The Stories We Tell (Book Review)

stories-we-tellPeople love stories.  Radio shows and podcasts that feature original storytelling remain popular year after year.  The industries of television and movies have tremendously evolved over decades.  We don’t ever seem to get bored of them.  Well, maybe.  But not enough to tune out completely.  We just change the channel or surf a little deeper into the Netflix catalog foraging for a good story to entertain us.  Did you ever wonder why people love stories?  I used to think a good sermon was a theological exposition that distilled doctrinal truth from the less important story form in which the Bible passage was originally packaged.  But then I noticed that people remembered the sermon illustrations—the stories—best.  I found this even true of me.  Story is a way to make sense and remember truth.  It just might be the best way.  That just seems to be the way God made us.

In his book, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (SWT), Mike Cosper contends that all our TV and movie watching is not just a waste of time.  And it doesn’t have to be an escape from real life.  If we contemplate the themes and underlying assumptions of what we’re watching, we may discover that many of those well-written, well-acted, and well-produced shows that draw us in are giving us glimpses of foundational truths woven into the fabric of creation.  Even Honey Boo Boo has something to offer!  (At least that’s what Cosper says.)

SWT is simply a great book, and quite fun to read.  There is something for everyone here—I dare say even for the cultural elitist who shuns the popular storytelling of the boob tube and the silver screen.  Cosper begins by explaining why we tell stories.  He makes the case that, from a Christian perspective, because we are created in the image of God, we can’t help but see life as a story because God is weaving a Grand Narrative in history of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-creation.  Since we live in his world, it is only natural for us to see our lives as reflecting (in whole or part) certain aspects of history’s big story.  We long to see how the individual stories of our lives fit into the larger narrative.  For this reason the stories we tell are pregnant with meaning as they compare, contrast, and image the big story.

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Fool’s Talk (Book Review)

fools-talkI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems to be harder to talk to our friends and neighbors about the Bible, Christianity, and the gospel.  In one sense it has always been hard to talk about spiritual things because it’s uncomfortable and risks the relationship to some degree.  But that’s not what I mean.  Nowadays, in our late modern and even post-modern society, it’s harder to have such conversations because Christians can no longer assume we share common assumptions with unbelievers.  The world is a big place, and there are lots of ways to look at things.  Many of those viewpoints (worldviews) have made their way into our culture and have been absorbed by all kinds of people.  No one, even Christians, are immune to being unwittingly shaped and influenced by the world and other viewpoints.  But at least Christians have in the Bible a book that does not change.  It is our standard, our story, our guide, our authority that gives us a common language, worldview, and religion.

Much of the world doesn’t have much of a clue what the Bible says, what Christians believe in common, or even what is the basic message of the gospel.  The people who know they are ignorant of these things are at an advantage.  At least they are in a position that allows them to be humble and teachable regarding things of which they can learn.  (That’s not to say most Christians are no longer ignorant of these things.  We read and explore because we know we don’t know everything and we want to learn from people and resources that can teach us.)  However, religion in general and Christianity in particular (at least in my American context) are topics for which it appears everyone considers himself an expert or is firmly settled on his opinion.  I’m startled at how much misinformation so many believe about Christianity.  For example, my daughter’s public high school World History textbook doesn’t include much about Christianity—just a few paragraphs.  But its description of important beliefs lacks central truths summarized in the Apostles’ Creed.  No mention of the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ!  And the textbook explains that all four gospels were written by one of the 12 disciples.  This is simply a factual error.  No branch of Christianity, from the most conservative Bible believers to the most skeptical Bible scholars, claims the books of Mark and Luke were written by one of the Twelve.  What “experts” are proofreading this stuff?

Here’s the big problem: ignorant people, who think they know enough or even everything important there is to know about God, are getting harder and harder to dialogue with.  Why?  The Bible’s answer is that such a one is a “fool”.  Sound harsh and judgmental?  Perhaps, but then again, maybe the Bible is wiser than we think.  Maybe the Bible is the splash of cold water in the face that we all need (including teachers who think they’ve “arrived”).  Here are ten truisms the book of Proverbs says about the fool and knowledge.

Proverbs 1:7  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 10:14  The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.

Proverbs 12:16  The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.

Proverbs 12:23  A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.

Proverbs 13:16   In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.

Proverbs 14:7   Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge.

Proverbs 14:33  Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools.

Proverbs 15:2  The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.

Proverbs 15:7  The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools.

Proverbs 15:14  The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.

The situation can feel pretty bleak for Christians wanting to talk intelligently and honestly about their faith with others.  What to do in a foolish world?  I’m glad you asked. :-)

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Cleansed and Commissioned to be Holy

god-holyDallas. Minnesota. Orlando. It’s getting to the point now if pastors are committed to at least addressing the urgent and timely issues based on the previous week’s headlines, we have to say something in every sermon! At least one thing is obvious nowadays. There is a yearning for a return to Eden, and a longing for heaven on earth. Why is this the case? I think because we hunger for the holy.

Holiness seems so otherworldly. The more the world seems uncertain and tumultuous, the easier it is to forget that God reigns over all the earth. If the inmates seem to be running the asylum, and you realize no one (even you) is really qualified to clean up the mess that the arrogant and corrupt make, then what hope is there? What is God’s plan to make the world holy again? How will God work out the nuts and bolts of his plan to save an unholy world that both longs for holiness and is repelled by it?

Isaiah 6 answers these questions, yet at first glance it may appear the answers are coming out of left field.  But a careful look reveals God knows what he is doing in an unholy world.  What does Isaiah teach us?  Even morally upstanding people are undone in the presence of God’s holiness, but thankfully he purifies people and sends them on mission. Although his assignments don’t always feel pleasant or fruitful in the moment, God’s purposes are always good in the end. Are you eager to be sent?

The background of Isaiah 6:1-13 is important to properly understand this passage.  So let’s review a bit.  Judah’s King Uzziah reigned during a period of national prosperity. On the throne for 52 years, he died in 740 BC. A godly and beloved king, the Bible records this noteworthy sin: he flouted God’s holiness when “his heart was lifted up” and thereafter usurped the role of priest by burning incense in the temple (2 Chr 26:16-21). Thus God made him a leper to reflect his unclean heart. He lived out his days a man unclean and estranged from community and corporate worship. As Richard Nixon is forever associated with “Watergate,” Uzziah’s name must have been “unclean.” Good king Uzziah’s life story thus appears to be an unresolved problem, and his life reflects and symbolizes the unresolved plight of his people. They also are dead, unclean, and estranged from their God. Remember also that a change of kings is normally cause for various commotions in a nation. Fear of the future, national uncertainty, and political power grabs are all common. In biblical history Uzziah’s death signaled a turning point in the political landscape of the ancient Near East. The violent nation of Assyria would begin to rise as a world power, beginning the Age of Empires when many wicked nations would rule and oppress God’s people. In this crisis of national unholiness and international upheaval (sound familiar?) God appears to Isaiah in a vision.

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Satan on a Leash

behemoth-leviathan

God creating Behemoth and Leviathan

It’s something of a modern day proverb. “Three things must never be discussed in polite company: politics, religion, and death.” Well, I’ve noticed Christians talk about all those things because they matter a great deal. We believe it’s sometimes appropriate to be impolite for the sake of truth and love. But sometimes I suspect Christians have their own proverb. Perhaps it goes something like this. “Three books must never be preached in my church: Leviticus, the Song of Solomon, and Job.” Am I right? Job in particular because it’s a long, difficult, and terribly disturbing book. If the book of Proverbs is for freshman learning how to live well in a world that is mostly predictable, and Ecclesiastes is for sophomores with just enough knowledge to believe life is utterly meaningless, then Job is for graduates who have finally figured out that they’ll never figure it out. Sometimes life is hard, and it hurts.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Really bad things. Evil things. Evil from outside us, that we didn’t toy with, or wink at, or invite into our lives. How do you explain such evil? Deep down you know it’s true when the Bible says “there is none righteous, no not one” (Rom 3:10) or when the Catechism for Young Children says every sin deserves “the wrath and curse of God” (Q 37). Nobody is off the hook. Nevertheless, you still get the sense your sins, and other people’s sins, don’t comprehensively explain the evil you see and experience in the world. Can you explain it? Can you fix or fight it? If God can, do you think he should do a better job? Do you think your brilliant ideas could help God?

No one is righteous enough, strong enough, or knows enough to blame God for mishandling the terrifying evils we face, so it is best to repent of our human pride, acknowledge our creaturely limitations, and justify God who is supremely righteous in his grace, power, and privilege.

The book of Job (which is 95% poetry) is an ancient literary masterpiece about human suffering and the unsearchable wisdom of God. Satan challenges God regarding the integrity of Job’s life as a servant of God. So God permits Satan free reign to torment Job with only one rule—Satan can’t kill him. So Satan manages to destroy Job’s family, wealth, and health. Then Job’s friends come to sit and comfort Job. Here the poetry begins as the story unfolds through a series of conversations between Job and his friends trying to make sense of Job’s terrible and undeserved suffering. Maintaining his innocence as a righteous man suffering for no good reason, Job eventually demands his day in God’s court. At the end of the book, God arrives and replies to Job twice. Job 40:6-42:6 is the second reply and the magnificent climax of the book when Job, who had heard of God before, now encounters the Almighty and Omniscient One.

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Tactics (Book Review)

tacticsMy church is doing a Christian Apologetics adult class right now, so recently I’ve been on an apologetics and evangelism kick.  Takes me back to my college days when I cut my theological chops of finding answers to the questions I and my peers were asking about the Christian faith.  Reading typical “answers” books reminds me that most are quite similar.  Problem-Question-Answer.  Followed by a call to be confident that God’s Word is good and true.  This format is helpful as far as it goes.  I find that Christians are the primary audience for books like this.  They are published by Christian imprints and marketing to Christians as resources for our typical questions and doubts, and for answering the questions of our unbelieving family, friends, and neighbors.  But the nagging problem with these kinds of books is they end up being ironically unhelpful in actually navigating conversations with unbelievers.  They are more like one-sided diatribe than dialogue.  And that is OK because that is what they are designed to be.  The difficulty begins when Christians seek to use what they learn in ordinary apologetics books in actual conversation.  Books like these simply aren’t designed to offer help navigating the unpredictable tricks and turns of discussing something with an actual thinking person.

This is where apologist and author Greg Koukl steps into the gap.  As the founder of Stand to Reason and its call-in radio show host for over 20 years, he has honed an approach for everyday Christians to avoid getting stuck when they engage friends and neighbors in conversational apologetics and evangelism.  His tested and proven tips and tricks are finally collated in one place for easy access.  The book, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, is a gold mine of practical, easy, and useable advice for Christians wondering how to close the gap between their specific apologetic knowledge and unbounded real life conversations.

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ESV Study Bible (Book Review)

esv-study-bibleWell, it took longer than I anticipated.  But I finished it.  Every last page of the “readable” content in the ESV Study Bible (except the translation footnotes, the marginal cross-references, or the concordance).  It only took me three-and-a-half-years!  Not that I’m a slow reader, although you probably gather I’m methodical.  There is just that much material to digest.

The ESVSB is a publishing landmark.  It has single-handedly changed the breadth and depth that readers demand of their Study Bible.  Weighing in at nearly 2800 pages, I estimate it includes 10-30% more content than its predecessors.  Since its release in 2009, other Study Bibles that entered the market had to include 300-600 more pages to compete.  One has even surpassed it in length (NIVZSB)!  Because of its size, the ESVSB is more of a reference library than a personal Bible for toting around.  But everyone should own it.  Here’s why.

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Exalting Christ in Ephesians (Book Review)

exalting-christ-ephesiansPaul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of my favorite Bible books to study with others.  I’ve led studies in Ephesians 4 times, and each time I learn new insights and grow spiritually.  It’s a book that reminds me who I am in my Savior Jesus Christ.  It summarizes the gospel that exalts Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It gives me a high view of the Church and God’s plan for her.  It teaches and stirs me to deeper, broader, and more specific prayer.  And it applies the gospel in very tangible and relevant ways to the life of the Christian.  I think it was John Stott who quipped, “Ephesians is the gospel for the Church.”  Because I return to Ephesians often, I’m often looking for good resources to understand and teach it to myself and others.

Tony Merida has written a helpful little commentary in the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series called Exalting Christ in Ephesians (ECE).  As an expository commentary, it is formatted and written like a series of sermons that works passage-by-passage and verse-by-verse through the text of the letter.  A technical commentary it is not.  So if you are looking for a technical and exegetical commentary, then ECE is probably not going to satisfy your need for in-depth study.  But if you desire an explanation of Ephesians with amble illustration (analogies, stories, quotes), comparison to other interpreters, a decent dose of life application, and questions for study, reflection, and discussion, then ECE would be an excellent choice.

The author is pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, NC, an “Acts 29” Baptist church in the evangelical tradition of faithful verse-by-verse biblical exposition.  Merida holds a Ph.D in preaching and also serves as an associate professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Thus ECE is a feast from the best of both worlds (the church and the academy).

Divided in 14 chapters, Merida guides the reader through the 6 short chapters of Ephesians.  Each chapter of the book is about 10-15 pages long, which I estimate to be a 30-50 minute sermon.  And what meaty sermons these are!  Short on fluff and long on theology and application, the reader is treated to a feast of God’s Word.  Happy is the church that hears sermons like this week in and week out.  Why?  Not because being happy is the goal, but because each chapter points to Christ as the purpose, end, and meaning of the passage.  Thus Ephesians and Merida’s pastoral exposition leads us into worship.

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