February 1, 2013
Reading good writing is requisite for producing good writing. Artists learn technique by copying masterworks. Mechanics learn their skill by taking machines apart and putting them back together. We can likewise put into practice ideas like the ones offered here by imitating exemplars … We also encourage you read broadly in order to find your own sources of inspiration.
I do not claim to be a great writer. But one further, logical suggestion that improves ones ability to write is to write. Practice makes perfect.
April 13, 2011
Oftentimes, when something becomes very familiar, it quickly becomes mundane or even meaningless. In the case of the Lord’s Prayer, however, this must not be the case—indeed cannot be the case for those who truly understand the nature of the prayer. Robert Cornwall examines the Lord’s Prayer in his recent book Ultimate Allegiance. After studying the prayer’s five components, Cornwall concludes that the prayer is subversive, challenging anything that might try to draw our allegiance away from God’s kingdom.
In the first chapter, Cornwall reflects on the first part of the prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” He points out how “Father” is a recognition of allegiance to God (rather than to Caesar, the “father” of the Roman people), and then how holiness interacts with the notion of Fatherhood.
In chapter two, Cornwall examines how “kingdom” stands at the heart of the prayer and how this made Christians a threat to the Romans. The prayer is really an invitation to live in the fullness of God’s kingdom and to then extend that kingdom, a task that is a community event (note the “we/our” of the prayer).
Chapter three further probes the community theme by noting how the prayer for bread is communal. The author demonstrates that this request is subversive in that it shuns Caesar’s provision by looking instead to God as the ultimate provider.
Chapters four (forgiveness) and five (deliverance from evil) focus less on the subversive aspects of the prayer, but instead offer application and example. Finally, in chapter six, the book concludes with the prayer’s doxology, noting again the reference to “kingdom.”
There are many reasons to read this book. Personally, I found myself several times closing the book to pray and give thanks and ponder the words I’d just read—how fitting: a book on prayer that prompts the reader to prayer and reflection. Furthermore, Cornwall’s conclusion in his “afterward” raises some highly important issues and implications for the study. Indeed, this is probably the most important section of the entire book. Here, Cornwall notes,
“From the day of Pentecost until the time of Constantine, being a Christian was dangerous if you lived in the Roman Empire. To be a Christian was considered an act of treason, and thus arrest and martyrdom was common. . . . For a goodly number of Americans, there is the temptation to mix faith and American idealism, to make assumptions about God’s special blessings for this nation. This has led to the creation of a civil religion that is not always healthy” (pp. 58-59).
Such words are sure to step on the toes of comfortable, cultural Christianity. Cornwall is sure to raise some questions when he commends the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag. These provocative thoughts will hopefully serve as a powerful challenge to Christians who live in a culture where they are by no means in danger, and where many have never even thought twice about pledging allegiance to a flag.
There is little to find fault with in this book. My biggest hesitation was with the way Cornwall dismissed the closing doxology of the prayer as secondary and unoriginal. It seems such a move requires more explanation and argumentation than merely saying, “The phrase isn’t found in our oldest manuscripts” (p. 49).
I think this short 60 page book is worth reading and reflecting upon. In the end, let us hope it stirs our allegiance heavenward, as we seek to pray in the manner Jesus taught us.
March 1, 2011
Randy Alcorn’s If God is Good is not your typical book on suffering. Unlike some that err on the side of hyper intellectual, and others that provide more anecdotes than substance, Alcorn effectively balances insight, stories, words of comfort, and scriptural guidance.
In addition to the chapters that might be expected in a book on evil and suffering, Alcorn includes a section where he explains reformed theology and how it relates to the topic, and a section on heaven and hell. Alcorn’s approach to suffering may be summed up by the words of Romans 8:28, which he often quotes, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose.”
Readers will find Alcorn’s book infused with Scripture. Throughout his discussion, the author grapples with numerous verses, including some very difficult and often ignored ones. Alcorn also exhibits breadth of research, quoting numerous recent authors as well as ancient ones such as Augustine, Erasmus, and Calvin. He balances this research with stories and personal illustrations. The effect is that the book is readable and thoughtful.
There is little to critique in this book. Perhaps the most glaring weakness surfaced in the section on sovereignty and choice. In attempting to explain human choice, Alcorn paints an unfortunate picture—one that many from the reformed position would likely disagree with. To be perfectly clear, Alcorn excludes the possibility of choice in matters of salvation. His reason, he explains, is that such a choice would equal self-transformation and the making of ourselves right before God. Alcorn states, “How free are we? Free enough to be human . . . Free enough to make choices, some better and some worse—yet not free enough to transform our own hearts or make ourselves righteous before God” (Alcorn, 246). The problem here is that Alcorn has misrepresented the issue of choice. Alcorn’s definition is unnecessarily bipolar—equating choice in matters of salvation with “transforming our own hearts” and “making ourselves righteous.”
Alcorn continues his discussion on choice by explaining that since man has no choice in salvation, God first justifies believers, giving sinners Christ’s righteousness. He then regenerates them, giving them a new nature with freedom of choice. Alcorn then states again that man’s choice consists in “the power to choose to get up in the morning, go to work, raise a family, make meals and consume them, paint and sing and laugh. He gives us the power to tell a truth or a lie, to cheat on an exam or to be honest. . . . Call it free will, meaningful choice, or anything else. . . . If it isn’t, our decisions and our lives are merely illusions” (Alcorn, 249 emphasis added). So for Alcorn human choice is God empowered, is what keeps our lives from being illusions, and consists in mundane things like the ability to decide what color socks I wear in the morning, whether to have bacon or sausage for breakfast, and whether to drive to work or to ride my bike.
I will resist the temptation to debate Alcorn’s shallow understanding and definition of human choice. Instead, I will point out Alcorn’s inconsistency with his own words. It is startling that later when discussing the topic of hell Alcorn writes, “Fairness doesn’t demand that God give people a second chance after death, since he gives us thousands of chances before death. God grants every person a lifetime to reform, to turn to him for grace and empowerment. . . . God gives us second chances and third chances and tenth and hundredth chances every day of our lives” (Alcorn, 319 emphasis added). The inconsistency here is obvious—the reader is left with an entirely unclear, vexing understanding of human choice and how it relates to evil and suffering.
Besides this weakness in Alcorn’s book, If God is Good is a penetrating, well organized work on suffering in which Alcorn’s skills as an author shine. Not unlike C. S. Lewis, Alcorn proves his ability to write theological works at the popular level, in addition to his excellent pieces of fiction. This book is a must read—if you are currently suffering, it will provide immense encouragement; if you are not presently suffering, it will help prepare you for when trouble comes. And when you read this book, don’t make the mistake I did of thinking you can read it quickly. This is one you will want to read meticulously, to ponder, underline, highlight, keep in a prominent place on your bookshelf, and then read again.
December 29, 2010
I just stumbled upon another opportunity to receive free books: TYNDALE PUBLISHERS provides bloggers with books for review.
November 9, 2010
Book review: Why Four Gospel? 2d ed. By David Alan Black. Gonzalez, Fla.: Energion, 2010.
David Black in his Why Four Gospels? condenses a complicated problem into a bit-size, digestible piece. The argument underlying the book is that Matthew was the first Gospel written, its purpose being to meet the needs of the jewish-christian church in Jerusalem. Luke, then, was the second Gospel written, composed to meet the needs of the many Gentiles coming to Christ through Paul’s ministry. Next was Mark, which was Peter’s oral commendation of Luke alongside Matthew. Finally, John wrote last, composing a Gospel for a second generation of believers needing confirmation about the nature and person of Jesus.
This book is worth reading for numerous reasons. Black convincingly demonstrates that his thesis is supported not only by early church history, but also by early patristic evidence. Also, the book sorts out the issue of the ending of Mark, providing a convincing solution to the befuddling text-critical issue (cf., pp. 66-67).
Readers of all levels will benefit from this book. Students will find Black’s clear discussion a manageable introduction to an often overwhelming and tangled subject. Christians desiring a better understanding of the origin of the Gospels will do well to begin with Black’s work. Scholars will not come away disappointed either. The bibliography provides thorough and up-to-date material for further research; Black’s thesis will prove insightful and convincing and not easily dismissed.
Black’s skill as a writer shines in this book: he successfully puts the pieces together in what many have considered an unsovable jig-saw puzzle. Black demonstrates that the solution need not be complicated by far-fetched hypothecating of fanciful theories about lost sources. He accomplishes this in a straightforward, clear manner which allows the reader to easily work through his book in one sitting. Black shows that one need not be voluminous to be persuasive. In a world when arguments are circular, complicated, lengthy, and just plain boring, Black keeps the reader’s attention from page 1 to page 100. One would be ignorant to think that such a book can be dismissed merely on the basis of its length. Rather, one often finds that the more simple and straightforward the explanation, the more likely it is to be correct, or, as Occam’s razor states, “All things being equal, the simpler is to be preferred.” Indeed, Black’s insightfully simple thesis proves to be a sharp razor daring to be disproved.
Black’s work is an important advance in Synoptic studies. In 2001 a book was published as the result of a symposium held on Southeastern’s campus. Some of the top scholars in the world delivered papers about the origins of the Gospels. One of them, William Farmer, argued for a position similar to Black’s. The final response to the papers was delivered by Grant Osborne, who admitted that Farmer’s argument was very persuasive, and even voiced, “Almost though persuadest me!” (Rethinking the Synoptic Problem, 140). In the end, Osborne stated his reasons for not being won over to Farmer’s arguments:
(1) Why would Mark have left out such huge chunks of material found in Matthew and Luke if he wrote last?
(2) Why would Luke have scattered Matthew’s material in such a way if he was truly dependant on that Gospel?
(3) The hypothesis cannot provide a reason why Mark was written
(4) The patristic evidence contradicts the thesis
Black easily provides explanation for each of Osborne’s points. Thus, it should rightly be asked what further objections remain. If the thesis is convincing, if it best accounts for the evidence, if all the major objections have been aptly refuted, what further remains but a recognition that Black’s theory stands as the best in Synoptic studies?
By way of the book’s weaknesses, two minor points caught my attention. First, Black discusses Mark’s weaving pattern (pp 61-62). A visual depiction in the form of a chart would have been very helpful to enable the reader to better comprehend Mark’s manner of weaving. Second, Black’s description of Mark’s circulation sounds strangely similar to his own personal testimony about writing. For, according to Black, Mark circulated his Gospel because Peter’s hearers were delighted with his speech and requested copies (pp 15, 67). This, however, is exactly how Black describes the publication of his own book–eager students requested copies of his teaching on the Synoptics (p v). Similar statements are found in several of Black’s works. Has Black unwittingly conceived of a Mark in his own image? I don’t think so, but the point should be raised.
Beyond these two points, Why Four Gospels? strengths far outweigh any possible hesitations. Why Four Gospels? is a must read for any student of Scripture. The book ties up whatever loose ends remained in the Synoptic Problem. The reader will be left with much to ponder and will surely be stimulated to further study. One final statement mentioned by Black will hopefully prompt much discussion in the future:
Matthew is thus the blueprint or handbook for all future expansion, and the church it was written for was the model for all the churches of the world that issued from it, including those established by Paul . . . . Thanks to Luke we have a great deal of information about the churches Paul founded and about the gospel he preached, and in their writings we have a priceless contemporary account . . . (Why Four Gospels?, 59, emphasis added).
July 26, 2010
Ken Jones writes Time to Take America Back as a wake-up call to the church. Jones argues that America was a nation founded not only on Christian principles, but by primarily Christian men. This founding led to America’s success and prosperity as a nation. After attempting to prove America’s Christian heritage, Jones then points at specific areas indicating the current “Christian culture” is quickly crumbling. These include, among other things, homosexuality, materialism, education, abortion, the ACLU, and the NEA. Lest America come under God’s judgment, Jones challenges Christians to take a stand by hitting the polls, praying, fasting, and electing godly officials.
This thought-provoking book provides the reader with plenty of information to consider. The heart-wrenching chapter on abortion moves the reader to righteous indignation. The dangers of homosexuality are convincingly chronicled. I find myself agreeing with many issues raised by Jones. Yet, despite the book’s conservative outlook, some of its points raised questions in my mind.
First of all, I noticed there were numerous typos and errors. For example, on page 44, on finds “.).” On page 52, Jones properly begins a quote with quotation marks, but fails to include end-quotes. On page 56, Jones writes, “Public fast were observed.” On page 62 and 79 there is no period at the end of the sentence. A sentence on page 268 is bolded mid-word. Not only were there typos, but the author also cited sources improperly. Both websites and books were catalogued incorrectly, as well as all of his citations in the text. This leaves the reader wondering why the author did not bother to pay attention or take the time to format his sources. After all, proper citations and bibliographies add credibility and weight to one’s argument. Sloppiness in this area, however, severely detracts from one’s credibility. Furthermore, Jones’s main sources were websites. A basic ruler of writing is that websites should be one’s last resort. Websites tend to hold less weight as sources than books and articles, and many websites are not only unofficial, but contain false information. Virtually anyone can publish a website. All of these factors combined to detract from the credibility of Jones’s book. Jones would have done well to proof read his text a few more times, to follow a writing standard (such as MLA or Turabian), and to cite more books.
I was a little disturbed by Jones’s definition of salvation (p. 22). He said salvation happens “by accepting Him [Jesus] as Lord and living by the precepts of His word (the Bible), they will make heaven their home.” It seems Jones is saying that Christians make heaven their home when they live by the Bible. This is a problem since it seems to be teaching a works salvation. In other words, Jones is saying that faith + works = salvation. The Bible teaches that salvation is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9), not by works. Now, I believe with all my heart that a person who has faith will work and will live by the Bible. This, however, is not what makes a person saved, but is the natural outworking of salvation.
Some of Jones’s statements about homosexuality surprised me. For example, in denouncing the evil of the sin, he quoted 1 Corinthians 6:9-10,
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, no effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
Jones used this verse as a springboard into his discussion of homosexuality and its prevalence in the American culture. While I agree that homosexuality is a sin, I wonder that Jones isolated this sin alone from the Bible verse. Why does Jones not raise a fuss over adultery, idolatry, covetousness, thieving—all of which are listed as sins in the verse? I think the danger in Jones’s approach is to view sins as those “naughty” things that seem worse than my sins, things which are easy to point fingers at. But according to Scripture, my sins are just as real and just as perverse as the “closet sins.”
Beyond this, I found myself severely at odds with the core of Jones’s argument. He argues, first, that America was grounded as a Christian nation. This is proved first, claims Jones, by the Christian men and women involved in our country’s early years. Columbus, who asked for God’s help before voyaging to America, is Jones’ first example. Columbus seems like a surprising figure to point considering his controversial career and his reportedly harsh reputation. Jones then referenced the pilgrims. While the pilgrims did desire to found a “city on a hill,” they failed to truly provide liberty to all. The same pilgrims who fled persecution in England came to America and persecuted those denominations that disagreed with them. It turns out that when the pilgrims spoke of religious freedom, what they really wanted was freedom for their religion and theirs alone. The same was true elsewhere. Thus, one who reads early American history discovers that the Anglicans in Virginia persecuted other denominations, and the Puritans in the northern states terribly persecuted any who disagreed. Sadly, many of the early Christians in this “Christian nation” did not act very Christian. Such religious feuding did not stop until men like Thomas Jefferson stepped in and made separation of church and state a national policy.
Jefferson did this, not out of religious conviction, but for the sake of political principle. He and others had seen the terrors that accompany the fusion of church and state. And Jefferson was by no means Christian. He made his own version of the Bible, literally taking scissors and cutting out the miracles, and only keeping the words of Christ which taught peace and love for one’s enemies. Ben Franklin held similar beliefs. George Washington was a deist known for his general lack of interest in religion. Deists do no acknowledge God and can sound very Christian when they pray, but do not believe the tenets of Christianity.
The “Christianity” of this nation’s early leaders is indeed questionable. Jones, however, adamantly asserts his position. He refers to George Washington’s prayer addressed to the “Almighty being who rules the universe” (p. 31). That is no Christian prayer! Congress, he claims, was Christian because it encouraged morality and religious liberty (p. 32). I’m sorry, but encouraging people to read their Bible or live by the Ten Commandments is not Christianity either. Jones goes so far as to remind the reader that twenty seven signers of the Declaration of Independence had seminary degrees, and then claims this is evidence of their Christianity. Going through seminary, however, does not make you a Christian—not even in the 1700’s. In light of the historical record, I’m baffled that Jones declares, “Those of the antichristian mindset want us to believe that the founding fathers were all either agnostic, atheist, or deist” (p. 43). This book would have done well to avoid such uninformed statements.
The patriotism of America’s early pastors points to a Christian foundation, claims Jones. He states, “To be patriotic was to be Christian” (p. 33). Jones continues, saying that in those days “politics were preached in pulpits and men were led to action by faithful pastors” (p. 33). Jones also urges current pastors to be politicians, saying,
Clergy in the OT became politically active. They included men like Samuel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel…. Other clergymen became statesmen to speak out against the…injustices of the day. We often refer to them as prophets, but just look at their messages. Today they would readily be defined as political activists…. Others not only influenced public office, but also actually occupied those offices and helped change the laws of the land (p. 34).
Of course the OT prophets were politically active! They were living in the time of Theocratic Israel. America, however, is not Israel, and unlike Israel, our founding is not inscribed on the pages of Scripture! To compare America with Israel is almost as warped and unfounded as comparing the president with Jesus. Jones, however, seems not to realize this.
Jones, then, views America as a Christian nation whose pastors were like prophets and even fought at the battle fronts (p. 29). But he clams that our Christian heritage ultimately stems from our country’s form of government (p. 37). I wonder how Jones arrives at this conclusion. After all, nowhere does scripture speak of a democratic government. If Jones really wants a biblically based model of government, a monarchy would be most accurate.
Not only do I disagree with Jones about our country’s founding, I also disagree with his proposed solution. He argues that Christians must take America back, a task which is accomplished by impeaching those in power, reclaiming the judicial sector, getting godly men elected, tackling the welfare system, confronting Islam and homosexuality, and sealing our borders from immigration. While all of these issues do need to be addressed, I disagree whole heartedly with this approach. Nowhere does Scripture teach that politics is the answer. Rather, we find that God works through the lives of ordinary Christians, as they live for the gospel and influence those around them for Christ. The church understood that the gospel would flourish even if the state were in shambles. Their strategy was not to convert their country by taking over the Roman government.
Furthermore, the church knew their purpose was to win the lost to Christ. Jones bemoans the fact that Muslims are coming into this country by the millions (ch. 9). I think the reaction of the early church would have been quite the opposite. Rather than viewing these unbelievers as enemies, the church would have viewed their entrance as a God-given opportunity to share the gospel in their own backyards. Winning the nations to Christ was their purpose, not reclaiming some bygone political ideals. So why do Christians in America feel differently? Why do we feel that for the gospel to flourish here, it must happen politically?
No, the church knew that God was bigger than the politics of Rome, and their perspective was much broader than just their own nation. Jones, however, seems to think that God’s plans are limited to America. The gospel is not an American thing. No, Christianity is global, crossing international borders, and reaching into the hearts of people from every race. There are millions of Christians who live under tyrannical governments, yet are seeing the gospel thrive. Why should American Christians feel entitled to be the only Christians in the world to have a Christian government and live in a Christian nation?
Americans who believe like Jones need a wake-up call. Change is not needed on the political or national level. Jesus demonstrated this definitively by his own perfect example. As his ministry became increasingly successful, the crowds expected him to overthrow Rome and set up a righteous empire. But, setting a precedent for his followers of all time, he declared, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting” (John 18:36 NASB). Jesus’ way is the Roman cross, not the Roman senate. He transforms, not the “powers that be,” but the hearts of fishermen and prostitutes and tax collectors. His revival is not legislated nationally, but is spread globally by Spirit indwelt simpletons. Christ eschewed the political trappings of his day as bankrupt tools of a fallen world. Had he come to America he would have done the same and still chosen the way of the cross—not voting ballots, polls, impeachments, elections, politicians, constitutions, or Christian governments. I think this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote that the weapons of our warfare are not of this world.
Jones desperately wants to preserve and reform the American way of life. Yet, if America as we know it ever collapses and Christians face persecution, the gospel goes on. After all, this is what Christians all over the world already face. In conclusion, I’m reminded of some words of the persecuted church in China. One of their leaders said, “When you pray on our behalf, do not ask that things would get easier for us or that God might spare us from our suffering—lest we become like those fat, lazy, American Christians.” Perhaps a hostile government and daily persecution is exactly what the church in America needs. In the end, for Christians so prone to slothfulness and assimilation, a Christian republic could be the church’s worst enemy in existence.
June 5, 2010
While my in-laws were here this week we enjoyed reading Deeper Water, Robert Whitlow’s award winning novel from 2008. Whitlow tells the story of a young law student named Tamy Taylor who journeys to Charleston on a summer internship. Tammy must figure out how to live by her conservative faith while adjusting to new pressures. In the end, Tamy makes quite an impression while working on the Moses Jones trespassing case and uncovers some long hidden secrets.
The book proved to be a refreshing read for several reasons. Whitlow painted a positive picture of home-schooling, showed a tight-knit family that prayed about important decisions, included an example of a character being led to the Lord, and hinted at the beginnings of a godly courtship.
Whitelow concluded the book well. He brought the story to a concise and seamless end, keeping the story moving quickly. Some unexpected twists near the end showed Whitlow’s creative ability.
Despite the book’s many strengths, a few elements could have been improved. While the story’s conclusion was strong, its introduction was weak. The story took quite a while to get moving. Excessive character development and unnecessary tales bogged down a number of pages. Because of this, we at one point discussed putting down the book for good.
Tamy Taylor, the main character, was quite legalistic. She strictly observed the ‘sabbath’ (sundown on Saturday night to sundown on Sunday). At one point she faced a ‘serious dilemma’ because she had no option but to move to Charleston on Sunday. She only agreed to do so after receiving special permission from the Lord in prayer. Tamy was legalistic in other areas as well. Wearing pants constituted as sin. On her first Sunday in the new city, she opted to have her own personal worship time at home rather than go to one of the many apostate churches, as she called them.
Tamy also had an obnoxious personality (although I do not think Whitlow intended her to be that way, but tried to portray her as a role model worthy of emulation). Tamy was paranoid that just about every male was out to get her. At one point, she thought a male coworker at the law firm was going to throw her into the ocean. Tamy seemed uptight in general. Coworkers’ joking comments often pushed her over the edge. She lost her temper on several occasions, treated her superiors disrespectfully, and was untrusting of people. These traits were surprising comming from the Christian exemplar of the story. As we read the story together, we often put the book down in frustration and asked, “What is she thinking? What’s her problem?”
Overall, Deeper Water proves to be an enjoyable read and is to be recommended. Be prepared for the legalistic Christianity and the slow beginning. The conclusion will be well worth it. Give the book a read when you’re in the mood for something light and quick.
May 12, 2010
I hope you profit as much as I did from James Hamilton‘s advice about book reviews.
This advice was also helpful:
Devotionally, I try to read a page or a page and a half of the Hebrew Bible everyday (BHS). Sometimes it will be less if I am in a section that is more difficult, such as prophecy or the Psalms, where there are more words I do not recognize. I also try to read a chapter of the Greek New Testament every day. That is the goal.