Friday, June 29, 2007

book review: Evil and the Justice of God

Since I finished N. T. Wright's fairly recent Evil and the Justice of God this week, and I'm sort of in book-mode, I thought I'd offer a brief review of it here.
Wright's book from chapter 1 clearly distinguishes itself from any philosophical works wondering over the co-existence of a good God and evil as we have in the world; in fact, he asserts again and again in the book that he doesn't feel we'll ever be able to satisfactorily answer questions along those lines, hindered "in the same way that a baby in the womb would lack the categories to think about the outside world"(164).
What he offers instead is 1)a reflection on our responses to evil today; 2)a view of the scripture's dealing with evil in the Old and New Testaments; and 3)a call to Christians to live out the victory over evil that was won on the cross.

Most of Wright's discourse here is of a more practical nature, addressing the Christian's responsibilities to implement the achievement of the cross and to anticipate the kingdom to come. The anticipation, he stresses, is an active one, which will play a role not only in our personal situations, but also in those where evil is at work internationally and politically.
The book ends with a look at the importance of forgiveness: God's forgiveness of us, our forgivenss of others in accordance with Matthew 18, and our forgiveness of ourselves. In this section he frequently references(and recommends) Volf's Exclusion and Embrace, which has been commended to me before, and is probably a great read.

Overall this is an interesting read, and, although, as Wright admits from the start, he's not an expert in this field, it has great strength in its assumption of a new vantage point. This is a view we should expect from Wright, and one on which he has done considerable work: the implementing presently of the Kingdom of God which we connect to through Christ and acknowledge in the Lord's prayer. While questions about evil will go unanswered for now, Wright reminds us that Christ's power over it, and hence His people's power, need not be left unclaimed.

-N

Saturday, June 23, 2007

book review: The Culturally Savvy Christian

I noticed yesterday at Family Christian Store(which thankfully was open on Sunday for me to notice this in their convenient between-service-hours) that Dick Staub's latest, The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite was no where to be found. Surprise, surprise.

Staub's book is a mostly-homogeneous mixture of deliniating the important, but obvious, and offering a way for Christians to proceed, all in regards to the superficial, shallow pop culture that surrounds us all, Christian, irreligious, or otherwise. Staub's focus is evident in the book's subtitle; it is the phenomenon that he refers to as Christianity-Lite, i.e., the Christianity that he feels is becoming more and more prevelant in Western culture that reflects well just how shallow and superficial our popular culture has become. His call then goes forth to readers hoping to see the rise of what he calls the culturally savvy Christian, from here on, the csC. The book is divided into three sections exploring three aspects of this figure: they are savvy about culture, serious about faith, and skilled at relating the two.

The first three chapters examine our culture and Christianity qua Christianity and, finally, what our faith should reflect in contrast to what it often does reflect.
To some, these chapters may seem like one of the afore-mentioned obvious statements, however, for many they will come as a (much-needed) shock, and lay an important foundation for the work. He spends much time decrying the 'three reactions to culture' that many other authors also attribute to Christianity today--N. T. Wright in The Challenge of Jesus, for one--those being, essentially, the run away, wage war, and conform responses. There's much attention paid to the Christian sub-culture in particular that we find today, and this is likely the reason that you won't find Mr. Staub at FCS.
The book's second division, emphasizing the csC's serious-ness regarding faith, with three chapters exploring God's deep, transforming, and loving presence.
These establish the stating-the-obvious category for me. The messages are important, and well said, but certainly rudimentary; they well-commend this book to the sort of 'freshman Bible study' group that could always use more good books. The most interesting parts of this section to me are found in the second two chapters, where Staub draws out brief, yet thorough summaries of two neo-classic works: Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and C. S. Lewis's The Four Loves. These chapters should be good reads for those unfamiliar with these books, and make a nice reminder for those who have, not to mention a recommendation for the classics.
The final section ("skilled at relating the two") was a highlight of the book, particularly the first two of the three chapters. Staub spends one chapter exploring the notion of our being aliens in this culture, straddling two different countries and citizenships, and uses C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (mainly Lewis) as examples to look to. His portrait of Lewis is a beautiful one, and we're given a fine idea of this alien calling.
This is followed by a fine chapter on our roles as ambassadors between faith and culture, looking to the ministry of Christ and the Apostle Paul as seen Acts 17.
The book's final chapter is directed almost exclusively at the creative artist himself, offering all sorts of exhortations to him in his work. Not being much of the creative genius, this was less poignant to me, but could be very meaningful to the right reader.

One other small note: I'm not sure I've read another book with as many notes or references to other, good works. The bibliography is like an honor-roll of 20th century(and some much older) Christian publications.

The introduction will really excite you, and heck, there's the recommendation from N. T. Wright on the cover, but on the whole the book is a bit underwhelming in light of my early expectations; not to say that it's a disappointment, I just had high expectations. The Culturally Savvy Christian is certainly an important work, and I think it reflects an important attitude that will hopefully become more common in the church in the days to come, as there's certainly no good to come from Christianity's frequent disengagements from culture, and, thus, from people. Some of Staub's other works sound interesting--especially to me--but this is as fine a start as any, and for all the more elementary points that are stressed, the over-arching ideas are critical, and here well-illuminated.

-N

Review: Evan Almighty

I meant to post a review last week of the newly released Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but a busy schedule wouldn't allow for it; let's just say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I'll try to keep up a little better with the rest of the big summer releases, starting here with the anticipated sequel to 2003's Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty.

Most of you are probably familiar with the plot, so here I'll offer only the briefest synopsis: Evan Baxter, newly elected Congressman, has been asked by God to build an Ark in preparation for a flood(vaguely familiar...). He becomes a modern-day Noah, while juggling responsibilities as a father and politician.
Let me say right off the bat that if you're a fan of Steve Carell from Anchorman or The 40-Year Old Virgin, this is not one of those movies. This is very PG and very family friendly.

It's also leaving me with a bit to ponder, namely, the point of the movie. Steve Carell himself has been quoted that it's a film about "kindness"; this is certainly one theme, but just another one, among many. There is a great deal said in the film about our stewardship of God's creation. There's also much said, very interestingly, about faith. The whole idea of presenting the story of Noah, as it occurred in the scriptures in a modern setting is intriguing in and of itself to me.

As far as points to ponder are concerned, I'll mention a few here:
1) One of the major foci in the film is on political action, and this even comes off almost as God's ultimate purpose in working throughout the movie. While Christian convictions can and will affect your voting and even lead you to right some letters, lobby for this or that, and such, I just don't feel that this is really God's concern, as depicted here. Transforming people into His likeness will solve these problems more fully that campaigning. . . Evan's character is certainly transformed by the film's end, but into sort of a secular reflection of God's purpose; he's more environmentally friendly, closer to his family, and on good terms with God, but, for all this film's scriptural allusions, this is still a pretty ambiguous God figure, and the other warm, fuzzy changes that he sees will fit well with any pop spiritual teaching under the sun.

2) Again, the ambiguity of Morgan Freeman's God. Freeman does a great job in this film, and probably steals the show every time he's on screen, but I'm still not sure who he's portraying. He references Genesis quite a bit, and is apparently the Creator, and even the angry God of the Flood account in Gen. 6-7, but that only by inference. He is not, apparently, the Father of the Trinity, as there's no mention of Christ or the Spirit in the film. This seems to be the sort of God that anyone can get on board with; he's kind and encourages kindness, he's personal enough at times, and listens to your prays and gives help, but there's so much more that needs to be said. Some of the more subtle descriptions of the Almighty sneaking around in the movie almost make him sound like some anthropomorphicized-Force from Star Wars, living in all things, and such.

3) Repentance is brought up as a theme very suddenly near the film's end, almost as if it were an after thought. Out of no where Evan exhorts the apparently crooked Senior Congressman Long(John Goodman) to repent, I'm assuming of his profiteering motives. He doesn't repent and his 'sin' is subsequently discovered... so is the point of the Ark to point one man (unsuccessfully) to repentance? I don't know.

There are other points to be made, but I'll hold here.
The film was fun, and funny at times, but, for me at least, it is best described as vague. I know that churches have been encouraged to use it as teaching material, almost like the promotion of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, or even last summer's The DaVinci Code, but frankly I'm not sure what could be said here. Granted, I haven't looked at any of the material that Christianity Today has available regarding the film, but personally, I don't think I'd ever use it for more than a neat illustration of the tale of Noah for children, or perhaps a lesson in the subtleties of a friendly spirituality posing as Christianity.

-N

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

more on Child Soldiers: YOU CAN DO SOMETHING

World Vision, a Christian aid organization akin to Compassion International, is rallying support for the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2007 (S. 1175), composing a message that will be sent to your senators and congressmen for you urging them to support this bill.
World Vision's site will identify and contact the representatives for you, using you Zip Code, so all you have to do is take 30 seconds and fill out some contact info for them to do this with. Personalize the message if you like, or you can simply send it as is.

I can think of NO better way to spend 30 seconds, can you?

I've already had this sent to my senators and would encourage everyone reading to do the same. This is a small step that you can take in the fight against the legion of injustices that plague our world.

-N

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

solar power for the Holy See; links on the Lord's Supper

The Vatican will soon be equipping the Paul VI auditorium with roof panels to generate solar-powered electricity. That news is here.
Amen.

Internet Monk just began a series of posts examining the Baptist view of the Lord's Supper here. The post is made of a lot of quotes and several links, and it's very informative. The comments on it are shaping up to be very good reading as well.
In the same vein, alastair has a post on the importance of using wine in communion, as opposed to grape juice or some other common substitute.

read, read, read

-N