The Problem with Christ – Review

English readers of the Bible see it over and over again: Jesus Christ. While most know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, new readers to the Bible could be forgiven if they get that impression.

This is the problem, according to Chris Gorton, in his book The Problem with Christ.  I have had the pleasure of meeting Chris on Goodreads and he gave me a free copy of his book for purpose of review.  It is a great little book, and I look forward to reading more from Chris.  He argues here that by taking the Greek title “christos” and transliterating it into English as “Christ” rather than translating it the term becomes devoid of its power. Chris’ book argues, convincingly, that the title “the Christ” means “the king”. This is not controversial as anyone with even a minimal study knows that Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Most recognize it is a title: Messiah, anointed one, KING. Chris’ argument goes that if this is what the word means, it ought to be translated that way.

By leaving the word as just “Christ”, English Bibles take the claws off the eagle, so to say. The person of Jesus loses a bit of his power. This leads to a weakened Christianity where most followers of Jesus see him as merely a spiritual savior and not the one to whom we owe our allegiance above any other king or kingdom, power or principality, nation or president.

I do have some minor qualms with the book. Some are questions which I do not find Chris’ answers satisfying, such as his assertion that two Greek words (basileus and christos) both be translated king. Surely if there are two Greek words, they carry slightly different meanings and something would be lost in translating them the same? I am also skeptical as to whether simply changing Christ to King in English Bibles would solve many problems or lead to a revival. I doubt Chris thinks it would, though in reading it is easy to see this issue as a sort of silver bullet – the bad translation is a demonic conspiracy and if we can fix it then we’ll really see God work.

Such issues aside, this is great study. Thanks Chris

History is Messy – Which is Why it is Awesome

I love reading history.  This post is inspired by a book I read about early Christian history.  Early Christian history makes the news every now and then, often when a book (like The Da Vinci Code) tells of conspiracy theories and a real Jesus much different then the biblical one.  The real history is fascinating.

There are two common stories told about how the early Christian church settled on the official doctrines that many Christians still recite in creeds today.

1. The “they got it all from the Bible” view – Under this view, in the centuries after Jesus new false teachings continued to arise.  These heresies all made the mistake of straying from the truth passed on through the New Testament and the solid line of orthodox (right-believing) churches.  Often such heresies led to councils where Christian bishops would study the Bible and, since the Bible teaching was clear, inevitably vote the heresy down.  One most devious heresy, Arianism, taught that Jesus was created by God and thus not fully God.  This teaching resulted in the Council of Nicea (325 AD) when the majority of bishops voted, in line with scripture, that Arius was wrong and that Jesus was God.  Other councils followed from this (Council of Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451) that taken as a whole give us the official understanding of the Bible.

2. The “it was all a power-play” view – According to this view the earliest “heresies” were not heresies, just differing understandings of Jesus’ message.  There was not one clear orthodox interpretation for heretics to stray from.  Yet what at the beginning may have been amicable divisions soon became harsh, and once the emperor of Rome had converted to Christianity these divisions threatened to tear the empire apart.  So the Emperor chose one particular view and in throwing all the weight of the empire behind it, suppressed all other views.  So the orthodox position that triumphed at the councils did not triumph because people studied the Bible, it triumphed because of its powerful backers.

The first view is often what is taught in evangelical Christian apologetics.  When a question is asked to an evangelical Christian there is an expectation that the Bible will give the answer, since evangelicals believe in sola scriptura (Bible alone).  We believe in the Trinity because, like the church leaders at Nicea, we study the Bible and find it there.

The second view is a favorite of skeptics today.  Perhaps most famous is the novel The Da Vinci Code where one character asserts that prior to Nicea no one believed Jesus was God (which is not even close to true).  So in response to Christians who think the early Christians studied the Bible and all agreed on the doctrine of the Trinity, skeptics argue it was all a power-play.

Well, history is more messy then that.  Both of these are wrong, though both have a shred of truth in them.

Philip Jenkins’ book Jesus Wars shows just how messy the history of the debates about Jesus was in the 400s and 500s.  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history.  It serves as a nice prequel to Jenkin’s previous book, The Lost History of Christianity.  In  Jesus Wars, Jenkins documents how the “orthodox” view won out over two other views – Nestorian and Monophysite.  His earlier book tells more of the history of these two churches in the East, forgotten by most Christians in the west.

So how did “orthodox” Christianity come about?

Well, a lot of people were studying the holy scriptures.  But that was not the only factor.  Those who held the “orthodox” view also appealed to the powers that be, to a chanting and violent mobs, and to underhanded tactics that most of us would find sub-Christian.  And emperors and queens often did step in, lending support to one or other faction, but that was not decisive.  At Nicea in 325 the view that Jesus is God won out but for the next half-century the majority of people, including most emperors, were Arian.  Even into the 400s and 500s many of the barbarian tribes that conquered the Roman west were Arian.  The other “heresies” that Jenkins talks about had support at times from those in power.

How we got from a small group of Jewish disciples in Jerusalem weeks after Jesus’ death to the magnificent creeds of the 300s and 400s is a fascinating and complex story.  Many factors played in.  As I’ve studied church history I’ve come to the conclusion that those on the extremes do not have support for their, for lack of a better term, simplistic views – the “orthodox” view came together much too late and through not just pure Bible study to satisfy religious conservatives, but much too quickly, and with too much Biblical argument and in the face of persecution from those in power at times to satisfy religious liberals.

Really, there is a deeper lesson here.  The debates going on that Jenkins talks about are (almost) totally irrelevant to most Christians today.  Even those trained in theology have trouble parsing the views.  Though, for the record, I do think some of these debates were and are important because who we believe Jesus to be motivates the sort of salvation we hold to and action in the world we live out .  Yet the divisions that happened weakened the church and helped cause the fall of many churches to Islam in the 600s and 700s.  Which leads me to ask:

What things that we argue about today are worth dividing over and which are merely a distraction?

What would it take to lay such issues aside for the greater good of Jesus’ mission?  


Children of Hurin – Review

Children of Hurin has been on my list for a long time and I finally got around to it. I am glad I did as it is an engaging, exciting and heart-breaking story. It is a welcomed return to Tolkien’s Middle Earth for fans of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.

As the title indicates, it is the story of Hurin’s children. Hurin was a human in the first age who defied the evil Morgoth. Morgoth cursed Hurin’s family. Most of the story is concerned with Hurin’s son, Turin. It is a story with many high points, but ultimately it ends low for Hurin’s family. As I finished the book I wondered if Tolkien was trying to recreate the feeling one gets when reading a Shakespeare tragedy.

Of course, though this story is a tragedy, when read in light of the entire world of Tolkien we can see that the tragedy of Turin is not the last word. In this Tolkien reflects real life, especially real life from a Christian perspective. There may be tragedies in our lives, failures and low moments. Many people in the world live lives that end in tragedy and from one perspective may appear absurd and filled with despair. How can good triumph when faced with such evil? But if we are able to step back and to view history from another level we know there is justice for Turin, Hurin and their family just as their is for all who are broken, oppressed, destitute and suffering.

I highly recommend this book for any fan of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, especially those who are intimidated by The Silmarillion. I failed at my first attempt at The Silmarillion. While Hurin’s story is told much briefer in that book, I think Children of Hurin may be a good step from LOTR to The Silmarillion.

Collecting Interest on Loans, Sinful?

I had read it before, but for some reason it struck me this time:

If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like  a moneylender; charge him no interest” – Exodus 22:25

There it is, a clear Bible passage that says God’s people ought not collect interest on loans.  It is not the only verse, there are many more.

It struck me this time because the Christian church in America continues to debate gay marriage.  This is not a post about gay marriage, other than to ask, where are all the Christians claiming to take the Bible literally when it comes to speaking out against unjust lending practices?  Where are the the posts on Facebook and Twitter calling for a return to the plain teaching of scripture in regards to the evils of the rich gaining interest on loans to the poor?

Christians can’t agree on much of anything.  Could we perhaps find common ground by speaking out against the evils of the Payday Loan industry?  The more I read about this, the clearer it becomes that the industry is evil.

A little while ago a soccer player in England, Papiss Cisse refused to wear his team’s jersey because one of their sponsors, Wonga, was a payday loan company preying on Cisse’s home country, Senegal.  Wonga would make loans to poor people at interest rates as high as 5,800%.  Cisse said his Muslim faith meant he could not support such a company on his jersey.

I hope more of us Christians would find the same principles in our faith.

A few years ago I learned of one such Christian organization, Grace Period in Pittsburgh, PA.  Christians are known for being against gay marriage.  Perhaps if more organizations like Grace Period rose up, we would be known for things more positive, like helping the victims of predatory loans.

1 Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?

2 The one whose walk is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
3 whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbor,
    and casts no slur on others;
4 who despises a vile person
    but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
    and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
    who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things
    will never be shaken.

Psalm 15

How I Spent My Summer (well, part of it)

My introduction to Dallas Willard came in my first semester of seminary when we were assigned read his Renovation of the Heart in a class called Shaping the Heart of a Leader.  We read other books on the soul of a leader, but this was the most difficult one.  I do recall the professor admitting this was a tough book.  But the assumption seemed to be that we had all read The Divine Conspiracy in bible college, so time to move on to other books by Willard.  What about those of us who did not attend bible college?  Oh well.

I did read The Divine Conspiracy on my own a few years later and consider it one of my favorite books.  I wish I had read it when I was younger!  And I imagine that if I ever dive into Renovation of the Heart again, I’ll get it a bit more.  But those were the only two books by Dallas Willard I had read.  I always wanted to read more, so this summer, motivated by his death and the books being on sale on Amazon (geez, that sentence just sounds morbid), I did.  I figured if I was going to claim him as a favorite author, I should read more than two of his books, may he rest in peace.

Knowing Christ Today: How We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (2009)

I started with this book, one of Willard’s more recent ones.  His purpose in the book is to argue that Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, rests on actual knowledge.  Our world tends to reserve “knowledge” for one sort of thing, such as science.  Religion, it is said, is mere opinion.  Hence people can assert that all religions are the same, since they are all equally devoid of truth or knowledge.  But if there is truly spiritual knowledge, truly a way things really are, then religion is more than mere opinion.

Honestly, having read my share of apologetics books, I did not expect apologetics here.  So I was somewhat surprised when Willard began rehearsing familiar arguments for God’s existence and miracles as part of his reasoning for why we can trust spiritual knowledge.  I am not sure how I expected him to argue for how we can trust spiritual knowledge when I began the book, but I didn’t expect arguments for God’s existence.  That said, apologetics of the usual sort only supplies a portion of Willard’s arguments (plus, his casting of the arguments is a bit different then those familiar with them might expect).  He goes on to talk about how we can know Christ where we are.  His method for this are the spiritual disciplines, “time-tested spiritual practices that can help us in our learning process.”  In other words, we grow in knowledge as we interact with God.  It should be said then that while we can trust spiritual knowledge, it is still not the exact same as scientific or historical knowledge.  We can trust all these things, but we learn what each says in its own way (i.e., the scientific method is not how we learn spiritual truth).

Perhaps the most important chapter is the second-to-last where he discussed pluralism.  If, as Willard argues, there is spiritual knowledge and this truth rests in Jesus Christ, then how one handles diversity and disagreement becomes vital.  In other subjects where knowledge exists, those who take a minority view may be shunned – think of those who question the received view of science or history.  Religion, more like politics or philosophy, has a myriad of views.  Willard greatly emphasizes humility and that even though there is spiritual knowledge, we know that none of us are perfect in our understanding of it.

Overall, this is a fantastic book.

The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teaching on Discipleship (2006)

This book is the compilation of a series of essays and other works from Willard.  The overall theme that holds all works together is that there has been a great omission from the great commission.  The Great Commission comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus commands his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded.  Willard sees a contemporary Christianity that has failed to “make disciples”.  This is not just about obedience to rules, it is more akin to apprenticeship to Jesus.

The positive of this book is that since it is a compilation of many points, the most important points of Willard’s thoughts are repeated throughout.  For that reason, I almost think this would be the best book to suggest to someone who has never read Willard but wants to.  It is not as heady a read as Knowing Christ Today or The Divine Conspiracy.  Willard often goes back to the importance of spiritual disciplines here, emphasizing that God’s grace is not opposed to effort but to earning.  This is one of the clearest lessons to come through my reading of Willard.  The Protestant Reformation did right in returning the Church to the truth of God’s grace, that nothing we do can earn God’s love.  But over the years this has grown into an almost knee-jerk reaction against any sort of effort.  It is as if the idea of training yourself in your faith by certain disciplines is seen as working to earn God’s love.  Willard identifies this as the reason why so few Christians mature in faith.  We expect God to just zap us and automatically change us and it does not work that way.  Like anything else we must train ourselves, never forgetting that in this we are not earning God’s love for we are already loved.

The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988)

This is the last one of Willard’s book I read, and it may be my favorite.  Many themes he only touched on in his later works are fleshed out fully here.  Willard does not go into great detail on the disciplines, though there is one chapter on them.  The emphasis here is more on why such disciplines are so important.  Willard often says grace is opposed to earning, not to effort and this book, to some degree, is a detailed explanation of how this is the case.

Willard argues that the choices we make will shape who we become.  Thus we can either take steps, discipline ourselves, to become disciples of Christ or we can do nothing.  This doing nothing is a choice too and our natural inclinations will put us on a path.  So if we resist disciplines for fear of works-righteousness we will find ourselves never really changing into a more Christ-like person.  Having been around the Christian church my whole life, I think Willard is right on.  We go to church week after week, maybe read the Bible occasionally because we feel like we have to but year after year most of us find our lives to be more or less the same.  We cry out to God asking for our sins to be purged, before living a life filled with choices that contribute to those sins becoming habits.

While this is my favorite of the three books, I do wish Willard had spent more time on practical issues.  Specifically, how does this apply to people with families and jobs?  I can see the college students I work with diving into the practices.  But what happens to solitude when you are caring for a toddler all day?  How does silence happen between the noise of kids and coworkers?  As much as Willard talks of these disciplines as time-tested, most examples throughout history are still superstars of faith – monks and other unattached people who had the flexibility to do such things.  I do think the disciplines can be applied to the daily life of normal people with jobs and kids.  I just think how that happens is different then how it may happen for students, single people, the elderly or anyone else.  It is not a one-size fits all sort of thing.

Overall, fantastic books.  Do yourself a favor if you want to grow in faith in Christ – read Willard.

Knowing Christ Today – 5 stars

The Great Omission – 4 stars

Spirit of the Disciplines – 5 stars

Be Real, Be Vulnerable – Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Walking with the Saints)

I was talking to a student recently who showed a frustration with people who attend church.  He said that they get dressed up all nice and act perfect, even looking down on those who do not attend church.  They think they are better then the rest of us.  But the thing is, they are just as messed up as anyone else.

I told the student that he is right.  Unfortunately, this often is how church people are.

It would be easy to come back at this student and point out his own sinfulness.  This is a common tact by Christians in such discussions – “oh, you’re complaining about people who go to church…well you’re a sinner too!”  But this student, like many who make this complaint, was not thinking that he is perfect or flawless.  His point was that he is messed up…just like church people.  Only, from his perspective, church people try to hide it.

Much more could be said, but I want to return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book on Christian community, Life Together.  When Bonhoeffer describes Christian community, he has no place for Christians putting up a facade and pretending to have it all figured out.  I think the sort of community that Bonhoeffer describes would be the sort that this student, and many others, would want to be a part of.

“The community of faith does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and of one another” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2004-12-08). Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (Kindle Locations 2298-2299). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition).

“You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2004-12-08). Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (Kindle Locations 2354-2355). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition).

In the presence of another Christian I no longer need to pretend. In another Christian’s presence I am permitted to be the sinner that I am” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2004-12-08). Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (Kindle Locations 2363-2364). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition).

Confession before one another is given to us by God so that we may be assured of divine forgiveness” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2004-12-08). Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (Kindle Locations 2430-2431). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition).

The last quote strikes me.  It reminds me that the ideal Christian community is not one where simply everyone is a mess and does not hide it.  Christian community goes one step farther – as we are vulnerable, admitting our flaws and sins, other Christians speak the truth to us – in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

We are broken, but we are not just broken.

We are a mess, but we are not just a mess.

We are put back together, cleansed, in Jesus our Lord and King.  That truth is assured to us as other broken, yet healed, Christians speak it to us with the power of the Holy Spirit.

May we create more communities where people can be real and vulnerable and find the healing they need.

Slow Cooker Chicken Corn Soup (CSA style, with celery root)

Growing up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, I know what rivels are – they are little dumplings one finds in good, PA Dutch style chicken corn soup.

Yesterday I betrayed my heritage, making chicken corn soup without rivels.

That said, my soup was pretty good.

Our summer CSA has inundated us with corn on the cob.  With so many ears of corn needing to be eaten, I decided to make chicken corn soup.  I perused a number of recipes in cookbooks and online before putting it together.  I decided to use a slow cooker because…its just easier.  The CSA had also given us a celery root on Tuesday, so instead of buying celery I assumed this would be a decent substitution.  I peeled and chopped up the root and tossed it into the soup along with a few of the leaves.  In place of rivels I threw in the remains of a bag of egg noodles we had in our cupboard.

Oh, and I also added a cup of cheddar cheese because…because its cheddar cheese.  Heck, if I had any bacon I would have added that too!

Slow Cooker Chicken Corn Soup (with celery root)

Cut up about 1.5-2 pounds of chicken and place in slow cooker with 4 cups chicken broth (I used 2 cups chicken and 2 cups vegetable broth).

Add one celery root (peeled and chopped), some leaves from the celery root, one onion (chopped), two cloves of garlic and a dash of salt and pepper (not too much, my wife said the soup was salty with only a little bit).

Remove the corn from 5 ears of corn (or more, if you want) and add to slow cooker.

Cook on low for 8 hours.

Add egg noodles in the last half-hour.

Add cheese at the very end.


The Holiness of Work – Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Listening to the Saints)

I am still wanting to share more of what I learned from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s amazing, classic book, Life Together.  Maybe I want to keep sharing on it because I am mad no one made me read it in seminary.  Or maybe I just really want others to read it.  Most of the books on the bookshelf of the local Christian bookstore will soon  be forgotten (probably like bookstores themselves) but Bonhoeffer’s will stand the test of time.

He made a few comments on work which I think Christians today could find helpful.  Growing up I always got the impression that work was somehow less important then the spiritual stuff that happened in church.  Pastors and missionaries were people who worked for God, everyone else had to settle for some lesser work to pass the time.  Hopefully they could evangelize their coworkers while there, or carve out enough time to do church work as volunteers on the side.  But there was never much about any sort of holiness or inherent goodness to work.  I have read and learned a lot more on this over the years (for one example, see what I wrote about here ).

Here is what Bonhoeffer says:

“Just as it was God’s will that human beings should work six days and rest and celebrate before the face of God on the seventh, so it is also God’s will that every day should be marked for the Christian both by prayer and work. Prayer also requires its own time. But the longest part of the day belongs to work. The inseparable unity of both will only become clear when work and prayer each receives its own undivided due. Without the burden and labor of the day, prayer is not prayer; and without prayer, work is not work. Only the Christian knows that. Thus it is precisely in the clear distinction between them that their oneness becomes apparent” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2004-12-08). Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (Kindle Locations 1491-1495). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition).

“The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is found because finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work is what Paul means by his admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5: 17)” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2004-12-08). Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (Kindle Locations 1504-1506). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition)

“We will see at this point whether Christians’ time of meditation has led them into an unreal world from which they awaken with a fright when they step out into the workaday world, or whether it has led them into the real world of God from which they enter into the day’s activities strengthened and purified. Has it transported them for a few short moments into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it planted the Word of God so soberly and so deeply in their heart that it holds and strengthens them all day long, leading them to active love, to obedience, to good works?” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2004-12-08). Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: 5 (Kindle Locations 1960-1964). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.)

Bonhoeffer calls for a balance of both prayer and work.  It makes me think that prayer is kind of like breakfast – just as we need food to give us strength in the beginning of our day and to set the tone, so we need spiritual food to set the spiritual tone each morning.

Looking ahead to another year of campus ministry, these words from Bonhoeffer leave me desiring two things:

1. That the students dedicate time each day for the discipline of prayer (and other spiritual disciplines)

2. That the students learn to integrate their faith with their major, seeing their study and work as a holy calling.

The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman (Review)

Many times throughout history governments have pursued policies that go directly against their own self-interest.  Barbara Tuchman defines such pursuits as folly, hence the title of her book The March of Folly.  It is not that such policies appeared to be folly only in retrospect.  To qualify as folly they had to be obvious folly to those living in the time.  And it is not just that the governmental policies went against their own self-interest, but other, better, options had to be available.

Tuchman begins with a brief chapter on the Trojans taking the horse inside their city walls.  In spite of the warnings of people that it may be a Greek trap and the call to investigate the horse more closely, the Trojans chose folly and brought downfall on themselves.  As the oldest story this one sets the tone for later instances of folly.  Tuchman’s later examples, more recent and thus with much more historical data, all receive much longer treatments.  She tells of how the Renaissance Popes blundered and ended up losing a large chunk of their power to the Protestant Reformation.  Then she talks of the British folly leading up to the outbreak of the American Revolution.  Finally, we see how the Americans emulated the British folly in the policies surrounding the Vietnam war.

As I read this book other, more recent, examples of governmental folly came to mind, but I’ll allow you to think of some for yourself.  Tuchman could have included myriads more.  As a sidenote, after reading the book I listened to the most recent Hardcore History podcast on the Spanish-American war and the subsequent American involvement in the Philippines in the early 1900s.  Another case of folly.

Some of the chapters got a bit lengthy and I think Tuchman could have made the point with a bit more brevity.  Perhaps shortening the existing chapters could have allowed a few more examples.  That said, for the fan of history it is still a fantastic book.  It is not Tuchman’s best, that prize goes to the fantastic Guns of August.  But it is a worthy read.