Category: Book Reviews

Atonement - Cross

The Atonement of God by J.D. Myers

The Atonement of God by J.D. Myers (cover)A few years ago I was strongly considering writing a book. My premise was essentially a systematic theology but starting with the idea that God looks like Jesus, particularly when it comes to rejection of violence. The Atonement of God by J.D. Myers is the closest I’ve encountered to trying for the same goal, with a couple of significant differences:

  • It is not nearly as comprehensive as a systematic theology, sticking to topics that are directly related to a non-violent understanding of the atonement.
  • The starting point is a non-violent understanding of the atonement in particular, rather than a non-violent God in general.

Maybe that excitement biased me, but I felt like the book was only moderately successful.

Style

My main complaints are related to the style, not the content. It feels sloppily written. It often gets very repetitive, which meant that although it was a short book, it probably could have been half the size. It doesn’t really do a good job explaining what is meant by some terms, such as pacifism (see below). It uses gendered language, and I don’t just mean some that are very understandable like male pronouns for God – I mean regularly using “man” to mean humanity.

Trouble I've Seen

Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew Hart

Trouble I've SeenThis was a great book for helping Christians understand the nature of racial hierarchies present in the United States – much would be also true elsewhere, but Hart’s focus is on his home country. A few factors make this a highly recommended read to me:

Hart speaks well from the facts as well as his own experience. Facts alone could easily come across as boring. His experience alone could be easily dismissed as an anomaly. This book carries a great balance: relatable but going much deeper than just a few stories of discrimination.

Hart’s work is accessible to white people (like myself) while critiquing the system of white supremacy. There are many ideas that I’m sure would still offend many of us simply because it puts us on the defensive for our complicity, and they should offend us if we haven’t been desensitized to it, but I never felt like he was attacking me individually. It carried a pastoral tone, using more positive reinforcement to call us into something better rather than berating us. I regularly see white people getting upset over language of white supremacy insisting that they individually are not a member of the KKK. Hart does a great job explaining why this is missing the point while being gentle toward those who are missing the point.

Bible

Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust

Unprotected TextsUnprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust seeks to make a biblical analysis of various topics related to sex. In general, it’s academically rigorous but very accessible and I would recommend it, although some sections definitely dragged on more for me than others. The topics themselves were definitely interesting. Some I had learned more about in my own studies, particularly the current cultural controversies. Others tackled questions I hadn’t even thought to ask. The chapters:

  1. The Bible and the Joy of Sex, texts like Song of Songs that view sex as a good thing
  2. Biblical Marriage, the complicated and varying definitions of marriage in the Bible
  3. The Evil Impulse, particularly Jesus and Paul’s call to celibacy
  4. Sexual Politics, the inconsistent rules against certain types of sex
  5. Strange Flesh, the one consistent sex rule: no sex with angels
  6. Bodily Parts, circumcision and genital emissions

Some people are probably squirming just reading that list since a small portion of the Western church (and culture in general) are actually willing to talk about sex. That makes this book extra important if only for its willingness to be honest and comprehensive about what the Bible actually says: a fair bit, but probably not what you think or as clearly as you think.

Out Of Sorts

Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey

Out Of SortsUpon completing Out of Sorts, I have now read both of Sarah Bessey’s books, as well as several of her blogs over the past couple of years. I’m generally one to take more of a logical propositional approach to things I read (and watch, and sing, and hear). That makes reviewing Sarah’s works a bit tougher. If I tried to take it at this level, there are a lot of great propositions in Out of Sorts about a variety of theological topics: the Church, interpreting the Bible, Jesus, spiritual gifts, the problem of evil. They aren’t necessarily propositions I hadn’t heard before and we generally agree on pretty much any theological topic I’ve heard her talk about. There’s a reason I gave a quote of hers from Jesus Feminist as the last words in my chapter of A Living Alternative. She says a lot of great stuff. But more to the point, she says that great stuff in really compelling ways.

The big point I would make as I read Sarah’s words is that her love of Jesus is contagious. Sometimes in the Church we talk about how we should be so filled with the Spirit, having experienced so much of God’s love, that it just overflows into talking about it as well as loving others in practical ways.

A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel

A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak

A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful GospelMy first encounter with Brad Jersak was in the documentary Hellbound? which I routinely recommend. He, like many of the other people in that movie, left a positive impression on me. When I saw the opportunity to pick up a book of his called A More Christlike God then, I jumped on the chance. I’m glad I did.

There is a significant and important theological trend in recent years to reclaim the doctrine of Incarnation: that Jesus is the full representation of God. Greg Boyd as one of my biggest influences stresses this point a lot, and Brian Zahnd often says it something like this (paraphrasing):

God is exactly like Jesus. He has always been like Jesus. We didn’t always know that, but now we do.

This is the first book I have seen, however, that explicitly deals with that idea and a few of its subtopics in depth. Most people in theory affirm the idea that God is like Jesus – after all, it is pretty clear in both the Bible and the earliest Christian creeds. If you don’t affirm it, you aren’t an orthodox Christian, by definition.

Searching for Sunday: Confirmation

Searching for SundayConfirmation, like Holy Orders, is another on the list of sacraments that I haven’t had a lot of personal experience with. My United Church growing up did confirmation classes for the teenagers every few years. I didn’t take part when my time came. I was happy going to church, but I didn’t really see the point in confirmation. The same was true when they offered to make me an official member.

In Rachel Held Evans’ discussion around the idea in Searching for Sunday, the chapter that stood out to me the most came from her visit to a monastery. Part of the monastery included a grotto of artwork depicting various places in history and today made entirely from scraps and leftovers. It took me a while to catch on to where she was going with that, but she ultimately made the connection explicit for those a little slower like me: all of our churches are somewhat of a cobbled mess. Confirmation in some ways is simply a declaration of which cobbled mess of a church we choose to be a part of.

Searching for Sunday: Communion

Searching for SundayA little over eleven years ago, I was in Merida, Venezuela receiving communion. It was the conclusion of a short-term mission trip. Our team was comprised approximately equally between teenagers affiliated with my hometown’s United Church (myself included) and its Anglican Church. After our host prayed, he invited us forward two at a time. We served each other the elements, hugged, and sat back down.

I think that was the first time I experienced something in communion that I could not explain. It was not simply memory of who Jesus was, although that was definitely there. It was simply a nice snack with a group of people who had spent a week together, although that was definitely there, too. It felt like something else, something too big for me to pinpoint then or now.

Searching for Sunday: Holy Orders

Searching for SundayIn the third section of Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans talks about Holy Orders. I was a little ashamed to admit that I wasn’t even familiar with the phrase “Holy Orders” so I’m glad she explained that it simply meant church leadership positions: pastor, priest, bishop, deacon, etc.

The central theme of the section was leadership failure. Rachel cites how 80% of pastor report feeling discouraged. Most pastors are working much more than 40 hours a week. Depending on the tradition and the size of the church, they are often expected to preach an inspiring 25 minute sermon, visit half of the church for counselling or just checking in, handle much of the administration, and challenge their congregation enough for them to not be bored but not enough to actually make them remotely uncomfortable or change their lives in any way. Anybody who thinks that wouldn’t be stressful hasn’t tried it. We get infatuated with a few celebrity pastors who get rich and famous and have lots of support from their megachurches, but that isn’t most pastors.

Searching for Sunday: Confession

Searching for SundayUnsurprisingly, the section in Rachel Held Evans’ Searching For Sunday on confession was a more emotional one that the chapter on baptism. Confession isn’t really something we like to talk about, especially Protestants.

The Church Breakup

The most impactful section for me was when Rachel talked about her and Dan finally leaving her Evangelical church of her childhood. She talked about many of the good things about the church, especially the group that met in her house every Sunday night. But there were also many things that were causing her to move farther away from Jesus instead of closer, much of it to do with doubt and claims of absolute certainty that she’s written about in her first two books.

A Living Alternative – Teaser

A Living AlternativeIf you haven’t ordered a copy of A Living Alternative yet, what’s taking so long? Maybe this intro paragraph to my chapter will help whet your appetite:

The Church currently finds itself in a significant state of flux, much like the Reformation era of the 16th century.[1] To see the significance of this shift, we need look no further than two indisputable changes: in context as we move from strength in Europe and North America to strength in Asia and Africa, and in form with the rise of charismatic Christianity. From the perspective of a Western (Canadian) Christian, I hope to answer three questions: What’s the problem in the West and how did we get here? Why is this point such a problem? And most importantly, how do we combat the problem to most effectively and faithfully embody the Gospel of Jesus and his Kingdom during this period of transition?

[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), under “Chapter 1: Rummage Sales: When the Church Cleans Out Its Attic,” ePub edition.