Review of ‘Do We Not Bleed?’ by Daniel Taylor


do-we-not-bleedDaniel Taylor, Do We Not Bleed? (Eugene, OR: Slant, 2017).

I have a big problem with Daniel Taylor’s new “Jon Mote Mystery,” as the cover describes Do We Not Bleed? To wit: A book this good should have a sequel ready for me to take up once I’ve put this one down. Unfortunately, fans of Taylor’s (now) two novels about Jon and his sister Judy will just have to wait for (what I hope to be) a third novel in the not-too-distant future.

Do We Not Bleed? follows the events of Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, Taylor’s first book in this series. (Does a pair constitute a series?) Jon has begun to recover from the psychological wounds he was experiencing in the first book. He has become an employee at New Directions, a care facility for developmentally disabled and cognitively impaired persons at which his older sister Judy, who has Downs Syndrome, lives.

Most of the novel focuses on the ups and downs of living with the people Jon has come to call “Specials” (as opposed to “Normals”). He—that is Jon, in whose voice Daniel Taylor writes —humanizes his charges in a way that had me laughing and crying, empathizing with their plight, and gaining a new critical perspective on the way “Normals” think and talk about and act toward “Specials.” Hint: We “Normals,” who are far less normal and far more special than we often think, too often treat our fellow humans as problems to be solved rather than as “friends” to be loved and loved by. That is, in my opinion, the most critical insight of this wise, deeply humane book.

How badly we treat “Specials” becomes especially apparent when one of the New Directions residents is murdered, and one of Jon’s charges is blamed. Jon, Judy, and company know their friend is innocent, but the evidence seems stacked up against that person, at least stacked high enough to move them to a locked-facility for the criminally insane—though without trial. Resolving this case becomes Jon’s and Judy’s and friends’ mission. I’ll let you read Do We Not Bleed? to find out the result.

Daniel Taylor writes beautifully, his characters are interesting, he wears his humanity on his sleeve, and—like I said above—the only shame is that there isn’t already a sequel to this beautiful novel that I can begin reading today.

As a series reader, I encourage you to pick up Death Comes for the Deconstructionist before you read Do We Need Bleed? It’s an excellent novel on its own right, but it provides the background to this story. So, read it first!

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Transforming Discipleship’ by Greg Ogden


transforming-discipleshipGreg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

How well are Christians in America carrying out the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)? Not well, according to Greg Ogden. In the revised and expanded edition of Transforming Discipleship, he sets out to explain what went wrong with our discipleship efforts, why, and how to implement an effective church-based strategy for disciple-making. It’s a book pastors and other church leaders ought to read.

Ogden organizes his material into three parts. Part 1, “The Discipleship Deficit,” examines what went wrong and why. Part 2, “Doing the Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” looks to the Bible as a “method book,” focusing on Jesus’ and Paul’s respective models of discipleship. Part 3, “Multiplying Reproducing Discipleship Groups,” outlines how to implement a “microgroup” strategy for growing “self-initiating, reproducing disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Microgroups are groups of three or four people, “triads” and “quads” in Ogden’s words.)

According to Ogden, the basic problem with discipleship in America today is superficiality. Or, as the late John Stott put it, “growth without depth.” Lots of people bear the name “Christian,” but it’s not clear that they produce “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

Why? Ogden identifies eight “distractions” that mar our discipleship efforts:

  1. diversion of the church’s ministry from our primary calling to make disciples,
  2. discipling by means of standardized programs instead of personal relationships,
  3. reducing the Christian life to the future state instead of how we live now,
  4. promoting a two-tier understanding of the Christian life that makes discipleship for “super-Christians, not ordinary believers,”
  5. being unwilling to call people to become disciples,
  6. having a view of church as optional rather than as required,
  7. not articulating a clear pathway to spiritual maturity,
  8. and not having been discipled personally.

Ogden then contrasts the lack of discipleship in America with how both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul made disciples. Christian leaders typically turn to the Bible to identify what end their ministries should pursue, but Ogden effectively argues that the Bible also articulates the means by which we should pursue them. The Bible, in other words, is both a “message book” and a “method book.” While both Jesus and Paul ministered to groups of varying sizes, their most intensive efforts at making disciples focused on “invest[ing] in a few.”

Here’s how Ogden summarizes the matter:

Jesus intentionally called a few to multiply himself in them. He intended his ministry to become the ministry of the Twelve and be the means by which he extended himself to the world. To prepare the Twelve, Jesus followed a situational leadership model, adjusting his leadership style to the readiness of his followers. As Jesus adjusted his leadership to match the readiness of the disciples, he also changed styles to provoke them to the next level of growth. Jesus shifted his roles from living example to provocative teacher to supportive coach and finally to ultimate delegator. Though Paul’s language and images differed, his goal and process mirrored the model of his Lord.

So, how can pastors and Christian leaders implement Jesus’ model of making disciples in their churches’ own ministries? Ogden focuses on three words: relationship, multiplication, and transformation. “The necessary elements…,” he writes, “are to establish a relational disciple-making process that is rooted in a reproducible model (triads or quads) that brings together the transformative elements of life change.” If I could summarize Ogden’s proposal in my own words, I’d put it this way: Three or four people meeting weekly for a year to grow closer to Christ and to one another, using a curriculum that each member can in turn use with a new triad or quad the next year. This process is intensive, demanding and tailored to the circumstances of the individual members, but that is how Christ himself achieved His best results with His own disciples. If you don’t believe me, look at Jesus’ interactions with His inner circle of Peter, James, and John in the Gospels.

Using this model of disciple making doesn’t require that pastors and other church leaders ditch Sunday sermons, Christian education classes, or other forms of teaching. Both Jesus and Paul spoke to large crowds and smaller groups, after all. It does mean prioritizing microgroups, however, as Jesus’ and Paul’s preferred strategy of making disciples, as well as recognizing the limitations of large-crowd and smaller-group forms of teaching, which can be more informational than transformational.

Transforming Discipleship is a challenging read, though not because it is hard to understand. Rather, it is challenging because churches are tempted to implement one-size-fits-all discipleship programs that are easy for pastors to manage. (I speak from personal experience here.) The easy way is not always the best way, however. Sometimes, the best results require intensive effort on a smaller scale over a longer timeframe to achieve.

I encourage you to read Transforming Discipleship. The book combines passion for the Great Commission, keen biblical insight and helpful practical suggestions for implementing a microgroup strategy. Even if, in the end, you don’t implement the book’s discipleship strategy, it will help you work through the relevant issues—biblically and practically—so that you can better fulfill the Great Commission in your own ministry and that of the local church.

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth’ by Christopher J. H. Wright


how-to-preach-and-teach-the-otChristopher J. H. Wright, How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).

The Old Testament is the Bible Jesus Christ read and preached. It is also the Bible of His first followers. When Paul writes, for example, “the Holy Scriptures…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15), he has the Old Testament in mind. It is foundational to Christianity.

In too many American churches today, however, the Old Testament goes unread and unpreached. Why read the Old Testament, many seem to reason, when we’ve got the New Testament? Even when read and preached, however, the Old Testament is too often wrenched out of context, reduced to moralistic and legalistic applications, or mined for questionable prophetic significance.

Christopher J. H. Wright sets out to rectify this situation in How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth. He organizes the book’s material into two sections. The first, comprised of chapters 1–5, asks the question, “Why should we preach and teach from the Old Testament?” The second, comprised of chapters 6–15, asks the question, “How can we preach and teach from the Old Testament?” Wright’s answers to these questions are practical, grounded in sound biblical exegesis and solid evangelical theology, and attuned to both the ancient culture of the biblical writers and the contemporary culture of its readers.

Let me highlight two things that I found helpful as I read Wright’s book:

First, as a Christian minister, I read the Old Testament with confidence that it will help me both to better understand the person and work of Jesus Christ and to better proclaim Him to others. With good reason, I might add! Christ himself says, “these are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). Similarly, Luke describes Christ’s conversations with two disciples on the road to Emmaus this way: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). We’re supposed to find Christ in the Old Testament because He found himself there.

And yet, I’ve heard sermons about Christ from the Old Testament in which the preacher’s intention is good but their biblical interpretation is not. Chapter 3–5 help us find Christ in the Old Testament using sound hermeneutical principles. Chapter 3, “Understanding Jesus through the Old Testament,” examines the Old Testament to explain who Jesus thought He was and what He came to do. Chapter 4, “Don’t Just Give Me Jesus,” outlines five “dangers” to avoid when preaching Christ from the Old Testament: (1) ignoring the text’s original meaning, (2) proposing fanciful interpretations, (3) overlooking other things that God teaches in the Old Testament, (4) flattening the biblical story and removing the uniqueness of the Incarnation and (5) preaching the same message regardless of the text. (To me, this chapter alone was worth the price of the book.) Chapter 5, “Connecting with Christ,” shows how we can preach Christ from the Old Testament in a way that honors its original meaning.

A second thing I found helpful was Wright’s attention to literary genres. He organizes the book’s second section according to the literary genre of the Old Testament: narrative (chapters 6–8), law (chapter 9–10), prophecy (chapters 11–12), psalms (chapters 13–14), and wisdom literature (chapter 15). There are overlaps in these genres, of course. Law (Hebrew torah) includes stories, for example, and prophecy, psalms and proverbs all make use of poetry. Still, Wright’s discussion shows what’s distinct about these genres, why Christians should pay attention to them, and how attention to them changes the way we interpret and then preach them. (For more on the proper interpretation of the Bible’s literary genres, see Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, the first of a series of books of which Wright’s is the most recent.)

If you preach or teach the Bible at your local church, I encourage you to do two things: First, preach and teach regularly from the Old Testament. Second, read this book. It delivers on its promise of its title and is a helpful guide for seeing Christ in the Old Testament…and so much more!

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘The Evolution of the West’ by Nick Spencer


the-evolution-of-the-westThe idea that America is a Christian nation has a long, contested history. Believers can find evidence that confirms the thesis and unbelievers evidence that disconfirms it. The reality, in other words, is complex, and therefore our history writing should be nuanced.

I had America’s history in mind as I read Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West, which looks at how Christianity shaped the values of Western Europe and especially the United Kingdom in the course of its long history in those lands. Spencer opens the book with a nod toward New Atheists’ denial that Christianity formed the modern world in any meaningful sense but negation. In other words, modernity is the rejection of religion’s influence, not its effect. He then concedes that, going in the opposite direction, some Christians are prone to a simplistic affirmation of Christianity’s formative influence. “There is no end of cheap proof-texting that can show how the West owes everything to Christianity—or rather everything it currently holds dear.”

Spencer’s argument is that Christianity’s influence is real (against the New Atheists) but complex (against the proof-texting proponents of a Christian West). Using a theatrical metaphor, he writes: “Christianity has played a leading role in this show—indeed it has played the lead for much of the last 1,500 years—but the play has been no mere soliloquy, and the lead has had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the overall plotline.” The book’s twelve successive chapters then take up the complex story of Christianity’s influence over a variety of topics.

Rather than summarize the contents of each of the book’s chapters, let me highlight one chapter as an example of Spencer’s method throughout. Chapter 3 examines the influence of Christianity on the Magna Carta, which celebrated its eight-hundredth anniversary in 2014. Spencer highlights three principles embodied in the charter’s legal mandates: “due process,” “the arbitration of the king’s affairs,” and “the extension of liberties and rights…to those who did not occupy the top strata of English society.” He shows that, in each case, Christianity influenced the development of these practices “in the realm of ideas, of theology.”

“Magna Carta,” he writes, “was written after, and drew on, a century of ongoing development of (a theologically reflective and coherent) canon law. This was a great renewal and systematization of theological and legal thought (best embodied by a book by Gratian entitled Decretum, otherwise known as the Concordance of Discordant Canons). It provided intellectual foundations for key aspects of Magna Carta,” specifically, the three principles mentioned above.

Moreover, there were practical ways in which what Spencer calls “the fact of the Church” shaped the charter’s limitation of the king’s power. He writes, “Magna Carta and the legal culture in which it grew were profoundly shaped by the Church; not just by Christian beliefs but by an institution that was shaped (in theory) by those beliefs and protected itself fiercely from outward interference with them and it.” (The charter’s first clause states, “the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.”)

As I understand him, what Spencer is arguing is that the combination of the Church’s beliefs and its institutional freedom both inspired voluntary obedience to moral norms and put boundaries around the growth of the State. The latter curbed the expansion of state power through positive law, while the former produced a citizenry capable of acting justly without a need for detailed legislation. What worries him (and frankly me) seems to be whether the State can be limited in the absence of Christian belief and the Church as a strong institution.

“In the absence of those deep cultural norms,” Spencer writes, “those religious and social conventions, which were historically embedded in institutions, there is a temptation to turn to the law to settle all disputes. And if that law is somehow seen as extra-political”—that is, outside the scope of democratic adjudication—“…then not only is society weakened but so, ultimately, is democracy.”

Obviously, the emergence of this kind of Western political norm—i.e., the limitation of law—is not a simple or straightforward affair. It is, to use Spencer’s biological metaphor, an “evolution.” We think of evolution as a process of “unrepeatable randomness.” As Stephen Jay Gould famously wrote, “If you could rewind the tape of life, erasing what actually happened and let it run again, you’d get a different [result] each time.” In that understanding of evolution, the conjunction of Christianity and Western political norms is an accident of history.

There’s a different way to think of evolution, however, one that is less accidental and more teleological. It draws on paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris’ concept of “convergence,” which is “the recurrent tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same ‘solution’ to a particular need.” Spencer comments, “For all the randomness involved in the process, there are certain inherent invisible conditions and constraints and contours that shape it towards ends that, if not predictable, are certainly probable.” In other words, re-running Gould’s “tape of Western history, erasing what actually happened and letting it run again, we might, assuming the same deep Christian conditions and commitments, end up with a set of values that, while superficially different, bore a striking resemblance to those we recognize today.”

If that is the case, then Christianity’s influence on concepts and practices such as human dignity, rule of law, welfare, humanism, capitalism, science, human rights, nationhood, ethics, democracy, and even atheism and secularism represents the outworking of a deep cultural logic, not a happenstance of history. It’s not a straight-line development, as some Western Christians might want it, but it’s not the New Atheists’ nothing either.

And perhaps that is a model for how American Christians might think about the influence of their religion on their own nation. At least that’s the thought The Evolution of the West caused this American Christian to think.

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (London: SPCK, 2016).

Review of ‘The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History’ by Andrew F. Walls


the-cross-cultural-processWalls, Andrew F. 2002. The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a collection of essays, originally published independently, which Andrew F. Walls has organized into three parts. Part One consists of four studies of “recurrent themes of Christian history, and of Christian historiography, viewed intercontinentally.” Parts Two and Three consist of eleven studies of “the transmission and appropriation of the Christian faith” in “Africa” and “the modern missionary movement from the West,” respectively (p. ix). Because of the wide-ranging nature of the book’s interests, it is difficult to review it as a whole. So, instead, this review will focus on the themes in three chapters.

Chapter 1, “A History of the Expansion of Christianity Reconsidered,” reviews the contribution of Kenneth Scott Latourette’s magisterial, seven-volume history of missions of that title. Latourette famously described the history of Christianity’s expansion in “the spread of the influence of Jesus.” He went on to propose what Walls calls “a threefold means for measuring the influence of Christ” (p. 9).

Walls devotes the bulk of chapter 1 to outlining and giving theological depth to Latourette’s “threefold means.” He names them “The Church Test” (p. 10), “The Kingdom Test” (p. 13), and “The Gospel Test” (p. 18). “The first sign of the expansion of the influence of Christ is the presence of a community of people who willingly bear his name, an ‘Israel’ that maintains his worship. The other tests themselves presuppose this one…” (p. 10). The second test regards “the numbers and strength of new movements owing their origin to Jesus Christ,” which was Latourette’s means of testing “the depth of Christian expansion at any one time in any given area” (p. 14, emphasis in original). “Kingdom movements,” writes Walls, “call the church to repentance and to alertness to the presence of Christ within,” and are thus inclusive of “many movements of reformation, renewal, and revival” (p. 15). The third test pertains to “the effect of Christ on people and on cultures,” an effect that varies in different times and places because the “scope of the principalities and powers and their corrupting rule is immense” (pp. 18, 19). An obvious example of this is the difference between the guilt-innocence cultures and honor-shame cultures hear the gospel.

Chapter 3, “From Christendom to World Christianity,” highlights the serial nature of Christian expansion. In two paragraphs that repay careful attention, Walls writes:

…The Christian story is serial: its center moves from place to place. No one church or place or culture owns it. At different times, different peoples and places have become its heartlands, its chief representatives. Then the baton passes on to others. Christian progress is never final, never a set of gains to be plotted on the map. The rhetoric of some of our hymns, and many of our sermons, about the triumphant host streaming out to conquer the world is more Islamic than Christian [!]. Christian history reveals the faith often withering in its heartlands, in its centers of seeming strength and importance, to establish itself on or beyond its margins. It has vulnerability, a certain fragility, at its heart—the vulnerability of the cross, the fragility of the earthen vessel

In other words, cross-cultural diffusion has been necessary to Christianity. It has been its life’s blood, and without it the faith could not have survived. It does not, like so many of the religions of India, belong to a particular soil; nor does it, like Islam, produce a distinctive and immediately recognisable [sic] form of civilization. The missionary movement from the West, therefore, seen in the total history of Christianity, is one of a series of major cross-cultural diffusions…” (pp. 66–67).

To the extent that the book’s fifteen independent chapters have a unifying theme, this is it. Christianity expands on a serial basis through cross-cultural processes. One can never assume its triumph in history; one must always be incarnating the faith once delivered to new contexts.

Chapter 13, “The Multiple Conversions of Timothy Richard,” examines the missiological shifts made by Richard, a Welsh Baptist missionary to China, over the course of his tenure there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Walls makes two points: First, these shifts took place in response to changing conditions in China. Walls writes:

[Richard’s] multiple conversions—from conventional [British] evangelism to methods that took China seriously, to famine relief work, to prophet of structural reform, to theologian or religions, to worker for peace and champion of the submerged tenth—mark stages that marked the wider movement in different parts of the world and at different periods (p. 258).

Richard,’ experience, in other words, was “paradigmatic…of the instincts of the missionary movement at work.” These instincts were additive rather than subtractive, however, “never abandoning its original position [of evangelism] but clearing space around it in response to developing perspectives” (p. 258). In other words, a mission that began with the goal of saving souls had to, in response to changing circumstances, take cognizance of the physical, social, and ideological elements impinged on would-be converts’ lived experience. Only in this way could the fullness of Christ’s kingdom be experienced.

The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History is a rich, suggestive work that needs to be read several times to fully digest its significance. This review has highlighted three chapters only because they identify themes that recur throughout the work: the measurement of Christian influence, the serial nature of Christian expansion, and the increasing scope of missionary concern.

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Speaking of Homosexuality’ by Joe Dallas


SpeakingOf_Mech.inddJoe Dallas, Speaking of Homosexuality: Discussing the Issues with Kindness and Clarity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

The Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is true across a wide range of heterosexual behaviors, such as premarital sex, cohabitation and no-fault divorce. But Christians are rarely called out for their opposition to those behaviors. When it comes to homosexuality, however, the response is different. Christian opposition to homosexuality generally or same-sex marriage specifically provokes accusations of homophobia and hatred.

The Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage throughout the nation, further contributes to the marginalization of the Christian sexual ethic. Same-sex marriage is now understood as a fundamental civil right, and opposition to it is likened to support for segregation in the American South during the era of Jim Crow.

How should Christians speak of homosexuality in this adverse environment?

That’s the question my friend Joe Dallas seeks to answer in his new book, Speaking of Homosexuality. Until 1984, Joe was “a staff member with a pro-gay church, an openly gay man, and an activist, identifying as a gay Christian, arguing for the acceptance of homosexuality.” Then, however, his study of Scripture convinced him that he was in error. For the last thirty years, he has ministered to others, both gay and straight, helping them to develop a biblical perspective on human sexuality. He thus brings a unique personal perspective to bear on this controversial topic.

Joe frames much of the book as a conversation between “Traditionalists” and “Revisionists.” Traditionalists advocate the “traditional view of marriage and sexuality,” namely, that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, and that outside of marriage, a person should remain celibate. Revisionists advocate “revising our view of Scripture or of morality in general to condone homosexuality.”

The first three chapters of Speaking of Homosexuality provide a “contextual overview” of the debate between Traditionalists and Revisionists. Chapter 1 argues that “knowing the context of our conversation can help us anticipate problems, adjust our approach, and stay sensitive to the perceptions and feelings of others.” Joe points out that the often acrimonious conversations between the two groups typically revolve around “presumption, politics, and the personal” (emphasis in original). Both sides, that is to say, make assumptions about the other the side that renders them “guilty of stereotyping.” Consequently, “mistrust is a frequent companion” to such conversations.

Chapter 2 identifies three goals traditionalist Christians may have when speaking of homosexuality with others: “evangelizing an unbeliever, discipling a believer in error, or simply reasoning with someone about our different views.” These goals shape the content of those conversations in different ways.

Additionally, who your conversation partner is shapes the kind of conversation you have. Joe identifies five groups in particular: “militants, mainstream, millennials, Revisionists, and friends and family.” Too often, traditionalists lump all LGBT people and their allies into the militant category. Dallas thinks this is a mistake. Rather, “most…could be described as mainstream, fellow humans and citizens with whom we have more in common than differences. And, per Jesus, they’re our neighbors, whom we’re to love and serve.” That last sentence is key, as far as I’m concerned. Too often, Traditionalists approach those on the other side of this issue as enemies to be defeated rather than as neighbors to be loved. That’s not Jesus’ way of doing things.

Chapter 3 then outlines seven guidelines to follow when speaking of homosexuality:

  1. Speak clearly.
  2. Speak appropriately.
  3. Speak empathically.
  4. Concede what’s true.
  5. Consider what’s possible.
  6. Watch the apologies.
  7. Recognize and point out diversions.

I want to hone in on numbers 3 and 4, because this is where I think my fellow Traditionalists most often go wrong. We do not empathize with the “feelings” and “experiences” of LGBT people. Consequently, we are prone to speak “irresponsible, inaccurate, contemptuous words” at or about them. “Lots of Christians have said hateful things about gays,” Dallas writes. “Lots of Christians are more upset about homosexuality than they are about adultery or fornication, even though those are condemned in the Bible.” Both statements are true. There is no virtue in denying either of them.

If chapters 1–3 address the “context” of our conversations, chapters 4–13 address their “content.” Dallas examines the “origins of homosexuality” (chapter 4), whether “change” of orientation is possible (chapter 5), whether opposition to same-sex marriage is reasonable (chapter 6), whether moral disapproval of homosexuality in and of itself constitutes “homophobia” or “hate” (chapter 7), and in what sense a person can or cannot identify as a “gay Christian” (chapter 8). Dallas’ discussion of the issues in these chapters is nuanced, which is appropriate for the complex subjects they address.

Chapters 9–13 then take up the proper interpretation of the most commonly cited biblical passages disapproving of homosexuality: Genesis 19:1–11 (chapter 9); Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 (chapter 10); Romans 1:24–27 (chapter 12); 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:9–10 (chapter 13). Chapter 11 examines what significance Jesus’ “silence” about homosexuality has for the moral debate. Dallas’ treatment of these passages is brief but competent. Like him, I find it difficult to agree with Revisionist interpretation of these passages, for the reasons that he cites.

Indeed, in my opinion, it would be more intellectually honest for Revisionists to say that these passages are wrong or irrelevant than to say that they have been misinterpreted or misapplied. In other words, there is good reason why the Traditionalist position has been the default position of the Church for the last two millennia. It is because, as the children’s gospel song says, “the Bible tells me so.” If you’re familiar with the historical arc of the Revisionist position, it begins with “The Bible has been misinterpreted” and ends with “The Bible is wrong on this matter.” That is the arc of mainline Protestant thinking on this topic. My guess is that that is where evangelical Revisionists will land eventually as well. Disagreeing with the Bible is not a place where evangelicals should want to be.

Speaking of Homosexuality is a countercultural book. As I wrote at the outset, the Christian sexual ethic is out of step with the times. This is nothing new, however, since Christianity’s sexual ethic was out of step with the culture of its own time as well. The question, then as now, is with whom—or rather, Whom—we will walk in step going forward.

I’ll conclude this review with Joe Dallas’ closing words:

A steward is rewarded for faithfulness, not outcomes. We hope greater faithfulness means greater outcomes. But ‘other things’—such as God’s and the hearer’s will—come into play. And since those factors are out of our hands, we keep those hands on the plow, striving to improve our understanding, articulation, attitudes, and faithfulness to the standards we preach. Above all, we continue seeking deeper intimacy with the Master we serve.

Speaking of homosexuality is a small part of that life commission. Our more general commission is to speak of Jesus, His teachings, His invitation, His nature, and His soon coming. Any truth we can lovingly communicate to better prepare people for eternity, binding them to Him, is critical.

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review originally appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Review of ‘The First Thanksgiving’ by Robert Tracy McKenzie


images Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving and God and Learning from History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

This Thanksgiving, like millions of other Americans, I will sit down with family around a beautifully decorated table to eat a sumptuous feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. We will share stories of gratitude for God’s blessings throughout the year drawing to a close. And then we will watch football or—in my case, since I’m not a sports fan—take a long, postprandial nap.

What I will not do is think that our Thanksgiving celebration has anything to do with the Pilgrim’s “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. Not after reading Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving, which is equal parts a historical account of that feast and a theologically informed reflection on how Christians should (and should not) use the past. As he tells it, we don’t know much about the “first Thanksgiving” except that it probably didn’t occur in November, wasn’t eaten indoors, didn’t include turkey (but might’ve included turnip and eel), wasn’t a multicultural love fest (evidently, the Wampanoags just showed up, uninvited), and wouldn’t have been considered a day of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the first place. Moreover, the celebration of thanksgiving days was, for the first 220 years of American history, a New England phenomenon that wasn’t explicitly linked to the Pilgrim feast of 1621.

In short, most of what you think you know about the “first Thanksgiving” is bunk. But over the years, that bunk has been found to serve a variety of useful ends, underwriting Northern abolitionism, American individualism and religious freedom, and a providential reading of America’s Christian history, among other things. And that’s why the fiction continues to be promoted instead of the facts.

To think Christianly about the Pilgrims and their 1621 feast, we need to put these fictions aside and recognize the weakness of the historical accounts that promote them. And then we need to reflect on why we study this history anyway. “The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley once wrote; “they do things differently there.” That’s certainly the case with the Puritans and their Separatist brand of Protestant Christianity. Present-day Christians share the same faith, but they do not practice it in the same way. Both the similarities and the differences play a role in how we interpret and practice our religion.

For McKenzie, one of the key things that contemporary American Christians can learn from the Pilgrims is that “we are pilgrims too.” He writes: “to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies…American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ…We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of ‘survival, success, and salvation’ rests solely on our belong to Christ, not on our identity as Americans.”

Amen, and thank God!

Now, would someone please pass me another helping of mashed potatoes?

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. InterVarsity Press posted this funny little video about the “first Thanksgiving,” based on McKenzie’s reconstruction of it.