Review of ‘God Loves Sex’ by Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III


God-Loves-Sex Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, God Loves Sex: An Honest Conversation about Sexual Desire and Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

God Loves Sex is two books in one.

The first is a theologically and psychologically informed exposition of the Song of Songs. Eschewing centuries of allegorical interpretation, Allender and Longman argue that the Song is “a collection of related erotic love poems that emphasizes the goodness of sex.” They work their way through the Song topically rather than sequentially, highlighting what the Song says about desire, beauty, sexual play, the struggle for intimacy, and the glory of sex. The authors situate the Song’s celebration of sex within the broader biblical teaching regarding the sanctity of marriage. And in a concluding chapter, they note how the Song’s “poems help us understand God’s love of pleasure and play, his commitment to remain faithful to us even when we are adulterous, and finally that he loves to see human beings flourish and grow in fruitfulness and joy.” Thus, even as they eschew an allegorical interpretation of the Song, they find spiritual meaning within it.

The second book in God Loves Sex is the fictional story of Malcolm, a young single man and recent convert to Christianity who joins a small group that is studying the Song of Songs in a fashion similar to Allender and Longman’s exposition of it. Malcolm relates his story through journal entries that the authors place before and after each chapter of exposition. The spiritual journey he relates is one of deepening Christian commitment that goes hand in hand with his journey from sexual brokenness to wholeness. Some readers might be shocked by Malcolm’s references to extramarital sex and drug use, not to mention the use of alcohol by Christians in the small group. These things happen both before and after Malcolm becomes a Christian, though overall there is a clear trend line toward chastity and sobriety. As an ordained Pentecostal minister, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some churches deciding against to use God Loves Sex because of references to these practices, especially by churches that emphasize God’s instantaneous deliverance of people from sinful habits and teach total abstention from alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, some readers might see in Malcolm’s story a realistic portrayal of their own struggles and find, as Malcolm does, that Scripture—especially the Song of Songs—teaches a better, more truly life-giving way to think about and pursue sexual intimacy.

What I most appreciate about God Loves Sex is the authors’ attempt to open up “an honest conversation about sexual desire and holiness,” in the words of the book’s subtitle. Christians teach the sinfulness of sex outside of marriage. But too often, this “no” to sin leaves little room for a “yes” to sex inside of marriage—and not just the sexual act itself, but all the desires, emotions, conversations, and actions that surround the act, making it even more enjoyable, and contributing to the happiness and wellbeing of a husband and wife. There is more to sex than sex, in other words, precisely because that is the way God made men and women.

If so, then sexual desire and holiness cannot be separated in the life of believers. God Loves Sex—both the exposition and the fictional story—show what an integrated sexual holiness might look like. And how such holy sexuality always points beyond itself to the God who created us as sexual beings.

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

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Review of ‘From Every Tribe and Nation’ by Mark A. Noll


From-Every-Tribe-and-NationMark A. Noll, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Mark A. Noll is a leading historian of American Christianity, an evangelical Christian, and a prolific author. From Every Tribe and Nation is a memoir of his evolution as a historian, with a particular focus on his growing belief that “full attention to the non-Western world had become essential for any responsible grasp of the history of Christianity.” Like all of Noll’s writings, its thoughts are lucid and graciously expressed, a tribute to Noll’s capacious mind and generous spirit.

As I read Noll’s memoir, I kept asking myself who should read this book. It has relevance to both historians and missiologists, but it is not a work of history or missiology. It is not an academic book per se, but it is not pitched at a popular audience either. It is—from a marketing standpoint—something of a strange beast.

And yet, for those who have eyes to see, let them read this book. Noll has written two books on the relationship between Christian faith and the life of the mind: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. In these books, he has explored why American evangelicals have not adequately appreciated the value of the life of the mind (and its counterpart in academic vocations) and how Christian faith actually supports that life. Those familiar with Noll’s published research are cognizant of the caliber of his scholarship. What From Every Tribe and Nation does is reveal the intellectual qualities of the scholar who produced them.

Scholarship cannot be reduced to biography, but it cannot be separated from it either. Noll grew up in a missions-minded Baptist home, was attracted to Reformed Christianity in his college years, and has come to appreciate the diverse global expressions of faith in Jesus Christ. Surely this outlook—rooted in a particular ecclesiological tradition but curious about and hospitable to other expressions of the faith—is one worth imitating, whatever your vocation.

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

Review of ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues,’ edited by Jonathan V. Last


The-Seven-Deadly-Virtues Jonathan V. Last, ed., The Seven Deadly Virtues: 18 Conservative Writers on Why the Virtuous Life Is Funny as Hell (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

It is a vice to judge a book by its cover, but one that I’ll indulge in this instance. The book’s title and subtitle mislead. Its authors essay sixteen virtues, not seven (and none deadly), and while they do so hilariously, the funniness of the virtuous life is not the point of their essays. That said, The Seven Deadly Virtues is an insightful book, humorously written, and well worth reading.

The book divides into two sections. The first examines the traditional virtues, seven in number and divisible by two: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance are the cardinal virtues; faith, hope, and charity are the Christian virtues. The second looks into everyday virtues: chastity, simplicity, thrift, honesty, fellowship, forbearance, integrity, curiosity, and perseverance.

In the Introduction, Jonathan V. Last defines virtues as “the internal qualities that allow us to be our best selves and enable us to lead complete and fulfilling lives.” He warns against “extremism in the pursuit of virtue,” saying instead that virtue is “additive.” “No single virtue is sufficient in and of itself, and each one, taken on its own is corruptible. Yet each virtue becomes more valuable with the addition of others. And for any single virtue to be brought to its full bloom, it must be surrounded by its sisters.”

Picking favorites among the individual essays is difficult. How do you choose between P. J. O’Rourke and Christopher Buckley? Rob Long and Matt Labash? Andrew Ferguson and Jonah Goldberg? You don’t. You read, laugh, and learn.

Instead of picking a favorite, let me highlight Sonny Bunch, a younger, not-as-well-known author whose chapter, “Forbearance: Opting Out of the Politicized Life,” seems particularly apt for the politicized times in which we live.

The politicized life is “the growing, pernicious trend in American society where politics are injected into every moment of one’s existence.” For example, if you eat (or don’t) at Chick-Fil-A because you love (or hate) Truett Cathy’s support of traditional marriage rather than because of its delicious chicken sandwiches (not to mention peach shakes!), then you’re leading a politicized life.

Unfortunately, the Internet exacerbates the viciousness—in both senses—of politicization. “In real life,” Bunch points out, “you forbear those around you because you never know who thinks what, and forbearance makes it easier for the whole neighborhood to get along. There is diversity of thought, in part because no one really cares what the guy who lives next door thinks about marginal tax rates. But in virtual life, everyone in the self-selected group pretty much thinks the same way thing, about everything. And the occasional deviations become opportunities to enforce the communal norms, to show how super [serious] we all are about the righteousness of whichever cause binds the community together.” This politicized viciousness makes appearances on the social media of both the left and the right of the political spectrum, as both my Right and Left friends will quickly attest. (It’s easier to spot the lack of forbearance in those who differ from you online than in those who agree with you.)

Forbearance doesn’t mean avoiding politics, of course. (Avoidance isn’t possible, even apart from the ubiquity of social media, for the simple reason that politics is how we organize our common life, and you cannot avoid your neighbors.) Bunch writes: “there’s nothing wrong with standing up for your beliefs and attempting to persuade those with whom you disagree. But,” he goes on, “there’s a difference between having polite, rational discussions and declaring those with opposing views to be the enemy and, therefore, worthy of destruction, infamy, and impoverishment.” So, “the next time a Two Minutes Hate ramps up,” Bunch advises, “step away from your computer and get a cup of coffee. You’ll be a better person. And you’ll feel better too.” Yes, and amen!

If what Bunch has written resonates with the better angels of your nature, my guess is that you’ll both profit from and enjoy reading The Seven Deadly Virtues. Though written by conservatives (but not only for conservatives), the book contains insights that are widely applicable because appropriately wise.

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

The 151st Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address


20130527-075212.jpgOn this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Union cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s brief remarks followed the hours-long oration of Edward Everett, which has largely been forgotten. The Chicago Times editorialized embarrassment at Lincoln’s speech, but Everett himself felt that Lincoln had said more in two minutes than he had said in two hours. In less than 300 words, Lincoln surveyed America’s past founding and its then-present civil war, ending with the hope that its future would be characterized by a “new birth of freedom.”

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here’s an excerpt from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary that focuses on the address:

Review of ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls Today’ by James C. VanderKam


The-Dead-Sea-Scrolls-Today James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). Paperback / Kindle

One of the greatest—if not the greatest—archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century was the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls opened new windows onto the world of Second Temple Judaism, especially the theology and practices of the Essene community. Unfortunately, they also spawned an entire industry of conspiracy thinking and pseudo-scholarship that distorts popular understanding of the scrolls even to the present day.

The great merit of James C. VanderKam’s The Dead Sea Scrolls Today is that it lays out an intellectually responsible view of the scrolls in lucid prose for an informed, popular audience. Successive chapters describe the finding of the scrolls, the variety of manuscripts discovered, why the Qumran community was Essene, the theology and practice of the Qumran community, and the relationship of the scrolls to the Old Testament and the New Testament. A final chapter outlines the major controversies about the publication of the scrolls, providing a non-conspiratorial explanation for the delay in publication of some of them. Throughout, VanderKam’s presentation of the material is fair-minded and its organization logical and easy to follow.

If you know nothing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, I highly recommend starting with this book. It is an indispensable introduction to a topic that has great significance, not only for Jews and Christians, but also for anyone fascinated by the history of the ancient world.

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

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