellectual energy. I have been able to read some great books, and I hope to put up a few reviews here in the coming days.

Last, a reflection on yet another reason I love my job (as a book editor here at Baker Publishing Group). Among so many reasons that I love what I do, I was reflecting on one of the little things that I love: routing periodicals. I'm inundated almost daily with a steady flow of recent periodicals, from Sojourners Magazine to Christianity Today to JETS to Journal for the Study of Paul and His letters, and so many more. There is no way to even begin to read all of the interesting articles, emerging research, or book reviews that I come across, but it is so much fun to have this steady stream of scholarship and comment always before me. I am lucky indeed.