Blame the Poor

Theodore HiebertWhen social unrest increases, it is easy for a society to blame its poor, who are often disproportionately involved in crime and in prison populations. It requires much more courage to hold accountable, as did Habakkuk, society’s elite and powerful figures and organizations, who customarily project the privileged and institutionalize the disparity between rich and poor.

—Theodore Hiebert, The Book of Habakkuk: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in NIB VII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 632.

The Meaning of Sunday | Joel Thiessen

The cover of Thiessen's The Meaning of SundayCanadian churches are closing. Religious identification is dropping. A full 24% of Canadians identified themselves as having zero religious ties in 2011 (94). Zero—not even Christmas and Easter piety!

In The Meaning of Sunday, Thiessen surveys the quantitative data while adding his own qualitative analysis. Through interviews with ninety Canadians from across the socioeconomic spectrum, Thiessen learns why religion does not mean what it used to for Canadians.

Religion is a matter of supply and demand. Researchers like Barna have argued that there is an unlimited craving for religion. If religious levels are dropping, it means that the supply is flawed—we need to do church better. This analysis has led to a rash of church-help books and revitalize-your-congregation conferences. Thiessen argues that supply is not the problem. There is simply a colossal lack of demand for religion today.

You can see this as good news or bad. On the one hand, this is some relief for churches that struggle with declining attendance patterns. On the other hand, it demonstrates that Canada is following on Europe’s heels in racing towards a post-Christian society. Canadian immigration policy has slowed this trend because new immigrants are more religious than the Canadian norm. However, regression to the mean happens quickly, usually within one or two generations.

Thiessen’s research is hard medicine for Canadian Christians, but it’s medicine worth taking. Like an obese person stepping onto the scales at the start of a weight-loss program, The Meaning of Sunday will give Canadian Christians a realistic baseline for future life and ministry.

Thiessen, Joel. The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.

Belief or Action | Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas TalebIt is one thing to be cosmetically defiant of authority by wearing unconventional clothes—what social scientists and economists call “cheap signaling”—and another to prove willingness to translate belief into action.

—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007), 6.

Recovering the Full Mission of God | Dean Flemming

The cover of Flemming's Recovering the Full Mission of GodThis false dichotomy regarding mission is well worn:

  • We need to proclaim the good news. Faith comes by hearing!
  • We need to live the good news. As St. Francis (supposedly) said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”

In Recovering the Full Mission of God, Dean Flemming surveys the entire Bible with particular emphasis on the New Testament to see how these two positions are reflected in scripture. Spoiler alert: true gospel witness demands both words and actions.

From the start, the “search” for an answer to this false dichotomy felt like a forgone conclusion. It is analogous to surveying the architectural styles of the world to determine whether true houses require a foundation or a roof.

The most interesting part of the book is the conclusion where Flemming draws some more nuanced insights from his study. For example, the emphasis between the two poles shifts in different books. Acts is primarily about telling. 1 Peter is primarily about doing. From data like this he concludes that each scenario we encounter is unique and will require its own mix of telling and doing.

Another wise conclusion is his connection of being v. doing with gifts and calling:

Our mission priority may depend on our gifts and calling. … None of us can meet every kind of need on our own. (268)

Some people are gifted conversationalists while others rather slip in behind the scenes and serve. God uses every gift and ability to create the right mix of doing and telling to meet the need.

This book can feel repetitive at times. After all, Flemming is looking for the same thing in every area of scripture. That said, the conclusions make this book worth the read. In order to be Christ in a situation, the body needs to both proclaim and live the gospel.

—Dean Flemming, Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013).

The Pastor as Public Theologian | Kevin J. Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan

The cover of Vanhoozer & Strachan's The Pastor as Public TheologianFor centuries, the local pastor was a public theologian. The pastor was a peculiar kind of intellectual (not an academic specialist) who “opens up the Scriptures to help people understand God, the world, and themselves” (1).

Today, this classical vision of the pastorate is all but lost. The revivalist movement of the nineteenth century exchanged the thoughtful messages of the Puritans for “the freewheeling pulpiteer, master of the homespun story” (88). This devolved to the place where a person like Billy Sunday could boast that “he knew as much about theology as a jackrabbit knows about Ping-Pong” (90)! The movement of theology from the church to the university also undermined the pastor’s theological role. Where Luther and Calvin were the leading pastor-theologians of their day, pastors are now pressured to take on a host of church-growth leadership roles while they leave theology to the experts in the academy.

In The Pastor as Public Theologian, Vanhoozer and Strachan passionately call for a return of the pastor-theologian. Pastors have a ground-level knowledge that academics will never have. Pastors are called by God to guard their flocks by challenging and weeding out false teaching.

Methodologically, Vanhoozer and Strachan divide the book into four sections, following the classical division of theology:

  1. Biblical Theology: The Old Testament roles of prophet, priest, and king are examined in light of Jesus and their significance for pastoral work.
  2. Historical Theology: The history of the church is reviewed and the devolution of the pastor’s role is charted.
  3. Systematic Theology: The moods of the Greek language (especially indicative and imperative) are used as a framework for examining the intersection between biblical and cultural literacy in the pastorate.
  4. Practical Theology: The various biblical roles of the pastor are reviewed to see how they contribute to the health of God’s house.

The chapters in this book are interspersed with twelve short essays from pastors who show how assuming the role of pastor-theologian has benefited their own congregations. The book then ends with “Fifty-Five Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian” (183). These theses condense the message of the book into six pages.

I would encourage every pastor to buy and read this book. It is not only an accurate diagnosis of a modern illness—it offers motivation and the first steps toward a cure.

—Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015).

The Great Seducer | Helmut Thielicke

Helmut ThielickeThe great seducer always uses the same devices: he seems to take God at his word, and yet he twists the meaning of this word almost before it has left God’s mouth. For we can only take God at his word by placing ourselves under and not above this word.

—Helmut Thielicke, Between God and Satan Translated by C. C. Barber (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 55.

The Complete Fiction | H. P. Lovecraft

The cover of Lovecraft's The Complete FictionHoward Phillips Lovecraft was an odd soul. He was born in 1890 and lived 47 years only to die in sickness and poverty, questioning the merits of his work. In hindsight, Lovecraft is considered one of the masters of the horror genre. During his lifetime, however, he struggled to sell his stories and novellas to Weird Tales.

The first thing you notice when reading Lovecraft is the descriptive quality of his writing. Although it can feel plodding at times, it forces the reader to slow down and enter the terror of the situation. Any page will yield an example of this. Here’s the beginning of The Outsider:

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. (164)

If you are willing to exit the furious pace of modern storytelling to enter Lovecraft’s high-resolution stories, the details will linger in your mind.

Lovecraft’s stories share a common theme: terror at the inconceivably other. He continually relates the mind-shattering terror one feels when one encounters cosmic beings that dwarf the categories of our human minds. For Lovecraft, humans are insignificant in the grand scale of the cosmos.

I can’t help but process Lovecraft’s themes in light of my Christian worldview. He was right—the cosmos is grander than we can possibly understand. A Judeo-Christian reflection on this leads to poetry:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4 ESV)

Where Lovecraft differs from Christianity is not the scale of cosmic otherness: it’s that for Christians, the Other is invested personally in humanity.

—H. P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008).