Review of ‘You Are What You Love’ by James K. A. Smith


YouAreWhatYouLove350This review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016).

You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith is a small book with large ambitions. It aims to reshape the way evangelical Christians understand discipleship, replacing their emphasis on thought with an emphasis on desire. Rather than saying, “You are what you think,” Smith urges Christians to say, “You are what you love.”

For Smith, this reshaping of discipleship is not something new, but something old. Both the Bible and the pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition taught that “the center of the human person is located not in the intellect but in the heart.” For example, consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:19: “out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” Or consider Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Jesus’ words reveal that the heart orients us toward evil thoughts and evil deeds. Change the heart, and the thoughts and actions will follow. Augustine’s words remind us that our heart is oriented toward a telos, an end or goal, a vision of human flourishing. Because God made the heart, only the heart that seeks His telos—the kingdom—finds rest. Every other kingdom leaves our hearts weary and restless.

The problem is, how do you disciple the heart? How do you properly form human desire? Through practice, which develops habits. A cousin of mine likes to say that practice makes permanent. That’s as true for playing the piano as for developing moral character. What we do repeatedly shapes who we are.

According to Smith, the practices that shape our hearts can be called “liturgies,” a churchy term for the order of worship. Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.” There is a liturgy, then, that develops a good heart for the true God. There are also liturgies that develop bad hearts for false gods such as consumerism. Smith urges us to take a “liturgical audit” of our lives to make sure our practice is oriented toward the proper telos, God and His kingdom, not some lesser goal.

Smith uses the term liturgies expansively. In the final three chapters of the book, he uses it to describe Christian practices in the home, at school, and in one’s vocation. The heart of his book concerns the worship practices of the gathered church, however. It is here that the Christian heart is most formed. Smith states that his book “articulates a spirituality for culture-makers, showing…why discipleship needs to be centered in and fueled by our immersion in the body of Christ. Worship is the ‘imagination station’ that incubates our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavors are indexed toward God and his kingdom.”

For him, worship is about “formation” more than “expression.” It is God himself meeting us to shape us into the kind of people who do His will, not just an outpouring of our sincere feelings about Him. (Pentecostals might be tagged as “expressivists” because of their exuberant services, but it seems to me that their theology of spiritual gifts aligns with the notion that God is the agent of worship, not just its audience.) Seen this way, and mindful that practice is repetitious, Smith urges Christians to hew closely to the traditional “narrative arc” of worship—which consists of gathering, listening, communing, and sending—and to eschew “novelty.” (He’s not talking about the “worship wars,” by the way. This has to do with the structure of the worship service, not the style of its music.) That liturgy “character-izes” us, meaning, it shows us that we are “characters” in God’s story and then forms the appropriate “character” in us.

Interestingly, Smith argues that Christian cultural innovators need to be rooted in Christian liturgical tradition: “the innovative, restorative work of culture-making needs to be primed by those liturgical traditions that orient our imagination to kingdom come. In order to foster a Christian imagination, we don’t need to invent; we need to remember. We cannot hope to re-create the world if we are constantly reinventing “church,” because we will reinvent ourselves right out of the Story. Liturgical tradition is the platform for imaginative innovation.”

I hope I have accurately and adequately communicated the gist of You Are What You Love. It is a thoughtful, thought-provoking book that I would encourage pastors, church leaders, and interested laypeople to read. Having said that, though, I want to make two “yes, but” points.

First, yes desire, but also thought. In other words, I agree with Smith that the heart is the heart of discipleship. This is a point on which evangelicals should unite, whether they are heirs to Jonathan (“religious affections”) Edwards or John (“heart strangely warmed”) Wesley. I am concerned, however, that Smith has swung the pendulum too far toward a discipleship of desire in order to compensate for the tendency in evangelicalism to swing the pendulum too far toward a discipleship of thought. This is, admittedly, an impressionistic critique. Smith is a philosopher and theologian in the Reformed tradition, after all, and the Reformed are known to be punctilious about doctrine. Still, I would’ve liked to see more on the discipleship of the mind in the book.

Second, yes process, but also crisis. A process-orientation in discipleship focuses, as Smith does, on the development of spiritual habits. A crisis-orientation focuses on the necessity of decision. The characteristic forms of process-oriented discipleship are stable liturgies, the sacraments, and spiritual disciplines. The characteristic form of crisis-oriented discipleship, at least among evangelicals, is the altar call. As a Pentecostal, I would also add the call to come forward for Spirit-baptism or healing. There is little place for crisis in Smith’s book. Perhaps this is an overreaction to the crisis-orientation of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, which often leave little room for process. Still, it seems to me that both are necessary to discipleship. Wesley was no slouch when it came to process. His followers weren’t called “Methodists” for nothing, after all. But he still stood outside the mines and called miners to repentance and faith. I didn’t see that in Smith’s book.

These two “yes, buts” notwithstanding, I intend to re-read and meditate further on Smith’s book. As a Pentecostal, I disagree with certain aspects of Smith’s Reformed liturgical heritage (infant baptism, for example), even as I am challenged by the overall thrust of the book. The heart is the heart of the matter. Any discipleship that fails to take that truth into account fails to achieve its aim.

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

 

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Review of ‘Windows into the Bible’ by Marc Turnage


Windows_350This review first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com.

Marc Turnage, Windows into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights from the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2016).

“The past is a foreign country,” wrote British novelist L. P. Hartley; “they do things differently there.” We modern Bible readers would do well to keep Hartley’s dictum in mind. Why? Because the question, “What did the Bible mean?” takes precedence over the question, “What does the Bible mean for me?” We cannot correctly apply biblical wisdom to our lives until we understand what the Bible said in its original context.

Windows into the Bible by Marc Turnage looks at the Bible’s original meaning through four “windows”: spatial, historical, cultural, and spiritual. Turnage is not systematic and exhaustive in his treatment of these issues. In other words, he does not offer a complete introduction to the spatial, historical, cultural, and spiritual world of the Bible. Rather, he is episodic and illustrative. After introducing the four “windows” concept, he provides 28 examples of how these ways of looking at the Bible should shape (and in some cases reshape) our understanding of it.

Let me offer three examples.

Chapter 1, “The Land Between,” describes the geography of ancient Israel. Turnage writes: “[Israel] functioned as a strategic land bridge connecting the continents of Asia and Africa.” It was a crucial trade route between these areas, but it was also the battleground of the dominant empires of those areas, Mesopotamia and Egypt. “Because of its strategic location, the land of Israel never existed in isolation” from the nations surrounding them. Or existed in peace. Unlike Mesopotamia and Egypt, Israel also had no major river to supply water for consumption and irrigation of farmlands. (If you’ve ever seen the Jordan, you know what I mean.) It depended heavily on rain. It was in this “classroom” that God taught Israel obedience to and faith in himself.

Chapter 7, “Armageddon: The Mountain of the Assembly,” argues that Armageddon (Revelation 16:16) is Jerusalem, not Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley. I have taken several tours of the Holy Land with Turnage, and this is always an argument that catches other Christian tourists off guard. “Doesn’t Armageddon mean ‘the mountain of Megiddo’ in Hebrew?” they ask. By way of an answer, Turnage points to two “principal issues”:

(1) The biblical site of Megiddo…ceased to be inhabited in the fourth century BC. By the end of the first century AD, when John composed [Revelation], the site…was unknown. (2) Jewish apocalyptic speculation never placed the topographical location of the end-of-days battle in the vicinity of the biblical site of Megiddo; rather, the eschatological (end-of-days) battle took place in the environs of the ‘beloved city’ (Rev. 20:9, Rev. 11:2)—Jerusalem.

What, then, does Armageddon mean? It can’t mean “the mountain of Megiddo,” since Megiddo is a tel, not a mountain. Instead, it seems to be the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew phrase, har mo’ed, “mountain of assembly.” This phrase appears in Isaiah 14:13, which describes the intention of the king of Babylon “to ascend the mountain of God, seating himself in God’s stead at the end of days.” Revelation 16 describes the battle between God and “the kings from the East” (i.e., Babylon), who are pretenders to His throne. Turnage uses this Hebrew phrase, har mo’ed, to open a window onto the eschatological beliefs of Jews in the days of Jesus. It’s fascinating stuff.

A final example: In chapter 9, “The Pharisees and the New Testament,” Turnage writes: “the negative stereotype given to the Pharisees affects how Christians read and understand them in the Gospels and Acts. At the least, this produces poor and faulty interpretation of the biblical text, but more problematically, it continues to foster Christian anti-Jewish attitudes that penetrate preaching and teaching.”

Now, there is no doubt that Jesus criticized the Pharisees, sometimes in harsh terms (e.g., the “woes” of Matthew 23:1–36). Turnage doesn’t downplay that element of Jesus’ teaching. But he places it in historical context: “when read within the context of contemporary Judaism, we find the same anti-Pharisaic polemic within rabbinic literature, which reflect the world and beliefs of the Pharisees.” In other words, Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees was similar to the Pharisees’ critique of misguided souls in their own movement. “While Jesus probably was not a member of the party of the Pharisees, His faith and piety expressed itself within the broader stream of Pharisaism.”

This “broader stream” explains certain under-emphasized facts about the Pharisees in the Gospels. For one thing, Jesus began the “woes” of Matthew 23 with a recommendation of their teaching: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything that they tell you” (vv. 2–3a). It is their personal hypocrisy He criticizes: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (v. 3b). For another thing, they warned Him against Herod Antipas (Luke 13:31). Furthermore, Turnage argues that a close reading of the Gospel accounts indicates that it was the Sadducees in the Sanhedrin who sought to execute Jesus, not the Pharisees (e.g., Mark 15:1). Indeed, the men who buried Jesus, were Pharisees: Joseph of Arimathea probably and Nicodemus certainly (John 19:38–42, cf. 3:1). (By the way, Jewish sources identify Nicodemus as Naqdimon ben Guryon.) Pharisees appear in Acts on four occasions: 5:34, 15:5, 23:6–9, and 26:5. They defend believers on two occasions (5:34, 23:6–9), in the latter case because of the two groups’ common believe in resurrection. The other two occasions indicate that Pharisees had become believers in Jesus (15:5, 26:5). These positive connections between Jesus’ followers and Pharisees in the Gospels and Acts refute simplistic denunciations of the Pharisees. The reality is more complex.

In a work of this size and scope, readers will no doubt find points of detail where they disagree with the author or are challenged by him. I certainly did. In those cases, it’s helpful to remember that the Bible is infallible but its commentators aren’t. What Windows in the Bible forces readers like me to examine is whether on these detailed points of disagreement, our disagreements with the author are based on sound biblical study or just on interpretive traditions. Turnage challenges a number of traditional interpretations, to be sure, but he’s always driving us back to the sacred text in its original context. That’s a good thing, right?

One final note: Marc Turnage is director of the Center for Holy Lands Studies of the Assemblies of God. If you want to understand the Bible, reading this book is helpful. Traveling to Israel with CHLS is even better.

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

Review of ‘The Myth of the Non-Christian’


Myth_of_the_Non-Christian_350_coverLuke Cawley, The Myth of the Non-Christian: Engaging Atheists, Nominal Christians, and the Spiritual But Not Religious (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

Have you ever purchased a baseball cap labeled, “One Size Fits All”? I have. Inevitably, it’s too big for my son’s head but too small for mine. One size doesn’t fit all.

One size doesn’t fit all in outreach to non-Christians either. Unfortunately, our evangelistic programs and apologetics arguments often act as if they do. Based on long experience in campus ministry, Luke Cawley recognizes the need for what he calls “contextual apologetics”: the “art of formulating appropriate and diverse ways of sharing Jesus, based on a thorough understanding of those with whom we are interacting.” (Cawley doesn’t draw a sharp line between evangelism and apologetics but considers them overlapping activities.)

This concern for contextual apologetics explains why Cawley opposes the use of the term non-Christian. “There’s no such thing as a non-Christian,” he writes in the book’s opening sentence. By this, he doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Rather, he’s poking a hole in the way Christians categorize “non-Christians” in one-size-fits-all terms. “‘Non-Christian’ is a category so broad it is obsolete,” he writes. Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, nominal Christians, and the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd are very different from one another, after all.

Moreover, he goes on, “It’s not even something people call themselves.” In other words, the vast majority of people outside the Christian faith identify themselves in terms of what they do believe, not in terms of what they don’t believe. To effectively engage them with God for the gospel, we need to take into account what they believe, how they act, what makes them tick. This requires that we be flexible in our outreach to them. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

That said, Cawley identifies three broad characteristics of effective contextual apologetics: plausibility, desirability, and tangibility. Plausibility addresses the question, “Is it true?” and relies on “words and arguments.” Desirability addresses the question, “Is it attractive?” and relies on a “focus on Jesus” (whom everyone seems to find an attractive figure). Plausibility addresses the question, “Is it real?” and relies on “form, setting, and relationship.”

Though these three characteristics can be distinguished, they usually work together. One kind of question may rise to the fore, but the other kinds of questions still lurk in the background. Knowing this, the wise evangelist knows how to speak to a person in the place where they actually are (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, etc.).

With these broad characteristics in mind, the bulk of The Myth of the Non-Christian examines three kinds of people common in the post-Christian West: spiritual but not religious, atheists, and nominal Christians. For each group, Cawley outlines “stories” that help readers understand the particular contexts of these three groups, “questions” that members of each group typically raise, and “practices” that seem to help move people in these contexts closer to Jesus.

And at the end of the day, Jesus is what contextual apologetics is all about. Cawley urges the importance of “arguing from Jesus” and “arguing toward Jesus.” The former “involves, in conversations and in talks, highlighting how Jesus and/or the Easter event might be relevant to the question in hand.” (Notice that “arguing” does not mean “shouting at” or “offering a syllogism.” Rather, Cawley means something like “engaging in face-to-face dialogue.”) Arguing toward Jesus means “highlighting how the discussion can only be resolved through a fresh investigation of him. Jesus is the endpoint of the argument.”

This doesn’t mean that contextual apologists can skip their homework, by the way. Throughout the book, Cawley emphasizes the importance of research into atheism, science, psychology, other religions, spirituality, history, and the like. To establish plausibility, we must be able to demonstrate that Christianity, properly understood, is intellectually credible. On the other hand, keeping Jesus as the argument’s endpoint reminds us that our conversations serve an overarching spiritual purpose—to move people closer to God, who has revealed himself through Christ.

I recommend The Myth of the Non-Christian to any Christian interested in evangelism and apologetics. As a vocational minister, however, I would especially recommend it to other vocational ministers and church leaders. It will help us understand the challenges in reaching post-Christian Westerners for Christ as well as best practices for doing so.

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

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

Review of ‘Man, Myth, Messiah: Answering History’s Greatest Question’ by Rice Broocks


Man_Myth_Messiah_350_coverRice Broocks, Man, Myth, Messiah: Answering History’s Greatest Question (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2016).

“Who do you say I am?”

According to Rice Broocks, this question—which Jesus Christ asked His disciples (Matthew 16:15)—is “history’s greatest question” (emphasis in original). It can be answered in one of three ways. Jesus is man, myth, or Messiah. “The goal of this book,” Broocks writes, “is to build confidence in the reader that Jesus Christ was not only a real person but that He was the promised Messiah (Savior) and the Son of God.”

To achieve this goal, Broocks must do more than cite chapter and verse of Scripture, although that is important, of course. Rather, he must show why the traditional interpretation of Scripture—that Jesus is the divine Messiah—is the most reasonable one. This involves making arguments about, among other things, the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, the trustworthiness of the New Testament witnesses to Him, the falseness of comparisons of Jesus to mythical figures, and the reality of miracles.

Broocks’s treatment of these arguments is introductory in nature. Readers who want to examine these arguments in greater depth would do well to examine the works Broocks cites in the endnotes. Still, Man, Myth, Messiah provides an accurate sketch of those arguments, which the endnote citations fill out in greater detail. The book is thus a good conversation starter and a reliable work of apologetics. It also constantly and seamlessly moves the reader from argument to commitment. In other words, it is apologetics in the service of evangelism. Broocks writes:

This question [i.e., who is Jesus?] underscores a key reality when it comes to a relationship with God: there is more to faith than just believing a correct version of history. While the death and resurrection of Jesus are events that can be judged historically, what still remains is an invitation into a relationship that requires a step of faith (trust).

Because of the book’s introductory character, I would recommend Man, Myth, Messiah to spiritual inquirers and/or new converts, as well as to pastors and other Christian leaders for use with those groups.

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

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

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