What Evangelicals Can Learn From Rob Bell (and why they hate him)

holmesbellLetter MMy new favorite podcast – along with Mere Fidelity and The Partially Examined Life – is Pete HolmesYou Made It Weird. It’s an absolutely fabulous podcast, where comedian Pete Holmes just sits down and talks with a guest for two or three hours (usually on the topics of comedy, relationships, and God).

A few years ago he had an episode with Rob Bell, and it got me to thinking about what makes Mr. Bell so likable and helpful to so many. There is a message that Bell is sending that many identify with, and it’s a message that the evangelical community – so often the target of his critique – can and should learn from.

Mr. Bell is offering a valid critique of evangelicalism that evangelicals shouldn’t ignore. He is identifying some real problems in some traditional forms of Christianity. There is no shame or compromise in admitting that, because agreeing that the problems are real doesn’t mean evangelicals also have to agree with all of Bell’s solution to those problems.

By and large, evangelicals can learn from Bell’s exploration of the problems, but it’s his solutions to them that make them hate him (and in turn, make them ignore an otherwise valid critique).

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Book Review: Sex, Romance and the Glory of God – By C.J. Mahaney

Mahaney Sex Romance Glory of God.png“The biblical purpose for marriage, you see, is not man-centered or needs-centered. It’s God-centered.”

Letter TThe preceding quote does well to sum up the idea behind this book. In a time when there is much talk concerning the ‘sanctity of marriage’, where divorce and gay marriage steal the headlines, the actual basis of the institution is often lost within the shuffle. While I am not the target audience of this book I think it is probably safe to say that foundations of marriage are often lost even on Christian couples. In this book, Sex, Romance And The Glory Of God, C.J. Mahaney seeks to tackle the obstacle of how to properly glorify God within marriage, specifically in the avenues of sex and romance.

Naturally in analyzing how best to glorify God through this aspect of our lives Mahaney looks to Scripture (which is not only filled with plethora of verses on marriage as well as the Song of Solomon, but is also the first place we must always look for such questions). One of these key scriptures is the comparison that is made between Christ and the Church, and it is here which the author says we may look: “We don’t look to marriage to understand the relationship between Christ and the Church. Instead, we seek a clear, biblical understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church so we can better understand the purpose of our marriage.”

He goes on to state that “Something of the selfless love, care, and sacrifice that Jesus shows towards the Church is supposed to be evident in you as you relate to your wife. Something of the respect, submission, and devotion that the Church shows toward Jesus is supposed to be evident in your wife as she relates to you. That’s the purpose of your marriage. That is why God has given her to you, and you to her.”

With this set as the foundation upon which marriage sits Mahaney goes on to make his case on how best the husband might seek to instill this romance into his marriage. The key principle he establishes here is that “In order for romance to deepen, you must touch the heart and mind of your wife before you touch her body.”

What follows is the author laying out from his own experience and wisdom how best to go about this: by being intentional, by learning about your spouse, by gathering information and following a detailed plan so that you may cater to their desires, by reviewing and setting goals for date-nights and romance.

All in all this is a book which would do good for any husband to read. The first half has an almost devotion tone while the latter half pulls at the more practical senses, and all in a brief 126pgs.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Motherhood is exceptionally important. It calls for immense sacrifices and deserves great honor. But I can say with full conviction that according to Scripture, motherhood is never to be a wife’s primary role. In fact, I think the most effective mothers are wives who are being continually, biblically romanced by their husbands.”

-“Your children should be able to look at your life and know beyond any doubt that they have the great privilege of being the most important people in the world to you… right after their mom.”

-“But they do not desire to be together simply so they can experience sexual gratification. They want to be together because they are in love, and the sex they enjoy with one another is an expression of that love… As a married couple, they have great sex because they love one another so completely, not the other way around.”

Specific Criticisms

Somehow despite the deep message of the first part of the book I felt myself at a loss during the second part, not because I’m not the target audience, but because all the beauty and depth of the first section slowly began to fade into little more than good advice (albeit good advice with scriptural references). This is not to detract from the advice given, the advice is sound enough, practical enough and even scriptural enough.

Where I think it fails is in straying from it’s initial thesis. Mahaney sets out to show the God-centered nature of marriage, romance and sex; to feed off of the analogy of Christ and the Church, demonstrating marriage as (again) “something of the selfless love, care, and sacrifice that Jesus shows towards the Church.” The practical application part of the book does not build upon foundation but suffices to offer varying amounts of advice and demonstrating these tidbits as scriptural.

And yet I can’t help but think it would have been much more to the point, even much more practical, to base the entirety of the book upon the analogy of Christ to the Church: upon that selflessness, upon that God-centeredness, upon that sacrifice. The author would have done better to demonstrate the pouring out which should be present in love and use this for his springboard into practical dating, to delve into the selflessness of the fact in discovering how best to touch the mind of your spouse and ever reminding that none of this analysis of sex and romance is first for God’s glory, second an expression of your love to your wife, and not about fulfilling your own desires at all (even on the tertiary level) – your needs are not your prerogative, they are God’s and your spouses.

Any other to romance in which one party is attempting to get something they want is an approach from the wrong angle (which is coincidentally the entire problem with relationships today, they are based upon selfishness). I think the latter part of the text is too tied up with the personal aspect of ‘how to get the most out of your relationship’ (even if not intentionally so) rather than ‘how to give the most to your relationship’. As A.W. Tozer says “[Love] considers nothing its own but gives all freely to the object of its affection.”

The practical aspects of the book simply fail to address how one might glorify God in their marriage, save for pointing out that a healthy marriage is something which good desires. Yet striving for a strong romance and a healthy marriage first is again the wrong direction; we should be striving for God, with the result being a strong romance and a healthy marriage (and again, save for its introductory remarks I think the text strays away from this point).

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Mahaney’s credibility has been somewhat tarnished in recent years by due to scandals revolving around abuse of leadership, blackmail, and child abuse at Sovereign Grace Ministries. These have no bearing on whether the ideas presented in this particular book are valid, but it is worth pointing out.

Book Review: Hope When You’re Hurting – By Larry Crabb & Dan Allender

Crabb Hope When Youre Hurting.png

Letter IIn the realm of counseling books, Dr. Larry Crabb is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine. This is the second book which I’ve read by him. I picked it up one evening planning on doing some light reading before bed and ended reading the book through in one sitting, simply because I didn’t want to put it down.

As the cover text notes, the book is organized into four parts, each dealing with a one of a sequence of questions that hurting people ask: What’s wrong? Who can help? What will the helper do? What can I hope for if I do seek help?

In going through these questions Dr. Crabb doesn’t simply address one technique, but rather develops a narrative which discusses a handful of approaches present, each addressing an apparent cause of the pain, to include: spiritual warfare, psychological dysfunction, sin, biochemical disorders, undisciplined living, and deficient spirituality. Dr. Crabb notes the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches while also offering his own insights – it is these insights which will help the individual dealing with pain, while the overall discussion on the approaches will be helpful both to the one in pain as well as the potential counselor looking for which avenue to deal with their patients.

Dr. Crabb’s position might best be summed up in the notion that: “If some problems have no adequate explanations, and never will have, then we must come to grips with confusion and learn to live in mystery… We want to reduce mystery to a usable system. Mystery requires us to connect with someone, to trust. System allows us to follow a plan, to control… Unexplained problems put us out of control. As a result, the urge to explain becomes stronger than the urge to connect, so strong that it may be getting in the way of developing deeper levels of trust… I worry that, once we have a system, we’re in danger of placing more faith in a manageable plan with predictable results than in God, who is neither manageable nor predictable…

“The philosophy of individualism, in which noting is more important than the individual’s needs and rights, runs today’s world, at least in the West. God’s deepest passion, however, seems directed not towards individuals (though he numbers the hairs on our heads) but towards individuals-in-community… Individual fulfillment is never the point. It is the by-product of yielding oneself to the greater good of a community, first the community of the triune God(who is served by receiving glory) and then the community of God’s people…”

This is perhaps the key message to those who are hurting. The world is fallen; our pain will not fully cease in this life, and often we will not know the cause; it is this mystery in the case which drives us to trust in God and connect with fellow Christians in community and worship and pursuit of that God. When we simply seek an explanation or a cure then “we approach God, not to know him, but to secure his cooperation in solving our problems.”(p35)

Under-girding this discussion of pain is a discussion of which approach we should be searching for, which is the best to suit or needs, and what part the church should play in all of this. A main thesis of Crabb’s is that ideally, most counseling needs can be met “through the local church, through communities of God’s people relating meaningfully and healingly to one another as together they search for God.” (p10)

Or more fully:

“Those two realities – a hunger for connection with God and a resolve to satisfy that hunger elsewhere – lie at the very center of our souls. But we have taken those two realities and made things too complicated. We have gone beyond the idea of an image-bearing but fallen soul hungry for God but resistant to him and become enamored with the idea of a psychological self capable of being damaged, abandoned, manipulated, and unwisely defensive on it’s own behalf.

We no longer call the soul of a person to pursue God and forsake idolatry: instead, we now work to develop a healthier self… But if the internal roots of our personal problems lie simply in our unaroused hunger for God and our unadmitted arrogance that says we don’t need him, if dealing with life’s problems require that we face these two basic realities of the soul rather than all the complex dynamics of the self, then, I suggest, the community of God’s people is back in the healing business.”(p176)

This is Crabb’s underlying thesis, that of a need for a community centered and God centered drive for dealing with individuals within the Christian context, that is, not simply as individuals isolation but as children of God created for community and worship. On the one hand the ideas presented by Crabb here are meant to be of use to those going through pain themselves, and on the other hand they are meant to help instruct those working with people who are going through pain.

Memorable Quotes:

This is one of those texts which is absolutely littered with great quotes, here a few of them,

-“Speaking the truth in love does not give anyone license to share whatever he happens to think or feel.”(p14)

-“The principle is worth more thought: the problems we face, even big ones, aren’t so bad. It’s the unexplained ones that scare us to death. We’re not nearly so bothered by the size of a problem as we are by its degree of mystery. It’s not knowing what’s wrong that arouses the worst terror. Mystery scares us because it puts us out of control and leaves us with an option we don’t naturally like – to trust someone besides ourselves… Once we know what’s wrong, we feel back in control… Knowledge is the key. Explanation becomes our hope. We don’t need a person if we have a plan. Trust becomes unnecessary, a nice concept to talk about in church but one we don’t have to practice in real life.”(p22)

-“People can be divided into two groups: those who think that life works (or could work if certain principles were followed), and those who know it doesn’t.”(p23)

-“It is crucial to accept the limits of help… More often than not, the limit is due to the tension that we are made for heaven and all help is time bound and incomplete.” (p86)

-“Idolatry is not the by-product of forgetting God; it is the means by which we forget him.”(p96)

-“Our worst human relationship will determine the quality of our relationship with God, says John. In human relationships we see most clearly our deepest struggles with God.”(p99)

-“The real killer of the self and the real cause of all addictions is shame… Shame causes us to see our identity as flawed rather than seeing ourselves as having flaws.”(p107)

-“Love honors the other with a heart to do her good; it is not the avoidance of conflict, nor compliant servitude. Love is not making someone feel good; it is not avoiding conflict; it is not merely getting along. Love is a commitment to see Christ grow in the heart of the other by offering a strength that disrupts patterns of idolatry and a tenderness that invites reconciliation and hope. Love will be tender and long-suffering; it will also be bold and wounding. If it involves one without the other, then it is an offer of something less than God’s character. We are told that God is a God of mercy and strength (Psalm 62:11). To love other is to give them a taste of the full character of God.”(p113)

-“The soul will not be healed without relationship.”(p117)

-“When we understand who we are and what goes wrong in our lives, it becomes clear that we are not damaged things that need repair; we are rather disconnected persons that must depend on the gospel to reestablish connection.”(p170)

Specific Criticisms

I really can’t say I have any criticisms of this book, it is an excellent, insightful and moving read, and I suggest it to anybody whether you’re dealing with pain or not (though really, I’m not sure if anybody is ever not dealing with pain of some form or another).

Book Review: The Mark of the Christian – By Francis Schaeffer

schaefferbookThe question is sometimes raised, “How is one to identify a Christian; what is it that marks them as a Christian?”

In his text The Mark of the Christian, Francis Schaeffer works to answer that question. The mark that Schaeffer lands on is the mark of the Christian’s love for all men, and especially for his fellow Christian brothers, a love which is worked out primarily through the ways in which we express our differences and work for unity. This point is perhaps made most succinctly by Schaeffer when he remarks that “Love – and the unity it attests to – is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”(p.35)

This unity works itself out in a variety of ways; there are some things that it is, and there are some things that it is not. For instance, it is not refusing to point out errors of doctrine, or to judge those who teach something opposed to Christianity while still trying to keep the name, thus Schaeffer notes “The church has a right to judge, in fact it is commanded to judge, a man on the content of what he believes and teaches.”(p.16) or as it’s stated elsewhere “The church is not to let pass what is wrong; but the Christian should suffer practical, monetary loss to show the oneness true Christians should have rather than to go to court against other true Christians.”(p.29)

Yet, while working for this purity in the church, the Christian must also work for unity and love. They must exhibit both the holiness and the love of God, thus “The Christian is to exhibit that God exists as the infinite-personal God; and then he is to exhibit simultaneously God’s character of holiness and love. Not his holiness without his love: that is only harshness. Not his love without his holiness: that is only compromise.”(p.21)

The church is to strive for unity, but not just any unity. It is not merely an organizational unity (which, amongst other things, is impossible on a global level for merely practical reasons), nor is it merely the unity of the invisible church (which, indeed, needs no more unification). Rather, this unity is a simple concept of visible love. A few key ways that this can be accomplished include things that are quite simple, yet often neglected. Thus, the keys are such things as asking forgiveness and offering forgiveness; other keys include suffering practical loss for the sake of unity and approaching a given problem “with a desire to solve it, rather than with a desire to win” as “the history of theology is all too often a long exhibition of a desire to win.”(p.29)

If this is done correctly, the result will be that “Before a watching world an observable love in the midst of difference will show a difference between Christians’ differences and other men’s differences. The world may not understand what the Christian’s are disagreeing about, but they will very quickly understand the difference of our differences from the world’s differences if they see us having our differences in an open and observable love on a practical level”(p.31)

Towards the end of his text, Schaeffer asks “Whoever heard of sermons or writings which carefully present the practice of two principles which at first seem to work against each other: (1) the principle of the practice of the purity of the visible church in regard to doctrine and life and (2) the principle of the practice of an observable love and oneness among all true Christians. If there is no careful preaching and writing about these things, are we so foolish as to think that there will be anything beautiful in practice when differences between true Christians must be honestly faced?”(p.30)

This little booklet is what one might call a first step in the direction of producing writings on the topic, and it is well worth the short amount of time that it takes to read it.

Memorable Quotes:

“The Bible is a strong and down-to-earth book”-29

“The church is to be a loving church in a dying culture.”-12

“[I]t is not possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”-8

“There is only one kind of man who can fight the Lord’s battles in anywhere near a proper way, and that is the man who is by nature unbelligerent.”-26

“In other words, if people come up to us and cast in our teeth the judgement that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them.”-13

“All men bear the image of God. They have value, not because they are redeemed, but because they are God’s creation in God’s image. Modern man, who has rejected this, has no clue as to who he is, and because of this he can find no real value for himself or for other men. Hence, he downgrades the value of other men and produces the horrible thing we face today – a sick culture in which men treat men as inhuman, as machines. As Christians, however, we know the value of men.”-9