A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 1 (Book Review)

phmw1My interest in history is bookended by a couple of academic experiences—one negative and the other positive.  Actually I am mostly a private reading enthusiast as the number of post-high school history courses I’ve taken for credit can be counted on one hand.  Two in college and two in seminary.  My first course was a dreadful experience.  The first semester of my freshman year, I had an eight o’clock class that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It’s entirely possible that I would have slept through a class on “How to Get a Girlfriend” at that awful sunup hour.  So the class I really did take, “Medieval European History,” didn’t have much of a chance of gaining my attention (or attendance, ahem, if I’m honest).  The professor was a stereotypical bore.  Rather than put in the effort to win his students with engaging content, he dug in his heels against the “koofers” (Virginia Tech lingo for old exam copies) everyone knew were floating around out there by taking the esoteric minutiae route.  So for three months history became to me a list of popes and kings, mixed in with lots of dates for minor military battles.  Experience?  Negative.

My last history class was a seminary course on the second half of church history—from the Protestant Reformation to the end of the nineteenth century.  Rather than focusing on memorizing a bunch of dates and names, the professor deftly seasoned his lectures with stories of the heroes, villains, and everyday people of Christian history.  He helped me put the names and dates in an exciting narrative context.  Experience?  Positive.

These two experiences frame my theory of how history is best taught and learned.  Any book on history that aims to situate important persons, places, wars, and dates in a story has my respect.  Some authors do this better than others.  It’s a delicate balance.  Tell too many stories and you risk not covering enough ground.  Try to cover too much ground and you may run out of space to tell enough stories.  Larry Schweikart and David Dougherty, authors of A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 1 (PHMW1), attempt to tell the story of the world from 1898 to 1945 from a distinctly American point of view.  They cover a lot of ground in 424 pages, so much that I think they slightly err on the side of too many details.  There are enough stories to keep the book moving, but perhaps not enough dialogue to make the stories compellingly personable.  Too bad because their “just the facts” approach, which includes occasional value judgments (what telling of history doesn’t?), is refreshingly straightforward.  Thus PHMW1 is a sufficient introduction to the significant persons and events of the time.

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Generous Justice (Book Review)

generous-justiceChristians with a social conscience.  The idea wasn’t supposed to be so controversial.  But it seems whenever you combine the notions of justice with the gospel, the antennae go up for critics of the social gospel.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a proponent of the social gospel.  It is a false gospel as much as it replaces the absolute necessity of personal conversion and sharing the good news of Jesus’ death on the cross to reconcile sinners to himself.  But the social gospel appears a plausible alternative to the traditional message of the gospel because it’s not hard to find a myriad of passages in the Bible that emphasize the justice of God.  This idea of biblical social justice is actually all over the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  Historically, Christians of all traditions, including conservative Protestants, have stressed the need for God’s people to advocate and work toward a more just society for all—particular for those who suffer various forms of injustice.  But with the resulting bifurcation of Christendom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (particularly in the Global West), the trend has been for the theological liberals to dominate in social concerns.  Yes, theological conservatives have adopted certain social problems that were largely ignored (such as abortion)—transforming them into culture war issues, but too often Christians who emphasize personal salvation through Christ have turned a blind eye to the systemic difficulties that so many face.  The widow, the orphan, the sojourner, and the poor have not been helped holistically.  What the Church has needed for a long time is a move of the Spirit to stir the consciences of God’s people to feel God’s concern for the downtrodden.

In Tim Keller’s small book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (GJ), the author describes his own personal experience of having his spiritual eyes opened to the great need for the Church and for Christians serving in the public square to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  Keller’s treatise amounts to a compelling case for three kinds of people to consider:

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The Bread of Life

jesus-bread-life2There once was a young man named Deon. Like many people, Deon felt a profound emptiness inside that was intolerable, and so Deon set out to fill his void. First, he searched for happiness in money, so he got a job. Having extra cash made him happy for a while, but then he began to hate his job and found himself paying co-workers to cover his shifts. Money was failing to bring him happiness, so next he tried pursuing fun. And so he partied and made friends and it was fun…for a while until it felt boring. Fun wasn’t satisfying him, and so he decided to try relationships, hoping that dating women would be the missing ingredient. But as each lady inevitably failed to give him that feeling of fullness, he came up with some reason to blame her, and wandered from one dissatisfying relationship to another. As he continued his quest for a happy life, Deon tried to the fill the hole with drugs, fame, and other pleasures that in the end cast him off and left him feeling lost. Deon says it was much later when he finally discovered why people and things did not fill his hole. He learned his hole was a spiritual problem that requires a spiritual solution to fill.  Deon is a real person, but he is also you and me. He is Adam, Israel, Solomon, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, John Newton, C.S. Lewis, and every prodigal son who has known the empty pursuit of happiness.

We are so easily enticed by things that cannot ultimately satisfy. Some people are so jaded with life that even promises of spiritual nourishment seem doubtful. A hungry man is almost beyond hope when he begins to doubt the very existence of food. On the other hand, some are still wide-eyed enough in their optimism to believe the next “if I just.” If I just practice this spiritual discipline then I’ll be nourished. If I just pursue this adventurous experience, then I’ll be filled full. If I just accomplish this lofty goal, then I’ll be satisfied. Psychologists know that human beings need hope to survive, to carry on living. If you are not to lose hope, you have to believe there must be something that will satisfy your deep spiritual hunger. To use the language of the Bible, there must be bread out there that gives life!

In John chapter 6 we are introduced to this bread that gives life.  In the middle of the chapter (John 6:35-40) it says that Jesus, who is the spiritual food that satisfies the deepest hunger, will bring about his Father’s will to give eternal resurrection life to all whom the Father gives to him. Of these Jesus will never lose or cast out any who comes to him by faith. Come and feast on the Bread of Life!

In order to get a feel for the context and get a enough background information to profitably consider this passage, it’s necessary to back up a little to the beginning of this episode in the ministry of Jesus–back to the start of John 6.  Here we read how Jesus fed at least 5000 people in a remote location starting with only a few loaves of bread. The next day the multitude ran after Jesus looking for another miraculous sign. They weren’t satisfied with yesterday’s manna and wanted more of the same. Jesus seized the teaching moment by pointing to what they needed most of all—spiritual satisfaction in him.

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Billy Graham (Book Review)

billy-grahamWhen a person lives the kind of life that elicits multiple published biographies, sometimes only one of them ends up widely read.  And when such a person lives to be over 90 years old, sometimes that a person fades in the world’s collective memory.  Such I believe is the lot God has granted to Billy Graham.  There is now an entire generation—literally billions of people across the globe!—who have never heard (maybe never heard of) Billy Graham preach.  What a terrible shame considering millions testify to his electrifying spiritual power in proclaiming the gospel to the world, one city at a time.  I remember a televised broadcast of a Billy Graham crusade when I was in college back in the mid-1990s.  Even then, I noticed young people would stop and listen to Graham the elder statesman of the gospel.  But I wonder if those who came of age shortly thereafter can look back to such an experience.  Because when Graham was an active crusader for Jesus, it was common for every family to have a story about how they first heard him preach.  In my own family, we share of the time my grandfather saw Graham on television in the early 1950s when his star status in American evangelicalism was first rising.  “That man is going to be great!” my Granddad prophesied.  And shortly thereafter God made him great.  And my family never forgot it.

Graham’s greatness played out over a decades-long career.  Just like other men of such acclaim, his character and message were not without enemies.  But no one could deny his massive influence on innumerable souls, on the worldwide church (especially Protestant Christianity), and on world politics (especially the US Presidency).  It is on these three domains that award-winning journalist David Aikman focuses in his very readable biography, Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (BG).  As a former senior correspondent for Time magazine and author of numerous published books and articles, Aikman is eminently qualified as a professional to analyze and narrate Graham’s life.  As a friendly acquaintance who was invited into Graham’s home to personally know the evangelist, he is qualified by his proximity to accurately and intimately record Graham’s story.  And as a Protestant evangelical Christian, he is spiritually qualified to understand Graham’s heart from an insider’s perspective.  Thus Aikman’s biography of Graham is perhaps the best book to introduce the hugely important historical figure that is Billy Graham.

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Holy Orders

timothyLots of people today believe Christianity is of no practical good. Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, quipped, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.” With a jaundiced eye, it might appear the only folks profiting from religion are the ones drawing a paycheck from it. But what if the uninterested and unimpressed saw something different: professing Christians, even whole church communities, obeying holy orders that actually transform all of life (beliefs, ethics, and spirituality)? Perhaps they would see a gospel-integrated model of what the world really needs. Christians need such vision too because our spiritual lives are often fragmented, inconsistent, contradictory, hypocritical—sometimes just one crisis away from falling apart.

The Apostle Paul’s charge to a young pastor (1 Tim 6:11-16) speaks volumes on these things. In this passage we learn that God, the supreme life-giver and all-powerful one, commands his people to obey their holy orders without fault or failure: that we run from moral evil and toward godliness, stand for the truth of the gospel until Christ’s appearing, and lay hold of the eternal life that we confess.

Holy Orders: Who Are They For?

For all elders (vv. 11-12)

Remember the apostle Paul is giving advice to Timothy on pastoring well. Timothy is a young elder (not a contradiction!) who needs authoritative instruction on how to faithfully fulfill his calling to shepherd the church under his care. Paul reminds him of the holy orders God calls elders to obey. We call this collection of letters written to Timothy and Titus the Pastoral Epistles because they are primarily addressed to men who pastor the church. Notice that Paul names Timothy a “man of God” in contrast to the false teachers of the previous passage. “Man of God” is a highly honorable OT title referring to a leader of God’s people (Moses, Samuel, David, and Elijah among others). Its usage across the whole Bible refers to a man speaking on behalf of God, bringing God’s message to God’s people. In this sense elders who preach and teach God’s Word are “men of God” exercising some of the same duties as the OT prophets, declaring, explaining, and applying God’s Word to others.

For all Christians

But holy orders are not merely for elders. Countless Bible passages exhort all Christians to live the same way (cf. Rom 12; Eph 6:10-18; 1 Pet 1:13-25). Think about it this way. Men who are called to be pastors and elders are ordained from the pool of believers in the church. They show themselves good examples of how all Christians are called to believe, live, and feel. Timothy and other elders must live according to their holy orders not to be a substitute for other Christians (for Jesus alone is our substitute), but to be an example for other Christians. So non-elders are not off the hook! Any Christian who is thoroughly equipped by Scripture for every good work is a “man of God” (2 Tim 3:17).  Holy orders are for all Christians—men and women, old and young. Continue reading

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Blue Like Jazz (Book Review)

blue-like-jazzSo I finally got around to reading Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (BLJ).  I wouldn’t say it’s a contemporary classic, but a lot of people have read it and liked it.  It was a book that sort of went viral with the young and “connected” crowd when “going viral” was still a bad disease.  Not too often does a book, particularly a Christian memoir, get a movie deal.  But that was BLJ.  Sort of a cultural moment for Millennials.

Since the book has been praised and critiqued ad nauseum, I think it best now to reflect on the positives and negatives of the book and its effect on culture.  So here goes.

BLJ is a beautiful example of pop art.  It’s not high art, but it doesn’t try to be.  The author, Donald Miller, just wants to tell his story as a single guy: coming of age and coming to a tested Christian faith through the struggles of college life and beyond.  The way he tells it, his upbringing was formative but unsatisfying in terms of the political and cultural conservatism of his evangelical (fundamentalist?) faith.  When Miller grew up he was considered weird simply because he questioned his subculture’s unwritten rules.  And then he went to college and his world expanded with all the wonderful people he met who happened to be different from him.  Different values, different speech, different beliefs, different habits.  This is not interesting in itself because it’s thoroughly common.  But one reason Miller’s story is a great read is because of which school he chose to attend.  Reed College is famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) for unrestrained radical liberalism.  There is something oddly hilarious about an evangelical finding his way in the den of iniquity!  Miller gets this, and his narrative wrings so many laughs out of several bizarre yet lovely experiences.  With Miller’s perspective sufficiently changed, the rest of the book weaves together seemingly disparate stories with introspection, transparency, and insight into the human soul.  This is probably the best thing about the book.  Miller is adept and refreshingly honest about discerning what God teaches him through the episodes of his life—both victories and defeats.  The “moral of the story” at the end of each episode is always clear and served up with words that make Jesus attractive to both believer and unbeliever.

It’s been about a month since I finished the book, and it turns out the things I remember best are the stories and the poignant impressions they left on my heart.  Not the content of those lessons, mind you, just the way they made me feel.  In this sense BLJ is an affirming and cathartic read, which is an odd combination for any book.  This might explain its curious level of success.

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Our Time Has Come


I pity the foo!

We’re at the end of our series from the OT called Encounters With God. This message is a bit different because it points toward the kind of encounter with God you and I can actually expect to have. The paradigm for encountering God in the NT era is in this passage, so Haggai 1 serves as a fitting end to this series. In the OT God led his people in a relationship of growing maturity. And I pray he has led us along the same path as we encounter him in his fullness through the Holy Spirit uniting us to God in the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve discovered that Haggai is incredibly relevant to Christians. It shows us one reason why our desire to encounter God is so often frustrated.

It’s so easy to build our private little kingdoms and to justify our neglect of God’s big kingdom. Why do we do this, especially when our little kingdoms prove dissatisfying? How can you escape this terrible rut when we are all more or less at fault? How can you stand if we tend to fall together?  God knows our hearts and the situations we collectively inhabit, so he is able to properly challenge us to consider our ways when we fall out of his favor and then feel life’s frustrations. God calls us and stirs us through his powerful word to return to him in reverent obedience. No more excuses. Our time has come.

The short book of Haggai is near the end of the OT. It narrates the prophet’s ministry to the remnant of Jews who returned to their homeland after being exiled in Babylon for 70 years. The civic and religious leaders, and all the people, have been rebuilding their nation’s infrastructure and neighborhoods, but the temple still lies in ruins after an aborted effort to repair it 20 years prior.

The Excuse Uncovered

God knows your situations (v. 1)

On 8/29/520 BC God spoke. It was the first of the month in the Jewish calendar—the day of the new moon festival in Jerusalem and thus a day of public worship. Trumpets blared. The priests offered the people’s sacrifices. The crops were mostly harvested. Godly leaders presided over the people. It was a time for all to rest from their labors and celebrate. But the time was not as happy as it appeared, and God knew it. So the Lord spoke through his prophet Haggai to governor Zerubbabel and high priest Joshua in order to confront the big problem that no one was seriously discussing anymore.

God knows your excuses (v. 2)

The source of the problem was the broken-down temple. But the big problem was that no one wanted to do anything about it. Everyone wanted in theory a rebuilt and functioning temple, but no one considered this a serious problem anymore. They had accepted their situation as normal, and they made excuses for their apathy. They told themselves the time was not yet right to start working. And they had probably convinced themselves this was true for a number of reasons. (1) The last time they tried rebuilding, opponents killed the project. (2) Wasn’t the coming Davidic king supposed to rebuild the temple? It was really God’s project—that’s what Ezekiel said (Ezek 37:24-28). (3) It had only been 66 years since the Babylonians tore down the temple. Didn’t Jeremiah say their exile would be 70 years (Jer 25:11)? God knew all their excuses, and he wasn’t buying any of them.

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