Christian Life

 

 

Confessions of a Reformission Rev, Mark Driscoll

“A Dangerously Honest (Usually) Pastor”

 

People come to Driscoll's church in part because he has a lot to say, and says it well. The same is true in this autobiographical narrative of the founding of Mars Hill Fellowship, and all the associated hoopla. (Now 5000 or so per Sunday, including taking over the big old Presbyterian Church I grew up in, in West Seattle -- now that's a mindblower.)

As for telling well, here are four of Driscoll's aphorisms, from two facing pages (these also show what Driscoll means by "theologically conservative and socially progressive -- a bit):

"The music was very cool if you were into suicide."

"One of our long-haired arty types turned all the lights off and read Nietzche's The Madman
by candlelight, which was supposed to make us very Bohemian and cool but just kind of scared the handful of normal people in attendance."

"I decided . . . to work hard at becoming a solid long-winded, old-school Bible preacher that focused on Jesus."

"Silence is better than painful music."

As for having a lot to say . . . Aside from explicit ideas, an implicit message seems to be, "Christians can love Jesus and be really honest at the same time; holiness and frankness need not cancel one another out."

The story involves God, the Devil, sex, music, and the surreal . . . along with occasional boring statistics and church-growth theory that you may or may not find interesting. (Including chapter one.) Fortunately, most of the story concentrates on the difficult early years of the church; like human biographies, childhood seems to be the most interesing part of a church's life . . . Life remains interesting partly because like Chairman Mao, Driscoll seemed to get bored with slow progress and often decided to deliberately stir things up. Apparently it worked.

Driscoll is often crass and frequently treats people instrumentally. He notes that the church needs a "colon;" what does that imply the people who leave his church (refugees from his own "cultural revolution") are? He's also frequently dismissive of other churches in Seattle, though one senses part of this is for (admittedly humorous) effect: "Another woman pastor and her gay male associate pastor with a lovely rainbow on his elegantly sassy robe both spoke passionately about the need to get rid of our nuclear weapons. Their message did not connect with me because I did not have any nuclear weapons. So I left early."

For the record, Mars Hill is not the only good church in North Seattle. In fact, just a few miles away is an excellent, solidly orthodox and missional Presbyterian church of about the same mega-size; and there are several others in between. (I hop around between them like Driscoll did, for very different reasons.) But it's great to have Driscoll and his brash band in the 'hood; doing God's work an unusual way.

 

 

131 Christians Everyone Should Know, Mark Ghalli

*** “Good Finger Food (Where are the Entrees?)”

 

This book is a pretty good way to introduce yourself to many of the most influential thinkers and doers of the Christian tradition. It's easy to nibble at this salad bar of biographies, and it's easy to become addicted to nibbling.

I have two gripes. First, a predictable complaint about the choices. Only two scientists are included (plus Pascal, as an apologist) -- but not Neuton, Kepler, Faraday, Kelvin, or Lister. At the same time, a few minor characters like William Miller and Aimee McPherson are, apparently to pad the "denominational founders" number. It is also hard to understand why no Latin Americans, black Africans, Indians, or Chinese (Watchman Nee? Wang Ming Dao?) made the grade. Isn't one purpose of this book is to help us Anglo-Saxon Christians become less parochial?

My other complaint is that the authors, or editors, talk down to their readers. The back cover of the book opens, "If you think history is boring. . . " Well if I thought that, I wouldn't buy the book. The authors give less than a page and a half to Francis Bacon, clutter that little space up with irrelevent biographical detail (no doubt to make the story "interesting"), and never get around to telling us why he is worth knowing or what he achieved.

Perhaps at times the problem is they lack the necessary breadth of knowledge to tackle some of their subjects.  They give the usual caricature of Pascal as promoting "faith" rather than "reason," in lieu of the more complex truth, that he wrote of both brilliantly, and did not agree to the conflict that we moderns read into the relationship between the two.  They claim that G. K. Chesterton had no masterpieces – I would disagree, both Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy qualify, in my opinion.

The authors present Harriet Beecher Stowe as "the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin," which they describe as "contrived, unreal," and "romanticized." They fail to mention that the woman did have some real talent; perhaps they didn't notice it.  They also skipped over one of the most attractive qualities of her story, the mutual loyalties between herself, her famous father and brother, and her husband, and how out of the matrix of such personal support that Stowe began to develop, in later life, a Christian feminism rooted in respect between the sexes, that contrasted with the radical feminism of George Elliot, for example. All that could have been fitted into the white space at the end of Stowe's third page, and made the story much richer.

This is a pretty good introductory reference or self-education book for a church or personal library, or as a text for homeschooling.  I did learn a little about a lot of people I wanted to know more of.  But I wish Christian editors would stop dumbing down their books. What would have been helpful is a bibliography, so readers who catch the passion for history the authors want to promote, could go further with it.  I guess they don't want to tax their readers.

 

Selling Satan: The Evangelical Media and the Mike Warnke Scandal, Mike Hertenstein

“The (sad) truth is out there”

 

History is told twice, it is said: as history, and as farce. This is the revised version of the Mike Warnke story. Trout and Hertenstein unravel the untrue tale of Warnke thread by thread: fake ex-Satan worshipper, womanizer, whiner, con, and man whose gift of gad is always welcome in a dumbed-down, feeling-over-fact church. They do so not to gloat, farcical as events may sometimes seem, but with openness and I think compassion as well as sorrow. Their goal is to wake the church up to the importance of telling the truth.

The story is not only well-told, but carefully told. The secondary heroes of the tale are, inescapably, the intrepid investigators, but the primary hero is Truth, with a capital T, and with personal names whose initials are J.C.

It has been said that in ancient Rome, commoners saw all religions as equally true, philosophers saw them as equally false, and politicians saw them as equally useful. The reviewer below who criticizes a book she has not read because Warnke wins people to Christ must take a very pragmatic view of things. Does the God who created the galaxies need to run scams to get people to believe in Him? Can we, by telling lies, convert people to the Truth?  Mike Warnke's story is taudry and sad, but by telling it, and by telling it well, with thorough research, good writing, and honest introversion, the authors give us an important wake-up call...And while we do, take heed lest we fall as well.

 

 

The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’engle

***** “Imagination and Integrity”

 

I've enjoyed many of Madeleine L'engle's books, this among the best. I was a bit surprised that I liked this one, since L'Engle turns the old rule about autobiographies -- bag limit of one -- on its head, writing yet again about her "non-eventful" life: kindness, love of animals, imagination and scientific curiosity, honest, hard-thought Christian humanism.

Other reviewers have mentioned other things they liked about the book; let me say something about the poems. The first almost scared me off: poems are sometimes a good writer's self-indulgence. (I skip most the poems in Tolkien.) But here they are jewels in the crown. Her poem of the wind and the star (p. 165-6) is magnificent. Unsentimental but hopeful, too, the gritty realism (reminiscent of the biblical Christmas narratives) of the communion poem that begins:

"Come, let us gather round the table.
Light the candles. Steward, pour the wine.
It's dark outside. The streets are noisy
with the scurrying of rats, with shoddy
tarts, shills, thugs, harsh shouting."

This is a diary of a different sort. I read it in the evening, a few pages at a time, a few moments conversation with a kind Christian lady of intellectual integrity to end the day.

 

 

The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis

***** “Beautiful”

 

In one of Lewis' Narnia books, he describes a quiet, restful place called The Wood Between the Worlds, where "You can almost hear the trees growing." Reading Lewis at his best, you can almost hear the spirit growing, taking up water through its roots in God.

I can't say how much I've learned from this beautiful little treasure. Reading it for the first time twenty or more years ago, each chapter struck me as a revelation, and has been a part of the "spiritual furniture of my mind" ever since. (Though living up to it is more difficult.) It gives me food for thought on "like" and "love," how to treat animals, the beauties and dangers of friendship and romance, how they differ, the inherent riskiness of love, the disquises by which hatred can enter the soul, and what it means to love God and for God to love me. I do not agree with Gross above that this book is a more "persuasive apologetic" for Christianity than his other books, but I do think that non-Christians are likely to enjoy it. M. Scott Peck's books, Road Less Travelled and People of the Lie, (the first written as a Buddhist, the second as a Christian) can even be read as "case studies" of some of the points Lewis makes here.

Four Loves proves that the most eloquent and deepest truths can be expressed in the simplest language. It (they?) would be a wonderful gift for a newlywed, a young person graduating from high school or college, or anyone else to whom you wish to express your love.

Finding God at Harvard, Kelly Monroe

***** “Thoughtful Essays for Every Mood”

 

This book is composed of forty-three bite-sized essays by various persons who have had some relation to Harvard U. (Taken classes, guest-lectured, fed a squirrel on campus.) Not all are brilliant or profound, but many are, and most of the others are worth reading. My favorites were the Solzhenitsyn and Robert Coles essays, that I had read elsewhere, Nicholas Woltershorff's classy biographical essay, Krisher Sairsingh's story of conversion to Christianity from Hinduism (he is the cousin of Rabi Maharaj, author of Death of Guru), Poh Lian Lim's essay on sexual dignity, Robert Massie's funny experience as a monk in business school, Charles Thaxton on the Christian roots of science, (his book on the subject, The Soul of Science, is great!) and John Rankin on "Power and Gender at the Divinity School," which is also autobiographical and funny. (Sorry. I meant to end that sentence sooner, but kept remembering other good essays.) The story by the student who later died of cancer is also moving. As you can see, the book is diverse, even a bit scattered; but you don't have to read them all at once, or even read them all at all. Read one per cup of hot chocolate and donut, and call your pastor in the morning.

Having myself passed through years of Humanist, Marxist and skeptical indoctrination in school, I see no need to rely on independant thought to come to materialistic conclusions; skepticism has poured in on me all my life from the ether, like background radiation. The reason I am a Christian is that I found this "ancient means of describing how the world works" does in fact describe it better than modern skeptics and other anti-Christian writers. (Of whom I have read a fair number.) Many of the authors of these essays, at one point in their careers, shared the same blind prejudices against Christianity as this skeptic. It was often learning to think for themselves that pulled them out of it. The California lawyer is undoubtedly right when he implies that not everyone who goes to Harvard is open to truth. (Whether or not that makes them "morons" is another question.) But here you can read the story of some who I think were.

 

Crossing the Threshold of Faith, Pope John Paul II

***** “Pretty good, for a Pope”

 

As a non-Catholic Christian, I was happy to find that I agree with most of this book. (Apart from the "Mother of God" chapter.) I was impressed by the intelligence, simplicity, and balance with which Pope John-Paul presented his ideas. It seemed to me that the pope must be aware of the ideas of great Christian thinkers like Lewis, Chesterton, and Pascal, and shares the same ability to express deep truths in terms that are easy to understand.

Some Buddhists, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have complained about the Pope's view of other religions. Thich actually rebuked the Pope for misunderstanding Christianity by calling Jesus "the only mediator between God and man!" Non-Christians should realize that, in this case, the Pope is only quoting Scripture. And as he also noted, Christianity "rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions." My own research is into what the Pope calls "semina Verbi," seeds of truth, in pre-Christian cultures, (especially Asian) and I thought his approach was fair. Of course he talks about many issues in this book: the fall of communism, abortion, the status of women, salvation, the existence of God. . . and does not go into any in great detail. It is an excellent book to read for an overall understanding of Catholic Christianity and the thinking of one very thoughtful Catholic in particular.

 

In God’s Underground, Richard Wurmbrand

***** “Saints are human, too

 

Mystic.  Philosopher. Loving husband.  Worried father.  Proud member of the Jewish race. Creature with nerve ending that ache when you hit them and who hungers when you starve him.   Social being who hallucinates apart from human voices, and hungers for sex and companionship as well as food.  Martyr who stands up to tyrants and warns them to repent. Lutheran pastor with a weakness for jokes.  Richard Wurmbrand may have been a "voice of the martyrs," but after reading this sensitive, deeply honest autobiography, what impresses me the most is the degree to which his voice is also the voice of humankind.  I found it challenging to see how, as a well-read Christian in tough times who faces all the temptations I do, he integrated the various facets of his humanity with his faith.

In a literal sense, faith made Wurmbrand a free-thinker.  Embracing a religion that fits the full complexity of life, miracles as well as madness, and sharing a broad and often painful experience with a knowledge of several spiritual traditions, he was free to think on many questions and come to unexpected conclusions both whimsical and sober.  There are many modern names that could be added to the list of heroes of the faith of Hebrews 11. Wurmbrand tells us some of their stories, including his own.

 

Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey

“A marshwiggle is comfort in the underworld”

 

As usual, Yancey provides his readers with searching questions, wise insights, great quotes (maybe too many), doubts that help the believer get in touch with the skeptic and the skeptic with the believer inside each of us, and scrupulous honesty. A literary non-Christian, or anyone flaling about looking for God, might find a great deal of help here: there's some rich stuff in this book, and I appreciate Yancey's willingness to verbalize his doubts.

I think Yancey's writing as a whole may have been strongest when he was teamed with Paul Brand, however. Perhaps his restless, questioning thoughts needs to be steadied in profession, place, or outward-oriented study. The quotations and examples in this book seem at times like sand joined with too little mortar. A little more passion, and a little less introspection, might lend his writing more continuity. As it is, the parts seem greater than the whole.

At one point Yancey reports how God seemed to speak to him ("to my great surprise") and tell him to "Question your doubts as much as your faith" "Allow the good to penetrate as deeply as the bad" and "find something that allows you to feel God's pleasure," among other things. This book seems to represent a continuing struggle towards a realization of these truths on Yancey's part.

If you don't understand the title of this review, read C. S. Lewis' Silver Chair. (Which you should, anyway.)

 

What’s so amazing about Grace?, Phillip Yancey

**** “Yancey tells one side of the story well”

 

Well-written as are all of Yancey's books, full of passion and good ideas, What's so Amazing About Grace is also seriously out of balance, in my opinion. The uncritical adulation heaped upon the book by the Christian community, and Yancey's willingness to accept that adulation (see his own comments above, and also the reviews on the cover of the book) reveals, it seems to me, a corresponding lack of balance in contemporary Christian thinking which accounts for a lot.

I found four serious problems with the book.  First, it seemed to me the word "Ungrace" was left ill-defined.  When a father spanks his son, is that ungrace?  When a judge sentences a thief to prison, is that ungrace?  When a soldier fires on an enemy in combat, is that ungrace?  The examples and tone of Yancey's book lead the reader naturally to include all cases of retribution and punishment in this category.  At the least, he set the ball rolling in that direction and erected no clear barrier to it.  And yet in each of these cases the person involved may be doing his duty as a Christian, may even be exercising courage, wisdom, and yes, love that border on the heroic, in an attempt to obey God.  Should actions which arise out of a desire to "Love God and love others" be lumped with mass-murder and child molestation in a single category?  "Ungrace" seems to embrace all actions not arising specifically out of an urge towards forgiveness and unmerited kindness.  It abstracts a single virtue out of the matrix of the complete Christian life and makes it absolute, which, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, is a dangerous thing to do.

Second, while Yancey discussed the cost of grace to the agent of grace, he did not discuss or adequately consider the often much greater cost to the recipient or to innocent bystanders.  Many point in the book, the question almost brought itself up, but without eliciting the attention from the author that it deserved.  For example, Yancey mentioned the murder rate in Japan, which is a tiny fraction of that in the U.S., and ascribed it (in part) to society's ungrateous treatment of criminals.  The obvious question, which he did not raise, might be stated thus: is the personal cruelty the families expressed towards those criminals too high a price for the tens of thousands of lives that the system saves every year?  Or to put it another way, should we sacrifice the lives of ten potential innocent victims, not to mention the freedom of everyone to go out at night (I live in Japan) so that one actual criminal might be shown mercy?  If Christians think the example of Jesus on the cross provides an easy answer to that question in the affirmative, it seems to me position at least replies a more rigorous and systematic argument.  Again, Yancey noted that since divorce has been tolerated in the United States, the divorce rate has risen to one half.  SO then are all the children who miss out on a father or mother an acceptable sacrifice to what he calls grace?

The example Yancey began his book with was the most extreme, and made my blood boil. Having myself worked in places where girls were sold into prostitution for the sake of their parents addictions, my reaction may have been somewhat different from that of most readers.  If it were up to me, I would send that woman to the prison for life, or the electric chair, in an instant, if it would save her little girl from the abuse she was subject to.  At the very least, I insist that the good of the victim should be considered before that of the person who is preying upon her, and I think the Bible says so too.  Yancey, on the other hand, didn't seem to even think of the little girl, except as part of the shame her mother experienced.  The woman complained that church would "only make me feel worse," he reported.  What, should the thought of proximity to the Christian God make a person who is selling her daughter into prostitution feel better?

Third, the Bible does talk about judgment as well as grace, and not just the first half.  Can Yancey ignore those passages and still call his view Christian?  As Yancey wrote with Dr. Paul Brand in their book on Pain, there is no substitute for physical pain for reminding us to take care of our bodies.  Does not the threat of judgment (ungrace) play the same role in encouraging us to see to our spiritual health?  And what are we to do with the words of the prophets?  Has human psychology and the character of God really changed so radically that we can now interpret the rest of the New Testament exclusively in the light of a few chapters in Romans?

It seems to me that many examples of "ungrace" Yancey gave involved blue-collar workers or other simple Christians who lack his education or subtlety of expression.  They may lack wisdom, I agree, but I know some Christians like that who on paper would sound equally "ungracious," but in practice show true Christian love.  I think it possible some of them were just trying to stand up for God in the only way they knew how.

Finally, Yancey wrote that "some studies" show that Christians are equally likely to rent x-rated movies, divorce, and have abortions, his point being that legalistic preaching on sex hasn't worked.  Yancey didn't argue that the studies were accurate, and they sound suspicious to me, because I know that the warnings of the Bible have an effect on some people, anyway.  But if in fact Christian preaching against evil has no impact on anyone, why do we bother with it at all?  Why does Yancey think anyone will really listen to him, either?

In any case, his conclusion here, that fundamentalist rules have if anything an opposite effect to their design, conflicts with his other examples, which show that Japanese legalism, for one, succeeds very well, resulting in dramatically reduced crime.

Having grown up like Yancey in a strict Christian church, it seemed to me the church is not too strict about sex, but far and away too lax.  Even good pastors seem afraid to bring the subject up, or maybe they don't realize how important it is to young people.  Having listened to sermons in hundreds of churches and youth groups, I can only vaguely recall hearing someone venture to guide Christians on this subject a few times.  In this case, as Chesterton put it about Christianity in general, Christian morality has not been tried and found wanted, it has been found difficult and not tried at all -- at least not recently.

We are all in need of God's grace, myself no less than anyone.  And praise God for the wonderful examples of grace Yancey gave.  But surely we can find a way to integrate the laws of God and the love of God in a more holistic, and truly loving way?  Yancey is a fabulous writer, but in my opinion he does not show a very complete grasp of the Biblical approach or the real-life complexities of this problem.

 

American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr, various

***** “A Useful and Thought-Provoking Reference Work”

 

Reading this book from cover to cover would be educational journey, but probably most readers will skip from place to place, as I did. Honestly, I found the 17th Century sermons, which make up a large part of the book, hard to follow, though I don't doubt there is much in them that will make the effort worthwhile, if I have need to look more closely.

There is doubtless something to delight and offend everyone in this volume. The editors have been fairly conscientious in taking selections from a variety of viewpoints. Liberals may get a bit more space in the 20th Century selection, but on the other hand, J. Gresham Machen's ringing defense of the historicity of the Gospels, History and Faith, is also included. (A work that could have been written as a reply to the Jesus Seminar of eight decades later. A devastating reply.)  I also found Henry Ward Beecher's pre-Civil War jeremiad against slavery stirring and of more than historical interest.  (That, too, of course. He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame.)  Joseph Smith's rambling funeral oration was useful in a different way, giving positive evidence for my prior feeling that the man was a bit, shall we say, close to the edge.

Agree or disagree, readers of every viewpoint will find something of interest in this volume. It would be a most valuable reference tool for any class on American history, and, I think, belongs in every school library.