According to Plan (Book Review)

according-to-planWhen I was in seminary I distinctly remember something my professor said.  It was an off-hand comment (aren’t they always the ones we remember?), but one I’ve been able to verify over the years.  It was a class on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), and a student sitting at the back of the class raised his hand to ask a question.  It was a little unusual, because he built his question from the text of a book not on the syllabus.  The question was forgettable, but my teacher’s comment stuck.  “Is that a Graeme Goldsworthy book?  Read everything he writes.”  As a first-year student still wet behind the ears, that exhortation sunk in and is still lodge somewhere in my brain.  And after reading several Goldsworthy books, and leading study groups through them as well, I can attest to the wisdom of that recommendation.

Certainly not his most well-known (that would be Gospel and Kingdom which is the first of three books compiled in The Goldsworthy Trilogy), but probably his most influential book is the author’s introductory Biblical Theology.  According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (ATP), is the next step to understanding the Bible as God’s revelation after the simpler Bible Overview by Steve Levy.  ATP is a book that attempts to find unity in the massive diversity of material found in the Bible.  It succeeds by organizing the main plot of the Bible around the theme of the kingdom of God.  Goldsworthy argues that every other biblical theme—whether major or minor—rightly fits into the overarching theme of Kingdom.  That means macro-subjects like covenant, temple, creation, Israel, sacrifice, and sin are all connected through the lens of God’s kingdom.  The kingdom theme itself can be helpfully summarized as God’s people, living in God’s place, under God’s rule. (I think this saying came from Goldsworthy, but I haven’t been able to locate a reference.)  The organizing principle of kingdom makes Goldsworthy’s account of the Bible’s story significantly different than most other arrangements of biblical theology in one respect.  Whereas the high point for many is Moses and the Law—thus contrasting Law (OT) and Gospel (NT)—Goldsworthy argues that David’s kingdom is the apex of the OT.  This has the effect of subsuming the theme of covenant underneath the kingdom theme, and therefore he reads the Bible as one unified story about the kingdom of God rather than two competing stories about the Mosaic covenant vs. the New covenant.  Such a difference is important because it moves the covenant theology discussion forward and away from the sticking point of the Mosaic law in relation to Christ’s salvation where theologians often get entangled in heated debate.  A kingdom-centered story provides some relief from this tired controversy that sometimes feels mired in minutiae at a theological Maginot Line. Continue reading

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Bible Overview (Book Review)

bible-overviewYears ago I remember hearing Bible teacher R.C. Sproul respond to one of his fans.  The man said he was so thankful for Sproul’s teacher because he made the Bible “come alive” for his students.  Nothing too unusual there.  Gifted teachers in most any subject are able to transfer their enthusiasm for their subject to listeners.  But this time, the teacher wanted to make a point about the unique nature of the Bible.  Sproul replied with a smile, “I can’t make the Bible come alive.  The Bible makes me alive!”  So it is with the Book of books.  And yet, lots of people feel boredom, dryness, and confusion when they read the Bible.  Its message seems incoherent, or at the very least vaguely moralistic.  Its relevance appears almost entirely outdated.  It has an ancient, foreign feel to modern sensibilities.  For people who sympathize with such complaints, closing the Bible and asking “What’s the point?” is probably the last and lingering thought they share about the Bible.

I am convinced that one of the main problems modern people have when it comes to reading and enjoying the Bible is the problem of understanding.  Because once you understand the nature, the purpose, and the plotline of the Bible, you can begin to sense deep down that its message is truly the Greatest Story Ever Told.  The Bible has managed to transcend time and place because it has proven to be a timeless epic and a priceless treasure trove of wisdom.  Most of all, it remains the most printed, owned, and read book of all time because it addresses humanities fundamental questions with satisfying answers: Continue reading

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A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 2 (Book Review)

phmw2Published in 2013, A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 2 (PHMW2) is the continuation of a story begun in 1898.  Volume 1 (reviewed here) narrated the story of the world from a conservative American perspective from the turn of the 20th century to the end of World War 2.  Authors Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty pick up right when they left off, narrating the baby-boomer era from birth to the year 2012.

It’s best to see Volumes 1 and 2 as one massive work of history, and thus they are best read one after the other so as to feel the force of what has happened over the past 100+ years.  I do not have much to add by reviewing Volume 2 except to remind the interested reading that these volumes are written from a conservative, American, and unapologetic patriotic perspective.  The authors are no fans of modern political liberalism.  Whereas in the first volume the villainous duo was undoubtedly Presidents Woodrow Wilson and FDR, in the second volume the bad guys are JFK and “Barack Hussein Obama.”  It is difficult to argue with documented historical events.  They either happened or they didn’t.  But it is not so obvious to me that the “bad guys,” although they may have been guilty of many disastrous missteps, committed their “political sins” with malicious intent.

One aspect I find particularly insightful (if not a bit personally disturbing) is the vitriol reserved for President Obama and his administration.  PHMW2 can only comment on the first 4 years of Obama’s leadership.  Yet even half-way through it is clear the authors understood that controversial social engineering and profligate federal spending were gaining speed.  So much so that reading the assessment of Obama’s first term prepares the reader for a more intense second term of unilaterally implementing a liberal agenda despite a nation deeply divided along conservative and progressive lines.  Conservatives would do well to learn this lesson.  Policy and law which are implemented along simple-majority partisan lines are ripe for repeal when the simple-majority shifts and the opposing political party is in power.  Better to work through gridlock toward the venerable goal of political compromise.  That way neither side feels defeated, demoralized, and disrespected. Continue reading

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Making Sense of God (Book Review)

msogWhen I first learned that Tim Keller would be writing a book on helping skeptics, doubters, and otherwise secular-minded people to begin “doubting their doubts” and give Christianity a second look, I determined to read it carefully.  You see, as I’ve listened to Keller preach over the years, it has become increasingly more obvious that his approach to addressing the most frequent “defeater beliefs” is worth a hearing.  While he has written and spoken before about these beliefs that function as stumbling blocks to faith in Christ, never have these resources been collected in a single volume or linked together into a sustained coherent case for Christianity.  Published near the end of 2016, his book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (MSOG) is the best book I’ve seen for comparing the secular and Christian worldviews in order to make a rationally-, emotionally-, and culturally-sensitive case for the plausibility and attractiveness of the gospel.

Regarding the author’s purpose, he writes: “The material in this book is a way of offering to readers—especially the most skeptical who may think the “good news” lacks cultural relevance—the same food for thought [i.e., that “believers and nonbelievers in God alike arrive at their positions through a combination of experience, faith, reasoning, and intuition.”].  We will compare the beliefs and claims of Christianity with the beliefs and claims of the secular view, asking which one makes more sense of a complex world and human experience.” [p. 2]

The method of comparison is a close examination of our culture’s most prevalent defeater beliefs, surveying the best secular answers to these problems and then showing how Christianity offers alternative answers that are quite reasonable, emotionally satisfying, and culturally appropriate.  Here are a few of those defeater beliefs as Keller phrases them.  Perhaps you believe a few of these yourself!  From page 5:

  • “You don’t need to believe in God to have a full life or meaning, hope, and satisfaction.”
  • “You should be free to live as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm others.”
  • “You become yourself when you are true to your deepest desires and dreams.”
  • “You don’t need to believe in God to have a basis for moral values and human rights.”
  • “There’s little or no evidence for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity.”

No, these aren’t the typical issues tackled in traditional Christian apologetics, but that is the point.  Keller understands these are first-order questions that require a satisfactory response before many people will even consider taking the message of Jesus seriously.  In other words, in the late modern world where it now seems impossible to actually believe in God, we have to first help people make sense of God.  Why?  Because to more and more folks, the very idea of God in general and Christianity seem totally disconnected to reality—like Grimm’s fairy tales in a world without witches and dragons. Continue reading

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Defeating Darwinism (Book Review)

defeating-darwinismSometimes a specialized subject matter expert is actually not the most qualified person to critique a related idea.  Case in point: Who would you trust more for advice on a difficult end-of-life decision for a loved one?  A life support machine technician or a medical ethicist?  Theoretically you would probably want a qualified mediator who is able to listen to the technician and the ethicist, like a family doctor.  But with only two choices, who is more qualified to counsel you on the right thing to do?  The mechanic or the theologian-philosopher?  I think many reasonable people would choose the ethicist.  But then again, many others would be more comfortable with the technician.  In all probability these two groups would condemn each other as wrong, foolish, ignorant, and maybe even evil.  Alas, such is human nature.

When it comes to the subject of science and origins, this kind of fighting is common.  Neo-Darwinism is the only respected scientific theory of origins in Western culture.  Any acceptable critique of this theory must come from inside the camp and must be kept away from the public eye to foster the illusion of unanimous agreement.  If any scientist outside the camp criticizes Neo-Darwinist theory or questions its foundational assumptions, they are treated as heretical troublemakers and denied access to the guild.  And if any non-scientist outside the camp dissents from the evolutionary orthodoxy, they are denied access to the table as unqualified, uneducated, and undeserving of a response.  The problem with this response to the questioning dissenter should be obvious.  In order to make a wise decision regarding a subject, wouldn’t it be best to hear from the mechanic and the philosopher?  Wouldn’t you want to hear the criticisms of the intelligent outsider?

Which brings us to Phillip E. Johnson (not to be confused with Phillip R. Johnson), a distinguished legal mind, professor of law, and aspiring philosopher of science.  Johnson is the grandfather of the Intelligent Design movement challenging the Neo-Darwinist status quo.  His strategy is named “The Wedge of Truth” which seeks to split the log of scientific orthodoxy by focusing on the known and acknowledged problems associated with evolutionary theory, namely the question of evolutionary mechanism, the cause of the Big Bang, and the contrary evidence in the fossil record.  As far as I can tell, The Wedge strategy is first explained in print in his third book on the subject: Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (DD).  I first read DD as a recent college graduate as a helpful and simplified summary of the issues the author first laid out in considerably more details his books Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance.  Recently I reread it to my oldest daughter who is a freshman in high school.  DD is a little over her head (and for that reason she didn’t much enjoy it), but I came to appreciate how this book crystallizes the issues for a target audience of upper high school and college.  The second time through it also surprised me at how relevant the book continues to be.  The only thing that feels dated about the book is its optimism for Intelligent Design (ID) theory for the near-term.  What has actually happened in the last 20 years is that ID has been barred from the public schools and scientific academia with a stroke of power.  Contrary to popular opinion, it is not another brand of biblical creationism meant to sneak Genesis into the science curriculum at your local public school.  Rather it is a centuries-old alternative scientific theory to naturalistic materialist macro-evolution.  ID has a long history of support by many esteemed scientists, philosophers, practitioners in the STEM fields, and academics.  In the computer age and the explosion of information in the last 30 years, ID has become a formidable challenger to the followers of Darwin.  And boy has it been a wild ride. Continue reading

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The Songs of Jesus (Book Review)

songs-of-jesusMartin Luther famously quipped the Psalms are a “little Bible.”  Israel’s inspired hymnal has served for nearly 3000 years as the devotional songbook of God’s people.  The Psalter is certainly the most precious and read portion of all the Bible.  But not many devotional literature on the Psalms has risen to the level of “classic”.  One exception: Charles Spurgeon’s Daily Treasures in the Psalms is beloved by many.  Now there may be a new classic in the making.  Pastor and author Tim Keller, along with his wife and partner in ministry Kathy, have given the world The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (SOJ).  I received this little book as a Christmas gift from my wife in 2015.  When January arrived I found myself skimming SOJ just to see what it is like.  My first impression is it’s unlike anything else Keller has published in book format.  He’s mostly known for his trenchant cultural and psychological insights as a sophisticated Christian apologist.  That being said, the author on several occasions in his public speaking has surprised the audience that he is really a pietist at heart.  If that is the case, then SOJ is a window into the heart of one of the most influence Christian leaders in the early twenty-first century.  The appeal of this little devotional is sneaky.  At first it appeared to me simplistic—not meaty or deep enough.  Most of the one-page devotionals fall short of filling the page.  Surely more could be said!  But, day by day, as I gave it a chance, it really began to grow on me.  The format of (1) Psalm verses, (2) devotional commentary, and (3) prayer functions just as it’s intended.  To engage the mind, yes, but primarily the heart.  And so as the days and weeks passed by, SOJ became my gateway to the Psalms and my regular spark of prayer to God in Christ.

Keller’s devotional has many strengths.  Here are just a few. Continue reading

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Hillbilly Elegy (Book Review)

hillbilly-elegyIt’s eluding my memory at this point.  Perhaps it was while reading an online essay at The American Conservative when I first heard of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HE).  What I do recall is the high praise for HE from political conservatives, liberals, and libertarians.  Normally the New York Times bestseller list doesn’t pique my interest, but when a book reaches the number 1 ranking and is deemed culturally important, I guess looking into it can’t hurt.  What I found is that even orthodox Christians were proclaiming HE as especially important in these turbulent times.

What sets HE above the myriad of other memoirs published in 2016?  In a word: relevance.  Most memoirs seeks to do a couple things: tell the author’s story and connect with a particular audience.  If it’s a good one, then the author’s subculture offers up an “Amen!”  Here is where Vance distances himself from the rest of the pack.  Thousands, perhaps millions, of readers from all walks of life are reading HE and shouting “Yes, he gets it, and this explains what has fractured America.”  Everyone who is familiar with HE immediately detects its relevance for America because it helps us as a people to understand who we are.  Many Americans have forgotten the working class, and hence don’t understand what helps and hurts them.  Vance’s memoir is a prescient and deeply sympathetic reminder of who we are as a country.

So who are we?  What is the essence of Hillbilly Elegy?  Vance recounts the tale of his Scotch-Irish ancestors who made their homes in rural Appalachia.  Huge percentages of these mountain people migrated in the 20th century to the Rust Belt and adjacent states looking for work, prosperity, and a better living than a hard life in the coal mines.  Vance’s grandparents and their children were among them.  Although the hillbillies moved out of the hills, Vance narrates in so many ways how hillbilly values, beliefs, habits, and culture cannot be completely extracted from the hillbilly.  For those who come from hillbilly subculture, it is difficult to escape the pull of poverty and social ills that plague this population in high percentages.  Vance is one of the few who were privileged enough, gifted enough, and worked hard enough to rise out of poverty and the mindset that clings to it.  A dominant chunk of HE tells the story of Vance’s childhood.  This formative part of his young life (he is now about 30 years old) abounds with lovable and memorable characters who are larger than life.  (Yeah, I know, that is cliché, but in this case it is true!  I found myself thinking over and over again: “No way!” “Are you serious?” “That’s crazy!”)  J.D.’s grandmother Mamaw, the star of the book, is a foul-mouthed, gun-totin’, worldly-wise, tough-yet-nurturing, principled matriarch.  More than anyone else she is responsible for J.D.’s growth into the man he becomes.  She really steals the show as the heroine of HE.  Mom is mostly a tragic character.  She begins with such promise as her high school valedictorian but eventually descends into drug addiction, run-ins with the law, and the girl-friend de jour for a string of irresponsible men who in turn take up temporary residence in J.D.’s childhood home.  Sister Lindsey is the protective older sibling who also escapes the poverty and dysfunction of their family.  The rest of the clan play supporting roles.  Others who make significant appearances in the author’s story include wife Usha, Dad, and grandfather Papaw.  The story is a good one too.  From the book’s official website: Continue reading

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