The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma (Review)

Honestly, I did not expect much from The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. I had never heard of the author but I picked it up when I saw a few people recommend it on Twitter…and it was free for a few days. After reading some challenging books this summer, from philosophers who hurt my brain to early church writers who make me feel guilty for being rich (compared to most people in the world) I thought this would be a quick read to squeeze in before summer ended.

As I was reading, I found myself becoming more and more interested. This is not just your typical book on how to live as a Christian by a megachurch evangelical pastor (though I honestly have no idea if this pastor is “evangelical” or if the church he is at is “mega”). There is a lot here about living in the paradoxes, accepting God and the Bible for what it is without trying to iron everything out.

What really got me was when he talked about reading books. I found myself being convicted, even feeling guilty, for how I read. I tend to consume books, at times reading through them too fast so I can log another “read” here on goodreads or at least fit into the identity of people who see me as someone who reads a lot of books. In the past I would read, hoping to find the key that would answer all my questions. If I just read enough, or learned enough, than doubt would be vanquished. There is still a bit of that too, so today I often read to solve everything and to consume. Through this I often do find myself challenged (that last book by David Bentley Hart or those works of the early church fathers…wow, I can’t get that stuff out of my head). But I wonder if at times reading books is my idol.

It is ironic then that I wanted to consume this book quickly before summer ended. I work on a college campus, in campus ministry, so around this time of year my time for reading greatly diminishes. Yet in the past I still managed to read a lot, maybe too much. As I read this book I came to a decision that as the school year commences, I am going to intentionally NOT read as much. Of course, I still need to read to prep for teaching (hence that Jeremiah commentary). And I will read for pleasure, because it is fun. But I am going to lay aside the big heavy theological tomes, not because I do not have more to learn (believe me, I do, and there are some books I really want to read) but because I know enough (head-knowledge that is) to minister on campus. When I read it will be for teaching prep, spiritual development (yeah, I can’t get away from the church fathers) or for fun (hello biography of Napolean!). I also hope this will lead to more time for journaling, meditation and the like.

So overall, I recommend this book. I can see it being greatly helpful for college students so I will recommend it to them. I could see it being helpful to any Christian. Thanks Ken for a great book.

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Explaining College Ministry to a Four Year Old

11951486_10153969197071564_3944124659357816490_o“Daddy, why are you giving bags to the students?”

We were driving home from campus earlier tonight when Junia asked me this question.  Last Friday we had gone to a church to help put items into care packages for the PSU Berks students.  Junia excelled at this, marching through the assembly line and filling each bag with soda, ramen, granola bars, crackers, markers and tablets.  Then today she went with me as we transported hundreds of these gift bags from the drop site (another church) to campus.  In the midst of large men carrying anywhere from four to ten bags at once, Junia consistently carried her two, making sure to work hard and do her part.

Unfortunately it was getting late for her, so I took her home before we actually got to hand them out.  Then she asked me why we do it.  As I thought about how to answer, anticipating other questions she might ask, I realized how difficult it is to explain these sorts of things to a child.

“Well sweetheart, Daddy works with the college students, you know that right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, my job is to help the students learn more about Jesus and God.  We want the students to know that God loves them so one way we do this is giving them a bag of free goodies.”

“How does giving them a bag show them that?”

“Well, you know how when you love someone you sometimes give them a present, like at Christmas?  One way we show we care about other people is by giving them presents.  So we give them gift bags to show them we care about them and to help them know God cares about them and loves them.  Does that make sense?”

“Yes.”

“And you know what, when you go to college it is probably the first time you have lived away from home.  A lot of the students have lived with their mommies and daddies their whole lives.  Moving away from home can be scary, some of the students may be missing their families and friends.  We want to make them feel welcome at Penn State Berks, to help them know people out there care for them.  What do you think of that?”

“I think its nice!”

So there you go.  That’s why we do it, reduced to a way a four year old can understand.

By the time I got back to campus from dropping her off, the students were already handing them out.  As it is every year, it was a wonderful time.  Many students expressed gratitude and joy at receiving these bags, some were even shocked to get something for free.  Our prayer of course is that these bags remind the students that lots of people out there care about them and beyond that, that God cares for them.

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Beloit College Mindset List , Class of 2019

Every year Beloit College releases their mindset list to give us a window on the world in which incoming freshman have grown up.  This list is always a fun and enlightening read.

When I speak to churches about campus ministry, I say that working with college students does require us to speak a new language in some way.  It is not quite the same as traveling to a foreign country and literally learning a new language.  But we are shaped by our culture and times and there are assumptions and experiences people in my generation have had that are totally different then the generation ahead of or behind mine.  For example, with every year the terror attacks of September 11 become a more distant memory.  Everyone alive then can remember where they were at when they heard, but soon it will be an item for history books.

Here are some highlights from the list (or read the whole thing):

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3. They have never licked a postage stamp.

4. Email has become the new “formal” communication, while texts and tweets remain enclaves for the casual.

5. Four foul-mouthed kids have always been playing in South Park.

7. They have grown up treating Wi-Fi as an entitlement.

9. The announcement of someone being the “first woman” to hold a position has only impressed their parents.

10. Charlton Heston is recognized for waving a rifle over his head as much as for waving his staff over the Red Sea.

11. Color photos have always adorned the front page of The New York Times.

13. “No means no” has always been morphing, slowly, into “only yes means yes.”

14. Cell phones have become so ubiquitous in class that teachers don’t know which students are using them to take notes and which ones are planning a party.

16. Their parents have gone from encouraging them to use the Internet to begging them to get off it.

18. They have avidly joined Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione as they built their reading skills through all seven volumes.

 

22. Phish Food has always been available from Ben and Jerry.

24. When they were born, cell phone usage was so expensive that families only used their large phones, usually in cars, for emergencies.

25. The therapeutic use of marijuana has always been legal in a growing number of American states.

26. The eyes of Texas have never looked upon The Houston Oilers.

27. Teachers have always had to insist that term papers employ sources in addition to those found online.

35. At least Mom and Dad had their new Nintendo 64 to help them get through long nights sitting up with the baby.

36. First Responders have always been heroes.

37. Sir Paul and Sir Elton have always been knights of the same musical roundtable.

38. CNN has always been available en Español.

39. Heaven’s Gate has always been more a trip to Comet Hale-Bopp and less a film flop.

40. Splenda has always been a sweet option in the U.S.

43. Humans have always had implanted radio frequency ID chips—slightly larger than a grain of rice.

44. TV has always been in such high definition that they could see the pores of actors and the grimaces of quarterbacks.

46. The proud parents recorded their first steps on camcorders, mounted on their shoulders like bazookas.

47. They had no idea how fortunate they were to enjoy the final four years of Federal budget surpluses.

48. Amoco gas stations have steadily vanished from the American highway.

49. Vote-by-mail has always been the official way to vote in Oregon.

50. …and there has always been a Beloit College Mindset List

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Social Justice and Caring for the Poor in the Early Church

A while back a popular conservative commentator got all up in arms over the term “social justice”, warning his listeners to flee their church if the pastor mentioned it because it was code for communism.  He may be surprised to learn that the idea of social justice has roots as old as the Christian faith itself.  I thought of his words when I began reading Basil the Great’s On Social Justice.  I realize that this is a title given by editors and that Basil wrote in Greek and that the book is a collection of sermons on poverty.  That said, I still chuckled when I saw the title.

Then I started reading and my chuckling stopped.  Soon I just moved back and forth form feeling incredibly challenged by these ancient words and feeling completely despondent in the face of my personal, and the church’s collective, failure to live up to this challenge.  One thing other readers note about Basil’s work is that it needs little introduction and that readers with limited knowledge of his time period don’t really need any.  These sorts of sermons could have been preached last week (though, any preacher who preachers them will probably be looking for a job this week).

Basil’s basic message here is that there is enough material goods in the world for everyone.  If you have too much, you are robbing the poor.  Those with a lot need to give it to those in need so we all have enough.  Wow, maybe that conservative radio host was right!  There is even a section where Basil points out that those who declare they worked hard and earned a comfortable life ignore the fact that they received so many blessings from God (or, to put it in contemporary terms, you didn’t build it on your own).

Lest we think Basil was some sort of socialist and turn away from his work, we should probably remember that he is one of the primary theologians who hammered out the Nicene Creed.  To be somewhat blunt, if you believe the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, that the Spirit truly is God, that is partly due to Basil’s work (yes, I know the Bible and the Spirit had something to do with it too!).  Seriously though, read his work On the Holy Spirit.

Also, while this work translates well to the modern reader, there may be differences we ought to keep in mind.  Such differences ought not be mentioned with the goal to blunt Basil’s tough words.  If we look for cultural differences too quickly to free us from the bite of his words, our motives are wrong (of course, we Christians do that with Jesus’ words all the time, don’t we?).  For example, we live in a world where many national governments have been influenced for centuries by Christian teaching.  So our governments take on some duty in caring for the poor through various programs.  This means that one question Christians discuss when talking on this is to what degree churches work in their own programs and to what degree do they advocate governmental work that lines up with justice.  Basil does not talk about this at all.  He does not write on the government’s duty to care for the poor or how that all works.  Does this mean Christians today just help the poor and not worry about the government?  Maybe, though I’d say if our Christian convictions are worth anything we advocate for the government to do good, such as helping the neediest citizens.  I assume Basil would agree, though he did not talk on it.

Another difference is that when Christians today think of helping the poor this is often thoughts of donating money, probably online, to some organization that helps people overseas.  This is a good thing, but not what Basil meant.  He meant the poor people right down the street.  Basil would challenge us to rethink what it looks like to help others.

Overall, I think all Christians need to give this book a good read.  I plan to reread it in the not too distant future.

Along with Basil’s work, I tackled John Chrysostom’s On Wealth and Poverty, seven sermons on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  While not as directly challenging as Basil’s work, it is still an enriching read.  It is clear why Chrysostom was known as a great preacher.  Where Basil is blunt and to the point, Chrysostom is full of beautiful prose.  He even had to tell people to stop cheering for his sermon and actually apply it to their lives.

My favorite thing about Chrysostom was the centrality of scripture, he had whole sections reminding people to search scripture on their own.  Always cool to find that sort of thing in the early church to remember the Protestant Reformation did not invent that.  Also cool to see ancient preachers go on tangents, as someone who enjoys a good tangent or two myself when I stand up in front of people.

When Chrysostom gets to the point, there is a lot to think about.  One thing he emphasizes over and over is that even good people commit sins and even bad people do some good (I wonder how Augustine felt about his thoughts on sin here?).  Thus, he argued, the rich man received his reward for the good he did in this life, little good as it was.  And Lazarus suffered, perhaps as punishment for his sin.  But in the next life they each got what they deserved.  From this, we are reminded to not praise those in comfort, for they are getting their reward now.  And those suffering are looking to future rewards.

All in all, read both these works and read them again.  Let them read you and change you.  I know I will, at least I hope I will.

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Listening to the Saints – Gregory of Nyssa’s Great Catechism

I have so enjoyed working through the writings of long dead Christians whose work has stood the test of time.  Recently I’ve been reading the Cappadocian Fathers, three men who lived in the second half of the 300s.  Their work on the Trinity and Christian spirituality is fantastic.

Gregory of Nyssa’s The Great Catechism is no exception.  What I most enjoy about reading historic works is that they go about things in an entirely different way then we do today.  That is, coming from a different context, they are not answering the questions with the same assumptions that we bring to the questions today.  Thus, reading these authors can serve as a corrective for how we read, revealing our own blindspost.

One point Gregory emphasizes here is that God is not the creator of evil.  There are many passages on this, such as:

No growth of evil had its beginning in the Divine will. Vice would have been blameless were it inscribed with the name of God as its maker and father. But the evil is, in some way or other, engendered from within, springing up in the will at that moment when there is a retrocession of the soul from the beautiful.  For as sight is an activity of nature, and blindness a deprivation of that natural operation, such is the kind of opposition between virtue and vice.

This is an important point to be reminded of today, as Christians and skeptics debate what it means for God to create.  If God created everything, some ask, doesn’t that make God the author of sin?  Definitely not, says Gregory.  God created sight, for example, not blindness just as God created virtue and not vice.

As an interesting side-note, I’ve read a lot of David Bentley Hart recently and he has been greatly influenced by Gregory.  So it is interesting to see the similarities between the two.  When Hart argues that something is traditional Christian theism, it is to be expected to see it in Gregory and we do.

Where evil comes from is a mystery.  There is much mystery when we speak of God.  It is the same mystery that leads to God taking on human flesh to save us.  Gregory spends a lot of time defending this point too, for example:

This, then, is the mystery of God’s plan with regard to His death and His resurrection from the dead; namely, instead of preventing the dissolution of His body by death and the necessary results of nature, to bring both back to each other in the resurrection; so that He might become in Himself the meeting-ground both of life and death, having re-established in Himself that nature which death had divided, and being Himself the originating principle of the uniting those separated portions.

The transcendent God who is everywhere present has walked among us as a human:

That Deity should be born in our nature, ought not reasonably to present any strangeness to the minds of those who do not take too narrow a view of things. For who, when he takes a survey of the universe, is so simple as not to believe that there is Deity in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it? For all things depend on Him Who is , nor can there be anything which has not its being in Him Who is. If, therefore, all things are in Him, and He in all things, why are they scandalized at the plan of Revelation when it teaches that God was born among men, that same God Whom we are convinced is even now not outside mankind?

Finally, we get Gregory’s explanation of the atonement.  He speaks of God tricking the devil.  The devil had rights to humanity, so when he saw Jesus he grabbed him, but the deity was concealed in the humanity which means the devil went too far:

the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish , the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.

This view of the atonement was the primary understanding of the church for centuries and still has much to offer thinkers today as we reflect on what Jesus has done.

Overall, do yourself a favor and read some Gregory.

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The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart (Review)

Reading a David Bentley Hart book is to pull your chair up to the grown-up table and feast on tasty delicacies you had previously not realized existed.  This is especially true of his latest book in which he argues both atheists and many Christians do not speak about God in the right way.  God, argues Hart, is not just the most powerful being in the universe, someone like us only much bigger.  Unfortunately, much debate about God kind of portrays God like this, really as a cosmic demiurge who is incredibly powerful but not infinite.  So atheists ask silly questions like “who made God” and intelligent design advocates rope off a few jobs that God can do after allowing nature to do the rest.

This is not just Hart’s opinion or some new argument, instead he shows that what he is saying is the long traditional way of speaking of God.  Hart draws on the depths of not just Christian tradition, but Jewish and Muslim and Hindu.  Thus this is not a Christian book, though Hart is a Christian.  Hart argues that all these traditions commonly speak of God not as a really powerful being who got things moving, but as Being itself.  In other words, God is not a thing among other things.  Rather, God stands wholly apart.

A large portion of Hart’s work is critiquing naturalism/materialism which he argues is irrational.  Naturalism claims to be an all-encompassing philosophical view, but when challenged it falls far short.  The problem too often is that it is simply assumed, rather than challenged.

Hart tends to come across as arrogant, which may put off some readers.  He also uses many words when he could use few, as well as using words normal people, and even many who read books like this one, have never heard of.  That said, this may be his best book.  Compared to The Beauty of The Infinite, this book is easy.  I highly recommend Hart and I definitely recommend reading this book before that other one (though I’d say The Doors of the Sea and Atheist Delusions could also be read before this one).

Be warned though – this book does not easily fit into a category.  It is kind of apologetics, for Hart is arguing against naturalism and in favor of theism, but it is more than just that.  Hart is not putting forth logical arguments like a Plantinga, for example.  Instead he writes in an engaging style, painting a picture of two types of reality and arguing for why one picture (theism) makes much more sense.  If anything, I would say those who like Christian apologetics should read this because Hart’s style and theology could serve to correct much that is wrong with modern apologetics.

Hart’s book is also for those who appreciate philosophical theology.  He is not arguing for Christian theology and there are very few quotes from the Bible.  Instead he is going big picture, theism as opposed to atheism.  I enjoy such works, though I could see some, especially American evangelicals, who get upset for what Hart does not say.  If you realize his purpose in writing though, it makes sense.

Overall, this is probably a top-five of all time book for me.  Absolutely fantastic.

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The Battle for Halcyon by Peter Kazmaier (Review)

In Peter Kazmaier’s fast-paced Halcyon Dislocation we read the story of an island university that disappeared from our world and appeared in a new, mysterious place.  Much of the story introduced us to this new world as university students along with naval officers stationed on the island explored the new world.  We learned that an evil force named Meglir had brought the university to his world and was possessing one of the faculty.  At the end of the book Meglir was defeated, but with him still present a sequel was clearly in the works.

The Battle for Halcyon is that sequel, picking up about a year after the events of the first book.  Dave Shuster, the main character of the first book, remains the main character here.  His exploration of the world leads to encountering a whole new civilization of humans.  But these humans, unlike Dave and the humans of his world, never experienced a fall from grace.  Thus, they possess certain gifts, such as the ability to change their skin color.

The story continues the fast-paced tone of the first, covering lots of ground and culminating in a battle on the island of Halcyon, hence the title.

Overall, I enjoyed this story.  It had everything that made the first one so good.  At the same time, it seemed almost too fast-paced at times.  Peter is a good and engaging writer, but he seemed to struggle under the weight of so telling the story while including so many characters.

For example, two of the best secondary characters from the first book, Floyd and Al, play a minor role in this story.  In the first book they were two of Dave’s closest companions and nearly had as much screen time as he did.  It is fine to focus more on Dave, but what bothered me was that when we got a bit of Floyd and Al they disappeared from the story without much explanation (especially Floyd).

Other characters from the first book pop up to serve a function in moving the story along, but do not do much.  For such characters I wish there had been some sort of recap of the first book with brief bios of each character.  Two guys named Tim and Dwight show up and help Al at a key point but I struggled to remember the role they played in the first book.  If you read the two books back-to-back this would not be an issue, but reading the first one two years ago makes it one.  There is a glossary at the end, but the characters I am thinking of (Tim, Dwight, Commander McDonald) do not appear in there.

Also, while the book is packed with action and lots of drama, the primary enemy, Meglir, barely appears on screen.  He is mentioned quite frequently but his threat seems diminished with his lack of appearance.  There is clearly a lot of plotting going on by him and his evil allies and perhaps the payoff will come in the next book.

All that said, the book is still great.  Dave is a likable character and his love interest, Arlana, who is really the other main character of this book, is quite interesting.  His conversion experience and the change he goes through provide an excellent story.  And as before, Kazmaier weaves thoughtful religious dialogue in that is neither cheesy nor unwelcome.

This is where Kazmaier’s greatest gift lies.  So many Christian books are preachy.  Many secular stories ignore religion.  Kazmaier’s character speak on religious topics, like normal people in the real world.  When you read what they are saying, it makes sense and sounds like what you would hear.

Even Dave’s “conversion”, if you can call it that, fits.  It is not the climax of the book, nor is it shoved in your face.  As Dave’s character has grown, you can see him moving in this direction and this step makes sense for his character.

In the end, I liked this book.  As I said before, if you are a fan of the works of the greats like Tolkien and Lewis, I think you would like the Halcyon series.  This book has more flaws than I recall the first one having and I hope the third book sees more Floyd and Al as well as Meglir being fleshed out more.  Overall though, an entertaining and at times thought provoking read.

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