Books


My fellow bibliophile Allen Williams suggested that I read John Piper’s “This Momentary Marriage” after he studied it last spring in preparation for our wedding sermon.  I listen to Piper preach regularly and while I do not always agree with him, I find his insights to be Biblically based and thought provoking.  “This Momentary Marriage” is so thought provoking I finished the book in shock.  Piper dives deep into the Biblical concept of marriage and reminds the reader that covenant marriage is to be a reflection of God’s covenant love for us.  I believe that our not proclaiming this simple truth from our pulpits more often is the reason why so many Christian marriages are failing apart and our society’s moral fabric is being shredded.   Piper writes, while speaking of covenant grace, that “a profound understanding and fear of God’s wrath is exactly what many marriages need, because without it, the gospel is diluted down to mere human relations and loses its biblical glory.  Without a biblical view of God’s wrath, you will be tempted to think that your wrath–your anger–against your spouse is simply too big to overcome, because you have never really tasted what it is like to see an infinitely greater wrath overcome by grace, namely, God’s wrath against you.”    Oh how I wish everyone who was signing up for a “no-fault” divorce would let those words sink deep into their spirits.  Piper spends a considerable amount of time exegeting Ephesians 5 on the nature of marriage.  Southern Baptists have often been skewered because of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message’s statement on marriage and the inclusion of the Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3 admonition of wives submitting graciously to their husbands.  I will readily admit that the statement has often heightened my discomfort level because of the immediate negative connotations the word “submission” conjures to mind.  Furthermore, I have seen the use of Paul’s statement abused by husbands, a number of whom are sadly pastors, to the point that it has caused me to think twice about teaching from the text for fear of it being misused.  Piper takes on the subject head-on and paints a picture of submission that is hard to refute.  He uses 1 Peter 3 as his proof text and strongly argues 6 points of what submission is not.  I found it reassuring to see Piper include that “submission does not mean leaving your brain or your will at the wedding altar,”  “submission does not mean that a wife is to act of fear,” and “submission does not mean agreeing with everything your husband says.”   Piper spends considerably more time in the book dealing with a husband’s marital duties including placing  sole responsibility for resolving marital disputes on the husband.  Piper asserts that as the husband is the Christ figure in the marriage, he is the one who is to go to his wife and seek reconciliation, just as Christ came to His bride, the Church, to seek reconciliation.  I will say that I have been convicted repeatedly by this after more than one disagreement with Eliza and I am still working to fully implement it.  A significant reason why I left the book shocked is that Piper leaves no stone unturned as it relates to marriage, including intercourse and whether to have children.  My shock though stemmed from my own wonder in why I had failed to grasp the concepts in the light that Piper shined on them and not from any unbiblical assertions.  While there were issues that I simply disagreed with Piper on because of my personal theological proclivities, they failed to warrant enough disagreement for me not to recommend it for every married couple I know.  In fact, should I ever do a marriage retreat, I will probably base it in part on “This Momentary Marriage.” I hope you will check it out and see how best to strengthen your marriage.

Peace be with you.

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Our nation has waged war in Afghanistan for the last 9 years, longer than the time we spent fighting the Civil War and both world wars combined.  Yet, I feel confident in asserting that the average American knows little if anything about the history of our enemy.  Our ignorance creates a soulless, faceless combatant that we cannot even feel enmity toward, let alone the compassion that Jesus calls us to feel toward our enemies.  Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” peels back the curtain shielding the Afghan people and reveals a thriving society that has suffered under almost 40 years of continuous war and destruction.  The narrative is woven around the friendship between Amir and Hassan.  Amir’s father is a rich businessman in the days before the Soviet invasion who will eventually flee to America with Amir after the Soviet’s arrival.  Hassan, a member of the Hazara ethnic minority, is the son of their servant and the same age as Amir.  The first third of the book details the highs and lows of a typical childhood friendship and explains the vicious secret why the friendship ultimately dissolved and how Hassan and his father felt compelled to leave.  The story then moves to America and chronicles Amir and his father’s life in Southern California as members of  the Afghan expatriate community.  The final third of the book focuses on Amir’s quest to bring Hassan’s young son, Sohrab, back to the United States during the Taliban’s final days and his acclimation to American society.  Most would point to the need for redemption that Amir feels as the driving force of the book and certainly that figures prominently.  Yet, I found Amir’s redemption to be half achieved for even after he brings Sohrab to the United States the situation remains tenuous.  I would argue that because Hosseini’s work so perfectly captures the human experience he is simply pointing to the fact that we cannot achieve true redemption apart from Jesus Christ.  I recognize that Hosseini never intended that picture to be painted, but I have to allow a book to speak to me and shape me.  I find little value in reading if the book does not shape me in some way.  Hence, while I was on an emotional roller coaster throughout the book, it was the middle narrative that chipped away at my heart.  Let me establish from the start that I believe part of America’s greatness is found in our population’s diversity.  Eliza and I are proud of our German heritage and have been shaped by it.  However, I have intense difficulty in understanding why current immigrants disregard adopting American culture and hold so strongly to their own.  It seems to me that they should have stayed where they were if their love was so great.  “The Kite Runner” helped me better understand why this occurs.  Amir and his father never desired to leave Afghanistan, but were forced to due to circumstances beyond their control.  Thus, when they come to America and join with others in the Afghan community to celebrate Afghan customs and celebrations, it seems perfectly natural because it is how they maintain some small part of the home from which they have been torn.  I know full well that if I were ever forced from American soil, I would certainly carry out some of the traditions that form our culture.  It occurs to me, however, that I am already an alien in a foreign land.  1 Peter urges Christians “as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.”   Christians today spend a lot of time trying to look like the pagans around them.  We have created church models that better resemble corporations than the book of Acts.  Our models of success are copied straight out of leading business strategies and so cause us to miss the level of success God commands.  We are not faithful to our Christ due to exorbitant baptism statistics, we are faithful when we grow more in His image each day.  A strange thing happened to me as I read “The Kite Runner.”  I suddenly desired to learn more about Afghan culture.  I have purchased and read several books on the country and the people since completing Hosseini’s work.  I have even found a restaurant in Raleigh that serves strictly Afghan food and am anxious for us to go and try it out.  In other words, Marc, the outsider, has looked at the Afghan community and desired to know more about it.  Can you imagine what would happen if the Church realized it’s alien status and started acting more like it?  I doubt we would have as much trouble as we currently do attracting people to the Gospel and our Christ.  “The Kite Runner” is a beautiful story and I highly recommend it, but only read it if you are willing to let it shape you.

Peace be with you.

“The Shack” by William Young has proven to be one of the most controversial books to hit Christian bookstores in the last several years and even more mind-boggling is that it’s fiction.  Our purchase was accompanied by a warning letter issued by Lifeway urging caution while reading and countless colleagues have dismissed it as theological garbage.  I cannot say that I agree with every part of the book as I felt that Young sides too often with human free will as it relates to God’s sovereignty such that it flirts too close to open theism for me.   However, I must admit that given all the theological furor that accompanied “The Shack,” I was hyper-sensitive to its theology and most people would probably not notice some of the things that startled me.  The most glaring theological trouble spot for many is Young’s depiction of the Trinity, with the Father being personified as an African-American woman and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman.  I personally do not have trouble with the depiction primarily because it is fiction.  I would have a great deal of difficulty if some new theology text made such assertions as I would find them antithetical to Christian Scripture and tradition.  Yet, because it is a work of fiction we must understand that Young is simply trying to make a point about the fact that in our deepest need God is there meeting it in whatever form necessary.  The main character, Mack Phillips, needed the form of God he encountered to overcome the brutal death of his child.  If we were honest with ourselves sometimes we too would say that sometimes we need to feel God’s paternal discipline and sometimes we need God’s maternal love.  Jesus alluded to this just before His crucifixion when he said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”  I personally thought the depiction of the Holy Spirit was dead on and particularly helpful in allowing the average Christian to grasp such an important concept given so many misconceptions about the person and work of the Spirit.   The turmoil the depiction has stirred exposes a serious problem in Evangelical Christendom regarding the arts.  So many parts of our society have become so fact driven that we fail to see the arts as a means to enhancing our understanding of our faith and our world.  Our artistic ignorance has caused us to lose a valuable witnessing tool as the world we seek to evangelize is actively engaged in the arts but will not read our Scriptures.  We must learn to use every tool at our disposal for the sake of the Gospel.  Joseph told his brothers that they meant their actions toward him for evil, but God meant it for good that many might be saved.  Have we become so legalistic that we have made God incapable of doing the same with the arts?  “The Shack” has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 92 weeks.  Can you imagine the number of lost people who have read it and had numerous questions about God fill their soul?  Can you imagine the impact on our world if there were Christians who used someone reading “The Shack” as a means of embarking on a conversation that brought another soul into the Kingdom?  I would recommend reading “The Shack” from that perspective alone and hope that it would stir within you a desire to use the arts as part of your witness.

Peace be with you.

Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History” is considered by many to be the definitive work on Joseph Smith’s life as it intricately details the events surrounding the creation of the Mormon religion.  Brodie’s work is by far one of the most intriguing religious biographies I have ever read and should be a must read for Evangelical pastors everywhere.  The Mormon faith is one of the fastest growing religions in the world and its strenuous morals and family values emphasis makes it attractive to many in America.  Evangelicals should realize that Mormonism is not just another form of Protestantism, but is a separate religion unto itself.  Brodie’s book details the almost God like status that Joseph Smith attained with his followers and provides light on the origin of many Mormon practices and beliefs.  People who believe they are finding the true church of Jesus Christ should be made aware of some of the more obscure of these beliefs such as the doctrine of eternal progression which asserts that ultimately a devoted Mormon will become part of the Godhead.  Brodie’s recounting the creation of the Book of Mormon, during a time of great religious upheaval in upstate New York, should give every Mormon adherent pause about the veracity of their faith’s Scripture.  Smith is portrayed as a grand storyteller who uses the events of the day to create the Book of Mormon’s masterful tales.  Indeed, Brodie points out that the Book of Mormon could be considered simply part of the canon of myths and tales New Yorkers spun to explain the existence of Native American burial mounds scattered across the Upstate.  I find it odd that given Brodie’s retelling of the Book of Mormon’s creation why one does not hear more about the same scrutiny being applied to it that is so often applied to the Christian Scriptures.  Do scholars simply find it fantasy and choose to ignore it?  If so, why do they not choose to treat the Scriptures in the same manner, after all I would think a person “deluded” in one religion deserves to be saved from their delusion just as much as one in another.

I think the greatest danger that Brodie’s book exposes is the that the Mormon religion is an American creation, grounded in the American dream.  Smith’s continued quest for power and fortune is often depicted to be central to his actions, as if he needs these things to find fulfillment.  True Christianity teaches that the pursuit of power is not what our Saviour intends for us.  We must remember to follow His example, that He came not to be served, but to serve.  Joseph Smith’s life tragically proves that to fight against Christ’s example will lead a person down a path of destruction.  It was Smith’s grab for power that ultimately cost him his life and forced his followers to barren Utah.  The American Church would do well to heed Smith’s warning before it follows him down the same path.  Finally, Brodie’s work should awaken within every pastor a desire to provide their flock with theological tools to combat Mormonism and other new religious movements.  Pastors are supposed to be God’s under-shepherd and part of our job is to protect our flock from outside attack.  A failure to teach the errors of Smith’s “taste like chicken” theology and those like it is a failure to protect our own.  For example, the Mormon doctrine of eternal marriage, an essential plank in their very attractive family values position, flies in direct opposition to Jesus’ teaching that there is no marriage in Heaven.  The average Christian I know would not even think about making that point and the blame for that starts in the pulpit.  Now, let me be clear, I do not mean that we should step into our pulpits and rant against these groups.  I think such actions are counterproductive.  I do believe though that we should once more teach clear doctrine from our pulpits to the point that people will know when they are hearing unorthodox theology.  We must recall that just as Joseph Smith will one day have to account for his misleading people, we will have to account for failing to simply lead people.

Peace be with you.

I picked up Ron Suskind’s “A Hope in the Unseen” while leafing through the current events section at Edward McKay and thought the story sounded compelling and well it was only $2 so I did not have much to lose.  The truth is that there is a great deal to lose by excluding Ron Suskind’s look at the high school and early college career of Cedric Jennings from your library.  Cedric Jennings is an African-American honor student being raised by a single mother in the middle of inner city Washington, D.C.  Cedric works mightily to attain his goal of being accepted in an Ivy League school and escaping both inner-city poverty and the prison fate of so many African-American inner-city males, including his father.  Cedric’s decision costs him popularity and leads to derision by many of the other students in his school.  One continuing thread of the book is the fact that Cedric’s decision impedes, severely I believe, his ability to interact socially.   Indeed, the roller coaster that Cedric experiences as he learns these skills is part of the driving force of the book.  There are other important threads such as the development of Cedric’s faith and his relationship with his mother that are at the forefront throughout that are also commendable.  Cedric proves that one can successfully have a deep and abiding evangelical faith while holding reason in tension.  I fear we lose that view far too often these days as Evangelicals either surrender their college students to the supposed terrors of a liberal arts education by failing to adequately equip them for the concepts they will be exposed to or we impair them by sending them to like-minded Evangelical institutions where open exposure to such concepts are muted.  Yes, as Cedric proves, there will be ups and downs to reach this tension, but it seems that Peter took a similar path in understanding the person and work of the Christ and it was to his benefit that he did.  The thing that disturbed me most about Suskind’s account is that it lays bare severe deficiencies in the American education system.  My heart broke as Cedric is sitting in one of first classes at Brown University and fails to comprehend a reference to Ellis Island.   Can you imagine anyone passing through the halls of an American high school and not being taught about the portal through which so many entered the American melting pot?  Cedric wonders if he has reached too far because of the difficulties he experiences during his Brown tenure, but I believe America and not Cedric’s reach is at fault.  We have too long thrown money at the education system while not demanding significant returns for our investment.  I am sorry, but what good is it to require our students to pass standardized exams when we have people teaching them who have no business doing so.  Please do not think I am bashing the education system.  My beloved wife is a teacher and I would defend to the death the right to public education.  I just think the Cedric Jennings’ of the world deserve better.  Additionally, if the majority of our congregations are supposed to learn the critical skills of reading, reasoning, and comprehension through the public education system the Church deserves better.  How do we expect folks to be transformed by the reading of God’s Word without these skills?  How do we expect them to begin to be able formulate the phrases needed to share their faith if they have never been taught how to expand upon ideas?  I cannot encourage you enough to read “A Hope in the Unseen” and gain inspiration from Cedric and motivation to fight for the countless thousands like him.

Peace be with you.

I read Haven Kimmel’s The Solace of Leaving Early at Eliza’s gentle nudging.   I had bought her the book earlier in the Spring and she had thoroughly enjoyed it and thought that I would relate to some of the subjects discussed.  The book takes place in an Indiana town dealing with the tragic deaths of two parents and the effect it has had on their two little girls, who have renamed themselves Immaculata and Epiphany, and the surrounding community.  The two principal characters are Langston, who has returned home after suddenly leaving her PhD program, and Amos, the town’s minister and a bachelor.  The predictable budding romance between Langston and Amos provides a backdrop for the recounting of not only how the girl’s parents died, but the secrets that lie behind Langston and Amos’ inner turmoil as well.  I cannot recommend this book too strongly, particularly for pastors.  Amos is a perfect example of a pastor’s struggle between all the heady theological concepts we have learned and how they can best be expressed in our faith community to bring about transformation.  Now, I must confess that I do not agree with several aspects of Amos’ theology.  I fear that he borders on open theism at times.  However, his inner struggle with the continual development of his faith in the face of having to lead a congregation is something with which I can attest.  I think we forget sometimes that pastors are on the same journey congregants are on and they too have times of doubt and insecurity.   However, because we expect our pastors to be spiritual superheroes they feel unable to work through these times in the same manner as those they lead.  I believe this is a significant factor behind the increased depression rates among pastors.  I also appreciated the retelling of Amos’ pastorate at Mt. Moriah, a struggling congregation that he remained faithful to even as all it’s members slowly died.  Our ability to remain true to our call when it runs counter to our own desires and more specifically to cultural success norms grows exceedingly more difficult the longer we stay in the situation.  The gentleness though that seems to settle over Amos as he goes through the process is profound.  Eliza said that she thought Amos would resonate with me and she was right.  Kimmel weaves a noble story of redemption and proves that sometimes the redemptive path is not easy.   It requires us to dig up things long buried and expose them in the harsh light of day to find final peace.  Amos and Langston each embark upon such a journey as the book’s pages float by and in the end they find it.  However, the sheer beauty of it is that if you will allow yourself to slip into their shoes, you can journey there as well.

Peace be with you.

I realize that I have been tardy in posting my winter reading list and I apologize.  So, I decided to post a joint winter/spring list acknowledging that I have already worked my way through some of these books because they are on the “winter” part of the list.  I will admit that the list is rather fiction heavy, but since I have avoided fiction for the better part of my life there is a necessity to catch up.   I thoroughly enjoyed both of the books I read about Afghanistan in the fall and have added two works to the current list to continue my studies in that area.  Also, I deliberately chose books for the current list that had received significant literary awards, i.e. Pulitizer, Man Booker, or were written by authors who had received such awards to enhance my writing skills.  Eliza often tells me that I need to lessen the amount of depressing books I read.  Yet, I continue to be drawn to them as shown by the O’Nan and Greene texts.  The Wright text I picked up to find a more light-hearted book and have already read it.  Unfortunately, it did not meet it’s light-hearted goal, but it was an excellent book that henceforth I will recommend to every married or soon to be married couple I know.  I was unable to finish the Baxter text last Fall and so I have added it to the current list along with the Horton book which I have heard excellent things about.  My dear friend Allen Williams has repeatedly encouraged me to read “Preaching and Preachers” and so I added it to further improve my homilitical skills.  I included the Shorto text because the struggle between faith and reason continues to grow unabated and it’s always helpful to have new information from that front.  The Gilbert text appears to be one of the most popular books around these days, 156 weeks on the NY Times Paperback Bestseller List, and is being made into a motion picture.  So, I thought I should read it to keep up with what everyone else is reading.  I have already begun the book reviews that I have promised for some time now and will be publishing them over the next couple of weeks.  Accordingly, the “Back Pew” will be heavy with books for a little while, but I hope it will point folks to some excellent books that they can enjoy as well.

Peace be with you.

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