Jesus: A Theography (Review)

Christianity often looks like a lot of things.  Many people call themselves Christians and “Christian” as an adjective is slapped onto all sorts of ideologies.  I have met people who think the term is so watered down that it has little meaning anymore.  What is “Christianity”?

A simple answer – if it looks like Jesus, it is Christian.  Christianity, ultimately, is about Jesus Christ.

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola did a great service in reminding us of the supremacy and centrality of Jesus Christ in their previous book, The Jesus Manifesto.   That book diagnosed problems and issues in the contemporary church and offered a renewed look at Jesus as the solution.  Their new book, Jesus: A Theography is a sort of next step.  Sweet and Viola seek to tell the story of Jesus as the thread that holds all of scripture together.  Thus their story begins long before the birth of Jesus, examining the role Jesus Christ played in creation.  That is one of many aspects of the book that make it worth a read and much more than just another book about Jesus.

This book is unlike any other book I’ve read about Jesus.  It reads almost like a treatise from the early church fathers filled with allegorical interpretation.  This is not a bad thing!  Their interpretation of scripture, the way they find traces of Jesus on every page of the Bible, is creative and inspiring.  But t is not your typical historical-critical analysis.  They are not interested in what the original author of Genesis or Isaiah or Leviticus meant, though they do find value in such scholarship.  Sweet and Viola are clear in their bias, they come to scripture looking at it through the lens of Jesus.  The stories, laws and prophecies of the Bible find their fulfillment, their real meaning, in Jesus Christ.

I found this book engaging and inspiring.  Sweet and Viola make it clear early on that their book is not for academics, it is for the general Christian population.  I believe that any Christian who picks this up will find it to be a rewarding read.  As a sidenote, if the 424 pages appear intimidating, know that about 1/3 of the book is end-notes.  So while the book is for the general population, academics or others interested can find a wealth of footnotes if they desire.

This is no light and fluffy “Christian living” book.  Such book are quickly read and just as quickly forgotten. If those books are junk food, this book is a feast.  Once completing it, the Bible will be understood in a whole new light.  Perhaps it sounds cliched, but you could almost say that after reading this book, you’ll never read the Bible the same way again!  Highly recommended!

 

A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Review)

It is always fun to review what appears to be a controversial book.  Though I am not sure why exactly A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans is so controversial.  In the “evangelical Christian” world there are a diversity of views on gender roles.  Some, called complementarians,  see women as called to submit to men based on a reading of specific Bible passages.  This submission takes different forms, but what unites it is a view that the man is the head of the household, the decision-maker, the leader.  Also, men lead the church and in the church women ought to be silent, which varies in meaning but mostly means they cannot teach men.  Others, called egalitarians, see men and women as called to equality and mutual submission.  Egalitarians also have their Bible passages.

In the end, Rachel’s book could be seen as just an argument for egalitarianism.   Her arguments and Biblical interpretation are not really that different from someone like Scot McKnight who argues for egalitarianism in his book The Blue Parakeet.

Rachel just happens to surround her arguments with a fun experiment: what if she lived out all the rules for women in the Bible for one year?  This sort of thing was first done a few years back by A.J. Jacobs in his book The Year of Living Biblically.  Evans makes no claim to complete originality, she has read Jacobs book.  The point of her experiment is to expose the fact that all Christians pick and choose.  Very few complementarians urge women to be completely silent in church or to pray with head coverings on, which is Rachel’s point.  In doing this, they are picking and choosing which verses to obey.

I began reading this book after many reviews, both positive or negative, were in.  I had skimmed a few but not really read them, because I wanted to come at the book without many presumptions.  As I read, I noted that if a person does not like this book they either have no sense of humor or no heart.  This book is funny!  It cannot be critiqued as an academic paper one would hand in at grad school (I actually saw one reviewer criticize scholars who liked this book with the line, “if one of their students handed this in…”).  Rachel’s book is entertaining, rather then giving a dry academic tome she surrounds her argument with her life experience.  On that alone, it is a good read.

Others have claimed that Rachel is mocking the Bible.  Come on!  I am at a loss for how anyone can read this book and see that.  Her heart shines through, she is clearly someone who grew up in a Christian culture, faced all sorts of challenges to what she has taught, but on the other side continues to cherish and learn from the Bible.  Rachel’s experiment is a search for truth and she certainly grew through it as a person and follower of Christ.

So this book is entertaining and encouraging.  But it also has the theological argument for egalitarianism.  Rachel succeeds in something that I imagine would be very difficult: writing a book that at the same time makes you laugh, moves your heart and makes you think.  She manages to show the problem with using “biblical” as an adjective, such as in the phrase, “biblical womanhood.”  There is no such thing, as the bible presents a diverse picture.  Those who want to recreate biblical womanhood in the world today really do not want much of what the Bible actually teaches about women.  Again, in bringing the Bible to bear on our life today, every person picks and chooses.

One flaw in the book is that Rachel does not sufficiently show the differences between various proponents of “biblical womanhood.”  She quotes a variety of people, lumping them all together.  But there is diversity on both sides.  Rachel has actually addressed this on her blog in a very helpful way, if anyone cares to look it up.

I feel like too much of this review has mentioned what other reviews have said.  So I’ll just end it by saying, this is a fantastic book.  As I read, I thought of my 18 month old daughter.  I often wonder what kind of world she is going to grow up in.  What kind of woman is she going to be?  Will she be a follower of Jesus?  I think this is the sort of book I would want to hand my daughter someday because I think it would help young women struggling in their faith.  Perhaps the most valuable part of the book is the few pages at the end of each chapter when Rachel introduces us to some awesome Biblical woman.  I would also want my daughter to read it for the chapter on women worldwide and the fight for justice.  I’d want my daughter to read this book so that she could learn that being a strong biblical woman means joining Jesus Christ in the great mission to restore creation.  What that looks like may be different for every woman and I pray my daughter figures out what it looks like for her.

I’ll give the last word to Rachel, reminding us of the calling to all men and women who follow Christ:

“Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women’s stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor. They lived their lives with faith. As much as we may long for the simplicity of a single definition of “biblical womanhood,” there is no one right way to be a woman, no mold into which we must each cram ourselves— not if Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Vashti, Esther, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Tabitha have anything to say about it….And I believe that my calling, as a Christian, is the same as that of any other follower of Jesus. My calling is to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus himself said that the rest of Scripture can be rendered down into these two commands. If love was Jesus’ definition of “biblical,” then perhaps it should be mine” (p. 295-297)

Why Does Turning a Camera on Make Abuse Legal?

A few weeks ago woman was arrested in my town when detectives raided a massage parlor.  The woman arrested was charged with prostitution, selling sex.

The story was passed on to my from a friend who knows I volunteer with a local group that seeks to raise awareness of human trafficking, as well as to become active in eliminating human trafficking in our county.  From what I have read on this particular case, there is no evidence of human trafficking.  It is possible though: a case where a woman is in the USA illegally, working in a massage parlor and selling herself, often includes someone higher up forcing her into the whole thing.

What struck me as I read this article was that the difference between prostitution and pornography is whether it is being filmed.  This woman was arrested for accepting money in exchange for sex.  Such an action, prostitution, is illegal.  Yet pornography is women being paid to have sex…on film.

So I wonder (and I do not mean to sound flippant about the situation), if she just turned a camera on, could she claim she is not guilty of prostitution because she is making pornography?

It makes me wonder why pornography is unquestionably legal?  Why is sex for money wrong, until a camera is filming it?

I do not think the solution is simply to legalize prostitution.  This is a debate that is beyond what I am writing here.  But from what I have read, legalizing prostitution does not end the inherent abuse of women and other crimes that surround prostitution.  In other words, an abusive pimp does not become a legitimate businessman because the law is changed.  If you want to read more about this, I would suggest you go here, here and here.

The growth of pornography in our culture is frightening.  It is damaging to those who consume it and it is damaging to those who make it.  What would it take to change the conversation in such a way that we are able to question the legality of it?

 

Unstoppable (Review…of a book by a guy with no arms and no legs whose story is amazing!)

Nick Vujicic begins his book Unstoppable by saying that even if you have not read his first book you may have seen his videos or attended one of his appearances worldwide as a motivational speaker.

Not me.

I had never heard of Nick before reading this book.  I do have a sort of vague memory of hearing people talk about some Christian speaker who has no legs or no arms.  But that was all it was, just a vague memory from a passing comment or Facebook post.  I had never heard this guy speak or write, I came to this book totally fresh.

It was a pleasant and uplifting introduction to Nick, his life and work.

Nick’s goal in the book is to share the unstoppable power (hence the title) of faith in action.  This sort of faith has helped Nick create a fantastic life, despite his disabilities.  Upon completing the book, I believe Nick achieved this task.  It is hard not to enjoy a book like this one.  Nick’s positive and optimistic attitude shine through on every page.  His story of being born without limbs and then living a life of achieving amazing things is truly inspiring.  As I was reading I often thought of how it will be much more difficult to complain about difficulties in my life once I have read this book.  I may begin to complain, then there is Nick in the back of my mind saying, “I have no arms and no legs, if I can succeed, you’ll be fine!”

Nick’s book is easy to read, filled with stories that encourage and inspire.  For that alone it will be enjoyed for any reader.  That said, there are a few things a reviewer could be critical of.  At times Nick’s theology seems a bit simplistic and shallow.  Many of the stories of other people facing difficulties end with them finding hope in life because they encountered Nick’s message.  A cynical person could see Nick as patting himself on the back a bit, and at times it did become predictable as Nick would tell a story that inevitably ended with his message saving the day.  But Nick manages to pass the praise to God.  His point is never, “look to me so you can make it through” but rather, “look to the one I look to, Jesus Christ, and you can make it through.”

I would recommend this book to anyone.  It offers hope and encouragement.  Nick also gives important and challenging words on issues like bullying.  Thus, it seems Nick’s message in this book, or in his videos online, would best be for teenagers, especially those struggling with life (which is probably all of them!).  But ultimately, any person could benefit from the positive, Christ-centered message of this book.

I received this book for free from the publisher, Waterbrook Multnomah for the purpose of reviewing as a part of the Blogging for Books program.

Make a Difference – Give a Loan

A few months ago I read the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.  It is probably the best book I have read all year and one of the most important books I have ever read.  This is the sort of book that will not leave you unchanged.  I could say a lot about it, but I’ll just refer you to my on review on Goodreads.

At the end of the book the authors give some suggestions for actions the reader can take in the next ten minutes.  One of them is to make a micro-finance loan.  I had heard of micro-finance loans before and I know many see them as one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty worldwide.  But I had never given one.

So I spent some time on the website for Kiva.  I decided to contribute $25 to Umeda in Tajikistan.  Umeda is a thirty-four year old woman  with a small store who needed money to buy fabrics to sell in her store.  My $25 was part of a total $650 loan to Umeda.  I entered my payment info, gave the loan and moved on with my life.

Honestly, I forgot about it.  Growing up in the church, you are asked to give money all the time: to the offering each week, to help missionaries overseas, to sponsor a child, to support fantastic organizations.  It is a part of what it means to be a Christian.  Someone asks for help and you give.  You never get anything back other than the satisfaction of knowing you helped with something bigger then yourself.

Then two weeks ago I got an email telling me the loan had been repaid.  When I made the loan I knew it was a loan, not a donation, which meant it would be repaid.  But I do not think the truth of that quite dawned on me.  The email both surprised and excited me.

Getting the loan repaid was just very cool.  It was a different sort of satisfaction then the kind that comes when you give a donation.  In this case I realized I had not just given money to someone, I had helped empower someone to start a business and this person had worked hard and paid me back.  It reminds me of the old adage, “if you give a man a fish…”

Plus, all of a sudden, I had $25 sitting in my Kiva account.  Of course I gave it to someone else, this time I chose Harriet in Uganda:

Harriet is a 45-year-old, married woman living in Masindi, Uganda. Eleven years ago she decided to venture into farming to tap into the lucrative agricultural sector, which is the backbone of Uganda. She also sells clothes as an additional source of income. With these business operations, she has been able to buy land and to build a house.  Like most farmers, she faces business challenges such as price fluctuations and unpredictable seasonal weather changes. Nevertheless, she dreams of ensuring that her children become educated and expanding her farming activities. To that end, Harriet is requesting a loan to buy seedlings for planting and to pay workers to till the garden.

My prayers are with Harriet and Umeda as they work to build their businesses and care for their families.

My message to you is – make a microfinance loan.  There are many organizations to do it through and you will change someone’s life.  Not a nameless someone, but a person whose picture you will see, who has a story, a family, hopes and dreams.

Kiva

Global Giving

World Vision

Revelation: The Way it Happened (A Review)

I grew up in an evangelical Christian culture that is obsessed with the final book of the Bible, Revelation.  People in my family and church often spoke of Revelation as the blueprint for the end-times, which are certainly going to happen soon.  This fervor increased with the release of the Left Behind book series.  These books popularized the “futurist” and “dispensationalist” interpretation of Revelation.

In some way, those books began  my movement away from such understanding.  As a teen, I found them to be poorly written fiction.  When I went to seminary my New Testament professor was known for opposing the theology of the likes the Left Behind series promoted.  Studying Revelation with Dr. Lowery opened my eyes to a different way of understanding Revelation, a way that was much more historically grounded, recognizing the book had to mean something to those who first read it, as well as much more challenging, in that it has a message for us today, right now, and not just about the future.

One could say that my understanding of Revelation has been moving from a futurist perspective, where the whole of it takes place in the future, towards more of a preterist perspective, where the whole of it, or at least much of it, took place in the first century.

This is the background I brought to my Goodreads’ friend Lee Harmon’s book, Revelation: The Way it Happened.  Interacting with Lee on Goodreads has been fun.  Lee is a liberal Christian, bringing a completely different perspective to the scripture then I am used to.  Thus I was not sure what to expect from his book.  To be blunt: I loved it.

Lee brings a unique view to Revelation.  While scholars debate over whether Revelation was written prior to 70 AD or around 95 AD, Lee argues it was probably written in 79 AD.  This is a minority view for sure.  For Lee, the first half of Revelation tells a story that has already happened, centered on the Jewish War with Rome and the persecutions of Christians by Emperor Nero.  Revelation can tell this story not because it is predicting it with God’s help, but because it has already happened.

Lee then sees the second half of Revelation as a prediction of the immanent end of the world complete with the return of the evil Nero leading an invasion from the east to take revenge on his enemies.  But Nero will be defeated by Jesus Christ, leading an army of martyred saints delivering justice to God’s enemies.  But of course, none of this happened and the world did not end, which is why Lee sees Revelation as a failed prediction.  The world kept plugging along, the end did not come.

This is not a scholarly commentary, though it is clear Lee has read many scholarly commentaries.  Lee places his commentary on Revelation in the context of a discussion between a father and a son.  The father, Samuel, fled from Jerusalem prior to the Jewish War, and has lived in the city of Ephesus ever since.  Samuel and his son, Matthew, are Jews, but have joined the fledgling Christian movement.  The most interesting part of the book is their interactions, as well as flashbacks that tell the story of Simon’s other son who died during the war.

What I most found intriguing about the book is how it weaved a variety of genres together: there was the story of Samuel and Matthew, the actual text of the book of Revelation as well as Lee’s commentary notes on it.  One thing my professor used to emphasize about Revelation itself was its weaving of genres as well as its movement around in time.   Lee’s story has Revelation jumping around, taking the reader back in time before returning to the present and then zipping into the future.  I believe even futurists would not see Revelation as linear, since chapter 12 is the story of Jesus’ birth.  But my point is that the style of Lee’s book in some way mirrors the style of Revelation.  At times it was not easy to follow Lee’s story and commentary with flashbacks and footnotes thrown in (I would not recommend it as an e-book).  Then I realized that is kind of how Revelation is: it is not easy to follow because it jumps between the past, present and future.  Lee, I’m not sure if you intended that, but I liked it.

Of course, there are a few points I would not agree with Lee on.  His theology and mine are different.  That said, I think this book could be a fruitful read for any student of scripture.  There were times when I do wish Lee had included more references to his sources, explaining a bit more how he made a connection from a passage in Revelation to a specific interpretation.  But again, a scholarly commentary this is not and Lee does include a list of sources at the end of the book for further reading.  If anything, this book has made me want to explore preterism even more, so I am appreciative of that.  Overall, thanks Lee for an entertaining, thought-provoking and enlightening book.