Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Brief Word on God's Wrath by Leon Morris

"The general picture which the Old Testament gives us of God is of One who is by nature merciful, and who cannot be swayed by man's puny efforts. In the last resort forgiveness is always due to God's being what He is, and not to anything that man may do. Because God is God, He must react in the strongest manner to man's sin, and thus we reach the concept of the divine wrath. But because God is God, wrath cannot be the last word. 'The Lord is good; his mercy endureth for ever' (Ps. 100:5)." - p. 154, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd Revised Ed., Leon Morris

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Rob Bell and the Two-Day-Old Fish

During a recent trip to Denver, Pastor Rob Bell made a brief stop at Denver Seminary. The seminary wanted to take such a rare opportunity to have a dialog with such an influential person in the Christian community. I wasn't able to go to the event, but I did get to listen to it online.

Now, I've written a little bit about Mr. Bell before, but having admittedly not read any of his books, I tried to be tentative and give him the benefit of the doubt. However, listening to him speak for 90 minutes was instructive, and I think I'm beginning to have a bit better understanding of his beliefs. I'm not going to go into everything I thought as I listened to the recording, but two things stood out to me:
  1. Bell mentioned Jesus a lot, but not once did he mention the cross. (To be fair, he did mention "the resurrected Christ" once in passing, as he was making another point.) Bell's book is titled Love Wins; what bigger victory has love than the cross of Christ? Interestingly, whereas the Gospels devote 25% of their material to the events of the Passion Week, Bell did not see fit to mention the cross at all. In addition, he talked a great deal about his goal to share the hope he has with as many as he can. Yet after 90 minutes, I was not sure what his hope was actually in, other than "Jesus"--a concept he never bothered to define. Again, peddling a book called Love Wins, I find this remarkable.
  2. Bell seems to give higher priority to experience than revelation. When asked to defend certain beliefs or statements, he was quick to move to personal stories as a means of justification. Yes, he knows a great deal about the Bible (whatever he might be, he is certainly not stupid), but his interpretation of scripture seemed to be obtained through the grid of experience, rather than interpreting experience through the grid of revelation. In other words, when experience and divine revelation collide, for Bell, experience always trumps.
The more I learn about Rob Bell, the more leery I am of his message. Like a two-day-old fish, something just smells funny. But I encourage you, if you have the time, to listen to the recording and come to your own conclusions.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review of Keep Your Greek

Sure, I spent many semesters and countless hours learning and studying Koine Greek while in college and seminary. But what have I done with it since then? Truth be told, the thing I've done the most is to let my skills atrophy. Lately I have been wanting to regain those skills, but I wasn't sure of the best way to go about it. With extremely limited time at my disposal and many responsibilities to manage, I could use some advice. Luckily, I managed to get a copy of Keep Your Greek: Strategies for Busy People. (Thank you, Zondervan!) Author Con Campbell provides a number of quick and easy ways to keep up on and even get better at Greek* in only a few minutes each day. I appreciated that he specifically states in the introduction that this is not a formulaic, "10-step" program, nor is it a magic bullet, but rather a list of habits and/or exercises that he has found helpful over the years. Ultimately, this is a pragmatic book: It's about getting back into the Greek NT by taking one, two or three of the ideas Campbell espouses and incorporating them into your daily routine--or even springboarding off of his ideas and creating your own.

This book is an easy and quick read, full of good ideas and resources for Greek. As this book was originally a series of blog posts, Campbell includes the comments he received at the end of each chapter, which (surprisingly to me) added a fresh, new element of interacting with the material. As a bonus, he also takes a look at pros and cons of interlinears, software tools, and other resources commonly used by students. I share his dislike for interlinears and so did not learn much new here, but I did appreciate his comments about software tools, since that is one area I have never investigated using in my own study. Finally, I appreciated the last chapter, wherein Campbell articulates how he uses the techniques mentioned previously in his own personal study. It lends much credence to the author to know that and how he uses his own advice. The only thing I disliked about the book is that some of the tips and tricks mentioned, to my mind, seem like they would take a bit longer than advertised, at least initially.

Overall, this book came just at the right time for me, as one who is seeking to regain his Greek (and Hebrew) skills. Now comes the hard part: Putting it into practice. But I don't think Dr. Campbell or anyone else can help me with that!

*And, of course, the ideas presented apply equally to biblical Hebrew, as well.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Popularity Wins?

Rob Bell is coming out with a new book, Love Wins. If you haven't heard, many people are accusing him of endorsing universalism, the idea that everyone will eventually get to heaven. Others are defending him, saying that, like any good teacher, he is just raising the question. I'm not going to comment on this issue, but being familiar in general with his teachings and having seen a number of his videos, including the promo for Love Wins, I have another concern. I cannot say if this is correct or incorrect, but it's just how things seem to me.

It seems to me that Rob Bell wants to be "the popular kid." Allow me to explain: His videos are always on the cutting edge of culture. His teachings seem to stress themes like God's love, right actions and social justice--each with an emphasis on this life--but not so much themes like God's judgment in the life to come. (If he did stress the latter, well, there would be no uproar right now.) The clothes he wears look like they all came from the latest Gap catalog. And to top it off, he's kind of got that "I'm better than you" smirk on his face all the time. Now, I'm not saying that any of those things are necessarily bad--they all have their place. (Okay, maybe the last one is a bit irritating.) There's nothing wrong with making an engaging video. Striving for love, justice and righteousness in this life is important. And I really don't care much what anybody wears or how they choose to look, so long as there is a godly character beneath the surface. But taking his appearance as a whole, the themes he stresses (and doesn't) in his teaching, and given the enormous response his works have received, it seems as if he's more concerned with being (or staying) popular than being true to the faith.*

One Facebook comment I ran across about the Love Wins brouhaha lamented, "The real problem is that many 'biblical' pastors are out of touch with our culture and lack the skills that Bell has to reach a postmodern society." I can't deny that some pastors are out-of-touch with reality and the culture. But many more are engaging the culture around them--their neighborhood, their city, their county--and are faithfully doing so, without the popularity of a Rob Bell.

The bottom line is, God calls pastors to be faithful, not popular. If they do happen to be popular, then so much the better, but faithfulness always trumps popularity. In Bell's case, if he really is espousing universalism in his book, then it would seem that he is seeking the world's acceptance more than God's. (What better way to get people to like you than to state as God's spokesman that you can do whatever you want and you'll still get to go to heaven?) My own concern is that he has allowed the postmodern culture into his heart too much, and that he is too concerned with what people think of him (masked as "engaging the postmodern culture") than where he stands in relation to Truth. I hope for Bell's sake that I am greatly mistaken.

*Let me be clear: I am not trying to be mean to the guy. I'm not accusing him of heresy. I'm not even commenting about the clothes he chooses to wear. All I'm saying is that, for me, all outward appearances suggest that popularity is his main goal.

P.S.: In fairness to Mr. Bell, I am including links to two reviews of Love Wins, one pro and one con. If you are interested, I would encourage you to read them (or even the book itself!) and come to your own conclusions on this controversy.

"Pro" review:
"Con" review:

Monday, February 28, 2011

Review of Hearing God

Dallas Willard is a professor of philosophy at USC, but he's also one of Christianity's premiere authors when it comes to spiritual formation. Yet somehow, I managed to read not a single of his books all throughout seminary (purely unintentionally). I finally picked up and read Hearing God in the context of preparing to teach an adult Sunday school course, using the book as a basis. The thesis of the work, in Willard's own words, is as follows: "Hearing God's word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind" (p. 211, italics original). Accordingly, the author discusses 1) what God's word actually is (hint: it's not limited to just the Bible) and 2) what kind of life we must live to hear and rightly discern God's voice in our life (viz., an active life of faith that submits itself to God). These two themes are further broken down by the various chapters, of which Willard gives a basic framework in the preface (p. 13). I highly recommend referring back to this framework at the beginning of each chapter--things will make much more sense this way. Similarly, the book ends with "a formula for living with God's voice" that ties up the book's contents into a neat and tidy three-page bow. (Note: Even though he ends with a "formula," the book itself is in no way formulaic.)

I appreciated much about this book. Willard's manner of writing is clear and concise, not sacrificing anything intellectually, yet at the same conversational and easy-to-read. In addition, like a good speech, the book tells you what it's going to talk about, it talks about it, and then it tells you what it talked about . This layout makes understanding such a potentially nebulous concept much easier. Willard's theology is also well-informed, well within the evangelical framework, and, of course, biblically based. And as I sit here, I can honestly say that I can't find anything wrong with the book. There were so many good nuggets that the only problem I can see with this work is trying to narrow down the material for teaching it in class!

In sum, if you're looking for a solid, well-written book on understanding divine guidance, stop looking--just get Hearing God.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Book Review of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

I first picked up Tom Jones in college. I only got a few hundred pages in when I lost interest and put the book down. A few months ago, however, I found a cheap copy at a used-book store and decided to try my luck again. This time, my experience was markedly different: I was hooked within a few pages. Fielding writes in a very engaging manner; it feels like one is listening to a close friend relate a personal story rather than reading a 250-year-old book. The characters are robust: The ├╝ber-benevolent Squire Allworthy, the absolutely knuckleheaded Squire Western, the heroic, noble Tom Jones--who has got to be one of the unluckiest men ever in fiction-dom--and the lovely Sophia, who must suffer under her father's irrational love. The plot is superlative: Throughout the course of the book, I found myself thinking about the characters (and actually being concerned for their welfare!) in between reading sessions. I had to know what happened to them, and how everything was going to work out happily in the end. (Indeed, with about 40 pages left, I was starting to get very worried.) The love, sex, betrayal, and plain-old human nature of the plot is such that if one updated the scenery, it might be a book written to describe present-day events. Fielding complements his fine character creations with a sharp wit that is apparent on almost every page. I laughed out loud quite a few times throughout the book, and I got the distinct feeling that the author was winking at me almost non-stop. I can imagine that Mr. Fielding would be a riot in a pub with a few drinks under his belt!

In an era whose modus operandi is instant gratification, it can require extra discipline to make it through this lengthy work that at times uses some unfamiliar language. Nevertheless, reading Tom Jones is completely worth the effort, as you will enjoy a master storyteller at his best.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Excerpt from Life in the Spirit by Mother Teresa

"We have 53,000 lepers and yet never one has been sent away because we did not have. It is always there, though we have no salaries, no income, no nothing, we receive freely and give freely. This has been such a beautiful gift of God. In Calcutta alone we cope for 7,000 people every day and if one day we do not cook they do not eat. And this, one Friday morning Sister came and told me: 'Mother, Friday – Saturday, there is no food, we will have to tell the people we have nothing to give today or tomorrow.'"

"I had no words, I had nothing to say to her, but by nine o'clock the Government for some unknown reason closed all the schools, and all the bread that would have been given to the children was sent to us and our children and our 7,000 people ate bread and bread for two days. They had never eaten so much bread in their lives. Nobody in the whole city knew why the schools were closed, but I knew. I knew the delicate thoughtfulness of God – such a delicate love."