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Jim Samra’s The Gift of the Church: How God Designed the Local Church to Meet Our Needs as Christians (Zondervan, 2010) is a pastor’s passionate answer to the question, “What benefit is the church?” In his first book, Samra states his conviction early: “Nowhere is God as present as he is in the midst of his gathered church.”

Samra cares about the universal Church, but his heartbeat is the local church, the one we attend or should be attending on a regular basis. Samra acknowledges the value of other Christian organizations, parachurch ministries, and gatherings of two or more believers, all of which matter to the Christian life. But in Samra’s view only the church is created by God for specific purposes of community, and Jesus proclaimed this uniqueness when he said, “I will build my church,” (Matthew 16:18).

Samra argues the church offers an opportunity for God to speak in a special way. Through the Holy Spirit, Samra believes people hear from God other than simply in the preacher’s actual words. He relates several anecdotes about people who later credited him with spiritually energizing statements he never made, yet some of these people had the statements documented in their notes. Samra believes this is evidence of God’s unique presence in the church.

Church is a place where God brings believers together in concert with him and others, a place where diverse talents are combined in productive unity. Church is the City of God or place of koinonia, God’s design for countering the lonely crowd and alienation so often characteristic of the City of Man. Despite the flaws in the church, the result of sinful human beings gathered together, Samra strongly contends the church is God’s vision, an organization and an organism of great beauty.

The book’s theological analysis is interspersed with stories and illustrations drawn from the author’s church experience both as a parishioner and as a pastor. The stories are especially helpful making the otherwise scholarly text more interesting and understandable.

Overall the book is a love letter to the church. It’s written by a pastor with a clear sense of calling. It’s written with a great appreciation for the spiritual blessings of family, of home church, and of church-as-family. It’s written with both a faith and an empirically based confidence in the profound benefits awaiting all believers who accept the gift of the church.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow Dr. Rogers at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

Jeff Manion’s The Land Between: Finding God in Difficult Transitions (Zondervan, 2010) is about those times when life isn’t what it was and the future is uncertain. It’s about walking through the desert, a hard place like grief, lost jobs, financial duress, illness, broken relationships. The Land Between is a metaphor for the undesired transitions we experience in life.

If you haven’t experienced a time like this you haven’t lived long enough. Adversity comes to us all.

Under pressure, we choose to be and become. How we respond to pressure influences the kind of person we will be, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Manion, Senior Teaching Pastor of Ada Bible Church in Michigan, notes that God wants to shape, mold, and refine us and that God knows we’re most open when we’re in the desert. He wants us to learn to trust him. God allows us to experience what we consider suffering so we may gain strengthen.

The Land Between is a quite readable book. It’s chock full of illustrative stories gleaned from years in Pastor Manion’s ministry and it features applications born of experience, personal and pastoral. Indeed the book’s most interesting paragraphs describe his own story and what he learned then and now.

This country seems to be in The Land Between right now. America isn’t sure of itself. We’re losing respect abroad. We’re engaging in infighting among ourselves. We’ve not agreed upon how to describe our enemies (meaning those who hate us), and we’re uncertain really how to describe ourselves. We can’t answer the question “What is an American,” which makes it difficult to resolve immigration issues.

America is in The Land Between. The way out for America is the same as the way out for individuals. Biblical signposts are visible. God has not forgotten and will respond. But we must respond first to him. The good news is there’s still time.

 

© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow Dr. Rogers at www.twitter.com/RexMRogers.

 

The Shack, by William P. Young, has taken the country by storm – to date selling more than one million copies largely on the strength of word-of-mouth marketing. It’s a novel about a man’s encounter with God while he attempts to deal with “The Great Sadness” that has entered his life. The sadness is the loss of his child.

The Shack is a publishing phenomenon (beginning with a $200 marketing budget and books shipped from a friend’s garage) and has so far generated more than one thousand book reviews on Amazon’s website, and probably as many critiques, both positive and negative. The latter range from reviews citing a few questions about the book to reviews alleging new age conspiracies, or worse. Clearly, many evangelical theologians are genuinely concerned about whether the book promotes universalism in terms of salvation, false views of the Trinity, under-developed views of God, and several other theological issues.

I’ll offer a few comments, but first, a reminder. Remember that the act of publishing is an act inviting response. You may write and never publish, so your writing remains private and personal. But to publish is by definition to make known, to share, to broadcast, and to invite readers and responders. So if you’re thin-skinned, don’t publish.

In a lofty but important sense, the opportunity to publish is an exercise of freedom of speech. We live, God be praised, in a free country, so we may speak openly, freely, and often. In addition, The Shack is a publication dealing with religious ideas, so the author not only benefits from freedom of speech but also freedom of religion.

Consequently, to discuss or even possibly to disagree with content in The Shack is not a threatening or unwarranted action. To discuss The Shack is an opportunity to participate in the exercise of the most precious ideals of a free, pluralistic, and democratic society. This we should celebrate even as we critique not the person but the merits of his ideas.

Comment One: Now, what do I think of The Shack? I was not offended by the book, but I didn’t like it much either. This admission says more about my reading preferences than it does the merits of this book. Though my reading habits are eclectic this kind of fiction is not what I typically enjoy reading.

Comment Two: The book is an allegory, a fictional metaphor, like Aesop’s Fables, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s an attempt to help people understand something about God via a story written from an angle and featuring characters that are, to say the least, not traditional, common, or expected.

Since this book is fiction, and unlike authors of The DaVinci Code or The Celestine Prophecy, Young never claims The Shack is anything other than fiction, we might try to lighten up. In other words, jeremiads are not in order. A number of Christians are over-reacting. The Shack will follow a pattern, here for a little while then fade. Certainly The Shack is less spiritually or theologically threatening than books like Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which is spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

Comment Three: The Shack is a theodicy, an examination of the problem of evil, an attempt to convey a theology of pain and suffering relative to the existence of a just God, like the Old Testament Book of Job. One of the reasons Young’s book has sold so many copies is that it strikes a chord with people who’ve suffered loss – and who, if they’ve lived long enough, hasn’t suffered loss? The book also strikes a chord via its interesting and engaging story in a time when people are looking for something soothing in the face of global terror, economic volatility, and numerous social pathologies, from random violence to rampant substance abuse and more.

Comment Four: But I have some quibbles with the book, for example, the legend of the beautiful Indian maid, the Multnomah Princess (pp. 27-31). In the book you’ll find the following (slightly abridged here) dialogue:

“Is the story true?”

“I don’t know, Kate. It’s a legend and sometimes legends are stories that teach a lesson.”

“So, it didn’t really happen?”

“It might have sweetie. Sometimes legends are built on real stories, things that really happen.”

“So is Jesus dying a legend?”

“No, honey, that’s a true story; and do you know what? I think the Indian princess story is probably true too.”

I know this book is fiction, but I do not like the fact that the author equates the redemption story of Scripture with pagan ideas about human sacrifice. No human being, no matter his or her noble motive, can sacrifice himself or herself for the sins of others. To believe this is to embrace paganism.

Sure, we know many stories of heroic self-sacrifice, to the point of giving life for one’s loved ones, but these stories do not result in someone’s eternal soul salvation. And they only involve physical healing in the sense that the hero was able to reach some form of essential medical help necessary to spare the afflicted.

No, human beings cannot sacrifice themselves for the sins of others and to place the Bible’s redemptive story on an equivalent level with a legend is not accurate or wise. This is one reason The Shack is not a good book for the theologically uninitiated, for new Christians, or for non-believers seeking spiritual truth. Young’s portrayal of Christ and of God is incomplete and at best inconsistent.

Comment Five: I also did not agree with characterization of politics, economics, religion, religious activity, and patriotism as just so many humanly-devised systems that control and trap us (thus bad, evil, or to be avoided?), while freedom in Christ liberates us from all these things (pp. 179-181). This is the author’s way of explaining “in the world, not of the world,” but he offers the old sacred/secular dichotomy. A biblical worldview encompasses all these systems, which God ordained and which are no more evil in themselves than money is evil. People’s sin is what taints these systems. People’s right actions before God are what can develop them for God’s glory. Young’s perspective sounds like the traditional-but-theologically erroneous campfire song, “This world is not my home. I’m just a passin’ through…”

Comment Six: I especially did not like the Jesus character’s rejection of the word “Christian” (p. 182). This is problematic at best and makes no sense to me. It is confusing, biblically askew in its conjecture, and simply unnecessary. The followers of Christ were first called Christians at Antioch and it is a worthy and still-accurate term.

Comment Seven: The Shack is questionable in other ways as well. It suggests we can see the afterlife and talk with the dead, that uncertainty is preferable to certainty (a key element of postmodern thought but one human beings simply cannot live with or live by), that what really matters is God loves everyone—not who God is, what he expects of us, who we are in sin, how we must confess, and how we may be redeemed. In the end, the story is warm and fuzzy but it’s not biblical Christianity, not genuine theodicy, and not an allegory worthy of listing alongside Pilgrim’s Progress or The Chronicles of Narnia.

Concluding Comment: All this said, I am not apoplectic about this book. You can find compelling thoughts about God and humanity in this book, ones from which we can learn. But this book is not one I’d recommend to a person unfamiliar with the Bible, at least not implying this book presents a full or accurate picture of God or biblical Christianity.

I do think that people who have criticized book stores for carrying The Shack are off-base. Conservative Christians too often look for someone else to do their thinking for them. A Christian book store, just like a Christian university or a church, is not and cannot be held accountable (though some may try) for the fact that individual Christians too often abrogate their own responsibility before God to do their own thinking and make spiritually discerning moral choices. Just like with the rest of life, you and I must decide what it means to be “In the World, Not of the World.”

 

© Dr. Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2008

This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

 

David Anderson and Brent Zuercher, Letters Across the Divide: Two Friends Explore Racism, Friendship, and Faith (2001). This book is what its title indicates. It’s a series of letters between a White and a Black man, both Christians, wrestling with differing perspectives on race and racism in America. Their different views come from their different upbringings and subcultures, not theology. In fact, their biblical understanding and the values that develops from it are remarkably similar. What they are trying to do is apply their faith to everyday life. It’s a good exercise and they do it well. Whatever your race or ethnic background, you can learn something from this text. It promotes understanding and, therefore, their greater goal, genuine respect and friendship.

Tony Campolo, 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid to Touch (1988). Tony Campolo’s book, and therefore the issue he considers “hot,” are dated, but this is still an interesting book. Campolo is well known for his edgy speaking, ministry, and teaching. He is a Christian sociology professor turned moderate-to-liberal Christian activist, one who challenges conservatives to think carefully about their assumptions and sometimes too glib responses to intractable social problems. Some of his “hot” issues, like the challenge of AIDS, Christianity and homosexuals, and are evangelicals too pro-Israel, are still very much in the mix of contemporary concerns. You may not always agree with Campolo; I didn’t. But you will find him thought-provoking. Some of his issues have faded, which is a lesson in itself, but his desire to apply his faith to his politics is admirable. The book’s question and answer format is a good technique.

Ted C. Fishman, China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the Word (2005). This book is sort of a “The World is Flat” focused just on China. It is a fascinating book describing China’s mind-boggling numbers, like the projected 300M people moving to cities in the next fifteen years, meaning China must build an urban infrastructure equivalent to Houston every month; the 320M Chinese under the age of 14 years; the fact that there are an estimated 320M or more people in China who are not counted by demographers, more than the population of the USA, so the Chinese population is close to 1.5B; that there are more speakers of English as a second language in China than speakers of English in the US and that there are more people in China using the Internet than use it in the US, and much more. China’s emergence as an economic giant—growing at almost 10% per year—is already affecting America, so Americans are past due in becoming more knowledgeable about China and the opportunities and possibly threats, economically and politically, it represents.

Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat (2006). Friedman is a New York Times “Foreign Affairs” journalist, so this long and wordy book keeps your interest describing one interesting technological, economic, or demographic development in the world after the other. The premise of the book is that computer, communications, and transportations technology are knocking down old barriers around the world and are simultaneously creating a level playing field for all people. This level playing field is the “flat world” in Friedman’s terms and it portends an incredible surge in innovation, not just from the American Yankee, but now even more likely from East Indians, Chinese, and others. It means that Americans must become better educated, learn to compete in world economies, develop more innovative ideas, and in essence create products and services heretofore not known. And the flat world is affecting more than economics. It’s influencing education, religion, politics, and culture. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand a paradigm that helps make sense of the changes taking place around us.

Lou Holtz, Wins, Losses, and Lessons: An Autobiography (2006). I like biographies and autobiographies—not about celebrities but about people who matter. Coach Lou Holtz is certainly a celebrity, but I also think he matters. I followed his college football coaching career for years, but the more I read about him in this book, the more I liked him. He is a devout Catholic, lives his life based upon an overt commitment to God, prayer, and family, and is as far as I could tell a man of integrity. This is also a good leadership book, for it is packed with examples of how he taught and led teams of people to accomplish goals greater than they at first thought they could reach. While this book is about college football and, as the title suggests, the story of wins and losses is told, there are a lot of lessons here too.

Doro Bush Koch, My Father, My President, (2006). President George H. W. Bush’s daughter, Doro, writes engagingly and, as you would expect, warmly, about her father, the 41st President of the United States. This book, the author’s first, is interesting, includes a lot of anecdotes that until now have not found their way to the printed page, and is, in a word, enjoyable. “41,” as they call him now, used to be called “Mr. Resume.” President Bush’s record of accomplishment, beginning with heroic WWII flying experience through his years as Vice President and President are amazing. He’s lived a rather incredible life and whatever one thinks of his politics, this book shines a light on a caring, loyal man who possessed ambition both to serve his family and his country. I highly recommend this book.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come, An Evangelical’s Lament: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America (2006). The title says it all, doesn’t it? Balmer is a good writer, so this book reads well. But it’s not fun to read because the author is peeved, as self-righteous as he accuses the Religious Right of being, and a fellow well into biting the hand that fed him. He accuses religious conservatives of “selective literalism,” i.e. interpreting the Bible to say what they want it to say and ignoring other passages. But he then does the same thing. He accuses religious conservatives of “fetishizing the fetus” and ignoring the travesties of poverty, war, and racism. Yet I know religious conservatives who are not only pro-life but who also work to alter poverty and racism even as some of them question the current administration’s conduct of the war on terror. Somehow he misses these people. I’ve read books like this before—ones where the author is working hard to demonstrate how different he or she is from the religious context that nurtured him. I do not recommend this book.

Skip Coryell, We Hold These Truths (2005). A novel set in and around Grand Rapids, Michigan. It features an “end-of-the-world” scenario and is interesting in part because the story takes place so far from typical fiction settings like New York or Los Angeles. The book is relatively fast-paced, reads well, and is a good literary diversion. The author is an alumnus of Cornerstone University.

Les T. Csorba, Trust: The One Thing That Makes or Breaks a Leader (2004). This author is a Christian, served in the first Bush Administration, and knows what he’s talking about. He says that true leaders are driven by a vision larger than themselves and the applause they might receive. As the book’s title implies, Csorba thinks untrustworthy leadership is or should be an oxymoron. My favorite quote from this book is: “The ‘best and the brightest’ only become the best when they are the modest and the moral as well.” Csorba includes plenty of contemporary examples of leaders who failed the public trust, not only in politics, but in religion and business as well. This book is well documented and worthy of anyone’s time who cares to learn more about leadership.

Bernard DeVito, The Western Paradox: A Conservation Reader, edited by Douglas Brinkley and Patricia Nelson Limerick (2000). This is a collection of essays by longtime Yale University professor Bernard DeVito who grew up in the West and never lost his love for its wide open spaces. During the 1940s and 1950s he became one of the leading spokesmen for advancing what today we’d call the environmental movement. He was a novelist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, but his lasting legacy is embodied in these essays. He loved the West, he loved the outdoors, and he wanted them preserved for posterity. I may not agree with all his recommendations or some of his politics, but I certainly affirm his desire to conserve the environment.

John Hagee, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World (2006). This is Pastor Hagee’s latest contribution to prophetic interpretation in which he applies innumerable scriptures directly to front page events in the Middle East. While there are parts of this book to commend it the work is more than conservative; it’s reactionary and alarmist. Hagee argues that God expects the United States to defend and advance the perceived interests of Israel no matter what the government of that country may do. There is no middle ground, no complexity of issues, and no independent American interest for Hagee. I’m not saying the United States should not support Israel. I’m just saying that Hagge’s view applies the Scripture in some curious ways. There’s no doubt Pastor Hagee believes what he writes, but it’s fairly obvious the title, cover art, and content are all clearly designed to sell books.

Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (2006). Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek and has published other best-selling histories. This book examines the perennial question of how religion and politics, church and state, should interact and can interact. Meacham respects the Founding Fathers and argues they constructed a constitutional republic in which what Benjamin Franklin called “public religion” could and should operate. It’s not private morality writ large, but it’s an acknowledgement that a moral consensus is essential for free society. It also recognizes that government should protect and not intervene in religion even as religion must acknowledge a public domain for government wherein religion, or at least the church, need not insert itself. The book is well-researched but, surprisingly, somewhat unmoving to read. The writing does not flow and the stories are not compelling. It reads more like, well, a history text.

Peggy Noonan, When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan (2001). I’ve read a lot of books about Ronald Reagan. For pure reading pleasure this one just might surpass them all. Noonan is a good writer, is politically astute, was a participant in some of the events she writes about, and went from not being too sure about Reagan to being a great admirer. She doesn’t sugarcoat him, exploring some of his weaknesses and failures as well as his considerable strengths and political achievements. He was an interesting and an exceptionally optimistic man. He knew what he believed and why, and most of all, he embraced the values of freedom and initiative. He was a leader of the first rank.

Linda Seger, Jesus Rode a Donkey: Why Republicans Don’t Have the Corner on Christ (2006). This is an interesting and thought-provoking book. As near as I can tell, the book is motivated by the author’s genuine desire to understand and to encourage Christian love, not condemnation, of those with whom she disagrees. She makes the obvious point that too many conservative Christians miss—that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. His Word is not a policy manual fitting neatly within the political platform of either party, and it’s not possible to reduce God’s will for his followers to a series of partisan or even ideological bullet points. She also provides a needed reminder that politicians of all stripes at times use Christianity to manipulate their own agenda. My primary criticism of the book is that the author loosely uses the term “Christian,” apparently content to accept at face value the faith of anyone who happens to use the label. I don’t agree with the author’s views on abortion or homosexuality, for example, but I do respect her attitude and her yearning for Christians to stop demonizing one another over political viewpoints. If you had to choose between Randall Balmer’s book and this one, read this one.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.

 

Dick Devos, Rediscovering American Values: The Foundations of Our Freedom for the 21st Century (1997). Mr Dick DeVos is the former President of Alticor, the parent company of Amway and other related businesses located in Ada, Michigan. He is also the presumptive Republican nominee for Governor of the State of Michigan. DeVos’ book is a good read, articulating conservative values about life, work ethic, free enterprise, business, philanthropy, and more.

Dave Fleming, Leadership Wisdom from Unlikely Voices (2004). This is an odd book, one that I did not enjoy. Fleming’s “unlikely voices” are indeed that, coming from obscure places and people throughout history and offering what I thought was some pretty off the wall, unhelpful advice.

Charles Martin, Healing America, A Biography: The Life of Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist, M.D. (2004). Dr. Bill Frist is a possible future Republican Party Presidential candidate in 2008 or beyond. He is a believer, a brilliant and accomplished heart surgeon, a son of Nashville, and a very high energy person. At times, Charles Martin’s book comes across more as fawning and cheerleading than as serious biography. Senator Bill Frist is a notable American worthy of admiration, but this book makes him sound like he’s never done anything untoward, foolish, or simply wrong in his life. The book is interesting, but it’s a bit of a puff piece.

William C. Ringenberg, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America, 2nd ed. (1984, 2006). In my estimation this book is the best, relatively short overview of Christian higher education in America ever written. It’s easy to read and is an excellent primer for anyone who has not read about the topic before. One of Ringenberg’s best contributions is his list of developments that contributed to the secularization of colleges and universities in America from Harvard on down. This list makes you think, and it is a practical caveat for those of us involved in Christian higher education today. I’d recommend this book to anyone, and I am glad it has been reprinted with a couple of new chapters.

Dick Winters with Cole C. Kingseed, Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters (2006). Major Dick Winters is a singular American. He commanded Easy Company for a time and parachuted with them into France on D-Day, 1944. E Company fought all the way to Hitler’s Berchtesgaden and then participated in occupation duties after the surrender of the German army. E Company became the subject of historian Stephen Ambrose’s book, Band of Brothers, and the subsequent Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg mini-series of the same name. Winters is in his late 80s, the last surviving officer of his company. He was beloved by his men, won the Distinguished Service Cross, became a successful businessman after the war, and is an American hero. I recommend you read Ambrose’s book and then read this one. Both books will bring out the patriot in anyone who reads them, and both books will teach you a lot about leadership.

 

© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006

*This blog may be reproduced in whole or in part with a full attribution statement. Contact Dr. Rogers or read more commentary on current issues and events at www.rexmrogers.com or follow him at www.twitter.com/rexmrogers.