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I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life
I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life
by Gregg A. Ten Elshof
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.86
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Current Treatment of an Ancient Problem, February 2, 2011
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It may happen more often than you realize, and you are probably aware of it more often than you are willing to admit. We deceive ourselves often, in many ways, and for all kinds of reasons. Ten Elshof has written a provocative book covering a character trait we don't always deal with. It is a readable, insightful and even wise book. We need to think more often about how and why we deceive ourselves about our behaviors and beliefs, and we need to think more about how to handle our forms of deception.

But there is a twist. Is it possible that some measure of self-deception is not just a benefit, but a God-given benefit? Ten Elshof thinks so. I was originally leery of his attempt to defend a certain level of self-deception, but he handled the matter very convincingly. It now seems obvious to me.

The book opens with a brief overview of the matter of self-deception. Ten Elshof shows that it has been a long time since philosophers and the Christian tradition have paid attention to the matter, even though it used to be a topic of real concern. He sets the stage about our personal deal-making and then moves to five ways we self-deceive.

But we are not left without help. After a couple of rather deflating chapters (the honest reader will probably feel deflated), he begins to show us the ways through. First of all, self-deception may not be the end of the world - at least at first. And secondly, there are very good ways of working around self-deception to a healthy grasp of the truth about yourself.

Of particular value to me were the sections on avoiding group-think and the approach he calls, "Avoiding Hyper-Authenticity." When Christians try to change their behavior through the imitation of Christ, are we being hypocrites? After all, we are behaving in ways inconsistent with who we "really" are. Isn't that a form of self-deception as well? The hyper-authentic person comes "as is" and is brutally open and honest about who they are and what they feel. But is that just an excuse to avoid change for the better? Ten Elshof's discussion at this point is very straight-forward and wise.

This is a great book on a neglected topic.

The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies)
The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies)
by M. Craig Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.49
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Work At Recapturing A Vocation, December 2, 2010
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In my perfect world the kinds of books ministry majors in Bible colleges and seminaries would read are exemplified by this offering by Barnes. Instead of the corporate style leadership models and the slick gimmicking of church growth seminars, future pastors would soak in views of pastoring that begin and end with biblical influences and remain solidly against the reigning cultural models. Barnes has written such a book.

The goal, it seems, is to clarify a confusion pastors live with right now - what it means to be a pastor. It seems to be a great problem if men and women are entering professions they can't properly or deeply define, but I think he is right. We have simply let the role of pastor be defined for us in recent decades and we need to work to recover its true meaning.

The image Barnes uses to control the book is that of pastor as a "minor poet." Major poets are the larger-than-life biblical and historical figures who change almost everything, but the vast majority of us fit into the "minor poet" role as we work on translating the truths of God into a fuzzy and broken world. All in all, I think the metaphor is a helpful one. From time to time it seems a bit stretched, but it really comes home in some of the final chapters as Barnes uses T.S. Elliot's "The Three Voices of Poetry" to help define the pastoral vocation. I was surprised at how helpful that rubric was.

The book is short but important. If you are a pastor, I challenge you to pick up this book and others like it to re-ground your vocation and break away from the definitions placed on you from the outside. If you know someone wanting to be a pastor, give them this book and see how it strikes them. I found it encouraging, helpful and needful at the same time.

The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn't Exist
The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn't Exist
by Craig Groeschel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.59
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31 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Words..., November 15, 2010
My thoughts on this book can be summed up in two words: Sigh and Yawn. First, the sigh.

I have been intrigued by this book for a while and finally picked it up at the local store looking forward to hearing a pastor talk about believing in Christ while living as if we don't. The phrase, "Christian atheist" is a provocative one and it presents interesting inroads into some pastoral work.

Instead of thought-provoking work, the book is a string of stories supported by a few verses here and there and punch-lines. Every chapter goes like this: catchy title, story of the down-and-outer, verse, repeat story and verse four or five more times, a little bit of surface Scriptural work, punch-line. I don't know exactly what I expected when I picked up the book, but I was fairly underwhelmed with the product.

The Yawn is pretty self explanatory. Every chapter was essentially the same with variations on the stories and themes. All the actual biblical and spiritual work was simple bordering on simplistic. The illustrations - not unlike many sermons preached each week - overwhelmed the biblical insights and the vision of Christ this topic could have developed.

If you are looking for a simple and easy to read pick-me-up with lots of stories, this book really might be a help to you. If, however, you want to really dig into the very real problem of "Christian atheists," this book might come up a little short for you.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 26, 2015 8:46 AM PST

The Loser Letters
The Loser Letters
by Mary Eberstadt
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.62
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Letters Are Far From Losers, November 3, 2010
This review is from: The Loser Letters (Paperback)
This book is a catch. The device Eberstadt uses is similar to the Screwtape Letters in that she uses a string of letters from one point of view to argue for the opposing point of view. The speaker in the book is a young atheist convert writing to the big New Atheists (always in a capitalized "You") about where they have gone wrong. The tone is that of a smart but young adult who is serious about her desire for the atheists to be right about their ethics and naturalism. The point is an apologetic for where they go wrong in their arguments over and over.

One of the things I found surprising about the book is the storyline that unfolds through the letters. Who is this young lady known as A. F. Christian (A Former Christian)? How did her conversion from Christianity to atheism happen? What kinds of insights might she have for the New Atheists? And most importantly, what is happening to her now?

This is a popular-level book, so don't expect any footnotes or jargon. But that does not keep Eberstadt from making some serious arguments and accusations and doing it well. I think this is a great way into the world of the current apologetic resulting from the New Atheists, and might even be a good breather from the more technical works.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 30, 2015 9:31 AM PDT

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies)
Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies)
by James K. A. Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.04
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Desiring (and Knowing?) the Kingdom, November 2, 2010
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It is a ubiquitous question for thinking and engaged Christians everywhere in every age: How do we understand the tension between the influence of the culture upon the church and the influence of the church upon the culture? In much of the recent evangelical literature on this subject, the focus has been on worldview. The big ideas have been ideas, beliefs, and doctrines and how Christians ought to transform theirs or recapture a distinctly Christian set. Smith sees the project in a different light. In fact, he sees the matter of influence to be upon our ideas and not necessarily through our ideas.

In many ways, Smith reaches back through modern and enlightenment-influenced theology and philosophy to Augustine and his belief that we are primarily affective creatures before we are rational creatures: we love before we think. And if the central questions about our character and formation are about our loves, we ought to get to what forms and shapes our loves. Smith's fundamental claim and the one that drives the book is that "liturgies" form our loves, and thus, form us. Early on he notes, "The core claim of this book is that liturgies - whether `sacred' or `secular' - shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people and what defines us in what we love." (pg. 25)

Though the primary audience of the book is Christian education, Smith is aware, and I wholeheartedly agree, that his work has far-reaching application outside of the academy. If his premise is true, then this work has implications for the form and shape of the church as much as the university. I will briefly summarize the two sections of the book with some of his major points, and then offer some questions and analysis.

The first of two sections is devoted to an expression of anthropology, focusing on humans as loving/affective creatures and how those loves are formed. Cultural liturgies are examined and exposited as Smith makes the case for loving as the fundamental act of the human being in place of reasoning. Most worldview thinking, he argues, has the human creature exactly upside down as it emphasizes rationalistic behavior over affective influences.

For someone familiar with some of the basics of virtue theory, it will not come as a surprise that Smith argues that habits and practices play a large, if not primary, role in the forming of loves and the human character. He also employs the structure of "social imaginary" to describe how the practices of our lives and our worship form us as "noncognitive" directors of our actions and dispositions toward the world.

In the second section, Smith moves from anthropology to the more constructive task of dealing with the actual ins and outs of Christian worship. In the first section he argues that we need to form a new way of imagining and seeing the Kingdom of God, and in the second part he goes about dealing with how that happens. He asks, "In other words, what does worship say about Christian faith?" (pg. 134) It is a good question, and it deserves to be dealt with. What do our actual practices as Christians tell us about the shape of our faith in Christ? The term "practical atheist" may be overused in some contexts, but its point fits just fine with Smith's larger idea. Are we as Christ followers worshiping (acting) in such a way as to make good sense of our faith?

While some reviewers have noted that the first part of the book may be stronger than the second, I think a degree of charity needs to be applied to this second part. I must admit that I lost some steam reading through to the end as Smith listed the various "practical" applications of his theory, but I still found them instructive and at times provocative.

I found a lot of Smith's argument to be the kind of thing we ought to be talking about in our churches and universities. Are we guilty of a kind of Gnosticism in which we have disconnected what we believe from how we behave and what we do when we gather together? Have we lost a sense of being deeply affective creatures who are often moved by our experiences more than the latest lecture we heard? We need to wrestle with the implications of these issues. Given that, there are some assertions and arguments in the book to push against.

I'll get a rather small thing out of the way first. From time to time Smith seems to erect scarecrows to knock down. One particular instance happens in his sidebar on The Moulin Rouge. His argument is that there is something valuable in the way love is portrayed (at least in its force in the human being) there, and he notes, "And so one could suggest that the kingdom looks more like Montmarte than Colorado Springs!" (pg. 72) The play, of course, is on a stereotype of Colorado Springs as a kind of evangelical Mecca where nearly everyone is blindly evangelical and in lock-step with the Republican party. I was disappointed in that kind of broad-stroke ad hominem, but it isn't the only place where part of his argument relies on pigeon-holing a set of evangelicals in a cubicle and knocking the whole thing down.

Then there are times where it seems Smith is too heavy-handed with other points of view in order to make his argument. The result of this tact is that he portrays an apparent disregard for and a simple denial of different points of view. Smith clearly argues that we are primarily affective/loving beings, but at times he appears to say we are exclusively affective/loving beings, showing a disregard for what seems to me to be the truth of the influence of ideas and reason. Instead of a both/and or primary/secondary approach Smith seems to want to have an either/or approach, which doesn't help his overall case.

Early on Smith characterizes his foil as "rationalistic," "a talking-head version of Christianity," and provocatively enough a "'bobble head' Christianity" where what goes on in the head far outweighs what goes on in the body (pg. 42). While this can be true of some forms of Christian theology heavily influenced by the enlightenment, is it true of all forms of theology concerned with true doctrine and the content of the propositional messages we proclaim? As seems to be the case with theologians and Christians influenced by a postmodern philosophy, there might be a temptation to make a category mistake here: all who disagree with us are disjointed enlightenment thinkers.

Another example of this kind of reasoning appears in the second half of the book on page 163, "The `image of God' (imago Dei) is not some de facto property of Homo sapiens (whether will or reason or language or what have you); rather, the image of God is a task, a mission" (emphasis his). This is the kind of thing that shoots the argument he wants to make in the foot. We are put off by the unnecessary bifurcation of the two - property vs. mission - and we are on guard from then on. I find it obvious in both the Scripture and in the theology on the subject that the image of God is at least a set of properties endowed to us by God that make us, not worms, uniquely human. It is then be constructive to note that the image of God is a "task, a mission" that we have as creatures living under God.

I simply do not see a logical contradiction in his argument if he took love to be primary to reason, and then argued for the proper places of each in the liturgies of the believer.

There is a lot to be gained through Smith's book, and he raises arguments we need to wrestle with that we don't often think through. And for that, I think this book is very useful for Christian educators and pastors. But I hope that as he fills out this project he will avoid some of the unnecessary rhetorical and argumentative devices that hurt the overall argument.

John Bunyan (Christian Encounters Series)
John Bunyan (Christian Encounters Series)
by Kevin Charles Belmonte
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.00
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great and Delightful Biography, November 1, 2010
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If you asked me before I read Belmonte's biography if "Pilgrim's Progress" was a unique achievement by a great man with long-lasting influence, I would have said yes. But I would not have been able to tell you why. Belmonte filled in my ignorance in this delightful, informative and easy to read biography of John Bunyon.

Belmonte begins with the influence of "Pilgrims' Progress" and works his way through Bunyon's tumultuous surroundings and his own redeeming life. Needless to say, Bunyon's most famous work is still a thing of theological, devotional, and literary influence. This is made no less amazing by the facts of his simple and uneducated life. After a normal childhood as a Tinker's son, a stint in the military, Bunyon found a transformative relationship with God.

Belmonte does a wonderful job of touching on the political and literary culture of Bunyon's day. Bunyon lived during confusing and difficult political times so it is not surprising to learn that the atmosphere around him works its way into the journey of Pilgrim as he overcomes difficulty on every side to find his way to God. We learn about his possible education, his family and religious influences, and then the alternating seasons of his imprisonment and freedom. The reader is impressed with Bunyon on every level, especially as we read of his time in jail for preaching in unapproved venues. Belmonte also spends a good deal of time reflecting on Bunyon's works, "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Grace Abounding".

I think this is a great introduction to the life and works of an influential member of the Christian world.

Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad about Feeling Good?
Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad about Feeling Good?
by Gary Thomas
Edition: Paperback
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Joy To Read, September 7, 2010
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Gary Thomas is a wonderful and useful author when it comes to the matter of Christian spiritual formation, and "Pure Pleasure" is no exception. Taking his cue from the premises that we have a constant thirst for God's things and that we only find our ultimate fulfillment in God alone, Thomas proceeds to make his way through a kind of practical theology of pleasure.

And it is more than just finding some kind of temporary or elusive happiness here on earth, it is about deep and lasting spiritual fulfillment. In what is a kind of thesis statement of the book, Thomas notes, "Spiritual triumph begins and ends with finding our satisfaction in God above all things" (pg. 17). In this way it is a retooling of what we might normally conceive as happiness from an emotional state to something soulish and spiritual. It will include the emotional from time to time, but it is about the joy of lasting fulfillment in relationship with the God that made us.

Christians can sometimes be unnecessarily dower people. Thomas wants us to understand the joy that is available in the living of the Christian life. He is careful to warn us about various dangers and excesses in this pursuit, but he is clear - and he is right - that life with God can be a pure pleasure.

Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy
Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy
by Christopher Phillips
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.79
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Read, but Neither Socratic Nor Philosophical, June 25, 2010
Christopher Phillips set out to do something really exciting. He wanted to host several Socrates Cafés across the world and in radically different cultures. The result is a fascinating insight into all kinds of cultural points of view I have never considered or been exposed to before. Phillips arranges open discussions among these various groups, gathers people of different ages and in different circumstances of life, and asks them some of the great Socratic questions. I really enjoyed listening in on the conversations including Navajo Indians, Koreans, second generation Muslims in America, and life-long prisoners. In almost every instance there was a variety of opinions among the people in the group, which of course added to the joy of the read.

One interesting exception to the variety of opinion was the Manhattan crowd - every one of them was a morally and intellectually confused relativist (in my opinion). Another exception to what was standard in the rest of the conversations was the group of Catholic Christians near the end of the book. Instead of an open dialogue where every opinion was accepted, the conversation was steered toward dislike for the established Catholic Church.

One other detail deserves mention. That these conversations pass for Socratic is telling. At almost no time (with the possible exception of the Catholic Christians) did Phillips push back on any answer anyone gave. The guiding principle of these dialogues seemed to be, "all views are equally acceptable," which is to say these dialogues were not Socratic. Socrates did not ask questions because he was simply curious about what his fellow human being believed. He was after the truth, and Socrates was not above vivisecting an interlocutor to get to it. But, it seems we would rather sit, gab, and accept and call it philosophical.

The Principle of Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
The Principle of Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
by Andy Stanley
Edition: Hardcover
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3.0 out of 5 stars Despite the Claim, it is a Self-Help Book, June 25, 2010
Andy Stanley tells us at the very beginning that he didn't set out to write a self-help book, but a book about a principle. But in writing about what he calls the Principle of the Path, Stanley has succeeded in writing a self-help book. How does one avoid future personal problems? By following the principle. How does one make current decisions that may affect their futures? They follow the principle.

In its essence, I think Stanley's principle is right. In fact, as Stanley admits, it is almost ridiculously obvious and it almost seems silly to write about it. But I can testify alongside him that too many people lack the present-day common sense it takes to get from where they are to where they want to (or ought to) be. So it has to be said, and as far as that goes, I think he has written a useful book.

My primary issue with it is the same issue I have with all Christian leadership/self-help books: they tend to treat Scripture as a grab-bag of tips and tricks. He uses plenty of Scripture throughout the book, but mostly to help identify the problems of the human heart, and when he uses it to help solve the problem the solutions are a little simplistic. I am not sure how much good it does to suggest to someone who lacks the common sense to make good decisions now to make better decisions. Where is the much more needed work of how a person travels from a life of bad decisions and self-absorption to a life of godly wisdom? It is true we need to be told these things and have specific issues pointed out to us, but that can't be the basis for real change in the human heart.

I think the core of Stanley's book is right, but I think the solutions he offers are no different from the non-Christian self-help shelf just a few steps over in your local bookstore.

Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them
Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them
by Ed Stetzer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.96
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great and Informative Survey, March 23, 2010
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One of the enigmas in American church life today is the combination of young adults who tend to consider themselves spiritual while at the same time staying away from church in droves. In order for the evangelical church to move forward, we need to at least confront this issue and see what there is to be done.

The prolific Stetzer, along with co authors Stanley and Hayes, and his research company, has compiled a well-researched and relatively easy to read account of who American young adults are, what they tend to believe about Jesus, and an informative survey of churches who are reaching young adults.

Among the accounts of the religious beliefs of young adults, this is certainly one of the more readable. That being said, it is far from simplistic. The book spends the first few chapters in statistical reflection, moves to several of the major themes they discovered, then moves to specific churches and their work to reach young adults.

There were several surprises and very usable bits of information that came from the first and second parts of the research and analysis. Even though the third section was aimed at the practical applications of several ministries, I wanted to hear more about the return of young adults to specifically reformed churches verses non-denominational churches. The approaches tend to be quite different.

All in all, it is a great book that would make for great reflection and discussion among church leaders or those simply interested in the general directions of our current culture.

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