Archives For Christian Culture

About 4 years ago I thought I was done. At the time, it had been five years since my critical review during a Trinitarianism class at Dallas (you can still see the cage stage). The book had been picked at from every angle, including this genius collection of reviews. But now that they decided to make a movie, we find ourselves talking about The Shack again.

At this point, I think I’ve said everything I need to about the book itself. Here, you can read the page by page breakdown in my review, but you probably don’t need to do that. With the popularity of The Shack back in the public square, I think it’s helpful to think through why it’s popular as well as divisive. People either love it, hate it, or haven’t heard of it. Maybe a small minority are in some kind of ambivalent category.

Maybe.

The book provides an occasion for looking into two issues. The first is why I think people like books that are less than orthodox in theological content. The other is why you may have a hard time convincing someone to look at the book differently after they’ve decided they like it. Let’s take those in turn, as I draw on some old posts.

If a person likes, no scratch that, loves a book, it comes down to this: people like books because that impact them in some significant way. People will recommend books that they simply enjoyed reading, but they will enthusiastically recommend books that impacted them personally. Often they may feel like God used the book to teach them something new, and here’s the other thing to keep in mind: He very well might have.

For a more specific take on this, consider Paul Maxwell’s thoughts. He offers one reason the book is so powerful when he says,

For those who have ears to hear, this story is a meaningful exploration of the traumatized male psyche coming face to face with a God who feels very much like his own abusive father. Ideal or not, more Christians can relate to this than would publicly admit it.

You should read his whole take/review of the movie because I think it’s an important and interesting minority report. He gives reasons why it might be useful, but never urges you to go against your inclinations or your conscience if it is already set.

In any case, if you happened to have the particular experience that Paul highlights, you would probably like The Shack in a much more intensive way than a casual reader who didn’t relate. A person will like a book in a significantly different way when it impacts them at the spiritual level (i.e. they felt like God worked through it to show them something), than if they just thought it was doctrinally accurate or practically helpful in the abstract. Very often then, I think people like a book like The Shack because it helped them personally, and in this case it has to do with questions about pain and suffering and the goodness of God.

There are unfortunate other cases where I think this can be an example of postmodern ethics sneaking in the backdoor of evangelical practice. What I mean by that is that the quality of a book is judged by its usefulness, which can be a pragmatic approach to truth and value. A purely pragmatic approach wouldn’t care whether a book is unorthodox by objective measures, so long as it is personally useful. Truth and goodness are in the mind of the reader in this case. Nietzsche would be so proud.

If that’s the case, the persuasion just got infinitely trickier. Now, you’re not only trying to convince someone the book is bad, you’re having to dismantle their latent worldview in the process. In those situations, the reason they like the book may have little to do with the book itself and more to do with a faulty approach to knowledge and ethics. Fix that and the book problem gets better. Leave it alone and nothing will ultimately change. [Side note: I think many critiques just assume this is the problem with why people liked the book and so use words like discernment in the title, expressing the need to educate the heretical inclinations out of people]

Assuming the reason someone likes a book like The Shack is more benign, it is still not easy to convince someone their view of a book is wrong. And that might not even be the best way to go about things to begin with. While not as radical as a paradigm shift, you are asking someone to dismantle an emotionally laden belief about a book. As such, you need four factors in place (I’m adapting something from this old post if you want source info):

  1. There must be dissatisfaction with their current opinion
  2. The new perspective/opinion must be make sense
  3. The new perspective must also resonate emotionally
  4. The new perspective must seem to be a more fruitful way to view things

Obviously this means you’ve got your work cut out for you at the persuasive level. It is hard to get past that first point unless you take a question based approach, which most people don’t initially do. Then, you’ve got to present the alternative in a way that resonates emotionally, which isn’t often the strong suit of the critics of a book like The Shack. You end up seeming like an insensitive jerk just because you care about orthodox theology. [Side note: You may actually be an insensitive jerk and so should address that log before dealing with the speck of poor reading choices.]

But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be that way. Exhibit A: Tim Keller. It would be interesting to see how well The Shack did if people could have read Keller’s book on suffering around the same time. It also has narrative elements (that were maybe prompted by The Shack), but presents a much more robust and orthodox theology of pain and suffering. If we lament books like The Shack being prominent, part of the solution is for the orthodox guys to try to be more engaging writers and write for the person in the pew and not the pastor or professor. And thankfully, that’s exactly what Keller seems to be doing (endnotes aside, since those essays are for people like me I think).

Ultimately, I think we need more keen theological minds working on bringing engaging theology to the masses. Otherwise, we are stuck with books like The Shack being prominent. They fill a vacuum and are more easily understood than the bulk of books being written by theologians today. Rather than try to persuade someone that their opinion of a book like The Shack is wrong, I’d like to be able to offer a better reading alternative and open up a dialogue (to be cliche for a moment). While I spoke in generalities above about why someone might like the book, it is always better to understand why a particular person liked a particular book and then engage that person face to face if possible.

But I suppose, like Mack, one can dream at least…

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It all started when Alan Jacobs wrote an article for September’s issue of Harper’s Magazine. I had heard of the piece, but didn’t read it until I read Owen Strachan’s response to it, as well as Jacob’s response to Strachan’s response (which has a response by Strachan and final word by Jacobs). Then I saw Jake Meador’s response that brought Francis Schaeffer into the mix (which Jacob mentions later). To cap it off, Al Mohler responded, and now here we are.

I think it’s fair to say with all that responding going on, Jacobs struck a nerve that started a much needed discussion. His original article’s subtitle, “What became of the Christian intellectuals?” tells you what this conversation is about. Jacobs brings up two examples from mid 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr and C. S. Lewis. As already mentioned, Jake Meador throws Schaeffer into the mix. Mohler raises the question of whether we really want another Niebuhr given his actual take on Christianity. In closing his response to Jacobs, he says,

I join in Professor Jacobs’s lament over the failure of Christian intellectuals, for surely there is failure to be found. But we must be careful lest a quest for Christian intellectual influence meets its end in an intellect that is neither Christian nor influential.

The Christian intellectual influence we should seek is the influence of an intellect saturated in Christian truth, keenly applied to the questions of our times. Whether the secular world will listen to us, much less thank us for the effort, is another question altogether.

Taking the last point Mohler made, I think the reason Christian intellectual influence has waned can be explain via two issues: translation and publishing.

Now, when I say “translation,” I don’t necessarily mean from one language to another, but I kind of do. A general problem I see in the articulation of Christian thought is that the people with thoughts worth thinking don’t always express them in a way a general audience can grasp. The flipside is that those who connect with general audiences don’t always have thoughts worth thinking (or words worth saying).

Tim Keller provides a counterpoint to this, and is a good illustration of what I’m getting at with translation. If you’ve ever read any of his bigger books (or listened to a sermon or two), you’re probably aware that he is able to take philosophical, sociological, and theological concepts and explain them to a general audience really well. The audience needs to be fairly educated, but he started his pastorate in a rural Virginia church, so he can speak the language of common (i.e. normal) people. That’s what I mean by translation. You are able to understand academic conversations, but you can express them to normal people in a way that is illuminating for them.

N. T. Wright is another example of someone who does this well. He is able to navigate between the two worlds if you will, of the academy and the local church. Even more, I think he is able to navigate the local pub as well. That last part is more key than you think. It is one thing for a theologian or biblical scholar to be able to take the fruits of the academy and offer them to lay Christians. It is another for him to be able to explain the relevance of those fruits to his atheist neighbor over pints.

Contra Keller and Wright, it seems that man Christian intellectuals who could be influential are predominantly writing books to other Christian intellectuals. I’m certainly generalizing here a bit, but try to think of anyone else who has a Ph.D, deals with academic material, but also has a New York Times Best-Selling book or two. Authors tend to be in one or the other category. Certainly there are exceptions, but many fields only have one or two representative scholars who take the insights of the academy to the street.

Some of this is because of the other issue, which is publishing. I’d say by and large, the publishing opportunities available to Christian intellectuals gain them an audience of other like minded people. It’s a great time if you’re already on board with the Christian intellectual tradition, but you’re not really speaking to the larger society. Publishers that could have the reach aren’t going to publish you unless you’re a good writer (and/or have a good agent to facilitate the connection). And as grateful as I am to the many fine Christian publishers out there producing quality biblical and theological works, those books aren’t making the New York Times Best-Seller list anytime soon.

One reason for that is that these books can very often be boring, even to people like me. Boring might not be quite right. What I mean is that the subject matter is interesting, but the reading of it is rarely riveting. They are almost never as page turning as the book I read last Saturday, and I’m saying that as the target audience for many of these books. If I think they’re boring, they certainly aren’t going to be read by anyone who isn’t disciplined enough to force their way through for an assignment, review, or just to be able to say you’ve read that “important” book everyone is talking about.

This was actually a point that Jacobs somewhat made, that Strachan pushed back on. Jacobs suggested that Christian intellectuals are not getting published like they could because their writing isn’t that good. Strachan thinks it has more to do with the content and bias against it. The bias is certainly there, but if we go back to Keller, he wouldn’t have a contract with Penguin if he wasn’t a good communicator. If we had more people who could translate and communicate like Keller, I think we’d see more people getting published like he does, bias against Christianity or not.

But I think one reason we don’t is that people that could be translators like Keller don’t develop the skill because they mostly read books that aren’t well written. Keller is as good as he is, I think, and he has probably said, because he has absorbed so much C. S. Lewis. Whatever you think of Lewis’ theology, dude could write. And if you become a student of his writing, you’ll start down the road of perhaps starting to write like him (but hopefully in your own voice and not his).

However, I think unless you try otherwise, you mainly write and speak like what you read. And if you nerd out about the latest theology books and exclusively read them, that’s what you’ll sound like when you try to write, and will only really appeal to others who already share your interest and worldview. I would say we have a cycle of Christian intellectuals doing an excellent job of developing future Christian intellectuals, but by and large neither generation is developing the skills to speak to non intellectual, non Christian audiences well.

While I’m sure my analysis is open to scrutiny on many points, my main plea is hopefully not, and that is this. If you want to be an influential Christian intellectual, you need to understand the Christian intellectual tradition, as well as the world around you. A big part of that is understanding how people think, and what is important to the average person. Knowing that, you need to be able to communicate clearly and winsomely. You probably need to be a good story teller, and it helps if you have a sense of humor. Honestly, getting the Christian tradition down is the easy part. The rest of the intangibles take time and wisdom to develop, and our culture just doesn’t cater to doing that now does it?

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For a couple of years now, I’ve been a staff writer with a website called Christ and Pop Culture. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably seen me reference it, and perhaps link to articles I’ve written. Recently, my writeup on Unashamed posted (a good companion to The Soul of Shame) and you can get it free for a brief time. You can read my full write up here.

That’s right, by being a member of Christ and Pop Culture, you can support the writers who put out pretty stellar content on the site, and get free books (and other stuff too). You can read more about membership here. In my time doing the write ups, here’s some of the books that were available:

That should give an idea of the track record of books that are offered. Recently, I was working on a write-up for David Dark’s Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious, Due to a slight miscommunication, a more full length essay was already commissioned on it, and you should be able to read that here. Before I found that out, IVP had graciously sent me a hard copy of the book, so I felt like I should still post my thoughts on it.

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Dark writes in a meditative style, which makes the book a fairly easy read. However, he is helping readers reflect on their religious practices. Many of these might not seem to be so religious on the surface, and so Dark’s style helps disarm readers and move them toward reflection. In doing so, he shows that if we have entered into relationships with others and with facets of our culture, we have engaged to some extent in religious practices. Culture itself is intimately tied to religion and Dark subtly unmasks the connection. You can get a better feel for what he’s up to in the book by watching this video. Had you been a member before now, you would have just snagged yourself a copy!

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Another book that I received thanks to Crossway before I knew it would be free for members is Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley’s Conscience What It Is, How To Train IT, and Loving Those Who Differ. I liked this book so much that I immediately put it to use in class and decided to require it next year for my 11th grade Bible class. There are several diagrams within that I tried to recreate on the board (which is difficult for a lefty, but I’m a professional at this point). I am told it was helpful to several students as they prepare to navigate going away to college and starting to live by a different set of rules (or at least not having as many rules as previously).

While a short book, I think it does a masterful job of covering a much neglected topic in practical theology. D. A. Carson thought so too and that’s probably why he wrote the foreword. As try to navigate the straits between legalism and licentiousness, a book like this helps to clarify the discussion and offer a way for Christians to think about their Christian liberty and how it relates to those in their community. I would highly recommend this book, and it’s free if you’ve become a Christ and Pop Culture member by now. If not, why keep waiting?

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Christians have had an interest in western philosophy for pretty much as long as both existed. If you’re late to the game, you’d probably be surprised that many philosophers, at least post-Augustine, would have considered themselves Christians. The Enlightenment kind of gradually ruined that, but not before some significant thinkers emerged. One of those was Søren Kierkegaard.

When it’s comes to Kierkegaard, it is hard to imagine a philosopher simultaneously receiving as much love and disdain, both from Christian circles. Depending on who you ask, Kierkegaard is either super important and helpful or misguided and to be generally avoided.

Mark Tietjen is aware of these realities and tackles them head on in the first chapter of his recently published Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians. This is after a noted philosopher and Kierkegaard scholar (Merold Westphal) has foreworded and commended the book to us. In that first chapter, Tietjen says right off the bat, “My goal is to convince Christians as I have been convinced that Søren Kierkegaard is a voice that should be sought and heard for the edification of the church” (25).

From here, he briefly sketches Kierkegaard’s life before dealing with questions related to Christian appropriation of philosophy in general and Kierkegaard in particular. He then gives an overview of the general areas of Kierkegaard’s thought and how broad ranging and practical it can be.

The remaining four chapters are the core of the book and deal with Kierkegaard’s general thought on Jesus Christ, the human self, Christian witness, and the life of Christian love. Tietjen illustrates and illumines throughout by exposition from Kierkegaard’s writings. Here readers will be able to determine for themselves the value of Kierkegaard’s writings for us today.

I was particularly drawn to the motif in the subtitle. One may well wonder what being a Christian missionary to Christians entails. In the conclusion, Tietjen draws together the threads for why Kierkegaard would see the task as not only possible but necessary. He then lists out the rationale (161):

  • If there are some who are Christian in name only, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians
  • If there are some who have inherited a perverted form of Christianity and know nothing better, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians
  • If there are Christians who value created goods over the Creator, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians
  • If there are Christians who struggle to trust in God and his goodness, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians
  • If there are Christians who fail to believe God can redeem even the least redeemable person, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians
  • If there are Christians who lose hope that God’s kindness, forgiveness, and redemption extend even to them, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians
  • If there are Christians who “speak in tongues of angel,” and so on, but have not love, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians

Given what I see in our contemporary culture, it’s not hard to suggest there is a still a need for this kind of role. One might call it a “prophetic” type role, but I like the idea of a Christian missionary to Christians. In some sense, I feel like my calling involves a bit of that, especially as it relates to youth and college culture. Kierkegaard can serve as a model and template for how to pursue this calling.


Mark A Tietjen, Kierkegaard: Christian Missionary to ChristiansDowners Grove, IL: IVP Academic, March 2016. 173 pp. Paperback, $20.00.

Buy itAmazon

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

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Few things are more American than working when you’re supposed to rest. So, here I am writing this book review on the Fourth of July. But, I guess it’s ok because it’s for Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo’s One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics. At least I can be patriotic, especially since I’ve already unlocked the “get a sunburn by large body of water” achievement for the day. By the time you read this, I’ll be unlocking “eat too many calories in one sitting” via some all you can eat wings.

Now, as far as the book goes, it’s a great little resource, and I do mean litte. Just recently, I have learned that you should pay attention to book dimensions on Amazon. I tend to assume most books are 6×9, which I consider “normal.” This one is 5×7, which means it’s a smaller book, that thankfully has smaller font. And I say that not sarcastically because that means even though it is small and might seem like a Saturday afternoon read (it is, for me at least), it still has substantial content (side note: when are books going to start including word counts so we can gauge the length better?).

That content is divided roughly into two parts. The first 6 chapters lay a theoretical foundation for how to understand politics within a Christian worldview. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture paradigm comes in handy in chapter 2. The following chapter tackles how the gospel functions as a “public truth.” The relationship between church and state is mapped out in the following chapter. The final two in this part move toward the practical, with chapter 5 dealing with our post-Christian country and chapter 6 with what wisdom looks like in public discourse in that space.

It is fitting them that after a brief interlude, Ashford and Pappalardo take up key topics in each of the next 7 chapters. You could probably guess what those topics are, or I can just tell you:

  • Life and death
  • Marriage and sexuality
  • Economics and wealth
  • The environment and ecological stewardship
  • Racial diversity and race relations
  • Immigrants and immigration reform
  • War and peace

Hopefully no surprises in that list. It is hard to imagine a hot button topic (as opposed to a hot pocket) that doesn’t fit one of those categories. Because this is a brief introduction, the chapters can’t be exhaustive. What they can be is helpfully orienting, and then conclude with recommended further readings on the topics, which is what they are and do. The book is closed with a brief example of what we can learn from Augustine when it comes to this sort of thing (spoiler: more than you even know).

This is not the last or final word on how to politic as a Christian American, or even as an American Christian. It is not intended to be. What it is though, is a good first word that you can read for yourself and then give to your friend interested in politics (or tell him to buy it on Amazon). Then you all can have a meaningful discussion on the issues after a solid orientation to the theory and practice of politics. You can avoid the usual clucking of opinions that are merely conjectures masquerading as arguments (hopefully).

While that may sound harsh, I assure you it is intended that way. Politics and religion are two topics that many uninformed people gravitate toward in order to promote their ideas. Thankfully, that doesn’t characterize either author of this book from what I can tell. They are judicious and clear, building sound arguments and contributing to intelligent discourse. They would never do what I do a few sentences ago, which I did as illustration purposes I guess now that I think about it. Anyway, if you’re intrigued by political theater and want to think Christianly about it, go get this little primer and have at it.


Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American PoliticsNashville: B&H Academic, December 2015. 176 pp. Hardcover, $14.99.

Buy itAmazon

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to B&H Academic for the review copy!

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Apologetics is becoming more and more about finesse. Maybe it always has been. Straightforward presentations of facts and figures don’t usually cut it. There’s gotta be an angle.

I think some of this comes down to the audience. If you’re writing apologetics for other Christians, you don’t have to pay as much attention to persuasion. They’re already persuaded, but want to know the underlying foundations of Christianity. On the other hand, if you’re writing for people other than Christians, you have to pay attention to persuasion.

Along these lines, I’d recommend True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World by David Skeel. Thanks to IVP, I was able to read a copy at the beginning of summer. Skeel is S. Samuel Arsht Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He’s also an elder at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. In his book, he takes five key topics, ideas, beauty, suffering and sensation, justice, life and the afterlife, and explains how Christianity offers a better explanation of these given phenomena than materialism does. As he puts it, “My claim is a very simple one: Christianity tells us more about each of these paradoxes than you may think” (15)

While the ideal reader will be fairly intellectual, the tone and style are highly accessible. Perhaps because Skeel is a professor of law by trade, his writing is particularly clear in the midst of sophisticated discussion. It’s a short book but I’d imagine it making for many good pub discussions with an atheist friend or two. Skeel also writes as someone who didn’t grow up in a religious environment. After his curiosity was aroused in college lit classes and he read the Bible for himself that his journey toward Christianity began. Again, as he says, “The sheer beauty of the Bible is what first drew me in, and it’s still what I go back to when I’m asked over a beer late at night why I believe Christianity is true” (86).

All this to say, if you’re looking for a concise, yet compelling presentation of Christianity’s explanatory power, this is your book. I’m tempted to make it a late addition to one of my Bible classes, but I might just save it for book club.

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In a similar vein, and also at the beginning of the summer, I read through John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to The Ten Commandments thanks to BookLook Bloggers. It is a follow up to A Doubter’s Guide to The Bible, and from what I can now tell, part of an on-going series (next book is a A Doubter’s Guide to Church). Dickson seems to be primarily writing for a secular audience and tackles the idea that our ideas of ethics come from Moses and Jesus.

The opening chapter illustrate how pervasive the Ten Commandments are in the world (past and present). Next, Dickson raises the question of why we aspire to be good in the first place. He then offers three keys for understanding the Ten Commandments. These have to do with how Jesus “transposed” the commandments, that they can be divided into two tables (related to God and man), and that they are a “charter of freedom.” From here, Dickson goes command by command to finish out the book. He spends more time on the first five, and notes on the 6th that the remainder are fairly self explanatory (119). This is probably fair, and I’m sure there were certain constraints that kept the page count under 200.

All in all, I think this is great book to pass along to someone interested in ethics, law, justice, and perhaps politics. It is written with skeptics in mind (hence the title), but I would imagine many Christians would benefit from reading it as well. As a side note, I wish it had an index, but I appreciated that in the absence of footnotes, we were given parenthetical citations with publication info rather than endnotes. Combine this with the previous book I talked about and you’ve got a book skeptics book club reading list going.

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Lastly, thanks to Moody I was able to get a copy of Mark Sayers’ Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience. The subtitle gives you the two parts of the book. In the first, Sayers analyzes our current post-Christian culture and our craving for relevance. He then connects this analysis to an ancient heresy. In this case, it’s gnosticism, which he sees as a “gospel of the self.” In a perceptive chart, he compares ancient and modern versions of gnosticism to what the true gospel actually teaches. To give you an idea what he sees as contemporary gnosticism, here’s that column (65):

  • Your world is inferior [to mine]
  • The mundane is the problem
  • Turn your body into a perfect-looking body
  • Look inward to find the real you
  • Escape the mundane to the amazing life
  • Move toward the perfect life through tips, tweaks, hacks, and the secrets of success
  • You are a seeker, pursuing fulfillment through incredible experiences and pleasure
  • Move past organized religion and find spirituality
  • Move toward fulfillment by breaking past the barriers set by tradition, religion, and others
  • It’s all about you

If you ask me, that’s a pretty good snapshot of contemporary culture. This underlying philosophy gives rise to all kinds of movements and trends. With this description and critique in place, Sayers spends the second half of the book sketching the path of gospel resilience. He deals with rejecting the implicit prosperity gospel, how churches can stop catering to public opinion, and the need to deliver truth among other topics. As is often the case, the solution is only as good as the diagnosis is accurate. I think if Sayers is right about his cultural analysis (and I think he’s on to something), then what he offers in the second half of this book is probably something many church leaders need to interact with. I’ll probably need to ruminate a bit more on it, but I’m also probably gonna pass the book on to my pastor and see what he thinks.

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You may remember seeing this picture. It comes from a Business Insider post from 2013. The counties in blue contain roughly one half of the American population. You’ll notice as well that there are three clusters. Well, four if you separate Northern and Southern California. The other ones are first, the one connecting D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Then, there is the Florida cluster. We live in the county that is just inland from the east coast.

More technically, we live on the county line of Orange and Seminole Counties. Orange County is the 5th largest county in that Florida (34th nationally). Within the suburb we live (University), we are surrounded by the three most populated zip codes (32825, 32828, 32765), which have a total population of over 175,000. The first two are part of Alafaya, the largest suburb of Orlando (82,000). To add to that, we have the largest university in the country by undergrad enrollment literally next door (well, not literally, but within a mile). Because of the student population, roughly 1 out of every 3 people in our neck of the woods are college students.

Given all that, it is perhaps interesting that on the Cru at UCF website, there are only 7 churches listed that have connections to Cru. These are churches that Cru feels comfortable referring students to because they trust the teaching of the church and/or someone on staff goes there or has a relationships with someone in leadership at the church. Our church, One Hope, is one of these churches, and I have connections with a couple more. I know of several more than are listed on the website, but they are mostly smaller church plants in the area (or extension sites of other churches).

We often joke that Florida is the only place you have to go north to get to the South. Though it could see it being a reasonable assumption, Florida is not really part of the Bible belt. According to the most recent census data, “Nones” are the most predominant religious category at 57.9%. Evangelical protestants are less than half that at 18.9%. However, non-denoms and Southern Baptists combined have less adherents than the Catholic Church which is the largest single denomination in Orlando (but still only 12.7%). Couple this with the data from Barna’s most Bible-minded cities. I grew up in the epicenter, which is to say the agreed upon Bible belt. On the other hand, Orlando ranks #72 in the list of 100 (3 spots ahead of Seattle). We’re almost in the bottom fourth of the list that includes all those pagan Northeast cities.

What is also over-looked, or just unnoticed, is that Orlando is fairly progressive in terms of ideology. This is especially true of its relationship to the LGBT community. Gay pride was a thing in Orlando back in the 90’s when Disney and Universal still hosted Gay Days. Pride parades are a frequent activity in our downtown area. For the most part, Orlando is a fairly safe place to be openly gay and even celebrated.

Orlando is actually a fairly sexual city all things considered. A few years back, when Men’s Health crowned a city the porn capital (based on consumption), you’d assume Las Vegas would win. Instead, Vegas came in second to Orlando. Florida as a whole came out as the most pornified state based on number of DVD’s purchased, streamed, or rented, adult entertainment stores per city, rate of porn searches, and percentage of households subscribed to cable channels that show softcore porn.

Given all that, you can see how ridiculous it would be to suggest Christians are somehow complicit in the Orlando Pulse Shooting. When almost 2/3 of your population is religiously unaffiliated, it means you live in a fairly secular city. There is nothing about the Christian influence here that would create a culture conducive to hostility toward the LGBT community. It is for the most part, quite the opposite case. Outside commentators simultaneously underestimate how mainstream and accepted the LGBT movement is in Orlando, and overestimate how strong the Christian presence is (The Holy Land Experience notwithstanding).

As a result, we have quite the mission field here in central Florida. We live in a diverse and mostly un-Christian culture. There are thousands upon thousands of young people right in our backyard (not literally). There are questions and hurts in wake of the shooting a couple of weeks back. There are churches reaching out to care and to help. But in the city as a whole, and in our part of east Orlando, we are in the minority. We are striving to be a faithful presence as we hope to reach our city by reaching this generation. To do this, we need your help, and you can read my post from Monday for more about that.

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Every now and then I’ll read a book that makes me laugh out loud (i.e. LOL). It’s not often given the books that I tend to read, but when I saw that Sammy Rhodes’ This Is Awkward: How Life’s Uncomfortable Moments Open The Door to Intimacy and Connection was out, I knew it would do the trick. Thanks to Thomas Nelson’s partnership with BookLook Bloggers, I was able to get a hold of a free copy. I wanted to read it because 1) I enjoyed following Rhodes on Twitter, even as the whole plagiarism thing hit the fan (which he recounts in chapter 10) and 2) I’m an awkward introvert so I knew I’d resonate with a good bit of the book.

This book ends up being part humorous memoir of sorts and part meditation on how awkwardness awakens us to grace. Rhodes has a had a far rougher life than his jokes on Twitter would have let on. He can add “authentic” to his self-description along with “awkward.” It was probably already there and known to those students that he ministers to at The University of South Carolina. But now the wider public can get more of a glimpse.

Whether you primarily knew of Rhodes before the Twitter plagiarism fiasco ignited by Patton Oswalt or because of it, you’d do well to read Rhodes thoughts on it here. He had already come clean in my mind, but this gives you more background about where he was personally during that time and then moves from that to discussion of how being online can be an escape for introverts (or just people) but that it can also come with a price. I don’t think he tries to minimize what happened, and he definitely seems to have learned from it. He presents a kind of cautionary tale for what happens when you unexpectedly get “Twitter famous.”

Especially as summer approaches, I’d recommend taking a break from whatever you normally read and pick up This Is Awkward. I guess that is unless your usual genre of reading is awkward memoirs from introverted campus pastors. If that’s the case, I think you should point me in the direction of more books like this.


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Speaking of campus ministry, I recently went through a book that unlocked several insights for me. Thanks to Zondervan, I was able to get a hold of Bobby Harrington and Alex Absalom’s Discipleship That Fits: The Five Kinds of Relationships God Uses to Help Us Grow. For me, the key takeaway is what the subtitle suggests. Deeply indebted to Joseph Myers’ book The Search to Belong, Harrington and Absalom map out 5 contexts in which discipleship happens. Conveniently, you can also correlate these with relationships Jesus had in the Gospels (58-59):

  • Public (Jesus and the crowds)
  • Social (Jesus and the 70)
  • Personal (Jesus and the 12)
  • Transparent (Jesus and the 3)
  • Divine (Jesus and the Father)

As we seek to carry out the Great Commission and make disciples, we do well to attend to these different contexts. While it may be beneficial to teach people how to have a quiet time, that’s only one context (divine). Likewise, just because someone is in a small group (either personal or transparent context), doesn’t mean they are good to go. Ideally, all of the contexts work together to help mold us into the people that Jesus would want us to be. Within any school or church, all of these contexts should be present and developed in order to be utilized in discipleship.

I mentioned several insights were unlocked, and that covered a couple (pay attention to contexts, let them work together). Another was that I had been approaching discipleship at church and at school in a way that didn’t work within the given contexts. For instance, while we had developed the small groups at school a little more, their focus was primarily on doing Bible studies. But, they all already had a Bible class and heard sermons weekly. They needed a space to process what was going on in life, thus being more personal and transparent, rather than social, which was what it drifted toward when they had a “study” to do. I realized that we should provide a structure and possibly curriculum that is aimed at moving students from the social to the personal to the transparent context in their small groups. Not entirely sure how we’ll approach that yet, but it’s a slight modification we hope to make for next year.

In a similar vein, I realized that what we were doing for small groups at church (at least the ones I was involved in either as a member or a coach) was similar. I think often because of that, I found myself less interested week to week because I already did a lot of theological reading and studying so I wasn’t necessarily eager to do more. To be fair though, I really enjoyed and benefited from the times I was there. But I think the initial expectations were off because of what the group was. Had we spent more time fostering personal connections (and we did in the week that I personally enjoyed the most), I think it would have bound our group a little tighter together, and we could have done so without abandoning discussing the Bible or theology.

All of this is to say that Harrington and Absalom’s work is worth checking out and I found it immediately applicable. It’s helped me re-think discipleship in church and school and I feel like I’m better prepared for some of the things that I’ll hopefully launch later this summer and fall!

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Between the time I write this and you read it, I will have voted in the Florida primary. Kind of seems like an exercise in futility at this point, but since I could walk to the polling place (or drive by it on the way to gym) it also seems wrong to not exercise my civic duty before I exercise by upper body and quads. Also, since the polling place is a Unitarian Universalist church, it will be nice to see that location being used for something productive (just kidding, although not really, I’m just being ironic given what I said just a few sentences ago).

Anyway, let’s talk politics.

Recently, IVP Academic sent me a couple of books on the subject, as did Zondervan. The first I’ll mention is Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft. It is part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series, which I’ve commended previously (here, here, here, and here). Along with J. P. Moreland, Beckwith served as a series editor, and this gave him a chance to put the vision in the series preface into practice.

Over the course of 5 chapters, Beckwith covers topics like separation of church and state, secular liberalism, natural rights and natural moral law, and the Christian’s relationship to liberal democracy. The opening chapter gives a taxonomy of the branches of study within politics. All of this takes place in about 130 or so pages. While this makes it seems like a primer on the topics addressed (and it is), Beckwith offers sophisticated analysis of the issues he discusses and I found it particularly thought provoking. This is especially so for the final chapter on natural rights and moral law and whether one can ground either of those in God’s absence (short answer is no).

I think this book should be a if not the starting point for Christians who want to think more deeply about politics. Other books may be more comprehensive, but this one is more foundational (especially the opening chapter charting the lay of the land) and sets better groundwork (especially if you value philosophy). As there is a need for Christians to be more political savvy (not just more involved), this book is the place to start.

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The next place to stop off might be Zondervan’s Five Views on The Church and Politics. I’ve mentioned my fondness for multi-view books many times before. This one is no exception, although I felt that the contributors could have duked it out a bit more in the responses (especially for a book on politics). Whereas Beckwith’s book is more about thinking through the nature of political science and a Christian’s place in relationship to it, this book is focused more on the church’s relationship to political life. In other words, it is one thing for Christians to have certain expectations for private political involvement. It is another to try to dictate what the church at large should be doing in regards to political life.

Taking cues from Niebuhr’s typology in Christ and Culture, the contributors here are plotted along a similar spectrum:

  • Anabaptist (Separationist): Thomas Heilke
  • Lutheran (Paradoxical): Robert Benne
  • Black Church (Prophetic): Bruce Fields
  • Reformed (Transformationist): James K. A. Smith
  • Catholic (Synthetic): J. Brian Benestad

Each author was responsible to trace the historical development of their position. Then they were to consider their tradition’s view on the role of government, as well as also addressing the extent to which an individual Christians and churches should be involved. The goal is to lay out the theory underlying each tradition’s view, which is then applied to the practical situation of policy debates about domestic poverty (17). The authors for the most part complete their task well and in concise fashion. I found myself agreeing in part with each in one way or another, but found the most agreement with Smith’s Kuyperian vision.

What tends to emerge as you read is that each tradition is variegated such that each author is part of a spectrum within their own label. I think Smith is the most self-aware of this, but other authors either comment on themselves or others in the response sections. Speaking of the response sections, they tended to be a little more agreeable than most books like this that I’ve read. I think this might further illustrate politics can be messy. In other words, while the authors could be agreeable in their responses, they can’t all be fully on the same page regarding how involved the church should be in political life or even which kind of policies flow from “the” Christian position. For reasons why this is, one would need to jump back up and read Beckwith’s book.

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Finally, for a book that is not on politics per se, but definitely details some of the influences in American political life, you should read John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion. In a nutshell, here’s the argument of the book:

Exceptionalism is an aspect of American civil religion. Closed American exceptionalism entails the five theological commitments I listed above [chosen nation, divine commission, innocence, sacred land, glory], each conflicting with the Christian gospel and potentially leading to idolatry, so it must be discarded. But open American exceptionalism – while it remains a part of civil religion – serves as a benefit to the nation, to religion and to the world by fostering a civic engagement informed by freedom, equality, and justice. (20)

The first two chapters of the book explain the historical roots of American exceptionalism. It is kind of like the new patriotism and entails a web of beliefs and moods about the status of the nation (“we’re different”), it’s mission (global peacekeeper, model for others, etc), and its character (“we’re better and everyone should be like us”). Wilsey makes a distinction between open and closed exceptionalism, which is important to keep in mind:

Closed exceptionalism is unrealistic and unchristian because it locates life’s ultimate purpose and meaning in America itself as the millennial fulfillment of human experience. But open exceptionalism find its expression in the American creed of individual freedom, natural rights, justice and equality (32).

Exceptionalism is not the problem per se, but rather how it is construed in relationship to the American story can be problematic. Thinking of America as a chosen nation that has a right to the land it inhabits and is on a divine mission to save the world is closed American exceptionalism. This plays itself out when one views immigrants (who make up the nation to begin with) are problematic because they intrude and wants to build higher and higher walls to keep them out. On the other hand, one could have a view American as exceptional, but see this land as a beacon of hope to the oppressed and offering unique opportunities for the advancement of human flourishing. The question is whether your view of exceptionalism leads to a wagon circling mentality or to offer a helping hand knowing you come from a place of privilege.

With this in mind, the rest of the chapters tackle the theological commitments that go with closed exceptionalism. The roots and development of each receive their own chapter length treatment. The final chapter reiterates the point that the closed version of American exceptionalism is not compatible with Christian faith, either theologically or practically. On the other hand, a model of open exceptionalism is good for civic engagement and human flourishing.

This is an important read for anyone who has believed or was taught that America is (or was) a Christian nation. Certain strains of that teaching are highly problematic (and Wilsey examines several that appear in homeschool curricula in the final chapter) and do more harm than good when comes to our perception of our nation. To help correct our view of our nation, while still maintaining a high view of it, I’d recommend working through Wilsey’s book this political season.

Why I Went To Seminary

November 11, 2015 — 4 Comments

There should be a compelling reason anyone would opt to spend more money on a graduate education when in many cases a good undergraduate degree can get you started off in a promising career. This is especially true for someone like myself, who managed to graduate college with zero debt by never taking out a student loan. However, eight years later, I now find myself laden with size-able, but not outrageous student loans to pay off.

In addition to the financial concerns tied to a graduate education, there should be an even more compelling reason to pursue the particular degree I pursued. Unlike a typical Master of the Arts degree (around 45-60 credit hours), the Master of Theology is 120 hours plus an internship and a thesis. In other words, it was four more years of school at an even harder level than undergraduate studies.

So, why did I go to seminary?

The short answer is I went to seminary because I knew I needed to pursue a specific call to develop my mind theologically and use that to build up the church once I left. In a certain sense, I didn’t go to seminary to get a degree to get a job, but went because it was the next step in my development as a disciple of Christ. Similarly, as I’m thinking of pursuing a Ph.D in the coming years, I’m also not necessarily doing so in order to get a better job but because it is the next step in my fulfilling my calling to develop my mind theologically and serve the church better.

That’s the short answer. Now, for the longer reflections.

When deciding whether or not to go to seminary, it is important to think through whether you’re going for personal development or job credentials. I primarily went for the former, but wanted the latter in order to teach, but not necessarily be a pastor. I learned on the other side of seminary though that on the job experience tends to trump degrees in the current church market, especially if we’re talking Acts 29. Networking plays a bigger part than I anticipated, and if I had it to do over, I would have tried to work in a local church the entire time I was in seminary.

Qualifications can actually be a double-edged sword. A couple of years ago I was exploring job options outside of the classroom and interviewed at a few churches. In both cases, being seminary trained worked against me. In one case, the head pastor wasn’t seminary trained and didn’t feel like he could work with someone like me (as in, someone who he felt knew more and might be divisive with that knowledge). In the other, I had the experience working with youth, and could clearly teach the Bible to them, but wasn’t “goofy” enough to be a youth pastor and there was a sense in which I’d be over-qualified for working with teenagers.

I say all this to point out the counterintuitive nature of many churches today where being seminary trained can almost be a liability rather than an asset. I think some of this might be a pendulum swing in reaction to prioritizing hiring pastors who had seminary credentials, but not necessarily 1 Timothy 3 credentials in character. My impression within our neck of the woods in Acts 29 is that existential 1 Timothy 3 credentials are more important than having a degree from seminary. That may very well be true, but it would be better to prioritize both instead of privileging one over the other.

Having said all this, I think the best practice would be to go to seminary for reasons like I did (it’s the next step in your discipleship) but have a plan for vocational issues on the other side. Going to seminary might not terminate in getting a job at a church, but if you feel that God is calling you to develop yourself in that way, it’s the right choice to make. You are preparing yourself better for full-time ministry one way or the other. By that I mean, as a Christian, you’re called to full-time ministry in the sense that you’re always a disciple on mission. However, you may not be doing that full-time ministry as a job. Some people will participate in full-time ministry as a means of supporting their family. Some people will support their family by other means, and in the process, continue to be a disciple on mission in their workplace and beyond.  Seminary could prepare you well for either path, but it’s not as essential for those working outside the church or parachurch.

The trick then, is trying to figure out on the front end whether you’re ultimately pursuing vocational (paid) or non-vocational ministry. If it’s the latter, I would count the cost much more seriously. Or at the very least, it could be something you do by distance while continuing to work your full-time job. That brings us into a different question, “should I go to seminary?” which I’ll answer in the next post. I think I laid out well why I ended up going. And full disclosure, I don’t work at a church, and while I do teach, I didn’t need the Th.M to do so. It helps tremendously, but I would have been qualified to teach with just the bachelors degree that I have. There are some perks that come with being somewhat overprepared, but I’ll save that for a later post. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to think through why you want to go to seminary, and see if it is more pragmatic (I need the degree to get the job I want) or existential (I need to do this because I want to grow theologically). They are both good reasons, but you should know which one is you as you count the cost.