I was recently interviewed by fellow Energion author Steve Kindle regarding my newly released book God the Creator: Toward a More Robust Doctrine of Creation. The video is below.
The quote above comes from chapter 1 of S. J. Hill’s book, What’s God Really Like?, and I’d like to spend some time with this, looking at it from different angles. The first angle is one of worship.
I was in a church committee meeting some years back where a room full of people were discussing young people and the worship service of the church. The question under consideration was why young people weren’t attending our worship services.
After about 45 minutes of (fruitless, in my opinion) discussion, I asked the question: Might we instead discuss whether we can think of any reasons why the young people would attend our worship service?
I, and every other person in that meeting, attend church out of ingrained habit. We have done it for years, it’s what we do, and come Sunday morning, come hell, high water, or several feet of snow, we’re going to find a church service and attend it.
I don’t mean that that’s the only reason I go to church, but it is something I tend to do. If I don’t like one worship service, I’m going to attend another.
But many people, oddly enough (!), require a reason to get up on Sunday morning and go to church. They want to accomplish something.
At this point some of my friends start talking about “dumbing down” the worship service, or want something “relevant.” The tone indicates that “relevant” is some sort of weak effort to replace “real worship” which will involve actual pain and require grit and determination.
“I barely stayed awake through that service,” says the parishioner, looking and sounding holy. Going through a boring worship service is a test of our commitment to God.
Well, perhaps not.
As I read passages like 1 Corinthians 14, I see the word “edify,” which is just a churchy sounding word for “build up” or something similar. The worship services at Corinth sound a bit chaotic, and, well, interesting. Paul encouraged them toward order, but in the end, if you apply all his rules, you still have something very different from what we do today.
Our problem with 1 Corinthians 14 is that we try to apply the solution without having the same problem. We put a straight-jacket on a corpse. The corpse, in case you missed it, is our time of worship.
Now a morbid, boring, and unattractive Christianity is not just about the worship service, but I think we might start there. You see, I think all those complaints about young people wanting relevant service are just whining. Whining because the young people don’t like what we did all our lives.
But if you look at the state of Christianity in America today, I think you’ll see evidence that was we did all our lives—and I’m talking to my generation (I’m 61)—hasn’t worked all that well. Perhaps we need worship that is actually relevant.
Relevant in several ways:
- In expressing our relationship with God. (Subtext here — we might need to have a relationship with God and not just a set of theological reflections.)
- In preparing us for actual service. (We tend to use the word “ministry” a lot. I think that allows us to separate ourselves from the word. How about “every member serving others” instead of “every member in ministry”?
- In help us to build our relationship to God.
- In helping us learn to relate to one another. (Hint: sitting in pews listening to a preacher, then heading out to beat the Baptists [or whoever] to lunch doesn’t build your relationships with other people.)
- In encouraging us in our lives as they are in this world.
- In helping us realize that “worship” doesn’t occur in a “service,” nor does it follow an “order of service,” but is a lifestyle. In fact, it is our lives (Romans 12:1-2).
- In helping us learn new and useful things.
Is that what happens when you go to church?
This just barely touches on this question. I’d like to discuss it some more. S. J. Hill is definitely right about one thing: The way we think about God is going to impact everything. If we think of God as interesting, involved, and yes, cool, we will thing that interesting and exciting things are part of worshiping God. If we think God is vindictive, we’re going to look for the right set of rituals to appease him.
If we’ve really forgotten, as I think many of us have, to think about God seriously (serious and joyful are not contradictory!) at all, that’s also going to impact the way we worship.
If God showed up on Sunday morning, would God enjoy what was going on?
I wonder if there’s something ironic, or perhaps just odd, about working on the interior layout of a book on Spiritual Decluttering while this is behind me?
Actually, there’s less clutter than there used to be. I’m turning storage space into usable office space, and I’m about half done.
Early in my college days I encountered a man who would have a substantial influence on my life. It started as he explained textual variants and alternate possible translations in Genesis 1 for 2nd year Hebrew. I’d taught myself that far, and hadn’t done badly figuring out the rules, but my knowledge was less than practical. That man was Dr. Alden Thompson, now professor emeritus at Walla Walla University, and author of several books, two of which I publish.
While showing me things that I had never seen before, and wasn’t sure I wanted to see, Alden displayed a gentleness and spiritual depth that had a profound impact on the way in which my theological understanding would develop. It is an approach he has modeled for decades and truly grown into even more as he moves forward.
Looking at the divisions in his beloved Seventh-day Adventist Church, Alden doesn’t want victory for liberals or conservatives or any of the many other variations one might find. What he wants is conversation and an appreciation of the gifts that all bring to the table.
Even though I don’t publish it, as we approach celebration of Consider Christianity Week, I wanted to call attention to Alden’s book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other. Alden is talking about faith and a church organization, but the principles he discusses apply broadly, most importantly, learning to listen to and value the diversity. He matches that with a willingness I often don’t find in either liberal or conservative circles: A willingness to recognize the fear that new ideas and change may bring and to honor the need of solid ground for some people.
While Beyond Common Ground is written very personally and is anchored therefore in its author’s community, it discusses issues I have seen trouble, divide, and sometimes destroy communities of various types. Consider reading this engaging and challenging book as you think about Christianity during Lent, and of course during Consider Christianity Week.
Here’s a short video interview with Alden:
Our Sunday School lesson, which I’m not teaching this week, is from James, focusing on chapter 2. I’m not teaching, but in studying, I looked at a book I publish, Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James.
Bruce Epperly makes a number of important comments. I’m going to do a bit of quoting from his chapter 3, pp. 15-21.
One of my great joys is my first glimpse of the steeple of South Congregational Church, when I round the bend toward home. In earlier times, the church’s steeple guided mariners safely to shore. Today, the bells andsteeple serve a reminder that the church’s mission is to be a light on the hillside and, as our congregation’s motto proclaims, “to learn, love, and live the word of God.” (p. 15)
I like that motto, “learn, love, and live.” I think it may go the other way as well, we learn from what we live, especially when we’re trying to live the word of God.
Faith means nothing unless it lights the way of pilgrims and seekers, providing guidance, comfort, and nurture. (p. 16)
Here Bruce combines faith in action and faith in witness (and our action is, I think, our best witness) in a way of which I think James would approve. We are not Christians, or Jesus people, for our own benefit alone. We receive grace to share grace. That’s why grace cannot be a passive thing. It erupts in action.
… The Apostle asserts that because God loves us, our vocation is to love one another, even if this means crossing the barriers of race and ethnicity. Grace makes us all first-class Christians, worthy of respect regardless of ethnicity or economics. This is the essence of James’ message as well.
James believes that a holistic faith brings together belief and action. In the spirit of the Quakers, what is important to James is to “Let your life speak.” … (p. 17)
I think that the tendency of many interpreters to see James and Paul as opponents is misguided. They do have a different emphasis, but it is not because Paul hated or devalued action or that James thought beliefs were unimportant. Each had an emphasis, but these emphases are compatible or complementary.
Loving Jesus means loving your neighbor. And if James is right, it means standing aloof and becoming counter-cultural in
relation to socially-acceptable, but life-destroying, values – “being unstained by the world” – that put profits ahead of people, neglect the needy, and blame the poor for their poverty. We are all created in the image of God and we all deserve to be loved, to have a place to call home, and an opportunity to live out our gifts and talents as God’s beloved daughters and sons. (p. 19)
That’s were it will start to get with us. Sanctified wallets are the hardest of possessions to acquire. Or, looked at the other way, the wallet is the hardest thing to give up. How much stuff must we have? What is first in our life? Putting God first will result in also putting our neighbor first.
But what can you do? Maybe all you have to spare is coins in your pocket.
In the realm of God, no deed is too small, for with one action at a time we can become God’s companions in healing the world. Let your life speak. (p. 20)
This is a great little book, just 40 pages of text from Energion’s Topical Line Drives series, for accompanying a study of James. It might just be, as the subtitle suggests, life transforming!
Tonight at 7:00 pm central time I’ll be interviewing Dr. Bruce Epperly for the Energion Tuesday Night Hangout.
I never met Dr. John Sailhamer, but I appreciate scholars who propose and support theories that are substantially out of the ordinary. I don’t mean crazy, just creative and risky. I found out recently that he has passed away.
In celebration of his life I’d like to link to my review of his book, Genesis Unbound. At the time I reviewed it, it was unfortunately out of print and I’m glad to see that a new edition was published in 2011. I’m showing a link to it at the left of this post.
This is among the books that I strongly recommend that anyone involved in debated issues of creation or with an interest in it should read.
I recently worked my way through Luke Timothy Johnson’s Hebrews: A Commentary (New Testament Library) along with the Greek text, and I’m going to write a few notes on the book, which may, or may not, constitute a real review. Time will tell!
The problem with many blogger book reviews is that they often amount to no more than various length notifications as to whether the author liked the book or not. There are some really wonderful exceptions to this, and you really can find a great deal of information about a title in the blogosphere, but you can also read many words (such as these) which don’t tell you a thing! As an alternative, you get an argument against everything the author wrote in the book, usually without sufficient quotations or references to let you get a feel for what the reviewer is arguing against.
In my view the ideal review identifies the goal(s) of the book, comments on how successful the book was in accomplishing these goals, has some interaction with the ideas, and finally has a summary evaluation which is based on the stated goals. I recall reading a book about Christian apologetics. I thought it was well written, carefully argued, and thorough. There was one problem, however. The author claimed in the introduction that he would close all the holes in arguments from Christianity and the Bible. He compared the work of others to putting one leaky bucket in another: You slow the leak but you don’t stop it. He was going to stop it. In the end, if I was asked whether I liked the book, I would have to say “yes,” despite (or even because of) the fact that I disagreed in many places. Yet in a review I would have to say that the stated objective was not achieved, and making a claim that one would accomplish such an objective was, shall we say, suboptimal.
In the case of a commentary, the difficulty is greater than with an ordinary book. There are two key problems: 1) Many people have very fixed ideas of what a commentary ought to do, and little forgiveness for a commentary that doesn’t accomplish their list of goals, and 2) People (particularly scholars) have quite a variety of very fixed ideas. No matter how you choose to write a commentary, no matter how large or small you make it, and no matter how carefully you draw compromises between never completing the task and short-changing the reader, someone will complain.
I would like you to note here my own inconsistency. I’m writing in prescriptive language about what ought to be in a review, while arguing against prescriptive ideas about writing a book. I will live with this inconsistency.
Besides, this isn’t a review. Here are my general thoughts.
I found Hebrews: A Commentary by Luke Timothy Johnson to be the most helpful commentary I have read thus far in terms of stimulating theological reflection. By that I mean that the author doesn’t merely provide a view, but he argues it in such a way that it stimulates new thinking. My personal response to some of his views is that they are perhaps a little too tied to orthodox theology and a little less daring than the book of Hebrews deserves, but that is at the nit-picking level. Johnson knows how to present quite orthodox theology in a way that is challenging and helpful.
As I studied using this commentary, reading the Greek text and taking second looks at the textual notes, I often found myself reflecting for some time after I’d read my chosen portion for the day. I rarely find that level of stimulation for thought in a commentary.
This is not David Allen’s volume in the NAC series. Dr. Allen covers everything and references everything. The only negative thing I would say about his commentary is that I have to have some energy built up before I go to consult it. If you want a detailed and complete survey of the topic along with arguments in favor of a particular solution, but all means use David Allen’s work. On the other hand, if you want to get more quickly to the topic for teaching and preaching, use Luke Timothy Johnson.
I know we don’t like to think that we might shirk some portion of the possible study of a passage we’re going to teach or preach. We’d like to think that we covered everything before we tried to present an exposition to others. But we all face the clock. Brevity is not a sin.
So when I want to get right to meditating on the text, but with some solid meat to set it up, I turn to Johnson’s commentary.
Now I haven’t called this a review, yet I’d like to present some interaction. I’d suggest, however, that I’ve already done this in blog posts on Hebrews written after reading material from Johnson’s commentary. You can start with Hebrews and the Problem of Writing Introductions. I could provide a number of links, but the simplest thing to do is to type “Hebrews” in the search box after you get to that article. Nearly everything I wrote on Hebrews after that point references Johnson.
Note: I read
A good book review is not one that says nice things about the book, although nice is nice, so to speak. I occasionally read a positive review that makes me wonder whether the reviewer read the book. There are likewise negative reviews that make one wonder. As a publisher, I must take all these in stride.
A really good review, however, is one that shows the reader read the book and also got from it something the author and publisher had hoped to get across.
Thus a review of Running My Race (David Alan Black) on The Tired Blog. I was feeling fairly tired today, and then I read this review. It really cheered me up. If I can publish a few books each year that make readers uncomfortable, then I’m doing my job.
Of course, as publisher I’d also like to note that Running My Race is a good book! 🙂