Review: The Rule of Love (2018)

Church discipline begins and ends with love. At least, it ought to. The church, insofar as she is a demarcated people, must practice discipline for the good of her members but also, pointedly argued here, for the good of the world.

Jonathan Leeman, known for his work with Dever’s 9Marks parachurch organization, has published a mostly helpful little work on love and the life of the church under the title The Rule of Love. The thesis of the book is simple enough: the church must exemplify as well as point toward god’s love for his people and the world. Leeman spends much of the first half of the book expounding on the nature of love, whether our culture’s definition of it or the scriptural testimony of god’s inward- and outward-directed love. The book closes with practical applications for church leaders and members.

In all honesty, I won’t remember much of the book or his arguments. There were points in the beginning chapters at which I wondered whether I could correctly guess where he was getting his points from (hint: they sounded like Rand), but much of the rest of the book’s first movement was uninteresting because trite. Not to suggest that god’s love for his people and for the Son is trite, but it was quite clearly establishing very fundamental points in regard to a Christian doctrine of love–much of which has been said elsewhere and better. The Rule of Love does close with a collection of helpful thoughts and applications, and, as a beginning resource on church discipline, it holds its own.

Grounding Christian ecclesial practice in love is an important point to remember, and Leeman does well reminding us.

I received a complimentary edition of this work from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.


Review: Theology in the Flesh (2016)

Cognitive linguistics is a field of research that takes into account the ways in which our very human, very culturally-situated brains process and conceptualize the world. In short: cognitive linguistics, at least inasmuch as Sanders is concerned, holds that the particularly human instantiation in the world leads to certain “metaphors” for understanding the world (and away from certain others), and these conceptual metaphors play a formative part in how we understand the world.

John Sanders’ 2016 Theology in the Flesh helpfully applies the insights of cognitive linguistics to the “grammar” of theology and ethics. As far as I’m concerned, that we experience the world in a particular (i.e., non-objective) way necessarily entails that our perception of and reflection on the world are mediated–and therefore perpetually subject to correction or reinterpretation, per Olson’s Reformed and Always Reforming. We are embodied beings, and our very embodiment causes us to conceptualize the world in such a manner. Sanders’ hypothetical example of a jellyfish’s linguistic metaphors concerning motion as compared to a human’s is illustrative.

Is there an overarching “human” objectivity to the world, which supersedes a supposed “bird’s-eye” or “non-human” objectivity by virtue of its intuitive accessibility? I don’t know. That’s an argument for another day. Whether such a pan-human shared understanding/objectivity exists (or, moreover, is sufficient for the demands of objectivity!) is unclear. However, cognizance of the embodied/physiological limits of our rationality is a helpful and necessary corrective to the radical objectivity of disciples of a certain pseudo-philosopher. At the very least, awareness of our linguistic metaphors ought to promote a sense of humility as we offer theological and ethical arguments.

Altogether, Sanders’ work is a beneficial addition to one’s theological prolegomenon.

You will swallow up death forever

Our fundamental anxiety concerns our desistance. The transition from life to death, from being to non-being, befuddles us–or, at least, perturbs us. The opaque veil, through which none can peer and at which every gaze ends, pricks our heart like no other human experience. Every death reminds us of our own mortality. It’s as though another’s passing allows us to experience through sympathetic mediation the pangs of death itself, a deep unsettling of life’s ostensible stability and a reminder of our fundamental fragility. Like a vapor are we, and no clearer presentation of that reality exists than a corpse presented before us. A fitting capstone (or gravestone, as it were).

It’s been asserted that religion is predominantly concerned with banishing the specter of death that hangs over every human consciousness. Religion is nothing more than a balm, then, meant to soothe our anxious hearts and provide peace and confidence as one walks step by step toward the grave. It’s certainly true that, like a hammer, religions can be (and have been) used for whatever purpose somebody deems appropriate. This is the case not only at the institutional level (where most conspirator’s conspiracies concerning cabals are located) but also at the individual level. Individuals have individualized psychological and moral reasons for participating in religious activities; whether it is for most people on account of anxiety concerning death is a matter of empirical buttressing rather than bald assertion. Indeed, there a number of other, more effective panaceas with respect to this anxiety:  alcohol, obsessive fitness, mind-numbing scrolling online. Nevertheless, if it is demonstrably (empirically) false that “most people participate in religion because they are scared of death,” then what are the other motivations? Could it be that one is convinced of that religion’s claims?

Christianity has a certain catena of post-mortem doctrines, most particularly with respect to the resurrection and judgment of the dead. That is to say, that which tends to separate an expressly “Christian” doctrine of death from a non-Christian iteration is the centrality of the judgment seat of Christ, entailing therefore that death is not the ultimate cessation–a resurrection is necessary, whether to life or to judgment. Such is, at least, the form of the doctrine; its details and intricacies appear in dialectic synthesis as our context develops.

Undergirding the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is the eschatological hope of creation, which has been supposed (in my estimation, convincingly argued) to be the preeminent doctrine, to which all others must be directed. The disposition to view all things in light of their consummation leads us to view them with the proper weight and perspective. What, then, is the eschatological hope in regard to death?

Every sensible systematic answer begins first with the biblical text, treating the holy text as such. Where are the most helpful passages pertaining to this problem? 1 Corinthians 15 and 16, Romans 8, Revelation 22, 1 Thessalonians 4, Matthew 25, to name a few from the New Testament. From the Old, Joel 2 and the last four chapters of Isaiah speak directly to the “Day of the Lord.”

However, the most evocative passage that comes to my mind is Isaiah 25-27, especially that first chapter. In a passage pregnant with apocalyptic imagery (see 27.1: “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”), the author speaks of the Day of the Lord as the day of the Lord’s people’s vindication. The enemies of the covenant people will be trampled, their strongholds torn asunder, and the people of the earth will dwell in peace and security. The day of the judgment of god is also the day of the healing of the nations (cp. Ezek. 47.12, Rev. 22.2). Isaiah pictures the Lord “swallowing up on this mountain” (the metaphorical Zion, where god will dwell with his people) death, much how the fish “swallows up” Jonah (cf. Jonah 1.17) and how the Lord “destroys/swallows up” (by permitting the Accuser to run his course against) Job (cf. Job 2.17).

God’s people look forward to his return, so that he will judge the nations and establish his kingdom forever. When the Lord’s temple encompasses the earth, metaphorically represented by the outrageous measurements given in Ezekiel 40-48, god will dwell with his people (Ezek. 48.35). “The last enemy to be defeated is death,” and god will swallow up this foe and plunge it into the abyss. What’s left will be nothing but feasts, freedom, and peace on the mountain of god.

Review: God Over Good (2018)

As usual, my assessment of popular books is out of step with the popular masses. I don’t know if it’s because of a more critical temperament or because of a higher standard for the media I consume (at least, insofar as books about god — the supreme reality, for god’s sake) is concerned.

Whatever the case, my reading of Norsworthy’s God Over Good: Saving Your Faith by Losing Your Expectations of God was par for the course. The average rating online was somewhere near four or four-and-a-half stars out of five, whereas I gave this book a solid two stars. I am, simply, unimpressed by books that raise questions without the metaphysical substance to answer them adequately.

The church is in dire need of serious, considered responses to the stresses and uncertainties of (post-)postmodern life. The Rob Bell-ian, Michael Gungor-ian refusal to answer questions has been tried and found wanting. The fundamentalist pointing to established answers to established questions is also deficient. Norsworthy’s book falls more closely to Bell and Friends, but it shouldn’t be classified along with them. Norsworthy does have answers, but there isn’t enough there. They’re gestures, shadowboxing as it were. We have a real problem of holding an arbitrary standard over god’s head, as though he should submit thereto, but the solutions proferred here lack the weight to satisfy the difficult questions prompting them.

I don’t mean to suggest that only philosophers and theologians should be writing books, but there are a glut of poorly written and poorly conceived works that can do — if not more harm than good — neither good nor harm. I do understand that book publishing is a business, and that popular and easily-graspable books fund the publication of more difficult works. That doesn’t ease my frustration at books like this filling the shelves of bookstores. Perhaps podcast hosts do not ipso facto make the best authors.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Review: Faith for This Moment (2018)

Rick McKinley published a very helpful book in Faith for This Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as the People of God, and I recommend it especially for those struggling to conceive of the church’s place and purpose today. I have felt out of step with the broader evangelical movement for some time, despite being firmly entrenched within it, and no small reason for my alienation is the shark-jumping that took place in 2016. In The Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes™, depending on who you asked, the choice was literally between the Antichrist and King David Come Again; the “more circumspect” had the wherewithal to call the president-elect Cyrus rather than David. Nevertheless, staging this election as a cosmic, nigh apocalyptic battle, wherein one candidate is blessed and another cursed, screams of special pleading (since, let’s get real, most presidents are at best indifferent to the absolute claim of the kingdom of god).

All that to say, 2016 and the subsequent bending-over-backwards to justify, sanctify, and glorify every little thing the president has done as a post facto justification of their tainted vote (because, again, the antichrist) has left me entirely disillusioned with the evangelical perception of the church’s space–not to mention greater allegiance–in today’s world.

McKinley’s Faith for This Moment is a balm in this culture. McKinley gently reminds the reader that the Christ-follower has a citizenship in heaven that wars with the nationalism and earthly citizenship. Further, and more helpfully, the author sketches practical and principled ways in which such citizenship is lived out. Whereas we have drunk so deeply of American culture that we don’t recognize “this is water,” we need to read the Scripture–and therefore our “water”–with fresh eyes, eyes attuned to the anti-real reality in which we move and seeking the real reality breaking into our world, the blazing sun piercing the night.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Review: From Chaos to Cosmos (2018)

9781433554971I really don’t know what to make of this work. Sidney Greidanus published From Chaos to Cosmos: Creation to New Creation through Crossway this year. The work really is more of a compendium of references than a “book” per se, inasmuch as Greidanus points to thematic evidence without much in terms of consolidation or argumentative momentum over the course of the book. From Chaos to Cosmos does not, then, make an argument so much as gesture to one which has already been made, or assumed.

That is not to say, however, that the book is without merit. Although the project does appear to have been poorly executed, the sheer quantity of recognizably purposeful uses of chaos-cosmos elements from the beginning of Scripture to the end is something to behold. When laid out in this format, it’s quite compelling. Chaos-cosmos is, I would argue, a subservient theme to “kingdom/anti-kingdom,” but it is nonetheless an important theme to note.

It’s just that the constructive element one would expect from this kind of book is wholly lacking. It was disappointing in that respect. Nevertheless, Greidanus’s book is certainly worth thumbing through to get a sense of this theme’s prominence throughout the scriptural narrative.

Review: Acting for Others (2017)

9781506409009Fortress Press’s Emerging Scholars series continues to be a valuable repository of original and illuminating scholarship from newly minted doctors in Christian theology. Michaela Kušnieriková’s Acting for Others: Trinitarian Communion and Christological Agency is no different. I don’t know where else you should expect to find Hannah Arendt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dumitru Staniloae put into such an invigorating conversation with one another.

Kušnieriková uses Arendt’s distinguishing between public and private spaces to set the stage for the discourse that follows. How does Bonhoeffer’s conception of the patriarchal-family dynamic of the church map onto Arendt’s political economy? How does Staniloae’s perichoretic Trinity correlate to Bonhoeffer’s patriarchy and Arendt’s conceptualization? How do each of these figures issue corrections to the rest, or how are they mutually complementary?

These are the sorts of questions that would be of particular interest to specialists in Arendt or Bonhoeffer or Staniloae, and especially to that distinguished subset of scholars specializing in the three of them together–but the innovative and constructive ways in which Kušnieriková has interacted with the three provides ample reason for even the curious to work through the book. The ethical strands teased out of this conversation are quite interesting (especially Bonhoeffer’s, because bae). For that reason alone, this book is certainly worth the read-through.