Counterfeit Gods (Book Review)

At this point, I can’t remember for certain the first time I came across the idea that idolatry is a sin still alive and well everywhere in the world.  Not just in developing or pagan countries.  Perhaps it was in seminary when I read in John Calvin’s Institutes that the human heart is an idol factory.  In other words, the heart’s main function is producing idols!  Really?  That sounds provocative, but for me it had the ring of truth.  Not just plausibility or possibility, but profoundly true.  And not just of my observations of others, but of my own heart too.  Indeed, it turns out that Calvin and other theologians of the Reformation era were on to something.  And since then many Christians have picked up on the insight and built up the thesis into a biblical theology of idolatry.  Author and pastor Tim Keller is one of them.  In his small book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (CG), Keller focuses on the “big three” (along with some attention paid to a fourth one: Success) with his trademark urbane and pastoral manner. (For a more comprehensive description of idol categories, see pp. 203-204 where the author defines various idolatries: theological, sexual, magic/ritual, political/economic, racial/national, relational, religious, philosophical, cultural, and “deep” motivational idols.)

Written in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, CG addresses the immediate context of suicides, financial ruin, sexual addiction and burnout that characterized the zeitgeist of American culture during that economic mega-crisis.  So many of the illustrations and examples address an era that is now a decade in the rear view mirror (mercifully and thankfully!).  However, like the super majority of non-fiction books published to address a cultural moment, CG manages to stay relevant as it deals with a universal human spiritual problem: idolatry.  Keller defines idolatry as “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give” (p. xvii).  Thus in his terminology, idols are counterfeit gods, which the author explains is “anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living” (p. xviii).

Some of you may be wondering what an ancient book like the Bible can possibly have to say to modern and postmodern people today about a very ancient problem.  Isn’t the Bible’s remedy for dealing with idols something akin to smashing statues of Baal or refusing to bow the emperor’s likeness?  Not so fast. Continue reading

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Eyes to See (Book Review)

According to literary historians, the literary genre of Short Story is an ancient form lost over the centuries but recovered in America. Since the short story renaissance of the 19th century, it has become celebrated and utilized worldwide.  The format of a short story, even more condensed than a novella, makes it ideal to read in one sitting.  Taking in the setting, characters, plot, and climax, all in the space of one reading session, makes for a roller-coaster narrative experience.  Sometimes the ride is contemplative.  Other times humorous.  Still others are shocking.  The best stories combine multiple aspects of the human experience into a memorable expression of a universal human theme.

Best-selling professor and novelist Bret Lott, editor of the short story collection Eyes to See (ETS), has arranged 10 stories, all by very different authors, under the theme of “enduring stories that challenge and inspire.”  Specifically, ETS is group of stories that deserve to be read, discussed, pondered, and remembered by all who appreciate viewing life from a Christian worldview.

Each of the stories in this volume is written by a master short story writer.  Some are classic authors with still-recognized names.  But Lott also introduces a few contemporary story tellers to those of us who don’t normally read literary magazines and journals.  Whatever the strength and talent that each contributor brings to the art of story, the reader who stops to think about what the story is saying to us will profit from the extra time invested than it takes to merely speed through a novel.

Below are my initial brief reflections on the stories in ETS.  Keep in mind there are a few spoilers in my notes, so if you hate that sort of thing, then first read the story before getting to my analysis1. Most of the stories are found in multiple places on the internet.  I hope you enjoy! Continue reading

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The Message of 1 Peter (Book Review)

It’s been my practice almost from the beginning of my “Bible Study Teacher” career.  Maybe I picked it up from the Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can?  In that flick, a young man goes on a fake check writing spree and manages to avoid capture for what seems like a couple years, all the while the FBI is hot on his tale.  But the protagonist thief stays on his toes with one eye over his shoulder to keep the free money streak alive.  At one point he cons his way into a job at Brigham Young University (I think) teaching history (?) to students who are his peers.  How does he keep up the façade of a knowledgeable academic?  In his own words, “I just stay one chapter ahead of the class!”

When I lead a Bible study, I have a habit of reading not only our assigned materials, but also some extra credit in the form of another commentary.  That way this seminary graduate, who is no scholar, can stay ahead of the class!  Last spring when I studied the biblical book of 1 Peter with my group, my supplemental reading was Edmund Clowney’s The Message of 1 Peter (MO1P) in the excellent series “The Bible Speaks Today.”  MO1P, first published in 1988, was one of the first NT books in that series  In the Bible study and commentary world, a 30 year old resource is almost always relegated to the bargain bin as having outlived its contemporary usefulness.  But this seminary graduate read a little Clowney back in the day—listened to a few of his sermons and lectures too.  So I knew MO1P could be a forgotten gem.  Turns out I was partly right. Continue reading

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1 Peter For You (Book Review)

I’m not sure why, but it appears that First Peter, the five-chapter epistle written by the apostle Peter to the church, has been one of the more neglected books of the New Testament.  There are not many good commentaries that have been published recently on this book.  And I don’t remember the last time I was in a church that preached a series on 1 Peter, or even a sermon on a single passage from the book.  What is the reason for this neglect?

Perhaps one answer is that 1 Peter deals with the subjects of Christian persecution and suffering—uncomfortable topics that have been easy to overlook for hundreds of years in the Global West.  I say “hundreds of years” because, even when Christians suffered persecution in recent centuries in Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America, it was more often at the hands of other people groups that also considered themselves Christians.  It’s been a long time since a pagan society had the upper hand over Christians in the West.

But that may be starting to change as secularism overtakes Christianity as the dominant “faith” in rising generations.  And when Christians and the Church begin losing cultural influence and power, to the point when they’re no longer the majority people group, then persecution is never far behind.  History and present day circumstances in non-Christian parts of the world clearly teach this is true.

Knowing our cultural moment, the Bible study group I led last spring decided to study the book of 1 Peter together.  Using the expositional study guide 1 Peter For You (1PFY) by Juan Sanchez proved to be a useful resource to facilitate discussion and deeper reflection at our weekly meetings.  The author is a Southern Baptist pastor with Reformed theological leanings, and is a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

1PFY, published by The Good Book Company, belongs to a wonderfully written series called “God’s Word For You.”  The series goal states “this is for you to READ, giving you joy on your journey; this is for you to FEED, helping you meditate on God’s Word day by day; this is for you to LEAD, equipping you to teach the Bible to others.”  Previously we read and studies a couple of books in this series by Tim Keller (Galatians For You, and Judges For You), and 1PFY aims for more of the same: to be Bible-centered, Christ-glorifying, relevantly applied, and easily readable.  All of these goals are met by the author, although not with the same level of insight and crisp prose as Tim Keller writes.  But hey, it’s no slight to Sanchez for not being Keller.

The book divides the book of 1 Peter into 11 chapters of study: Continue reading

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Like Father, Like Son

Have you ever heard someone make a seemingly over-the-top claim about himself? Some of you remember years ago the jolting way I began a sermon on James 2 by looking intently at you before blurting out, “I see dead people!” a la “Sixth Sense” style. I remember during my high school years in a charismatic church watching someone with a straight face give an extended prophecy peppered throughout with the words “Thus saith the Lord!” He wasn’t joking. And all I could think was, “Really? Wow, an old-school false prophet, right here in Manassas!”

When faced with controversial or challenging claims and actions, we are a people who demand justification and authentication. “Who do you think you are?” “What gives you the right to do that?” If these words don’t often pass our lips, they certainly are frequent thoughts. The Bible wisely advises we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to get angry. But when someone severely offends our sense of right and wrong, especially on our turf, who among us is not guilty of making snap judgments? If there is one person in all of history who offends like no other, he is Jesus Christ. How can we get passed our tendency to sit in judgment over Jesus without first hearing his own self-defense? A passage of the Bible in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel (John 5:16-29) helps us discover answers to these questions. Following the third miraculous sign Jesus gave to authenticate his identity as the Son of God, Jesus responds to accusations of lawlessness and blasphemy by explaining and defending his divine authority and power. Then he puts his accusers on trial. With your eternity at stake, do you believe or reject him? Continue reading

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Married For God (Book Review)

Years ago my wife and I were given some misleading marriage advice.  “If you want your marriage to survive, you need to have a weekly date night.  Hire a babysitter, go out for dinner, romance each other, and have a grant time.”  We were doing fine together, but we decided to try out the date night necessity thesis.  It wasn’t long before we figured out the weekly date night rule is overkill for us.  Besides, unless you’ve only got one child, who can afford that kind of date night?

And yet the advice wasn’t all bad.  Over the course of 17 years of marriage we have found it true that we need devoted “couple time”.  If for no other reason than to get a break from the kids and some quiet adult time.  One of the “dates” we’ve found that works for us is taking long, brisk walks.  That’s what we do when it’s not too cold outside and the sun is still up.  But when both of those conditions are not met, we’ve discovered another “date” that works well for us.  Reading out loud to each other.  My wife, being a busy mother and running a home-based business, has little time to pleasure read on her own.  She dreams of someday pursuing her passion and gift for counseling, and recognizes that gaining experience should be joined with education and training.  So together we’ve committed to read books that will help her as a lay counselor, and me as a pastor, to help others, better understand our own hearts, and strengthen our marriage.  One we recently finished reading and discussing is called Married For God: Making Your Marriage The Best It Can Be (MFG), by Christopher Ash.

This is by no means the first marriage book I’ve read.  Many books in the genre are self-help: how to improve your marriage by changing your spouse.  A few are scholarly works of psychology or sociology.  Those are interesting, but not exactly uplifting reading for date nights!  But there are a few that strike a balance between personally practical, relationally and socially insightful, and well-grounded in reality.  I call these types of marriage books “gospel-oriented” because marriage from a Christian perspective must deeply engage all three angles.  Most gospel-oriented marriage books include all of these angles but major on one.  MFG emphasizes the grounded in reality perspective.  As such it functions as a sort of primer on the basic questions surrounding the divine and human institution of marriage. Continue reading

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Disciple Making

I bet I can name one thing that will trigger a flurry of mental gymnastics.  The mere mention of this one thing is enough to launch your brain into overdrive excuse-making mode.  What is this dreaded thing?  The sign-up sheet!  “Here’s a sign-up sheet for all the ways we need your time, effort, and resources ASAP.  Since we know our need is the most important thing in your life, we feel we’re doing you a favor compelling you to sign our sign-up sheet.”  By now I’m sure you’ve got at least 7 air-tight reasons why, “just this time,” you regrettably can’t sign our sign-up sheet.  Or maybe you’re eager to sign-up, whatever it is!

Everyone has their reasons for being eager or skeptical regarding whether to follow Jesus. At root of our reasons is the assumption that we are in charge of our lives, what decisions we make, and who we choose to follow. We hold this assumption because it protects us and keeps us in control. Or so we believe. But what if it is actually the other way around? What if Jesus is the one in charge of our lives? What if, instead of you gathering your preferred teachers and role models to build your “best life now” according to your plan and schedule, what if Jesus is the one gathering disciples by calling people to follow him? If this is what Jesus does, then wouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable to expect surprises, challenges, spiritual insights, even a complete reorientation of priorities and direction in your life? The Bible’s account (found in John 1:35-51) of how Jesus built his Church by calling the first disciples to follow him reveals a pattern primarily driven by an invitation to “come and see.” Those who stay with Jesus will learn doctrine about him and powerfully encounter him. Come and see, then become a disciple-making disciple. Continue reading

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