Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Glory vs. Love

I've been seeing/hearing a lot of bad argumentation lately. Most often people don't even listen to the first thing their opponent said, and then when they respond they do not respond to the argument--instead they attack the person. Aren't we supposed to have a free marketplace of ideas? I know, I know--some ideas are too 'offensive, toxic, hate-speech,' blah blah blah. So much for tolerance. If we can't even discuss possibilities how neanderthal have we become? Instead the mass opinion must be true, and I'll beat you down with my club of peer-pressure until you submit to the hive mind.

So, in an attempt to exemplify what an actual argument is, I offer this--no frills or filler, no ironic jabs (despite how much I wanted to). For clarification, every argument contains a 1. Premise, 2. Logical inference, 3. Conclusion. Every argument contains certain assumptions as well--EVERY argument. Example: even when I use a word, I assume that word signifies the same (or roughly similar) thing to you. It does not advance the discussion or count as more points for your side if you pretend that you aren't assuming things. It just helps you to justify yourself and not convince others. Now something should be noted as regards the specific arguments below. In the first section, I offer the conclusion that is proclaimed by the group of believers; I do not offer the conclusion that their argument actually affords. See the footnote at the end for more information.

It is common for certain believers to criticize the belief/statement that "God's first purpose is to glorify himself." They prefer to believe that "God's first purpose is to love."

Argument: If God's first purpose is to glorify himself, then God is selfish.
Assumption: God is not selfish.
Conclusion: Therefore God's first purpose cannot be to glorify himself.

Argument 2: "God is love," says Scripture.
Assumption: Something God "is" must be fundamental to his existence.
Conclusion: Therefore God's first purpose must be to love [humans/creation/something other-than-self].*

However those who argue thus have a theological omission.
Omission: God exists in trinity.

Those in the "Glory" camp (commonly called 'Reformed') would thus rewrite the argument:

Argument: If God's first purpose is to glorify the other persons of the Trinity, then God is self-giving.
Assumption: To self-give is to love.
Conclusion: Therefore God is ultimately loving and self-giving towards the other members of the Trinity.

Argument 2: "God is love," says Scripture.
Assumption: Something God "is" must be fundamental to his existence.
Conclusion: Therefore God's first purpose might be called "love" towards the Trinity.

Counter-Argument: Humans/creation/something other-than-self have not always existed.
Assumption: If God is cannot fulfill his existence, he is incomplete; if incomplete he is imperfect.
Conclusion: Therefore God's first purpose cannot be to love humans/creation/something other-than-self |OR|
Alternative Conclusion: God is imperfect.

Argument 3: God is perfect.
Assumption: The 'perfect' is fully worthy of glory & love.

Conclusion: Therefore if God is to remain perfect, he must respond rightly to that which is perfect [namely love & glorify it].

*As stated in the introduction, I believe the actual conclusion the argument affords is that God must love. However, adherents to this camp insert the direct object(s) of humanity, creation, etc. Probably, I believe, because they start with the conclusion and argue backwards instead of starting with their premise and arguing forward.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"One Night" by Dr. Tom Pfizenmaier

I was recently given the chance to read this poem, and I consider it a gift. I post it hear for the benefit of all who happen by.

The One who wove the helix, woven now in flesh,
Bound fast together on the earth, God and Man enmeshed.
Ineffably committed, no way out, nor back.
It is finished; God is Man, of mercy now, no lack.

Echo of sage and prophet now find your voice in him,
Present now for all—or none—to hear his joyful hymn.
Deep shadow now illumined, in flashing flesh grown bright,
Present now for all—or none—to see his holy light.

The roadless way is travelled, with tiny fetal feet.
She sweats and cries and thrashes, all for him to meet.
Seraphic eyes now shielded under pinioned wings,
Creation gasps upon his birth, and heaven starts to sing.

Oh Healer of the primal wound, who wounded must become,
Join us here in our travail, and be of sin our sum.
We welcome you, we WELCOME you! Come well–Lord Jesus come,
For in the chasm of our souls you’ll find your journey’s run.

Oh deep long night of winter, when all is dark and drawn,
Arise now all creation sing, the glories of your Dawn!
The endless end is ending, God’s kairos now has come.
The Son is here to save us, “it is finished,” just begun…

"One Night," Dr. Tom Pfizenmaier
Bonhomme Presbyterian Church
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Friday, September 16, 2016

Waiting to lose my son

Being faced with the constant reminder that the baby boy I’m raising isn’t my own, that depending on court decisions in the near future, he could be taken from us is… faith-building. And of course, by ‘faith-building’ I mean emotionally tumultuous. I’ve traveled through a gamut of thoughts and emotions over the past months, few of which I could put into words, some of which are a little too dark for me to confess. In the process, however, the Holy Spirit has given me a new lens with which to view Scripture.

The Loss of the Firstborn

From the first family to Jesus, the world has witnessed the devastating losses of the firstborn [male] children.

God lost his son Adam to sin and the East of Eden.

Adam lost his son Cain to sin and wandering.
Adam lost his righteous son to sin-inspired death and received a new son, Seth, through God’s mercy.

Noah lost his son Ham to sin and curse.

Abram lost his first son to sinful jealousy and estrangement.
Abram lost his son of promise to sacrifice in obedience to God… and received him back.

Isaac lost his son Esau to sinful manipulation.[1]
Isaac lost his son Jacob to sinful threats of retribution and estrangement… and received him back through faith in God’s promise.

Jacob/Israel lost his son Joseph to the sinful slave-trading of his other sons.
Jacob/Israel lost his son Simeon to the caprice of Joseph.
Jacob/Israel lost his son Benjamin in desperate hope for life.
And he received them all back because of merciful forgiveness and faith through famine.

Job lost his sons to death because of his righteousness, and received sons again because of the will of God.

The mother of Moses lost her son to the sinful oppression of God’s people, and received him back—for a time—because of her faith and obedience.

Pharaoh lost his son because of his sinful idolatry and blasphemy.
God took back his son Israel from the clasp of Pharaoh for his own glory.
The people of Israel did not lose their firstborn sons to death because they offered the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb to consecrate and redeem their firstborn sons.

Moses nearly lost his son for disobedience, but received him back because of his faithful obedience in the patient mercy of God.

Aaron lost his sons Nadab and Abihu because of their willful profaning of a holy God.

Hannah ‘lent’ her son Samuel to the ministry at Shiloh because of her faith and the Lord’s covenant faithfulness.

Eli lost his sons Hophni and Phinehas to death because of their sin and his own scorn of the glory of God.

Saul lost his son Jonathan to the loyalty of David because of his jealous pride and anger.

David lost his first son Solomon to death in infancy because of sin against God, despite his pleas.
David lost his son Absalom to rebellion and death because of his refusal to pass judgment against oppressors or grant full mercy to avengers, and the arrogance of Absalom.

Mary and Joseph lost their son Jesus for a time because he had to be about his Father’s things.
Mary lost her son Jesus to the Jews, Rome, suffering, the cross, and the tomb because of the sin of the people and the glory of God.
And she received him back—for a time—because death has no power over him.

The Father lost his Son because before the foundation of the world, he planned to redeem humanity through the incarnation.
Lost his Son to an earthly dwelling because of his great love for us.
Lost his Son to the curse of sin and death because he loved us in spite of our great disobedience, rebellion, and hatred.
Lost his Son to the wrath of the Triune God because he is both just and the justifier of those who believe.
Lost his Son to the depths of human despair because he would become our sympathizer.

And the Father received him back because it was the will of God to lay his life down and to take it up again.
Because the glory of God is most clearly revealed in the person and passion of Jesus.
Because he is making all things new, reconciling to himself all things.
Because he accomplished the work he set out to do.

And now he has said, “I have not lost any of the ones you have given me.” And also, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” and “You who were once ‘Not My People’ are now called ‘My People” and “he gave them the authority to become children of God,” and “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, you know I will return for you that you may be where I am also.”

And so I am taught.
I am taught that should I lose my son, I sit in line with saints and sinners of ancient days, who whether innocently or justly, for internal or external reasons, lost their sons also.
I am taught that no child needs remain lost when there is a God who will not separate his love from those he has called according to his purpose.
I am taught that the will of God and his thoughts are above my own.
I am taught that there is hope.
I am taught that although loss comes to both the good and the wicked, I am to serve God and obey his commandments—for this is what is given to me under the sun.
Scripture tells us the stories of a son lost. But that son is found.

[1] By which I mean that Isaac was not able to bless Esau has he intended, or to give him his birthright and advance his heritage through the son of his choice.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Some 'self-help' from Karl Barth

I have, lying on a bookshelf by my chair, a collection of Karl Barth's sermons. I've perused it noncommittally before, but I recently picked it up off the shelf because it was small enough to hold in the one hand not occupied by an infant. I read these convicting and encouraging words, and I hope they are of some help to you on your path to loving Jesus more.
Forefield fighting is the usual method by which we ordinarily fight evil. All of us have a lot of evil about us. Sometimes it rises up in awful power. I think of physical suffering or the greed for money. It takes possession of the length and breadth of our lives and breaks forth either unbridled, or in mere bad conduct, in our though, speech and behavior. We protect ourselves against evil. We battle against it. Perhaps we succeed in controlling it or suppressing it until the dam breaks and it emerges anew! And so the battle wages without success, back and forth. For, is it not true that the evil in us will not permit itself to be overthrown, annihilated or decisively defeated? It always rises up again, it always returns. For evil would long ago have been defeated and destroyed, it would have been easy to be through with it, if, yes, if, it did not always have a strong place to flee to in that fortress, if it did not receive its power of opposition from that "I" of man behind that wall so deep within us. That is why it never is completely driven from the field. What would money be, or sensuality, alcohol, or the sword of might, if man would no longer ally himself with them, if he would no longer ally himself with them, if he would not secretly consent to them? For it is only out of this alliance with man, only out of this demoniacal yes of man that these powers do suck their life-blood and their life-sap. If this inner retreat should collapse, then evil would be powerless. Therefore "Man is something that must be overcome," if evil is to be overcome.
It has often struck us how little weight Jesus put upon the differences in men, whether they were moral or immoral, pious or worldly. Undoubtedly He saw these differences better than we, but He looked beyond these differences better than we, but He looked beyond them as though He saw the enemy with whom He had basically to deal, the enemy who stood behind these other little enemies with which we often engage. He saw the good and the virtuous in good people and He did not lightly regard it. But at the same time He saw that behind all these goodly virtues there arose this absolutely unbroken line of defense which continually hinders the good from gaining a complete victory. And He, indeed, saw the darkness and the unrighteousness of the ungodly and worldly and He certainly did not call them good. But at the same time He saw, behind all their evils and ungodliness, the last stronghold which made it indeed possible for their evil and ungodliness to continue to maintain itself. And above all, He saw that this last inner stronghold is most unbroken in the pious and believing people whose piety serves to establish more firmly the defiant, crafty "I" of man. Continually Jesus realized that this inner position must be stormed. Jesus realized that this inner position must be stormed. God must be captain of this strong bulwark of man. Everything else is futile. And so Jesus never took any part in the attempts to make the world better, or in the attempts to make good triumph over evil, or to bring about the destruction of evil which is often undertaken without touching this last ultimate premise, without overcoming men, without making God first of all absolute and only king. 
The man who has allowed himself to be overcome is one who makes no demands, has no surety, no rampart upon which he can depend, no wall behind which he can defend himself; he is driven out of every human position, without any human support, into an exposed spot in the midst of the profound circumstances and enigmas of life; he is hounded about, disturbed, stormed, shaken, humbled, the opposite of an assured man who has an answer for every question. Indeed, this is the man who has allowed himself to be overcome. 
Sometime an hour of terrible upheaval and ruin will come to us. This no one can escapte. Against it no betrayal can avail. The only question is whether we shall, like Judas, defend ourselves against it to the utmost, only to have to encounter it finally with despair. Or, perhaps, the Cross has given us a presumption that this terrible, this impossible way, this way into very death which all of us must travel, is perhaps a way, yes, the way, which leads beyond death; a presumption that precisely there where everything about us comes to an end, there, on the other side, all things really begin; a presumption that if we but endure to the end, even out of the end, the judgment, the ruin, there might break forth the victory, the redemption. The question is whether we see some of the imperceptible light of the resurrection in which the Cross (as Rembrandt has painted it) stands. Oh, that we might see it, so that in the midst of our fears we would not fear, that we might dare to say "Yes,"--even against ourselves, to God. For that is the reason why Jesus endured death. 

Excerpts taken from Karl Barth's sermon "Jesus and Judas" as found in Come Holy Spirit, p.123-136 (ed. Eduard Thurneysen).

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: J. Ellsworth Kalas' The Pleasure of God

This is a short book, but I think it will be beneficial for many who choose to pick it up. Each chapter is only a few pages, allowing for 5-10 minute readings on your lunch break, the start or end of the day; perhaps even to place in your bathroom--if you're one of those kind of people... It can (and probably should) be used in fashion of a devotional: one reading per day, with time given to absorb the content and let it shape your daily life.

The primary value of this book lies in its brevity & its attempt to reorient the whole mind rightly upon Christ.

No topic is exhausted, and there are several instances where I've thought, "That argument doesn't follow," or "that's an unsubstantiated claim," or "why did you use that passage when others teach the subject clearer?" but it isn't the purpose of this book to offer every viewpoint and a defense of the author's perspective. The purpose of this book *is* to help the believer "take every thought captive for Christ," to "whether eating or drinking or anything, doing all for the glory of the Lord," to "present your life as a sacrifice which is your reasonable response of worship," to "consider all things joy." But perhaps I should stop quoting and just write bluntly:

Do you suffer from the tedious and mundane? Has life sapped the joy from the things you do?

This book is for you.

Kalas writes with a view to the subjects we too often neglect, and he writes in a way that causes you to rethink why you've dreaded your morning commute, sped through your shower, regretted your sleep on the weekends. Kalas invites you to pause,


and learn to enjoy God in everything.

*I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
**This review has been crosslisted on Amazon, Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Academic Book Review: Stanley Porter's Sacred Tradition in the New Testament

This is a difficult book to review. If a book satisfies its thesis, then it deserves to be well rated, and the readers deserve to be well informed of that thesis. Often reviewers will rate a book poorly because it’s not the book they wanted to read; not based on whether it is the book the author actually wrote. And yet I feel myself torn between the fair and unfair review. It sounds like a simple case of ‘choose the better,’ but I feel the need to clarify why I feel this tension. First, it may be helpful to list the author’s self-proposed audience, thesis, and method.

Audience: advanced students of the NT & scholars seeking a fresh examination of the topics

Thesis: “Although the focus of all these lectures—now become written essays—is the use, development, and interpretation of sacred tradition, a major subtheme that emerges in many, if not all, of them is that of who Jesus is, that is, Christology. The essays of this volume, therefore, are formed around this core set of lectures, now essays; they are not, and never were, simply a collection of random thoughts put to paper. As a result, I believe this volume provides a clear set of essays that explore how sacred tradition of various types is developed in the NT, often, though not entirely, for Christological ends.”

Method: We are trying to move away from mechanical and formulaic conceptions and toward an appropriation of important sacred traditions (not just verses) as they are developed further within the NT.

The simple question: does the author support/accomplish his thesis? Yes, in a technical sense. Porter clearly articulates his method throughout his book and shows how the entire ethos of Jewish (and Greco-Roman) cultural history comes to bear upon and influence New Testament texts. And more times than not, these developments and conclusions directly influence Christology. So what’s the problem?

I want to be generous and truthful, so if I seem to lack either, forgive me.

In part, I think the problem lies with the intended audience. If by ‘students of the New Testament’ Porter intends those in seminary, pursuing a PhD in theology, then perhaps he meets them. Although, and I say this with somber caution, perhaps those students will not have had their love for Christ increased after these pages. I’m sure that Porter loves Jesus, and I’m sure he wants others to love Jesus too, but I fear this book does not stir up the affections as he would hope. I say this as someone who has pursued Christian higher education, who has a love for theology and academia, who understands that knowledge informs belief and affections; I consider myself in that class of [intermediate or] advanced students of the NT. But I feel (and it is mostly a feeling, so feel free to discredit it) that Porter absents the purposed conclusion to theology: doxology. I think there is room to call for more attention to the significance for Christian theology & the Christian life, not simply theology as an academic discipline & the thinking life.

Well, you might say: perhaps he meets his second audience: NT Scholars looking for a fresh perspective on the topics. I would have hoped so too, but it seems that Porter focuses too heavily on the academic credibility, playing the ‘progressives’ game. As a result many of his statements, and conclusions are cautioned and left in a lake of insignificance: i.e. ‘this is what I think, and I think it influences the development of the NT in this way, but you might disagree, and it’s okay if you do; it doesn’t really change much.’ Absolutely there needs to be academic honesty and humility; a willingness to propose with an open hand—be willing to be proven wrong. But with so much qualification the reader is left to wonder, “If the conclusions are so tenuous, are they worth believing at all?” Indeed, without a clear purpose (namely, the discipleship of hearts and minds for Christ), we are left to wonder if there is any detriment at all to denying what he says or any benefit in believing. Porter undercuts the very significance his topic of discussion should invoke—we are talking about Christ Jesus, the incarnation of the living God! Does Porter really believe that Jesus is like a Son of Man; does he really believe Jesus is the Messiah  Son of God who contends against Caesar; does he really believe that Jesus is the Suffering Servant, Passover Lamb, vindicated servant of Psalm 22, the man of history and faith? Porter’s attention to detail and careful exposition of the biblical text says, “Yes—of course.” But his caveats say, “Does it matter?”

Perhaps I am being too harsh. Perhaps I’ve become too emotional. Perhaps if I reread the book, I would discover that Porter is both perfectly convincing to the scholars and perfectly edifying to the Christians. But I suppose that’s for you to decide. I began with stating that this review was difficult to write—that I felt a tension between a ‘fair’ review and an ‘unfair’ one. Well, I’ve given you the unfair first, so let me add a few words of fairness.

Porter is extremely intelligent and well-studied. He not only draws upon the OT text with insightful exposition, but pays careful attention to the ideas and themes found in cultural theology surrounding the Jewish people. He shows the gravity of titles like Son of God and Son of Man. He really has offered me more substance and bolstered my defense for certain theological conclusions the NT leads us to believe.

His introductory chapters on defining terms such as intertextuality, allusion, echo, and the like is exceedingly helpful; I hope that all scholars take his advice and clearly define their terms. Porter reminds them that at this stage of the game, it would be impossible to unify the language; but as long as each individual scholar declares their own definitions, much confusion can be avoided, and the discussions can be advance beyond the gridlock NT/OT relations are currently in. Porter’s brief critique of the way these studies have been approached so far (e.g. limiting them to strict formulaic quotations, atomized, and NT-OT only) is profitable. The cultural mind is not so atomized; it is helpful to remember that these texts were formulated by embodied persons. Porter offers a broader perspective than many textual commentaries by reminding us of this very fact—showing us the woven tapestry of ideas rather than individual texts and their cross-references. And his willingness to engage those ideas which remain outside of the biblical text improves upon studies which limit themselves to Christian scripture.

All that being said, the book as a whole is pretty niche. The introductory sections are certainly worthwhile for any intermediate/advanced student of the Bible, but I think that the later chapters are primarily beneficial in a selective study. It might be nice to have this book on the shelf in order to reference whenever you encounter one of the primary themes Porter elucidates… but I don’t particularly recommend this book generally as a book to be read through cover-to-cover.

I give the book 4/5 for the reasons mentioned above, and leave the prospective reader with a summary caution.

Porter’s intelligent and scholarly work fills out the discussion of influences upon the New Testament after calling for clarity by all scholars. Yet, by playing the game of those who discount/discredit Divine authorship, Porter fails to help disciple the minds of most Christians, and fails to convince those not already on his side.

This review is crosslisted on Goodreads, Amazon, NetGalley, and my blog.

I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Review: Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith

“In the age of fast food and fast culture, we are often inclined to speed along with the flow of traffic on the highway leading to the death and destruction of creation. Will we, through practices of reading and conversation, attempt to exit from this highway? Will we begin to crawl, perhaps even to take baby steps, along the path that leads to life and flourishing?” (Page 143)

This book is internally-conflicting for me. Perhaps that’s the mark of a really good book, or perhaps that’s the mark of a book that is almost there. Or perhaps that’s the mark of something deficient with me. I’m not sure, so I apologize in advance for any confusing discourse hereafter.

I approached the book with two primary questions:
·        How do I get my church to be a reading church?
·        In what ways does reading specifically influence & better the community?
The first was only generally answered, but the second accurately predicted the thesis and received a fuller answer—though not quite to the extent for which I was hoping or the thesis led me to believe.

Book thesis:

“In this book, we will view the local church as a sort of learning organization, in which both learning and action lie at the heart of its identity. We will explore the practice of reading—perhaps the most important component of learning in the twenty-first century—and consider how we can read together in ways that drive us deeper into action” (Page12).

It will helpful to note a few other details more or less stated in the introductory pages:

Assumption: The church’s primary task is ‘reconciling the world’ (as in Colossians 1:20) and the flourishing of society.

Caveat: Church is a ‘learning organization’ [as defined by Peter Senge: “At the heart of the learning organization is a shift of mind—from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world…. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it.”]

Audience: Christians…?

So… in what ways does fulfill or fail his thesis? Well if we accept his definition of the church  primarily defined in terms of a ‘learning organization,’ albeit with a re-creational/reconciliatory nuance supported from Colossians 1:20  rather than a full theological/biblical ecclesiology, then yes, the thesis is supported. He frequently shows the myriad of strings which tie back to reading: from ecology to politics, from grocery shopping to increased education. And yet, I often found myself reading the things that he is saying, getting caught up in the beautiful vision his words convey, only to be reminded that his thesis is 'reading' and that his previous ideas, statements, imaginations, etc. don't quite so easily tie to his thesis. Sure, reading can be tied to all things, but I was looking for immediacy, not abstraction. As it is the book weighs more heavily upon the ‘learning’ side and less on the ‘action.’ Not only the abstract v. immediate, but in the ideological v. practical.

Smith defines four implications for his philosophy on reading & church-community life.

Reading plays a role in “following Jesus in the way of compassion [that is] entering into the pains and struggles of our churches, our families and our neighborhoods” by…
·        Forming us into the compassionate and faithful people of God, deeply engaged with our church, our neighborhood and the world
·        Calling us to understand who God is and how God is at work in the world (particularly by reading Scripture)
·        Guiding us into a deeper understanding of out broken world and teaching us to imagine how such brokenness might begin to be undone
·        Discerning and developing our vocation—that is, how each of us might make our unique gifts available for God’s healing and restoring work in the world
(Page 14)

I found that through the book, the following five verb phrases better encapsulate the book’s argumentative thrust:

Reading can help with the flourishing of our communities by…
… revealing the interconnectedness of things & connecting us further
… showing us the perspectives of other people
… informing us of knowledge and practical how-tos
… increasing education levels, helping us think & evaluate
… guide us into a better sense of identity & vocation

These five reappear repeatedly throughout the book. In fact, whenever it came to a specific topic or discipline, I would hope to discover a new, immediate implication for reading only to discover a restatement of one of these five statements. If it was an aside on fiction, however, it would always state rather similarly: ‘fiction can often do this even better! Fiction shows us the perspectives of others!’ –my paraphrase, of course. Further, I discovered that Smith’s apparent implication #2 is relatively limited in both scope and application—I mean to say that his view of God’s work is primarily Colossians 1:20, and he hardly utilizes this method for influencing the content of his chapters with the notable exception of chapter 3 “Reading and Our Congregational Identity” which primarily reinforces the overarching preunderstanding of the church that we’ve mentioned before a ‘learning organization’ with a view to reconciling the world. Which brings us to my two primary recommendations for improvement.

1.      A more biblically-saturated,  gospel-influenced, theologically-defensible foundation; this book utilizes Scripture, has a view to the reconciliation of the world, and is sound in its argumentation, but somebody who doesn’t subscribe to the Christian faith could just as easily read this book with little difference of significance. Because it is so ‘public-square’ focused, readers may run the risk of devolving into a ‘social gospel’—the only Jesus glimpsed in these pages is truncated: reduced to a compassionate social guru and amicable friend of the trees. ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘flourishing’ areas so a-theologically defined that with whatever presumptions the reader approaches the book will remain essentially unchallenged. And while everything Smith argues ‘makes logical sense’; there is hardly any reason for this to be a particularly ‘Christian’ book. As case in point, read his final exhortation “Reading, reflecting, conversing, learning, working, binding together: these are the ways in which our communities—church, neighborhood and world—begin to mature and flourish. This interconnected life is the joyous and meaning-rich end for which were created. This is humanity fully alive!” (Page 143)… but is that the end? Is that humanity fully alive? What about the gospel, what about repentance and belief? Perhaps we really do need a ‘common grace’ book on social flourishing; but again, I would fear that Christians reading this book and then jumping into all the other recommended avenues for flourishing might forget Christ along the way; would lost sight of the suffering servant who is enthroned as king, deserving of all honor and glory, and soon returning to judge the living and the dead.

2.      The ideal Smith posits is exactly that: an ideal—a utopia. And while he uses his own church & community as an example, I question whether he’s been entirely honest: every ‘struggle’ has been on account of a third-party who ends up defeated. In other words: does Englewood (Smith’s church) have any difficulty in maintaining this vision, in inculcating these behaviors? Are there people who have left over this vision? How long did it take for this to become the church default? Has there ever been a bad book recommendation that spread through the congregation? Or is everything really as perfect as Smith says it is? On the one hand, that would be incredible! And amazing. On the other… it makes me doubt whether my church (or any church I’ve ever been part of) is made of the same moxy…. Utopia is far from where my congregation is. It’s hard enough to get people to read their Bibles. I suppose what I’m looking for is a FAQ, or a “When things don’t go like they’re supposed to” section.

As a postscript to this ‘honesty’ section, I might add that in one significant moment in the book, Smith brushes past an entire theological controversy without remorse. He paints the gender-authority debate as something that no real, thinking person would ever see as a viable discussion—it’s already been solved, case-closed. For someone who over and again emphasizes the value of seeing other perspectives, he dismisses the thoughtful work of many evangelical scholars out of hand. I’m certainly willing to consider that one or the other side is mistaken in their understanding of certain passages or in cultural affability, but I’m not willing to pretend that one side’s argument remains “long after the undergirding theories have lost legitimacy” (Page 36-37). That’s not an argument, that’s an unjustified a priori dismissal. It is unwise to use controversial issues as ‘obvious’ examples, better to just remove it.

I’ve been critical, but I don’t want to end the review sounding sour, having people believe I found this book entirely unprofitable. I didn’t: there were parts that were beneficial; most of it was encouraging, some of it was convicting; the annotated bibliography is worth the price of the book alone. But there were other benefits too. Personally, I’ve discovered three particular applications. I need to broaden my horizons. True, Smith reminds readers that not every church member should be the jack of all [reads], but I personally read enough that adding a new discipline into my schedule won’t diminish my overall ministry effectiveness; if anything it should improve it. Second, I need to consider attending my city council meetings, and be overall more involved in my neighborhood and city. Third, I need to consider interviewing my neighbors, perhaps beginning a neighborhood book detailing the history of individuals, maybe include and appendix of obituaries in the last 50 years. And fourth, I need to remember to slow down. Smith’s first chapter is dedicated to reading slowly. And I need to remember that even beyond reading slowly, change and worldview like the one Smith is espousing will take time. I was hoping for an end-of-the-month solution, but that’s not the way life works… God created our bodies to sleep 1/3 of the time, and to fill 90% of the other 2/3 will mundane things… I need to be more like Fangorn, or maybe even Galadriel fighting ‘the long defeat.’ (Though I suspect Smith’s eschatology sees not defeat but only victory.)

All that being said, I give this book 7/10 stars, reducing it 3/5 on such scales. It has good things to say, but it doesn’t say all the good things. Smith’s style is impeccable, and his word choice winsome and provocative—it’s clear that he has read countless books. And again the bibliography is incredibly valuable!

But for recommendations… who then?
My recommendations are too specific to know/state generally.

Maybe some pastors who need specific ideas to help the church become a reading church.

Maybe some people who don’t see the importance/benefit of reading, but are willing to give one book a shot. People who want to see the vast interconnectedness reading affords.

If, after reading this review, the book still interests you, this book might/might not be for you.

If, after reading this review, you don’t want to read the book because all your questions have been answered… this book is probably not for you.

If, after reading this review, you don’t want to read the book because you think it doesn’t pertain to you… this book is probably for you.

Thanks for reading, and may you go and read more… and may your community flourish because of it.

This review has been crosslisted on Amazon, NetGalley, Goodreads, and my blog.
I received an e-copy of this book from IVP through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.