Monday, May 21, 2012

What Gospel preaching should do

Nathan Cole, a Connecticut farmer converted in the 1740's, put it clearly when describing what happened to him under the preaching of George Whitefield. "... my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound. By God's blessing, my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me." (Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy, p.37)

Not all revolutions are liberating

I believe Leonore J. Weitzman's book The Divorce Revolution offers a helpful look at the effects of no-fault divorce laws. She began her study assuming no-fault divorce was a breakthrough for women, but she concluded that it had devastating effects. Perhaps her most explosive finding was that men's standard of living went up 42% in the year following divorce, while women's standard declined 73%, even counting alimony and child support payments. (Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy, p. 21)

Mercy means more than fruit baskets

I started reading Keller's book of mercy ministry this morning. The framework for the book is found in Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

For decades evangelicals have avoided the radical nature of the teaching of the parable of the Good Samaritan. At most, we have heard it telling us to prepare a fruit basket for the needy each Christmas, or to give money to relief agencies when their is a famine or earthquake in a distant nation. But it is time to listen more closely, because the world, which never was "safe" to live in, is becoming even less so. We are finally beginning to wonder why there are suddenly hundreds of thousands "stripped and lying half dead" in the streets of our own cities.

Only a small number of people in the history of the world have lived in relatively "safe" conditions. War, injustice, oppression, famine, natural disaster, family breakdown, disease, mental illness, physical disability, racism, crime, scarcity of resources, class struggle - these "social problems" are the results of our alienation from God. They bring deep misery and violence to the lives of most of humanity. The majority of people who read this book, however, probably belong to the the relatively small group of folk who, through God's kindness, lead an existence generally free from these forces.

This comparative comfort can isolate us in a fictitious world where suffering is difficult to find. But this isolation is fragile, for suffering surounds us - even in the suburbs! We need an accurate view of the world in which we live. Perhaps we need to see that, instead of living on islands of ease, we are all living on the Jericho Road. (Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy, p.13)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: The Man Without a Face

The Man Without a Face by Holland Isabelle

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The Man Without a Face is about a 14 year old boy named Charles who, while spending the summer at his family's beach house, asks the local recluse (Justin McLeod) to tutor him. McLeod is nicknamed by the local kids, the "man without a face" because he was terribly burned in a car accident a number of years before. The story is told from Charles' viewpoint, and explores the complicated relationships within his family, and eventually, with McLeod. Charles is struggling to deal with his a absence of his father, his fear of friendship and love, and his resentment of all the women in his life.

I saw the movie (starring Mel Gibson) a number of years ago, and remember liking it a lot. There are some significant differences between the book and the film, and I have to say, this is one of those rare occurrences when I preferred the movie version.

Isabelle Young is purportedly writing for young adults, but I think a lot of the story's subtleties would be lost on younger readers. Additionally, there's some stranger parts, and a lot of ambiguous sexuality that may be confusing for younger kids.

UPDATE: I went back and re-read a couple of sections in the book, and I think I might be more confused now than when I read it the first time. The relationship between Charles and McLeod is sexually ambiguous. Unlike the movie, there are a series of scenes that seem to blur a healthy relationship (father-son type of relationship) and a sexual one, and one scene in particular that seems to imply that something happened between them. What's disturbing is that quite possibly, the intention of those scenes seems to be to "wonder" if sexual attraction between a man and a boy is a "normal" aspect to any father son (or mentor) relationship. The answer is: "no." Pedophilia is not normal, or appropriate, and I'm very surprised this book has made itself onto recommended reading lists for young adults. I'm not a book banner by any stretch, but I would never give this novel to a child, fearing it could dangerously distort their idea of what healthy, safe relationships with adults look like.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Review: Clergy Killers

Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under AttackClergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack by G. Lloyd Rediger

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Clergy Killers is a book about antagonists in the church intent on destroying pastors. The great strength of the book is in documenting the pervasiveness of the problem - with case studies and statistics detailing the abuse clergy receive at the hands of antagonistic members. (FYI: Rediger also has a chapter on Killer Clergy, who destroy their congregations).

I've seen just enough of this in the lives of pastors I know to understand this is a real danger. The long-term retention rate for pastors in their vocation is not very good, and clergy killers are one of the reasons. Rediger makes clear that there is normal conflict in any church, even healthy churches. But he goes on to discuss unusual and abnormal conflict: resulting from people either with some kind of serious problem (in some cases mental, most often spiritual). Perhaps the saddest reality is the collateral damage (harm done to the pastor's spouse and children). It's sad when anyone has problems at work, and a child may see their father suffer and come to hate their dad's workplace. How much worse when what they hate is the church (and sometimes, by extension, God).

What worked: Rediger does a pretty good job laying out the problem, or at least establishing that there is one. And also presenting the case that most of us are unprepared for it (pastors, churches, and denominations).

What didn't: I was severely underwhelmed by his prescriptions for dealing with the problems. He relies heavily on strategies for intervention and basic psychotherapy techniques for mental wellness. It seemed pretty sterile, and frankly, not all that helpful. What I would have liked to have seen were basic strategies for a pastor to practice self-care: a detailed discussion on spiritual disciplines, healthy living practices, and encouragement to build a healthy family life and close friendships. All these things get mentions, but aren't fleshed out with any real thoughtfulness.

Additionally, this book begs for a healthy discussion of the role of the elders in shepherding the pastor. How does an elder board or session care for and protect its pastor? A large discussion of Matthew 18 is needed and wanting in this book, as well as discussions about the importance of church discipline and how to practice excommunication, when needed.

Rediger does talk about exorcism a good bit - literally the casting out of evil. This is normally a term used for casting out demons, but he uses it more broadly here to mean dealing with evil of any kind. These sections were helpful, and I need to do a good bit more thinking about this.

Read it if: you can't find any other good books on conflict in the church. Elders may want to read it to think about how they can better care for their pastors.

There's got to be better books out there on this subject. Can anyone make some recommendations?

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: Brave New World

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, a dystopian fantasy written as a counterpoint to H.G. Wells' optimistic view of the future presented in Men Like Gods. Perhaps what's most amazing about Brave New World, is that Huxley wrote it before WWII, when the prevailing attitudes about the future were overwhelmingly positive.

Brave New World is set in London in the year 2540. After years of war, a single World State is in control providing community, identity and stability for all of society. Sounds pretty good, until you hear what's been given up in order to get it. Reproductive technology and sleep-learning make this society possible. People no longer live in families. There are 5 castes of people all "hatched" and grown in "factories" of a sort. Alphas (the highest caste) are allowed to develop naturally and, to some extent, experience a kind of individualism. The other 4 castes are tampered with at some point in fetal development to limit intelligence and physical growth. All people are bred for certain jobs. These jobs aren't a prison, however, because the breeding also happens at the level of desires. They only could want to do these specific jobs. "Sleep-learning" is a kind of conditioning that keeps each caste in its place, and also creates in them consumer desires that keep the economy running smoothly. Additionally, the world population is strictly kept to 2 billion assuring there are enough resources for everyone.

Much of the plot revolves around describing this society. The critical event is the recreational visit two Alphas take to an Indian reservation in New Mexico. They go to see the "uncivilized savages" who are not apart of the world society. They end up taking John Savage and his mother Linda back to London, to introduce them to civilization. This is where the title of the book comes from, a direct allusion to Shakespeare's The Tempest, where Miranda (living as a slave on an island) first encounters other people. She exclaims "O brave new world! That has such people in it!" It's an ironical title, as John Savage is not at all impressed with Civilization, and eventually tries to flee from it.

What works: Huxley's fears, as it turns out were well-founded. Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death compared Brave New World with George Orwell's 1984, and he contends (rightly) that Huxley's fears were closer to the mark (at least for modern Western society):
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.
The most poignant parts of the book are discussions about the World State's decision to exchange the noble, the true, and the good for absence of pain and easy happiness.

What didn't work: While necessary to set the stage, some of the factory tours in the first 6 chapters of the book were laborious to read. The book's entertainment value increases drastically from chapter 7 on.

Read it if: you like dystopian novels, or are interested in cultural critique of Western society.

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Book Review: Planets in Peril

Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C.S. Lewis's Ransom TrilogyPlanets in Peril: A Critical Study of C.S. Lewis's Ransom Trilogy by David C. Downing

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Downing has written a first class treatment of C.S. Lewis' Ransom Trilogy. His burden is to classify the trilogy as "theological fantasy" and show how some of Lewis' own biography find their way into the books. Downing does a fantastic job situating the books in Lewis' own life, placing it among his other works, and explaining the many, many literary and theological allusions in the series. Downing also makes an effort to asses the series on its merits, interacting with the reviewers and criticial essayists who have come before.

If you like the series, then this book will help you appreciate all the nuances of Lewis' ingenius writing. If you're just going to skim, make sure and read chapters 1-2 and 6-7.

Table of Contents:
1 - "Transfiguring the Past": Lewis' Reading of His Early Life
2 - "Smuggled Theology": The Christian Vision of the Trilogy
3 - The Recovered Image: Elements of Classicism and Medievalism
4 - "Souls Who Have Lost the Intellectual Good": Portraits of Evil
5 - Ransom and Lewis: Cosmic Voyage as Spiritual Pilgrimmage
6 - Models, Influences, and Echoes
7 - The Achievement of C.S. Lewis: Assessing the Trilogy
Appendix: "The Dark Tower"

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