Sunday, October 25, 2009

A short book review: Chasing Francis by Ian Cron OOOOO

Yes, 5 out of 5 bellybuttons. For only the 2nd time ever (the first being Dallas Willard's The Diving Conspiracy) I give all 5 bellybuttons up. The book is that good.

I've always thought that I didn't get enough out of my books. There are 20 or 30 that I think I should just read over and over, instead of buying new books. So last week I picked up Chasing Francis off my shelf and read it through for a 2nd time. And it's still just as good.

Cron writes one of those semi-fictional accounts like Brian McLaren's New Kind of Christian. And the topic is similar--a New England pastor named Chase Falson blows a fuse about his misgivings concerning Evangelicalism and has a total meltdown in front of his congregation. Chase has been a successful pastor, growing a massive church and doing great things, but has increasingly become cynical about the whole USAmerican evangelical culture. (Sound familiar?)

So the elders give him some time off, and he travels to Italy and with the guidance of his Uncle Kenny, gets to know the little saint from Assisi, Francis. No matter how familiar you are with the story of Saint Francis, this book is worth the read. The newer versions even come with a study guide for individual or group digestion.

But here's the quote that convicted me this time around:

It was the communal example of Francis and his followers, rather than rhetoric, which offered the critique and provided the challenge...For the past few years I've been a self-righteous critic of the church and all of Christendom, and I need to give that up...Maybe I should try to live the gospel without gloss and keep my mouth shut? Chase Falson

I guess I need to say and pray those words myself. A lot. I think I've said it before; one of the most challenging things about Rich Mullins was that while he lived Jesus he loved the church, no matter her shortcomings. I need to give that up myself, and simply live the gospel without gloss.

Like Francis. I hope you read the book.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Book Review - The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah OOOO (4 of 5 bellybuttons)

I do a book review every so often here, but lately have been wanting to revive the olden days. A decade or so ago I would do a book review for all the youth pastors in El Paso. It was called the Phatter than Oprah book club, and books got 1 to 5 bellybuttons based on my preference. Not wanting to be too insensitive, we're just gonna shorten it to Phatter than O, but the bellybuttons are back.

So, at the risk of opening a big can of worms...Soong-Chan Rah's book "The Next Evangelicalism" is worth the price. It's an intentionally provocative book (as shown by the quote from it that I put as my Facebook status a couple of days ago; you might want to stop reading now if you felt that was divisive and unnecessary), and for many people it will feel harsh to read. But I recommend you pick it up.

There are two ways to consider the interplay between gospel and culture. The common assumption is that the gospel is somehow supra-cultural. The other idea is that the gospel doesn't exist in a vacuum, but takes root in a culture and begins to redeem it, becoming something beautiful without losing any truth. The closest metaphor I can think of is an peach tree. The gospel is represented in the seed--all the DNA of the tree is there. But what the tree looks like as it grows is determined also by the climate, the soil, the food, etc. The gospel is pure and true, but it grows within the contexts of the environment (culture) of the people being redeemed. So the problem with the supra-cultural view is that we can become ignorant of how our own culture shapes and interprets the gospel for us, and we begin to equate the way the gospel redeems our culture with the way the gospel always works. This can lead to an elitism that is a hindrance to the community of believers, where we think all peach trees should look exactly the same.

Rah's main point is that the USAmerican church is by and large captive to a western, white culture. I cannot do justice to his defining this here (and I'm sure that just the way Rah says it offends some, for which I apologize, but hope you will push through), but a short definition would be that several centuries of consumerism, materialism, and individualism combined with the less than stellar record we have on treatment of racial minorities have led to a church that at times displays unredeemed or unbiblical values but equates them with redemptive living. His chapter on racism being inherent in the system is particularly challenging.

After discussions of the church growth movement, the emerging church, and other examples of what he terms the "cultural imperialism" of the USAmerican evangelical movement, Rah makes 3 challenges. First, we need to learn from African American and Native American Christian communities. The value of suffering in the scriptures is clear. The suffering of these two communities over the past 400 years has shaped their belief and practice in ways from which white Christians can learn much. Second, Rah challenges us to embrace the alien and stranger among us and learn from the immigrant church. Finally, Ray pushes us to a multicultural understanding of the gospel by learning from the second generation immigrants, who live in two or more cultures--something that from experience I know to open incredible insight into God and the gospel.

The main negative I would suggest about the book is that I wanted a few more practical applications for the lofty principles Rah discusses; for instance what does it look like for a church today to ask forgiveness for racism? What is the best way for churches to embrace a multicultural environment? But if you like to read a book that will challenge your thinking, this is a good one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hypocrites in the Church? Sproul says overplayed...

R. C. Sproul is a good Christian thinker. Along with John Piper and my own pastor Matt Chandler, Sproul is perhaps the top USAmerican reformed thinker and teacher.

But I'm not sure I agree with his article here. Basically he says that the charge from outsiders that the church is full of hypocrites is patently false. He does a great job of outlining where the word "hypocrite" actually comes from (ancient Greek acting term for wearing a mask). But he then states that Christians are sinners and that doesn't make them hypocrites so the outsiders are wrong.

Really, what makes Christians hypocrites is their hypocrisy, not their sinfulness.

Sproul is correct in a couple of ways. First, those outside the church will often use any excuse to avoid dealing with their own sinfulness, and pointing to Christian hypocrisy is one such way. We should not give them such easy outs. Second, probably the vast majority of believers are not hypocrites, just as Sproul says. However, too many well-known believers (and by "well-known" I'm not just referring to famous ones, but ones well-known in their own communities too) pretend that their sin is not as bad as those outside the church. They pretend that the sin they struggle with isn't really there, or doesn't really ever win.

This is what the world sees and calls hypocrisy, the hiding of our dirty laundry. So what are we to do? Shout our sins in public? Stand on the corner and confess our darkest lusts and fears? Probably not, although that might be better than sweeping it under the rug. But there should not be a hint of "betterness" in us. The whole "one beggar showing other beggars where he found something to eat" has much truth in it for us. We did nothing and have done nothing to impress God. Honesty with him, with ourselves, and even with the world is the best policy, even when it comes to our showing our sin. After all, where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. I've read that somewhere.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Bible quoting cheerleaders

One of the recent flaps in US religious circles has been the recent ruling that cheerleaders at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorp High School can no longer use Bible verses on the banners that the football team breaks through before games. There has been much discussion about whether or not uniform-wearing cheerleaders represent the school (in which case the verses constitute school support for religion) or only themselves (in which case it's a matter of freedom of religious expression.

Choosing between the two might prove a conundrum.

Unless more spiritually mature heads prevail. I have 2 questions, and neither of them is about the constitutionality of the case:

1. Why would believers consider it profitable to write verses on banners that will be broken through? I would think the symbolism alone would be enough to put us off, not to mention the silly misapplication of Bible verses. [As a former athlete, I am amazed at the misuse--including my own once or twice--of verses like quoting "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" before a bench press.]

2. How would verses on banners advance the kingdom of heaven?

We continue to promote a civil American religion that does not resemble worship of the God revealed in Jesus.