Review: The Hole in Our Gospel

If there was a college class entitled, “Social Justice for Evangelicals 101”, this book would be the primary text. If you need any sort of introduction to the concept of social justice and how it reflects God’s heart, you need to read this book.

It’s dense and took me awhile to get through it, but I’m glad I did. I was already aware of most of the biblical references in support of social justice, having begun really exploring that concept just in the past couple of years, but what made this book worth it to me was all of Richard Stearns’ stories that went along with them. This was a book that only he could have written.

Whether it be his own testimony of how God would not give up until Stearns left his cushy CEO job and accepted the role as President of World Vision (a great story!) or snapshots of the children and mothers and families he has personally met overseas, this book is one that will grip your heart and make you feel like you need to do something to help.

I wish there was a little more at the end of the book as far as action steps and what that “something” looks like; otherwise, we are just left with this feeling of wanting to do something and not knowing exactly what (except for sponsoring a child through World Vision). But I think the more people in the Church that read this book, and books like it, the bigger the spark it will ignite – and eventually, the Church will see our highest calling as joining with God in restoring his creation to the way it was meant to be. And that means restoring justice to society.

Review: unChristian

David Kinnaman works for the Barna Group, which is known as the “Christian Gallup”. The group does polling on the state of the Church in America, and Kinnaman has done some research for this book specifically on the younger generations in this country — what they think of the Church, whether or not we are reaching them, and why we aren’t. The numbers paint a stark and bleak picture for anyone who loves and cares for those generations.

As I’ve reflected on here at this blog before, the Church is literally dying. The younger generations are not at all interested in the story we are telling as a church, and they don’t get any more interested as they get older.

The statistics in this book help reveal why.

Kinnaman uses thorough research to paint a picture of how the younger generations view the church. Their six strongest perceptions of the Church are that we are:

  • hypocritical,
  • focused on converts and not on people,
  • antihomosexual,
  • sheltered and old-fashioned,
  • too political, and
  • judgmental.

Ouch.

Kinnaman lays out the statistics for each of these perceptions in the first half of each chapter. For the second half, respected church leaders contribute short essays on how we can change those perceptions (which are, unfortunately, largely realities as well).

I give this book three and a half stars. It won’t exactly go down as a well-written literary masterpiece. But the information it contains is important to our discussion of where the Church goes from here. It also won’t exactly leave you with a happy, everything-works-out-in-the-end kind of feeling. But therein lies the good news: yes, we as the Church have screwed things up, but the ending has yet to be written. The story is in our hands, and we can do things to more clearly reflect the heart of God, who yearns to use us to reach these new generations.

Review: The Unlikely Disciple

Continuing my streak of 2011 being the Year of Great Books, The Unlikely Disciple is the best non-fiction book I’ve read so far this year.

Kevin Roose is a college student at Brown, a secular, progressive university. He decides to spend a semester “undercover” at Liberty, a conservative, fundamentalist Christian college — to try to understand and bridge the “culture gap” that exists in America between the two groups. What follows is one of the fairest, even-handed, and fun account of conservative evangecalism from someone outside the faith I’ve ever seen.

Roose is an incredible writer, and he really draws you in with his storytelling. It’s entertaining. But it’s also really impactful.

There were times while reading about his experiences at Liberty that I got sad and just had to shake my head. But there were also times I would shut the book with a huge smile on my face and a feeling of deep happiness.

Roose had many opportunities to shred evangelicalism, but he doesn’t. In fact, as two of my Christian friends who have also read this book noted, he was fairer than we probably would have been had we been in his shoes.

The whole thing was just incredibly refreshing and, yes, informative. I have great respect for Roose and plan on checking out any other books he publishes in the future.

Review: The Fall of the Evangelical Nation

Okay, so I’m trying to not say this about as many books as I used to, but I HAVE to say it about this one: The Fall of the Evangelical Nation is an absolute must read if you are in an evangelical church or at all interested in the evangelical church.

This book strikes the perfect chord and harmony in discussing the present and the future of the evangelical church in America — mostly because of the author’s own story. Christine Wicker was raised – and saved – in a conservative, evangelical Baptist church, and then walked away from her faith in her 30s. Well, tried to walk away anyhow. As she points out, something of that faith will always remain with her, and even though she never reads the Bible or goes to church, she still ascribes some of the most intimate moments in her life to miracles of God. She envies the evangelicals she interviews, wants what they’ve got; but she also sees the weaknesses in their tradition and knows she can’t force herself to believe it anymore.

Wicker’s honesty and authenticity give this book the amazing ability and authority it possesses to look honestly and authentically at the evangelical church movement. And that look brings to light some surprising trends.

Interweaving chapters full of statistics and numbers with chapters full of personal stories of people she’s met, she paints a picture of a church tradition that should be growing by leaps and bounds – but is actually quietly and secretly dying.

Her stories will draw you in. Her numbers will astound you. Her tone and style will make you wish you could discuss all of this over a cup of coffee. Simply put, if you are at all interested in the evangelical church movement (and how it’s affecting this country) – either from the inside or the outside, you have to read this book.

Review: The First Paul

I snagged this book off the “New Books” shelf at our public library (even though it’s two years old — the joys of living in small town Wyoming). It’s a look back at the apostle Paul, who wrote most of what we consider the New Testament today, and an attempt to reconcile some of his more contradictory instructions.

For instance, in one letter he instructs a slave owner to allow his slave to go free, but in another letter he instructs slave owners to keep their slaves and treat them well. In some places, Paul seems to advocate for equality among men and women in life, ministry, and leadership, and in other places he seems to specifically argue against it. How can these letters all be written by the same person?

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s answer is simple: they weren’t. Taking a hard left into liberal theology, they attempt to show how the letters that we are sure were written by Paul contain some of his more radical, progressive ideas — while the letters that historians argue about whether or not Paul wrote contain some of the most conservative ideas. The difference is easy to explain, they say. What Paul actually wrote was revolutionary and guided by a revolutionary relationship with Jesus. The other letters that someone wrote while pretending to be Paul were more patriarchal, hierarchical, and concerned with organization than Spirit.

It’s a really interesting premise, which is why I picked the book up to read it, but in the end, I just do not find their arguments persuasive. I have a difficult time buying into the theory that someone wrote letters pretending to be Paul, even saying hello at the end of them to people Paul personally and individually knew. That’s a bridge too far for me. But I was interested in reading what they had to say. I just didn’t think they laid out that great of a case.

Strangely enough, though, I still really enjoyed other parts of their work. That might be because the book is quite scattered and doesn’t stick to their theme past the first few chapters. Historical research contained in the book is quite good. It might be worth it, for instance, to read this book just for the sake of checking out chapter 4 (“Jesus is Lord”), which was great. And in the midst of some crazy theology, they manage to come up with some really inspiring stuff like this:

“Jesus and Paul were not executed for saying, ‘Love one another.’ They were killed because their understanding of love meant more than being compassionate. It also meant standing against the domination systems that ruled their world, and collaborating with the Spirit in the creation of a new way of life that stood in contrast to the wisdom of this world. Love and justice go together. Love is the heart of justice, and justice is the social form of love.”

That is awesome.

So this book was a mixed bag for me. If you can get past the extreme theology, there’s some really great stuff in it — so I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Making of Evangelicalism

Randall Balmer is one of the most widely respected religious historians out there, and I jumped at the chance to read this short (less than a hundred pages) book when I saw it at the local public library.

Balmer grew up in the E-Free church and has witnessed evangelicalism from the inside of the movement. His observations about this Christian tradition which now dominates western expressions of the faith are timely, poignant, and nearly perfectly laid out in this book.

Balmer traces evangelicalism back through four main “fork in the road” moments: the period between the first and second great awakenings (when evangelical soteriology underwent a radical shift), industrialization and urbanization (when evangelicals shifted from a postmillenial to a premillenial worldview), the development of a Christian sub-culture in the 50s and 60s, and finally, the rise of the religious right in the remaining quarter of the 20th century.

It was quite interesting to read about how we got to where we are today as evangelicals. It may surprise many evangelicals to learn that we weren’t always focused on individual salvation experiences, didn’t always shun social justice/social gospel theologies, and didn’t always have our “own” music, movies, and TV channels. And it is, as Balmer notes, quite interesting to ponder what might have been, had evangelicalism as a movement chosen to go the other direction at these various forks.

Balmer is bullish on the future of evangelicalism despite all his critiques, and he ends the book by noting that we may very well be at our fifth fork in the road — with the future open to us and dependent on where we choose to go together.

The only flaws I saw in this book were some hard-to-swallow barbs in the political section (Jesus would never support any of Bush’s war on terror policies, apparently), and the fact that Balmer ignores some beautiful social justice work done by organizations such as World Vision and Compassion — both of which started around the time the rest of evangelicalism was retreating into their little Christian subculture.

All in all, though, this is a book I would very highly recommend to anyone who is even remotely interested in understanding where our faith has come from and how we got to where we are today. It’s less than a hundred pages, so it will probably only take you one sitting to polish it off. Easily 4 out of 5 stars.

Review: Obama’s Wars

As you probably know, I’m a sucker for anything with “inside” information, especially about sports or politics. And so when Bob Woodward released his latest book, I knew I had to read it. And Obama’s Wars did not disappoint at all.

This was perhaps the fairest and most even-handed book about politics I’ve ever read. It was refreshing to read a book written by a really well-respected journalist with no axe to grind. There were stories about things Bush did well and things he let slip; there were equally stories about things at which Obama excelled and things at which he and his team failed. It was nice not to have any sense of “blame the other side” come out in Woodward’s writing. (He relayed several stories of politicians saying such things, but he remained neutral quite well himself.)

Having caught an inside glimpse into the world of the Obama White House, I can now say that I wish Hillary were President instead of Barack, and I wish Joe Biden were nowhere near the White House. President Obama has had to make some tough calls – and understanding some of his motivations behind those decisions has created in me sympathy for him. But what stood out to me the most about his Presidency thus far were two things: his utter indecisiveness and the amount of political calculation that goes on in his team, even in matters of war.

The conversations that took place out of the public’s view – until now – were rich and revealing. This was a really well written, easy to read inside look at the Obama White House. If you are into politics at all, I’d highly recommend it.

Review: American Assassin

I’m starting 2011 off with a bang, as American Assassin is the third straight five-star book I’ve read this year.

This is Vince Flynn’s twelfth political thriller novel, and eleventh in the Mitch Rapp series. Rapp has gained such a passionate following that Flynn dedicated this book as a prequel to describe how Rapp got to be the amazing, kick-ass terrorist hunter he is.

My only complaint with the book is that it didn’t go back far enough — it begins with Rapp being recruited into a covert CIA counter-terrorism program after his girlfriend dies in the terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103. I was hoping to read more about Mitch’s life while he was dating his girlfriend, and the emotions he went through as he learned about the bombing.

The first hundred pages or so are a unique opening to a Flynn novel with Rapp at the CIA training grounds learning and showing his stuff. After that, the book falls into a classic Mitch Rapp action plot – which is fine by me – in which Rapp travels the globe taking out the terrorists responsible for killing his girlfriend, one by one.

If you like Tom Clancy or David Baldacci stuff, you will absolutely love Vince Flynn novels. This one is another solid entry in the series.

Review: The Games That Changed the Game

I love history. And I love football. So a book written by one of the best football analysts about the history and evolution of the game? Sign me up.

This book is awesome. It’s more about the coaches that changed the game, and then details about a particular game for each of them that kind of epitomized their innovations. It starts all the way back with the AFL and works up through Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots. The seven coaches and their revolutionary (at the time) ideas are:

  • Sid Gillman and his offense: stretching the field, legitimizing the passing game, and precision drills, among others.
  • Bud Carson and the invention of the Cover Two defense
  • Don Coryell and the use of tight ends as receivers, and the Air Coryell attack
  • Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense
  • Buddy Ryan and the Chicago Bear’s 46 defense
  • Dick LeBeau and the zone blitz
  • Bill Belichick and his creating a different game plan for every game the Patriots play

The most often repeated phrase in the book is some variation of, “It’s commonplace now, but nobody had even imagined doing it at the time.” It’s really neat to see how so many elements of the game we take for granted were shockingly revolutionary when these coaches first introduced them.

If you love football, this is a great book. If you love football and history, this book is an absolute must-read.