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Book Notes: @ivpress’s “Joy in the Journey”

A tabernacle not made with hands

From IVP:

Steve Hayner was serving as president of Columbia Seminary and was healthy and fit when he found out he had terminal pancreatic cancer. He and his wife, Sharol, embarked on a journey together with their children that soon included tens of thousands of visits from friends and acquaintances via the CaringBridge website. The overwhelming response to their posts on this website attested to the surprising and engaging way that they chose to live in the face of death.

As a result they uncovered the remarkable truth that God, our good Shepherd, provides a feast for us when we are in the valley of the shadow of death as well as in the green pastures.

Steve was always known for signing letters and emails, “joyfully.” These pages, including reflections from some of those closest to Steve and Sharol, offer us a hope-filled glimpse into what it means to walk with God in honesty, with joy, even through great pain.

You can read more about the decision to publish the book here. My brief notes on the book are as follows:

One would think it would be a difficult read — to gaze upon the literary history of a dying man’s life’s end. Perhaps it is for some people. For me, as I read through the foreword, through the thoughts of Steve and Sharol Hayner… from more of Steve to only Sharol, I get the sense not of a tragedy, but of a sorrow of coming to know someone’s abundance only at the last minute. Many readers may already know the Hayners. I did not. In many ways, I still do not, but in reading Steve’s final story, there is something of an intimacy shared only by those who die completely self-aware. It is difficult to grasp, perhaps because my humanity reacts to the ending of another, but it is powerfully present.

Inconsolable grief
Inconsolable grief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many books devoted to exploring grief theologically. Thomas Long’s “Accompany Them with Singing” comes to mind. There are books seeking to lift the person out of grief and into a better worldview. But there are few books exposing the rawness of events leading up to grief. “Joy in the Journey” is one of them — one of the few. You get a keen sense of Steve and Sharol’s final months and days and hours and how Sharol reacted to the immediate after effects. And in some ways, you start to feel the apprehension, somewhere in the middle, of what is already known to have happened.

“Joy in the Journey” covers about 6 months of Caringbridge journal entries by both Steve and Sharol. They are short, poignant devotionals by those experiencing a sudden attack of a terminal illness. They include his and her updates about what most of us keep hidden — the ultimate sign of our human frailty. There are a few sidebar contributions as well that are short, pointed, statements expressing what some of us may hide in ourselves. I want to recommend the book to anyone facing grief, to small groups that lead blue services, and to those who simply need to know that even in the darkness there is a light to be had.

Book Notes: The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons

Note, Book Notes is an abbreviated Book Review.

Christian education, liberal arts, and the humanities are all considered, usually, a dead field. Indeed, the concept of a whole person, much less a holy person, does not fit into the spectrum of higher education any longer, finding a whole person replaced with a better cog. Yes, there are some higher education institutions practicing certain ideological viewpoints, such as the Reformed (as the editor and several contributors point out), but what about the Pietist view? Does the Pietist theological tradition, underpinning whole denominations and contributing significantly to many of the Wesleyan ones, have such a vision and if so, what is it? This is the aim of Christopher Gehrz’s anthology, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education.

Gehrz easily separates the Pietist from the Reformed vision as one separates the mind (correct doctrine, i.e., Reformed) from the heart (transformation, i.e., Pietist) (p12). Perhaps this may rankle some Reformed Christians, but this separation is not new to Gehrz, and is quite familiar to Wesleyans (of which I am a part). This is the point of the book, to take the heart and mind and from there create a holy whole person. A historian who is a Christian. A Christian who is a scientist. The pietist view focuses on intellectualism, but does not forget the transformation of the heart.

Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705) known as the ...
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705) known as the “Father of Pietism”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to focus on one essay, “Pietism and the Practice of Civil Discourse,” (123–33) written by Christian T. Collins Winn (PhD, Drew University). After recounting what has now become a familiar modern parable of the Civility Project, Winn addresses the interconnection between Pietism and civility. He begins with Philipp Jakob Spener who, in 1675, called for civility in the answering of others, namely Christians. This immediately won him the scorn of friends and foes alike. It is not that the argument, or conflict, that is to be avoided, only that one has a commitment to real dialogue, focusing on the topic rather than on the person. This means a practice of listening in good faith. One listens to listen, not to simply counter. Spener also included humility and love in discerning what civility looked like as well as a hopeful commitment to God’s peace. How does higher education fit into this? Because higher education should require “formal and informal interaction via a variety of actors” with those things that challenge us. Winn then presents several workable solutions as to how Christian institutions of higher learning can aid in forming the whole person to discourse civility.

If you separate Christian institutions of higher learning into four different streams, you get a pretty good idea of why the Pietist is often thought not to have a particular viewpoint. When one thinks of a Reformed college, or a Catholic school, or even a pentecostal university, immediately images spring to mind. But what about a liberal arts college founded by Pietists (or Wesleyans)? What usually springs to mind is a school remaining Christian in history only. But, these contributors aim to change that and to show why a Pietist vision of Christian higher education goes further than secular preparation, but has in its goal a personal transformation serving but the Church and the world. Overall, a book deserved to be read by deans and professors, secular and sectarian.

Review of John Stott’s “Balanced Christianity”

Introduction

When books on the issue used by Stott to name this book were on demand many of them were written and all proposed to bring back to balance polarized issues within Christian Evangelical thinking. The approach was often the explanation that “balance” is not in the “happy middle” but that balance was in placing two volumes of the same weight on both sides of the old fashion scale so the fulcrum would be in the center indicating balance. Unfortunately most of these books would do exactly what they said they wouldn’t do. Depending upon the theological tendencies of its writer, what they called balance was nothing more that “don’t ask, don’t say it”, that is, “don’t bring up your polarized issues and I won’t bring mine and let’s call this balance.” The avoidance of that which was apparently irresolvable was then, named “balance”. In the end, the very thing these authors called “not real balance”, that is, “happy medium” was exactly what they were intentionally trying to lead their readers to accept as balance. He starts by bringing up the old adage “In essentials Unity, in non-essentials Liberty; in all things Charity”. Again, many other writers use this, what is now, aphorism to suggest that we should find a point of agreement and be mum about any other that would be a disagreement.

In this book Stott makes a great case for genuine balance using unique approach to the issue of Balanced Christianity. There is no overt advice in avoiding issues, there is no suggestion that one should be intellectually lazy simply by abandoning difficult issues, and he positively offers an outlook of how we can balance our views within our Christian faith without compromising our convictions.

As a translator, I seek terms that can be deemed emotional to identify how strongly an author feels about the issue with which he is dealing. Stott uses terms such as “greatest weakness,” “devil’s pastime” and “devil’s hobby” to indicate clearly what he feels about imbalanced Christianity. Keeping these two emotions (my assessment) in mind a reader can greatly benefit from this book and kindly forgive the author for points of disagreement.

Theme

For full disclosure, I am a Calvinist. Perhaps because I learned that if “A” is diametrically contrary to “B,” then “A” cannot “B” and cannot be reconciled with “B.” As such I tend to look upon “balance” as an elevation for the word compromise. As the author lays out his plan to explain it is theme readers can ponder on terms that are easily observable in Christian gatherings and not some far-fetched concept. Terms such as “emotion” and “intellect” are not after all such a lofty concept that no one needs heavy thinking exercises to know what they are about and how evident they are in Christian circles today. As Mark Labberton hints at, “although this book has been written for a different time, his words are still poignant and provocative.”

On the very first topic of his theme, Stott presents what he calls the “first polarization,” namely Intellect and emotions. Here is an excellent topic and perhaps the most visible of all if one has traveled across the denominational spectrum. Stott points to the appellative aspect of some evangelistic efforts and also the tendency of elevating emotional experiences to an “emperor” which people enthrone. It is remarkable how Stott perfectly makes the point that “rationality is part of our divine image in which God has created us; that he made us rational beings and gave us a rational revelation” (15) and to deny rationality is to deny our humanity. This is a very key point in Stott’s approach to the issue; by a little examination we can find that idea underlining his entire approach.

The chapter “Intellect and Emotions” is very rich indeed! Some of the sentences in it could be reason for debate, for consideration in our pulpits, but above all for us to “internalize” them and made them part of our Christian thinking. An example of that is when Stott affirms the non-existent conflict between faith and reason when he authoritatively asserts: “Scripture never sets faith and reason over against each other as incompatible!” You can say that again Brother Stott! Obviously being such a Biblical scholar, Stott provides ample biblical evidence to support his point and quotes John Wesley. This chapter, if read by a Bible student and a Christian History student, will lead one to remember the famous phrase attributed in an “out of context sort of way” to Martin Luther: “Reason is the devil’s whore.” Stott makes a case for being reasonable and using our minds (reasoning) to reach and increase faith. If he would stop this book here, in the middle of page 16, we would have learned a great deal and would have material to ponder for a long time. The issue of “emotion” as worldliness is also courageously dealt with in this chapter!

“Conservative and Radicals” is the chapter where Stott uses to contrast the extremes of those who want to preserve the status quo (as they see it) and the “rebellious people” who want to change everything that is inherited and inherent to the past. Often you can see Stott’s emotion again against certain radicals who “reverence no sacred cows.” As a reviewer, I had the impression that he prefers the conservative mode, which is indicated by his notion that although Christ was himself sometimes conservative and sometimes radical, in theology the “conservative” side prevails when it comes to Christ and the preservation of sound doctrine. This chapter is remarkably current! Contrary to other problems mentioned in the book, this is a real issue today and probably more serious than it was yesterday or even is olden days! Today we notice schisms not only in the theological field, but also how we should conduct our services, how the “singing” should be, what kind of musical instruments should be allowed and even the layout of the church building itself. This chapter is tremendously useful for one to see how these extremes, conservatism and radicalism, are harmful to the Church today and how they can be valuable in the fulfillment of the Church’s calling if we are able to balance them. This chapter is the one that more identifies, in my view, the idea of “Balanced Christianity”.

The chapter on Evangelism and Social Action does bring interesting points about the beliefs of the “Jesus People.” Things more related to the problems of the identity of certain Christian groups more akin to the 1970’s perhaps will raise the historian’s interest but probably will bore the reader who seeks answers on balanced Christianity as it solves the current problems facing the Church today, a day where the issue of Evangelism and Social Action has been simply defined by the sharp turn to the political left some churches have turned and their separation from the so called “evangelical Churches.” I did not find any clue that could help to reunite both sides in this chapter. It will, however, be of great benefit to the reader to pay close attention to his comments on the World Council of Churches “Salvation Today” document, which in its preparatory stages, defined salvation as “almost entirely social economical and in political terms.” I am not reviewing the aforementioned document, but I am reviewing how Stott proposes that Christianity should balance the issue between Evangelism and Social Action. I think most of what he says falls short of a proposition of balancing those two extremes by making reference to how the World of Council of Churches sees the problem. I think the book is richer in options and propositions in the previous chapters.

The book concludes with an interview with Stott that is presented as a “special” feature of the book. There are questions on the issue of poverty, implications with the role of the Church in social action, but nothing absolutely extraordinary in my view.

Conclusion

It is worth reading. It is a short book; it can be read in a commute, in one cozy evening and it is a pleasant reading. Consider that some of the specific problems may not be the same as today but generically the book is valuable in dealing with imbalances regardless of the day. Notwithstanding if one is reading this book as a “user manual” (which the book is not, but can be made into) to balance Christianity in his own Church or denomination, they have a great resource here and I hope that they will be able to see that in its pages.

Who can benefit to reading this book?

Pastors of all sizes of congregations, but specifically those that have a diverse economical and intellectual membership; Bible students and Church Historians can use this book as a reference of actual situations that occurred during the 70’s in various locations of the non-Roman Catholic Christian Churches.

Not exactly a review of @IVPress’s Read Up, vol 1

#readup #yolo

I have begged, pleaded, and stalked members of IVP staff to create study/discussion group materials for some of their books. Finally, after years of worry, and a few judicial restrangement orders, some blue thing I got from her, they have brought to substance my ethereal hope.

In this volume, they have included recently published favorites (such as In Search of Deep Faith) and favorites from a few years ago (such as The Language of Science and Faith). In total, they have included over 30 books to discuss! I have lead small group discussions before and having this resource will come in handy for developing a good conversation.

In reading the discussion questions, I am reminded of how readers should be taught to digest that which is before them. These are not simple “feeling” questions, but questions aimed at making use of the material presented in the chapters. Further, these questions are not aimed at insuring you can simply regurgitate the material, but they attempt to help you apply and to think critically through the material. In the picture below, notice question 3.

20140228-090206.jpg

Question 3 is not asking you to repeat the answer the authors give, but asking you to think about the subject matter. What is your answer? And that, I believe, is the goal of these discussions groups  — how to take the material presents and think through it.

This book is important to you if,

  • you are a small group leader using one of these books,
  • thinking about starting a small group study on one of these books; or,
  • have read one of these books and what to have a great internal dialogue

A fantastic and timely resource!

(Mini) Review: Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama @ivpress

Some years ago, I walked into the First Presbyterian Church of Logan, West Virginia as a near-rabid fundamentalist. Everything was black and white and King James 1611. I was there to meet with the pastor to secure his help in a worker’s rights campaign. When I left, I had his signature on the petition, but in a rather unusual manner, I also had a book recommendation that has remained with me ever since. The pastor knew Kenneth Bailey and recommended to me his book on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Eventually I would get the book and my eyes would be opened to the world under the words on the page.

Included in that book, The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern (2005, IVP-Academic), was a short skit that really brought the academic statements Bailey had made in the book to a demonstrable light. This book, Open Hearts in Bethlehem: A Christmas Drama, rather a play with a longer introduction, reintroduces me to the artistic side of the academic Kenneth Bailey.

The book is rather small, but includes an introduction, notes on the cast and music, and of course, the play itself. It is a wonderful, short, drama about the birth of Jesus. Why another play? As the book description implies, there are often mistranslations and poor understandings that make it into our traditions. I am not saying this a bad thing, but to see a new understanding of the Christian story is to see it almost afresh. It helps to pinpoint those areas we simply miss because of our patina of tradition. Simply, it is a beautiful play from a wonderful academic, preserving the magic and majesty of Christianity while helping to clear away the cobwebs of previous plays.

I highly recommend this and hope you warmly receive it.