Archives For Worship

Football season is officially over. Much of the nation is in mourning, not just for that, but that the Patriots won their 5th championship. At the same time, even a casual fan would need to admit that it was one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. This would mean the Atlanta Falcons lost the best and worst Super Bowls of all time. Even more begrudgingly, one might entertain the idea that Tom Brady and Bill Belichek are the greatest of all time. As a Dolphins fan, I shudder at the thought.

While I mostly watch the game as a game, I rarely watch events like this as just games. Part of that is just me being analytical, and the other part is the after effects of reading a collection of essays called From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. One essay in particular, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” has some obvious connections here.

The author, Joseph Price notes,

Professional football games are not quite so obviously religious in character. Yet there is a remarkable sense in which the Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth. Like festivals in ancient societies, which made no distinctions regarding the religious, political, and sporting character of certain events, the Super Bowl succeeds in reuniting these now disparate dimensions of social life (137)

Using those categories, let’s consider how last night played out.

Religion

While we might consider our culture too “secular” for pagan temples, we don’t seem to mind giant sports stadiums. As I’ve written elsewhere,

On close inspection, the “liturgy” of a football game is hauntingly similar to a worship service. You put on the garments that identify you with worshipers of the same deity (mascot). You gather at a temple (stadium, or couch in front a big screen) where priests (refs) mediate the festivities where the most devoted worshipers (players) lay it all on the altar (field). The resulting spectacle delivers an intensity that can easily translate into a worship experience for some fans.

We could add to this the elements of the celebrity presence and the halftime show. First, in ancient Greece, the athletic activities were conducted in honor of the gods. On the one hand, you could consider Robert Kraft the god of the Patriots and Tom Brady is performing for his honor. On the other hand, you could say that the entire game, regardless of who is playing, is played out for celebrities who are the embodiment of the American gods money, sex, and power. Why else are we having so many screen shots of the famous people watching? I’m watching to watch the game, not see who’s in attendance.

Second, the halftime show is certainly akin to a worship service. From this point of view, it doesn’t particularly matter who the artist is, just that the performance is as transcendent as possible, and the music involved glorifies American ideals in some way. It is simultaneously an ad for the artist and a call to worship through song, although it is not always clear who or what is being worshiped. Though last night with Lady Gaga, I’m sure you could sift through the lyrics in her medley and get a good idea. I just don’t care that much since they weren’t aquatic creatures involved.

Politics

If you’ve never thought of sports as political, you should think more. It wouldn’t make much sense why there is so much American pageantry involved in the games otherwise. A former President does the coin toss. We sing the national anthem, after a special musical guest sang God Bless America. In the civil religious calendar of American culture, the Super Bowl is the winter festival at which we acknowledge our American-ness by gathering with a group of friends and watching other people exercise and while we eat too many calories. It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.

This political element is not restricted to football, but is part of every major sporting event. It is actually part of every sporting event, it is just much more overt and amped up when it’s the Super Bowl. We have to unfurl a giant flag and have military personnel, current and former, on hand in order to honor veterans and servicemen. Not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a very political thing woven into what most people would consider just entertainment. You might also note that when a coach doesn’t want to talk too much about a big game ahead, he might default to politics more than any other topic.

Myth

This might be a bit of a stretch so bear with me. Price pointed out that the actual game of football, it is a “contemporary reenactment of the American frontier spirit” (139) What he meant by that is the football depicts the rapid conquest of territory by means of violence, which is one way to think of how the west was won. So in one sense, a football game is a mythological depiction, through sport, of something deeply part of the American psyche. It’s Manifest Destiny on steroids.

While that might be tricky to validate, the mythology of football itself within the American psyche is not. The Super Bowl is never a stand alone game. It is where legends are made and where some athletes cement their legacy as the greatest of all time in their respective positions. Especially in a game like last night, what happens on the field lives on for decades. If you watched the game last night, you’ll more than likely tell someone years from now about it and what it was like. It’s not that it is mythological in its essence, but more so in its significance.

All of this perhaps why Price concludes,

As a sporting event, the Super Bowl represents the season’s culmination of a major American game. As a popular spectacle, it encourages endorsement by politicians and incorporates elements of nationalism. And as a cultural festival, it commands vast allegiance while dramatizing and reinforcing the religious myths of national innocence and apotheosis (140).

And all this time you just thought it was a game right? The Super Bowl is America’s biggest game, but it is overtly religious and is one of the high points in the civil religious calendar as the premier winter festival.

As with most things in our culture, the thing is never just the thing. There’s a bit more below the surface waiting to be unearthed. And if it’s the Patriots, it unusually involves some sort of gate based scandal, so at least we all have that to look forward to.

I don’t remember the exact time I first saw this video, but I remember it being at Word of Life, maybe during a missions conference (makes sense). We’ve watched it a couple of times in small group, and it’s always a joy to see these people hear and understand the gospel for the first time. Justin Taylor posted it on Easter and I thought it deserved a re-post.

As he says, you have to watch it until the end, and really need to take the 25 minutes to watch it start to finish. You won’t be disappointed!

You can also watch this to see what happened after the conversions in the above video:

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Over at the 9Marks blog, there are two different views about music and meaning posted. The first one is from Harold Best. The second is from Ken Myers. Both were asked to answer the following questions:

  • Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes?
  • Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
  • Are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?

Best answers more or less point by point. Myers offers a broad answer meant to cover each question. Best’s answers are clear and persuasive. Myer’s answer is not entirely clear, and not really persuasive. He actually deals with the first question toward the end of his response and says this:

Can God use musical forms that evolved to express autonomy and defiance for “redemptive purposes”? Of course, but that is to say something about God, not about our responsibility to behave wisely. I believe God could use someone’s steady diet of fatty and sugary foods to improve cardiac health, or that he could use the cultivation of aggression and vengeance to promote a spirit of gentle humility. But should we give our children stones when they ask for bread, insisting that God perform a work of transubstantiation at every meal?

Earlier in the article, Myers laments the rise of postmodern nihilism and its encroachment into musical forms. The result is the view that musical forms are neutral and meaningless. Myers is not a fan, and probably much like T. David Gordon, would argue that certain forms can be inherently inappropriate, especially if being considered for use in worship.

While I would say there are forms of music that would not be entirely appropriate in the worship service (i.e. most of the music I like), it’s a stretch to suggest that there are forms of music (or genres) that in and of themselves express autonomy and defiance. Certainly there are lyrics that do so, but I don’t think there are genres of music that do so. If there are, I don’t think that’s too different than asserting certain chords are expressing autonomy and defiance.

This, to me, is problematic. I’m not sure what it evens means to suggest that musical forms express meaning. It feels like asking, “what does a C# minor mean?” Or, to expand, “what does the chord progression C#m-A-E-B mean?” Whatever it means, it is certainly not an absolute meaning that is abstracted from all individual uses. Perhaps an artist that wants to express autonomy could employ that chord progression in doing so, but that is more an expression of the artist than something inherent in the chord voicings and progression.

Let’s draw an analogy with the normal mode of expressing meaning: language. To assert that musical forms (absent lyrics) express attitudes like autonomy or defiance, is like saying certain sentence structures express autonomy and defiance regardless of authorial intent or the propositional content of the sentences. It makes more sense to say certain authors want to express autonomy or defiance and do so through certain sentences. The form the sentences take doesn’t in and of itself express the autonomy or defiance. Likewise, certain musicians and artists want to express autonomy and defiance, but they can do so through just about any genre and form of music. But, the message won’t be clear unless lyrics are attached because music in and of itself does not communicate meaning. That’s a category confusion.

I could probably go on, but this might be more of a series of posts rather than a one time statement. Read the articles I linked to and see what you think. I really like what Best has to say, and I think would generally agree with his position. His thinking certainly seems to be more in line with how music actually functions. It resonated with me at least. Maybe next post I’ll be a little more positive and expand on some of what Best said. Until then, I’ll be continuing to get used to those two extra strings on my guitar.

9781587433443

Craig Detweiler, iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social LivesGrand Rapids: Brazos Press, November, 2013. 256 pp. Paperback, $17.99.

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Craig Detweiler is professor of communication and director of the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University. He also writes a lot, and he’s make a film or two. In other words, a book on technology is right up his alley.

I first encountered Detweiler when I was writing my thesis, and I found his work in Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century to be helpful. Mainly, he was interacting thoughtfully at the theological level with films, and more open to it being a revelatory encounter than many Christians who write books on movies. Maybe a little too open for some people, but I nonetheless thought he had many valuable ideas when it came to watching movies responsibly.

So, when I saw he wrote a book on technology, I expected similar thoughtful interactions. Flipping through the table of contents, you can see that Detweiler focuses on the big tech giants:

  • Apple (chapter 2)
  • Amazon (chapter 4)
  • Google (chapter 5)
  • Facebook (chapter 7)
  • YouTube/Twitter/Instagram (chapter 8)

In his writing, he is trying to sketch a theology of technology, “to point out how spiritual our designs can be and how material theological concerns should be” (10-11). Doing so requires interacting with the “iGods” who are first identified as the founders of the above tech giants (8). Obviously this is a play on Apple’s “I” language, and it certainly fits the point Detweiler is making on the whole. That is, the technologies that we use so often are meant to be centered around us, but eventually they start to mold us. As an extension of us, they are separate, yet intimately connected. Detweiler wants to explore this interface.

There is some fluidity in language, so that Google and Facebook themselves take on iGod status (9). As you continue reading, this isn’t really a problem, so perhaps it is best to consider the “iGods” as a way of referring to the tech company itself when it reaches a certain stature, or may relate to the man behind it. YouTube/Twitter/Instagram have not yet reached “iGods” status, which is why they get a combined chapter. But they are well on their way.

In his opening chapter defining technology, Detweiler notes that “from each tech company profiled in this book, we can deduce a creation narrative” (40). If that is true, there is a sense in which each company is promoting a worldview that involves telling their creation story, explaining what problem they are here to fix, and how to achieve true redemption through the product they are selling.

Detweiler then traces the cultural history of each of these tech companies, with interludes on the internet (chapter 3, 73-77) and social networking (chapter 6, 131-135). The focus is mostly on explaining the development of the particular company. So for instance, the Apple chapter (45-71) follows a similar trajectory as the Steve Jobs movie, and goes from Job’s parents basement to the announcement of the iPhone (46-65). The final 6 pages then get into more detail of the implications of this particular technology, how it affects us, and how we can respond. This is a pretty typical breakdown of the other 4 main chapters.

While this is informative and interesting, I didn’t find much of the discussion particularly illuminating. Overall, I would say the book is more historical than practical. A better title might have been “The Rise of the iGods” to bring out this fact. I think I was expecting the chapters to be more focused on thinking theologically about the particular technologies than they actually were. But, from the opening chapter, Detweiler alerts readers that “we will study the leading technology companies as a means of determining what theological shifts are occuring. We will measure these general revelations against the special revelation of Scripture to figure out whether they need to be embraced and encouraged or resisted and reframed” (43). Given that, this isn’t a case of false advertising. From a general glance over the cover and table of contents, you might assume this is a much different book. But Detweiler defines his study well early on, so once you’re reading, you know where you’re going.

The question then is whether or not this is the journey you want to take. And whether or not this kind of journey is even helpful. Going back to Detweiler’s last quote, I don’t particularly think that “theological shifts” brought on by tech companies qualifies as general revelation. We can certainly bring special revelation of Scripture to bear on them to understand them better, but its seem like a stretch to bring in the category of general revelation. This goes back to what I mentioned earlier about Detweiler’s film book. His eagerness to listen to the culture and to bring Scripture to bear on it is to be commended. But, in the midst of that, it sometimes feels like the culture is being elevated to a revelatory status that is sometimes not appropriate. Does not mean God cannot reveal himself through culture, but rather that the human products of culture are perhaps better thought of as indirectly revelatory. The reveal more about the person made in God’s image, which thus reveals God. But the product itself is not revelatory.

Having said all that, this book can still prove useful. I don’t know who I would particularly recommend it to because of its emphasis on the historical dimension. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter are sparse and sometimes vague (it’s hard to write good questions!). I had thought about using it in my digital media class, but since I’m teaching high schoolers, this is really out of their league. There are other books I might consider (From the Garden to The City for one), but this book didn’t seem suitable for that purpose to me. Still, the storytelling involved in explaining the rise of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon was compelling. If that is what you’re particularly interested in, this is a perfect fit. If you’re more interested in thinking theologically about technology, this book has some fruitful lines of thinking. But on the whole, I didn’t find it all that thought provoking. I could maybe give it another read through to decipher whether that was my problem or the book’s problem, but given what I’ve said above, I’ll let you decide.

9780310514879James Stuart Bell, with Patrick J. Kelly, Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions From The Early Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, October 2013. 400 pp. Hardcover, $24.99

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I think I’ve mentioned on here before that I’m not usually a huge fan of devotionals. I am however willing to give one or two a try. It’s kind of yearly thing, and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably see my post a review of a devotional I did last year.

This year, I thought I’d check out James Stuart Bell’s Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions From The Early Church. Mainly, I was curious to see how it would be put together, and whether it was something I’d like to integrate long term (or at least utilize here and there). I’m not sure if its really for me personally, though Ali and I are reading a day to supplement when we are pressed for time with our family devotions. It could however be for you, but I should probably tell you more about it so you can make up your mind.

The general layout is a daily devotion for each day of the year, though day numbers are used instead of dates. If you want to, I suppose you can do the calculations and figure out which day is which (today is day 316 I think). Or you can just start at day 1 when you first pick this up.

As you are reading, you are greeted with a title and a short verse. The main body of the daily reading is drawn from a particular writer in the early church. The span of writers goes from the early second century (someone like say Justin Martyr) up to the 8th century (with someone like say, John of Damascus). This means you are getting gleanings from writers known as the church fathers if you are keeping score at home.

Some readers may wonder why we should even care about what the church fathers have to say. To that, Bell offers these reasons:

  • They can offer a corrective to some of our modern imbalances
  • They shared a great commitment to Christian doctrine (some exceptions of course)
  • They were committed to Scripture
  • They had a commitment to personal virtue and Christlikeness
  • They were concerned for pastors

More could be listed, but Bell seems sensitive to the fact that many general readers will think the church fathers archaic or perhaps too daunting to investigate. To counter that, he is offering readers an easy entry point and focusing on the writings that will feed readers devotionally.

Of the portions that I read, they were surprisingly accessible. I probably shouldn’t have been that surprised since the whole thrust of the devotional is that readers’ “faith will be reawakened” as they read these early church writings, which means they need to be selections accessible to the average reader who might not know Athanasuis from Anselm.

On the whole, I think the selections give readers a good flavoring of the various voices the church fathers have. Occasionally, a reading spans a couple of days instead of being confined to one, but for the most part the days are stand alone, so you could skip around.

A different pathway through this book would be to look up the brief biological sketches in the glossary, pick a church fathers that interests you, and then progressively read each day which features a selection from his writings. You could do this alphabetically, which would be interesting to say the least.

The one downside that I could pin-point in all of this is that readers are not alerted to where the selection is drawn from. Most readers probably will not care, but if you’re like me, you kind of like to know where you could read more if you are interested. Unfortunately, while there is a glossary and a scripture index, there are no endnotes that catalog where the writings are drawn from.

Aside from that, if you are unfamiliar with the church fathers and would like an accessible entry point into some of their devotional wisdom, this might be a book for you. If you’re already familiar with the fathers, you might like reading their writings in a devotional format. If you’re not familiar and not interested, then I think you’re missing out (though you’re certainly free to never explore anything the fathers have to say). If you don’t like devotionals, well, I can sympathize. But if you do, then you probably ought to give this one a spin if you’re the market for something new (or is it old?).

This was a realization I had the other day and I’m wondering why it took so long.

Some of it might be the fresh perspective I had after spending the summer working Sat/Sun mornings at Starbucks. By doing that, I missed church for the better part of two months. The first Sunday I was back, I was looking forward to the worship set since that’s the part I felt I was actually missing (I listen to sermons a lot anyway).

But, as I was standing there, I guess I was just a little more sensitive to what my mind actually does most of the time I’m out with the congregation instead of up with the band.

You see, I’m usually part of the band (usually on electric guitar). Worship for me comes more naturally with an instrument in my hands, even though I don’t sing and play when I’m up there (or on any other occasion). But, I’m completely focused on what I am doing in the context of the worship service and my playing is my worship. I might not be singing, but I’m not mentally somewhere else.

Singing is a different story. One, it’s not something I do much of, so I’m more focused on the actual mechanics of what I’m doing rather than the content of the song’s lyrics. Two, I’ve subconsciously programmed myself to think about other things when music is playing. I didn’t do it on purpose, but that’s what I’ve realized is happening.

Actually that’s not true, I kind of did it on purpose. Basically, I use music when I’m studying to facilitate focus, but I also use it when I’m driving to process things. Pretty much every other time I listen to music, it’s to think, and never about the lyrics of the songs. Because I do this in such high volume (quantity, not necessarily decibels), my subconscious inclination when music is playing is to start thinking about life or some deep philosophical thing only I would think about.

Live music compounds this issue because as you might guess, I’m not the guy at the concert singing my lungs out to every song (or screaming them out more accurately). No, I’m the guy in the back with a good enough view to see all the musicians simultaneously so I can enjoy the sonics with my ears and analyze the playing technique with my eyes. I find that it is usually musically inspirational and tends to jumpstart my imagination, but once again, in no way connected to the lyrics of the songs.

So, bring all of this into a Sunday morning context and to say it is hard for me to focus on singing is an understatement. Realizing this, I can now do something about it (knowing is half the battle right?), though I’d still rather be playing.

Hopefully I don’t swing too far in the other direction, which could also be a problem, you know because of that theology degree and everything. It’s hard to find a worship song that doesn’t have some theologically ambiguous line, accidental heresy, or less than accurate interpretation of some biblical passage. Even “In Christ Alone” has a hiccup in one of the lines that is not theologically accurate (you’ll have to spot it on your own). Most of the ones we sing at church are super solid, so I doubt that would be a problem, but it’s a least still something to keep an eye out for. Especially when you’re Mr. Analytical.

The moral of the story is that if you’re having trouble getting into the worship at church, maybe you should think about how you interact with music in other contexts. Since I use it to listen to and think, that’s what my default on Sunday morning. Other people’s default might be to just mindlessly sing along simply because there is live music playing. I don’t know. What I do know is that I can’t just think “well I guess this is just who I am, so it’s ok.” It is just who I am, but that doesn’t give me a free pass to not engage in worship on Sunday mornings when I’m out in the seats instead of up on the stage. It means I have a “natural” tendency that works against my desire to worship and knowing what it is I can now work against it.

I say “natural” because it sort of goes with my personality, but it’s also a lot of “nurture” on my part. Nurture can be changed though, and slowly but surely, I think I can nurture myself into being more attentive on Sunday mornings. Not in a legalistic sort of sense, but hopefully in a graceful (meaning full of grace) way.

In the meantime, I’ve got some thinking to do, and I know just the album for it…

an neglegted grace 4

Jason Helopoulos is Assistant Pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s Kevin DeYoung’s church, and he and Jason are good friends. Jason is also a graduate of Dallas Seminary (finishing the same year I started college), so we probably have some mutual professor friends. What I’m trying to tell you is, you may never have heard of Jason (unless you remember him taking over DeYoung’s blog this and last summer so DeYoung could have a break), but he seems like a pretty legit guy.

His first book, A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in The Christian Home, is rather short, but it is timely and shouldn’t be overlooked if you’re a guy. I say that because if you’re a guy, the default is to neglect family worship. Either you’re currently doing so with your wife and kids (or just wife), or you’re single and it’s not on your radar for the future. In either case, this book is for you.

As Kevin DeYoung tells us in the foreword,

I love the title: A Neglected Grace. Instead of hammering us with the heavy hand of ought, Jason holds out family worship as an example of divine kindness. Yes, we need motivation for the discipline of family worship, but the best, longest-lasting motivation comes not by feeling terrible for what we could be doing better, but by believing what good God has in store for us. The message of the book isn’t “Pray with your family or else!” but “Think of how sweet this will be.” (11-12)

That is important to keep in mind as you read. Family worship is first and foremost as grace to us. As Jason explains in his introduction,

Family worship. This glorious expression of our Christian faith used to mark Christian homes, but over the past one hundred years, the evangelical church seems to have forgotten about it. It is time for us to explore and promote family worship in the church again. We need to hear about the need for family worship in our homes. Pastors need to stress the importance of it. And laypeople need to be talking about it. But even more importantly, we need to begin to practice it, so that this silent void which has crept into our Christian homes will disappear. My hope is that our Christian homes will once again be filled with fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, sisters, and brothers that are worshiping to the glory of God. (13-14)

In writing about family worship, Jason hopes that “the Lord will use this book to encourage you and your family to introduce family worship in your home or to persevere in it. There is no better time than now for this time-tested and beneficial aspect of the Christian life to be revived” (15).

With that in mind, chapter 1 lays the foundation of worship as a fundamentally human activity. Jason sees worship in three spheres:

  • Secret worship (private devotions, that sort of thing)
  • Corporate worship (Sunday gatherings)
  • Family worship

A healthy spiritual life will engage in worship in all three spheres. We tend to get the second sphere, struggle with the first, and speaking from personal experience, all but ignore the third. To help with that, chapter 2 explains how family worship should be our joyful responsibility. Chapter 3 then enumerates more reasons we should want to pursue family worship:

  • It centers the home
  • It encourages our children in Christ
  • It encourages Christian character
  • It encourages peace in the home 1
  • It binds the family together
  • It provides common knowledge
  • It equips our children for corporate worship
  • It reinforces spiritual headship
  • It provides systematic discipleship

Since this is quite the list of compelling reasons (I think at least), in chapter the focus turns to the nuts and bolts of practicing family worship. Jason’s advice comes down to singing a worship song together, reading through a passage of Scripture, briefly discussing, and then closing in prayer. You can add additional elements, but the opportunity to sing, read, and pray may lead to further conversations, or it may not. At most, you’re looking at about 15 minutes to sow grace into your family life.

In chapter 5, Jason discusses the manner of our worship. He sees that it should be reverent, joyful, and regular/consistent. As he encourages readers:

Whenever you realize that your family worship hasn’t been regular and consistent lately, remember that it is a means of grace, not a burden to bear, so just pick it back up and start again. It is good to remind ourselves that every family goes through different seasons. There may be times when my family is joyful, and other times that it seems like anything but joyful. We may have a couple of weeks in which our family’s interaction with Scripture, praying of prayers, and singing of hymns seems to be marked by an uncommon reverence, and other weeks that it seems to be treated casually. Through all seasons, be patient, be gracious, and keep praying that God would bless. He isn’t looking for perfection; that standard has been met by Christ. Rest and enjoy what you have, while all the while striving and praying that your family worship becomes even more reverent, joyful, regular and consistent. (71)

Chapter 6 then clarifies what family worship is not so that there is no confusion over its function in the Christian life. Chapter 7 is Jason’s practical tid bits to keep in mind once you are attempting to regularly practice family worship and chapter 8 deals with special circumstances (single parents, feelings of inadequacy, unbelieving spouses, Christian spouse not on board, ages of children, etc.). Finally, in chapter 9, Jason closes out with and encouragement to “just do it,” and offers testimonials from various friends (and family) about their experience in regularly participating in family worship. The book proper finishes with appendices offer sample structures, resources, and creeds (and a list of catechisms).

Conclusion

All in all, I found this a very helpful book. Family worship is something we’ve been attempting to do regularly, though with unfortunately more misses than hits. I definitely want to have the habit down before we start having kids. If you’re in a similar situation, you’ll find Jason’s book both encouraging and a great resource to get your started. He pretty much covers all the bases clearly and concisely. He doesn’t beat readers over the head with their failures and is very realistic about how things will go. He provides the tools you need to get started and the tips you’ll need once the ball is rolling. If you’re a guy, you probably ought to pick up this book. That is, unless you are already a family worship master. 2 But, since we could all probably use some help with leading our families well, this a great little volume to pick up.

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Notes:

  1. Jason writes, “As a pastor, I have seen very few marriages end in divorce because of one act of adultery or some other “notorious” sin. Rather, most divorces occur because of built-up pain, a lack of forgiveness, grudges, etc., which have accumulated over time. Family worship aids a family to confront their own sin and its effect upon each other. As an example, it is awfully hard for a father to lead his family in worship when he has just yelled at his wife. If he is going to lead his family before the throne of grace, he will first have to ask for forgiveness from his wife. And she will find that it is hard to worship unless she willingly forgives him. This couple’s children will observe and learn from this. They will be encouraged to pursue peace and forgiveness as they see their father and mother model it” (45)
  2. If that’s you, maybe pick this up for a “friend” and give it to them?

death-by-living-life-is-meant-to-be-spent

Much like his last foray into non-fiction, N. D. Wilson’s Death By Living: Life Is Meant To Be Spent does not lend itself to easy review. It is kind of a genre-breaker, but in a good way. It’s non-fiction, but it’s written in imaginative prose and contains a myriad of stories. It reads like meditations on mortality with the “point” being to live like you’re alive. It’s not a book you read and a review so much as you inhabit and apply.

In many ways, Death By Living is a sequel to Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, but a sequel in a way that it is not necessary to have read the predecessor. It’s more like a continuation of the previous thought, but in such a way that it can be read as a stand alone set of musings on how to live given the mortal coil we find ourselves traversing. While Notes focuses on a way of seeing, Death focuses on a way of living (xi).

Death By Living is a book aimed at capturing the reader’s imagination through story to make a point (which is roughly the subtitle of the book). Wilson’s inspiration springs from the recent passing of his maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother. He retells many stories from his paternal grandfather that he has been capturing via video (a good idea by the way) and tells of his own journeys in living life to the fullest.

As far as a layout goes, chapter 1 extends the introduction a bit, and then chapter 2 explains the foundational role stories play both in this book and in teaching us how to live. Chapter 3 is the first of several reminisces relating to Wilson’s grandparents (the others are chapter 7, 11, and 14). Chapter 4 is about the importance of living a story and about which story you choose to live (or “enflesh”). Chapter 5 is the first of several “city hiatus” chapters (the others being 9, 12, and 16) and retells a story from the Wilson clan travelogue. Chapter 6, 8, 10, 13, and 15 continue to flesh out this idea of living life within a story and spending it well.

Like I said earlier, because of the nature of this book, it is kind of hard to review. Hard in the sense I don’t think a typical review would do it justice since it is kind of atypical. If I would register one critique, it’s that he says “death is grace” (113). The full quote for context is:

Mortality is a consequence of sin. But it is also a gift. A mercy. A kindness. Death is grace.

Now, as I was reading this beachside a Monday past, I immediately thought of a professor of mine at Dallas who would have a cow in response to that statement.

And I think he’s right.

Death isn’t, properly speaking, grace. Wilson is right that it is a mercy of God to not condemn us to live forever in our natural bodies subject to sin and death. But death is always awful and always painful. What is on the other side of death is grace, but death itself is not. It is one of the enemies Christ died to defeat. So, while I get what Wilson is getting at, I don’t think you can use “grace” to refer to it. Even in a book like this that is imaginative and poetic in its prose, you have to be careful how you say things.

There is remarkably little else to quibble with. Perhaps someone else could find something, and I only mentioned the grace thing because I think it’s an important distinction that must not be confused. I enjoyed this book and read it relatively quick (which is one way I gauge enjoy-ability). I would recommend it to anyone really. The target audience seems to be mortals who enjoy stories so that’s pretty much everyone (or should be at least). It might not particularly change your life, but it is definitely an enjoyable ride that should provoke your thinking and maybe even motivate you to get out there and do some more living.

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9780830856534_p0_v1_s260x420Kyle Strobel is the co-founder and director of Metamorpha Ministries and the editor (along with Jamin Goggin) of Reading The Christian Spiritual Classics. 1You can connect with him online at his website or on Twitter. This volume, Formed For The Glory of God: Learning From the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards is part of Strobel’s ambitious Jonathan Edwards Project, and represents the “201” level of reading Edwards. To see how that fits into the overall project, here’s the breakdown:

If you haven’t read Charity and Its Fruit, you can still jump into this work. It is helpful to see how Strobel intends for readers to progress, and if you want to read Edwards himself, Strobel’s edited volume is a great place to start. If you’re interested in spiritual disciplines and learning from Edwards, this book is great place to start..

As Strobel notes in the introduction, “Wisdom entails sitting at the feet of those who have walked with Christ before us. This book is an opportunity to accept that call.” (12) Edwards can be a daunting figure to sit under, but Strobel provides able guidance in Part One of the book Edwards’ overall understanding of what spiritual practices are for. Labeled “A Journey into Beauty,” these three chapters flesh out what Edwards was aiming to do with his spiritual disciplines.

Chapter 1 explains Edwards’ understanding of the Christian life as a journey. It is journey toward something, and that something is a vision of God, or as Strobel puts it, “Life is a pilgrimage of faith that dissolves into sight. That sight is the beatific vision.” (24) He later explains,

True religion, as Edwards termed it, or spiritual formation as we have called it, has to do with the divine life given by Christ in His Spirit.

Spiritual formation is about learning the way of heaven (or the “song” of heaven) and coming to see reality with one’s heart set firmly in the heavenly country. (33)

This orients readers to the goal Edwards had in mind so that chapter 2 can “map the way of love.” Here Strobel helps exposit Edwards understanding of how this beatific vision should be pursued. As he concludes, “To know God as glorious, one must know and love God personally. To know God as beautiful, one must know God and love him personally.” (53) In sum, the goal is to know and love God more fully as he is seen more glorious and beautiful.

Chapter 3 rounds out the first part of the book by introducing Edwards’ thoughts on affections. Specifically, his thoughts on religious affections, and this chapter is a kind of rough cliff notes on that more lengthy work. That is perhaps the most important work of Edwards that everyone should be read, but it’s not exactly light beach reading. 2 With Strobel’s help though, readers can walk away from this chapter with the general contours of Edwards thoughts on the topic.

Chapter 4 begins Part Two, “Tools for The Journey.” First, we see how Edwards understood spiritual disciplines to be a means of grace. Then, in chapter 5 we are introduced to the link between knowing God and knowing ourselves. Here we see the importance Edwards rightly placed on self-examination as a spiritual discipline. For Edwards it was foundational, not so we could just know ourselves better, but that in knowing our own depravity we would see God to be more glorious. This leads naturally to the subject of chapter 6, meditation and contemplation which are “at the heart of the Christian life.” (158) Chapter 7 then rounds out the section with a rundown of Edwards particular practices, which since you’re curious are:

  • Sabbath
  • Fasting
  • Conferencing
  • Soliloquy
  • Silence and Solitude
  • Prayer

The two that might not be self explanatory, conferencing and soliloquy, caught my attention. The former is a kind of one on one accountability, but extends more to opening about all of your interior life with another close trusted friend. In that sense, it is far more than simply accountability but is a very intimate form of sharing life on life. Soliloquy on the other hand is “a practice designed to integrate prayer and self-examination” (155) which in the flow of the book is actually introduced in the chatper on meditation. Modeled on many psalms,

Soliloquy is speaking directly to your soul as you hold it open before the Lord. Soliloquy is a key component in meditation because meditation is not merely focusing one’s mind on God but entails wrestling with God’s truth as you really are. It entails holding open the truth of yourself and speaking into that truth. Soliloquy is a way to pray “Without you I can do nothing,” with a specific aspect of your heart that needs healing. Soliloquy is not an attempt to come up with an action plan to solve your “sin problems.” Rather, soliloquy is prayer. Soliloquy seeks to stand under the Word of God that leaves us “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). Soliloquy is the opposite of Adam and Eve’s hiding from God in the garden, seeking to expose one’s heart to God rather than hiding in guilt and shame. (155)

If meditation and contemplation are the heart of the Christian life, the soliloquy is perhaps the aorta.

After that Strobel wraps up the rest of the discussion on Edwards’ spiritual practices. He finishes with a short conclusion followed by several appendices designed to help readers integrate these practices into their life. The first walks readers through how to pray like Edwards; the second how to conference with another person; the third on how to take a spiritual retreat. 3

Conclusion

All in all, I enjoyed this book and will probably return to it frequently. If you’ve payed attention on Twitter recently, you may have seen several well known Christian leaders and others geeking out a bit over this book. That reaction is not entirely unwarranted. Edwards is a towering figure over American theology in particular and Reformer/Puritan theology in general. His spiritual life is very instructive, but there are not many books like this that take the fruit of Edwards’ practices, explain them in context, and then pluck them down off the tree so they’re more readily enjoyed by a wider audience. Strobel does that well and that’s what makes this book a valuable addition to your library. If you’re interested in Edwards, but have been too daunted to really dig into his wisdom, then I would give this book a try. Likewise, if you’re interested in a book on the spiritual disciplines and how to practice them well, I might put this book toward the top of my list.

[UPDATE: There is a study guide that goes along with this book that I’d highly recommend checking out here]

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Notes:

  1. Which I’ll be reviewing soon
  2. It’s worth noting here as an aside that most of the life-changing books that I’ve read have been difficult reads. John Owen’s works are simultaneously difficult and life-changing. This reminds me of Piper’s sage advice, “Raking is easy but you’ll only get leaves; digging is hard but you might find diamonds.”
  3. The fourth explains the Jonathan Edwards project, but I’ve done that for you already at the beginning of the review

_225_350_Book.873.coverIt is hard to imagine two books could be any more different. Back in the fall, I reviewed Constantine Campbell’s Paul and Union With Christ, an encyclopedic study of both the exegetical and theological usage of Paul’s “in Christ” language. It was thorough, exhaustive, and top of the line NT scholarship.

Apparently, Campbell is not just a top-notch NT scholar, he is also an incredible jazz saxophonist, who uses his artistic giftings for outreach. To give his insight into this endeavor, he has written Outreach and The Artist: Sharing the Gospel With the Arts. Unlike the 500+ page book published by Zondervan Academic, this book weighs in at just over 100 pages, and is really even shorter than that implies.

But, if you are looking for some seasoned wisdom on how to integrate artistic endeavors into the mission of your church, this is the book to get. In it, Campbell provides 7 short chapters as well as 7 artist profiles (mini-interviews that span 2-3pgs). In the chapters, Campbell explains first, his own testimony and background in music. Then, he explains to readers how to best do outreach with the arts (chapter 2) and goes the extra mile to explain what does and does not work (chapter 3). Evangelistic outreach is not limited to being done with the arts, but as Campbell explains, it can be done through the arts (chapter 4) as well as to the arts (chapter 5). Building off this last chapter, Campbell offers first and explanation of the uneasy relationship artists sometimes have with the church (chapter 6) and then how for many artists, there is the constant struggle to make the arts their idol (chapter 7). You can tell as you read, this is a struggle he knows from the inside (both the relationship to the church and the idolatry issue) and his insight is valuable.

Overall, this book can be read in a little over an hour, but the guidance it offers takes much longer than that to apply. In some ways, this would be a good book for both artists and church leaders alike. Campbell writes as someone who straddles both worlds, given his status as a seminary prof as well as performing jazz musician. Artists of all types, but especially musicians will resonate with his writing. Having been involved in outreach with, through, and to the arts for a long time, his advice on how to do it all well will be a great help to church leaders who want to branch out into this territory.

Though I would have liked a longer book, this book works as a conversation starter and perhaps part of the shortness is to entice artists who might not have the patience for a lengthier work. Campbell’s advice is not definitive, nor the last word (nor would he lead you to believe that), but as an intro to the subject, I think he hits his mark.

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