Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Unimaginable - A Fitting Title

“...once God is pushed out of the picture, moral absolutes are very much in doubt.” - Jeremiah Johnston

When I set out to review Unimaginable - What Our World Would be Like Without Christianity by Dr. Jeremiah Johnston, my concern was that I wouldn’t have time to fact-check Dr. Johnston’s claims. Upon completion of the book, it turns out this worry became a minor concern in light of some of my other apprehensions.  

Before I launch into my issues with the book, I’d like to highlight what I found enlightening.  Though not stated, the premise of the book turned into an argument about human dignity and inherent worth. Johnston contrasted Christianity to humanistic and pagan views of human dignity. He effectively layed out the destructive ends to which the former views arrive if left unchecked - the devaluing and systematic destruction of individuals.

Johnston quoted original documents and this proved very effective.  The story at the beginning of chapter one - the letter from Hilarion to his pregnant wife, Alis, was both gripping and jarring. Likewise, the quotes and ideas from Sam Harris, Nietzsche, Huxley, Russell and Kinsey helped to add color to the narrative.

That said, I have four major concerns with this book. I will first state what my concerns are, then I will attempt to explain my concerns, and, finally, I will lay out what I think could help resolve my concerns.

First, I felt the thesis, or at least the foundation of the thesis, was incorrect, and it left much room for objections to the argument.  Second, the title and subtitle seem to oversell the actual text. Third, Johnston never dealt with a large time period which was highly damaging to the witness of the followers of Christ.  Finally, I found the flow of the text to be confusing, and I couldn’t track with the narrative until I was well into the middle third of the book.

The Thesis
As I stated, I felt the thesis of the book - that humanity is protected by Christianity’s views of the world - didn’t get to the center of the concern.  It doesn’t materially change the defense of the argument, but the book neglects Common Grace and Original Sin (or Total Depravity), two topics that are nearly universally accepted within Christian circles. The issue of how people treat people is less rooted in the Christian moralistic argument and more rooted in the base nature of mankind. That is why practicers of other religions, non-religious people and atheists can and do good works for fellow humans. Neglecting to state the nature of humankind leaves the entire argument open to arguing the exceptions in all worldviews.

The Scope
The stated scope of this book was far too broad.  The subtitle indicates that the book deals with many manners of society...and it will do this in 200 pages.  To deal with treatment of people, societal structures, economic systems, governmental constructs, legal views - in a short book - is, at best, ambitious, and, more likely, nearly impossible even for the most skilled of writers.  

The book itself primarily focuses on the unique views of the value of humanity contrasting to pagan, humanistic and Darwinian views, and the book does a compelling job of arguing why Christianity is unique in this.  His drawing from Ancient Rome and the 20th Century brutal regimes is highly effective.  In this one topic, by itself, the book is very compelling.

Objectionable History
Johnston’s book skips from Ancient Rome to the humanistic philosophers of the Enlightenment.  There is good reason for this, as many modern philosophers drew inspiration from Rome’s Golden Age.  

The challenge is the book skips the very dark time of the Middle Ages. Often, Christianity’s strongest critics will point to this period as evidence of the failures of Christianity. It’s hard to disagree, especially as scientific exploration and mathematics flourished in the Muslim world, and Christianity grew more and more brutal.

I wish Johnston had devoted one chapter to this period.  It could be a short chapter that explained the differences between the strains of true Christianity that existed in spite of a very pagan culture with a veneer of Christianity placed on it.  Even a quick survey of the Dark Ages quickly reveals that the dominant strains of what was called Christianity had no foundations in the Scriptures, and a short chapter stating this could have prevented the argument from being left open.  

The Narrative
The book never clearly states up front where it is going with the argument.  Maybe I’m just a lazy modern reader, but I like to be told what I’m going to be told, to be told, and then to be told what I was told.

I was completely lost in why the book started in Ancient Rome.  I understood a need for showing the brutality and inhumanity of the period, but Johnston doesn’t really get around to starting to make the connections until much later.  It left me feeling like an unanchored reader.

I would have preferred the author, at the close of his opening chapter, state his thesis and roadmap. As a reader, I didn’t need anything elaborate, but I would have preferred a hint as to where he was going with the book.

I think few small changes would greatly improve this book.  First, I would recommend a section that deals with Original Sin. This section can be short, maybe part of the introductory chapter, but I think it’s necessary to understand the origins of worldviews and why the Christian worldview is unique.

Second, I’d add a quick roadmap in the first chapter explaining how the book is structured and where’s he is headed.  This gives some context.

Third, I feel the the subtitle is too ambitious. I think it oversells the work.  I like that the book focuses on the treatment of humanity, especially the vulnerable and marginalized, but the subtitle makes it sound more ambitious and broad than the book really is.  Focusing on the value of humans - image bearers of God - is a big topic in and of itself.

Finally, I would strongly recommend a chapter to deal with objections and damaging history. Don’t shy away from the medieval Catholic Church; run to confront the anti-biblical views.  Don’t ignore how the Lutheran and Catholic Churches were complicit in Nazi Germany; explain how they were wrong. If the premise of the book is built on Original Sin and Common Grace, the dark moments in the faith’s history become part of the redemptive stories of the faith.

In conclusion, I wouldn’t recommend the book, though some big names (Thom Rainer, Lee Strobel, Sheila Walsh, and Sean McDowell, to name a few), have endorsed it. I think there is value in exploring the contrasting worldview implications of the inherent value of humanity - and with the changes I recommend - this book could move from my “Don’t Read” to “Read” list.

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.  I was required to provide an honest, not necessarily favorable, review, and the opinions expressed are mine.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down - A Review

I was originally excited to read Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down. The description, with statements like, "Ordinary is not a call to be more radical. If anything, it is a call to the contrary. The kingdom of God isn’t coming with light shows, and shock and awe, but with lowly acts of service" caught my interest.  When I read it, I was encouraged, inspired, angered, frustrated and disappointed.

Merida makes the argument, quite convincingly, that acts of service aren't optional for the believer.  As a response to, and work of, the Gospel, we believers should be engaged in a lifestyle of caring for the disenfranchised and those without a voice.  We should be serving those who cannot repay, not for the praise, but out of a grateful response to a God who has redeemed us.

While I feel Merida makes his point, I was left with two nagging feelings.  First, the book felt like a bit of an overreaction to the highly theological and theoretical parts of his own life (and the lack of practical demonstration).  Second, while trying to make the case for the breadth of opportunities to serve the poor, needy, orphaned and widowed, the book quickly became an argument to rally behind the cause of human trafficking - a worthy cause - but currently the "cause-du-jour," both within the church and in the secular culture.

From my study of history, much of the oppression that has happened throughout time has been the result of the lack of economic opportunities or economic mobility.  Merida's arguments largely ignore, with the exception of one passing example, the role godly business leaders can play by giving the disenfranchised economic opportunities.  Giving people the opportunity to earn a liveable wage from a fair employer can do more to transform a community than all of the handouts could hope to accomplish. A mere two or three paragraphs highlighting the role that the business community can play in community transformation would have made a big difference.

One area I completely disagree with Pastor Merida was in his section on hospitality.  No doubt, the New Testament doesn't make hospitality an option.  I actually agree with his assessment that congregations should elevate the Pauline requirement of pastors to practice hospitality.  Where I completely disagree was Merida's assertion that homes could function as retreats.  I left the chapter feeling that taking a respite from serving others was sinful; if Merida's assertion is correct, then Jesus' regular withdrawals from others should be viewed as sinful, and that would be a heretical view.

I appreciate the final chapter of the book, where Tony Merida argues the reasons why service should serve as a response of the working of the gospel in our lives.  The paragraph reads much like a pop-theology treatise, and I appreciate that.  I wish, however, this chapter be moved to either chapter 1 or 2, as this lays the foundation for his entire book.  Placing it right before the conclusion, while, stylistically, is an interesting place to wrap up the book, could mean that the response to the book comes before the understanding of the reasons why there should be a response.

Overall, I'd like to recommend this book, but I'm struggling to recommend it.  Maybe this could be part of a small-group/community-group discussion.  Maybe it could be a topic for a discipleship group.  I cannot, however, recommend it for a young/new believer, as I'm concerned it could breed a response without a solid understanding of the work of the gospel in the believer's walk. A community discussion, especially when led by a mature believer, could foster good discussion and a correct response to Merida's important assertion.  

Sunday, September 07, 2014

How Can I be Sure - A Review

Every believer experiences periods of doubt. John Stevens explores this topic with candor and tact in his book How can I be Sure? 

As with other books in this series, I really enjoyed this book.  I found it to be relevant and timely.

Stevens first defines doubt, and I appreciate how he defines levels of doubt.  Some doubt is natural, some is dangerous, and Stevens outlines the various levels to highlight how dangerous guilt can be.

One of the first issues he deals with is salvation. Defining what salvation is - and is not - Stevens can then disarm (or highlight) one of the biggest forms of doubt a believer may experience.

I especially appreciate the tenor and the tone by which Stevens writes.  He tactfully deals with forms and types of doubt, and he firmly challenges various forms of doubt.

The methods for dealing with doubt outlined in the book are especially helpful. Stevens shares various ideas for combatting this common attack.  Some of these forms of defense are individual; many of the methods are exercised in community.

As with other books in this series, I highly recommend this book for small group discussion.  This book, especially, is a great topic for group discussion, as fighting doubt is best done in community.

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.  I was required to provide an honest, not necessarily favorable, review, and the opinions expressed are mine.

Friday, August 29, 2014

How Will the World End - A Review

Many, many, many books have been written on the topic of the Apocalypse.  Some have been from a biblical standpoint.  Some have been from a dystopian perspective of the world.  Few handle the topic with the care and perspective of Jeramie Rinne in How Will the World End? And other Questions About the Last Things and the Second Coming of Christ.

First, if you're not interested in escatalogical (end times) topics, this book is for you. If you're deeply immersed in the topic, this book is for you.  And, if you're anywhere along that timeline, yes, this book is for you.  Rinne writes the book with the perspective that anyone may walk away from reading it understanding a bit of what is to come.

A few cautions.  First, this is not a scholarly work; it is written for laypeople.  This is a pastoral work.  If you're looking for something very meaty, this won't be it.  But you will walk away with a cursory understanding of various perspectives.

Second, if you're looking for someone to tell you the "right" theory, you'll be disappointed.  While I could guess at Rinne's personal views, he only tips his and one topic, and he expressly states it's the view he personally subscribes to at the moment.

Third, if you're passionate about your theories, Rinne will not call you out as wrong or validate your views.  He is really just trying to highlight the various views and bring understanding to all, regardless of their views.

This quick read is worthy of your attention. If your small group is looking for a resource to spur discussion, this (along with the other Questions Christians Ask works) would be a great place to start. 

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.  I was required to provide an honest, not necessarily favorable, review, and the opinions expressed are mine.

Friday, July 25, 2014

God's Story - A Review

Of the books I've reviewed over the past few months, this was one of the...most fun...to read.  While written specifically for 14 - to 17-year olds, I learned much through God's Story: A Student's Guide to Church History.

Brian Crosby's book is a brief walk (maybe a jog) through church history. He highlights various important people - some good, some not so good - throughout the history of the church.  He highlights these people as examples, some as examples to emulate, some as examples to help avoid the mistakes of the past.

One aspect to the book that I really appreciated was the way Crosby highlighted the sovereignty of God throughout.  He makes it abundantly apparent that God is absolutely in control.  Even when it appears He isn't present, God is orchestrating events.

A couple of cautions.  First, this is written for middle teens, aimed at 14- to 17-year olds. It would be a great discussion book for an 8th/9th grade small group.  For the more intellectually-inclined, you will find it slow, but you're not the target audience.

Second, keeping the audience in mind, the biographies are brief. I believe Crosby fairly handles the synapsis of each person's life, but, a discriminating eye may be led to critique the missing nuances in the biographies. Again, I'd remind the person of the target audience and the purpose of the book.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I am recommending it to our pastor who oversees our church's teens group.  For the audience, the book is great.

A trailer to the book:

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher.  I was required to provide an honest, not necessarily favorable, review, and the opinions expressed are mine.