Joe’s Reading Journal

Joe’s Reading Journal          updated August 16, 2012

The Seduction of Christianity; Spiritual Discernment in the Last Days by Dave Hunt & T.A. McMahon

I am not normally drawn to this type of book, but since my wonderful sister wanted me to read it how could I refuse?

Rather than giving a summary of the book as might be expected, I want to step back to make some larger observations about what I guess would be the premises of the authors.

1. How does God work in the world?

The authors seem to think that God only works within their narrow view of how God “ought” to work. Anything outside of their view is labeled “sorcerism”, occult, or whatever. So modern psychology is a huge negative for them. Self-help programs are rejected since humans are so depraved as to defy any benefit; any “benefit” is a self delusion. Any otherwise respectable Christian leader who acknowledges any value from psychology or any aspect of self-help is obviously duped by the devil. This does not seem biblical to me. Isaiah says God used King Cyrus to work His will. And when Jesus’ disciples wanted to stop others not in their little circle Jesus forbade it.

I wonder how the authors would evaluate the work of Mother Teresa? Was she not doing the work of God? Maybe not, according to these authors  because, after all, she prayed to Mary. How about Bono? Would these guys reject him, too, since he is “not one of us”?

The secular world has opened up to the spiritual world like never before. This should be considered a huge open door for Christians to use to lead people towards the God of the Bible and the life and spirit of Jesus. If all we do is criticize people for being misguided dupes of Satan, then people like Opra will just make their own “church”. I believe God is working in the world today and still using us even with all our flaws.

2. What is the nature of humanity?

The authors point out the fallacy of those who claim a human divinity. But I have to ask: what does it mean that humans were created in God’s image? Humans are clearly not equal with the Creator. Does the sin and fall of man cancel out this image? I think not. It seems to me that the rest of the Bible is about God’s attempt to restore His children to their lost identity in God’s image and to restore society and nature to His original grand purpose for the common good of all the world, living and non-living. But there are plenty of Christians who seem to think that humans are so totally depraved to be beyond any hope of restoration except in the after-life. This view is held so strongly that the attempts to lift humanity out of the hell we are making on earth is not only wasted effort but a tool of Satan used to deceive us.

So where is the balance point between total depravity and human divinity? I think a proper interpretation of the Bible would put us somewhere between these two extremes.

This dim view of humanity is a result, at least in part, in my humble opinion, of the loss of the humanity of Jesus, which has been allowed to be completely obliterated by an out-of-balanced view of the divinity of Jesus.

The ancient creeds have seen Jesus as not only divine but also completely human. This human view of Jesus flies in the face of modern total-depravity proponents. To neglect the humanity of Jesus trivializes the life and work of Jesus. It makes the wilderness temptation of Jesus a formality at best or a show at worse. And what are we to make of Jesus’ travail in the garden of Gethsemane? Is this just a show for his disciples, or was it a real human struggle to know and do God’s will – a struggle akin to all the would-be disciples of Jesus?

So if Jesus was anything close to being a real human, then these authors need to elevate the possibilities of the human condition stuck in total depravity. I put my view in between total depravity and divinity of man.

3. What to do with such things as “Positive Mental Attitude”?

Clearly the gospel of Jesus cannot be reduced to positive slogans and do-it-yourself helps to improve one’s lot in life. But does this mean that they should be rejected and assigned to the work of the devil? I think not. The authors have no complaint with the study of modern medicine and physical health, nor the advances made by the application of human knowledge to alleviate human suffering and disease. Yet when it comes to the study of the human mind and perception and behavior, they cannot accept it as valid, nor even helpful. I have noted this tendency in various segments of Christianity, and it has always puzzled me as to why. Perhaps it is associated with a dim view of humanity as noted above. If humans are beyond all hope in this world, then any attempts to elevate humanity are actually going against God’s plan.

I acknowledge that some of modern psychology seems misguided when trying to understand the human spiritual nature. And, yes, the founder of psychology, Sigmund Freud, was an avout atheist. But this still doesn’t mean the whole field is base-less. Indeed, most of Freud’s concepts have been replaced in modern psychology with  now considered bunk by modern psychology.

The authors rightly reject PMA as the gospel, yet they seem to reject it entirely as worthless. While the life with God is not entered through the door of PMA, does not the Christian life lead us to a positive mental attitude. Or should we be left to wallow in self pity, guilt, pessimism, with low self esteem, etc…

And what is salvation? Is it only about heaven, or are we also saved in this life from bondage of fear, greed, selfishness, etc.? Does salvation lead to freedom to love our enemies, to forgive our persecutors, etc? And if we are freed from our fears and guilt and such, and claim our life made in God’s image, would this not lead us to better living, better health, better relationships and joy in living?

Apart from a strong reminder that the gospel of Jesus is more than slogans, PMA, and personal advancement, I see little value in this book. There is more to Christianity than these authors can see.

-Joe Vandegriff, July 2012

Outliers, The Story of Success by Malcom Gladwell, 2008.

Read in May 2012 upon recommendations from Hubert and Jon Hollingshead.

Author found from the examples of the Beetles, Steven Jobs, Bill Gates and other successful people that the main “secret” to success is 10,000 hours of practice. It has a very interesting chapter on why Korean Airlines planes had so many crashes – it was a cultural thing. Ironically, I read this chapter in an airplane going to LAX. He gives an explanation as to why Asian students appear to be smarter than others. Again, it’s a cultural thing based on the difference between US and European grain farming and the much more labor intensive rice farming. Asians learn to stick with a task longer than others and this can make a huge difference in a subject like math where the answer may not come quickly but will come to those who keep pursuing it. I recommend this book to all teachers and parents dreaming on pushing their kids into professional sports.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

I’m afraid the author is a prophet as to the future of our society as we move further from living towards the common good of all people to insanity and violence. According to Wikipedia, she got the idea for the story while watching TV – a survivor “reality” show and a football game.

Yes, it’s a riveting story, with a good heroine, BUT its a society totally depraved. Then to think its now a movie that the masses want to see (teenagers killing teenagers) is very disturbing to me.

Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD.

Also from cousin George.  This book goes along with The China Study and includes many vegetarian recipes and useful advice on how to eat a diet that does not include any animal protein. It is not easy to do this.  It has been the toughest on Elaine, the chief cook.  Eating away from home is almost impossible to maintain this.  So we “cheat” a little, but overall, this is our plan for now – to eat no animal protein.  No meat, fish, dairy, and no oils.  And no Wendy’s Frostie or Blue Bell ice cream – this is tough!

The China Study, Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and Thomas M. Campbell II, MD.

Given to me by my wonderful cousin George Cline.

After reading this book and drastically changing my eating, my total cholesterol went from 171 to 99 in three weeks!

Journey to the Common Good by Walter Brueggmann, 2010.

A biblical critique of current life in the USA post-9/11 by a renown Old Testament scholar.  Loaned from Judy Jenkins.

This book provided a big step forward in understanding what is was that the old testament prophets were so upset about with their people. They rail against the sins of the people in graphic terms of adultery and such, but what really was the infraction?

Here’s what I think now.  The sins of the people had much to do the the idea of the common good.  The creation story is clear that the original intent of the creator was for the common good of all the creation, living and nonliving. The laws of the Hebrews were laid out to maintain the common good of all the people.  One principal feature was the year of jubilee. Every 49 years all property ownership would revert back to the original ancestral owners. (See Leviticus ??) Ownership of land was the major means of survival for the people.  When a family got on hard times due to sickness or whatever, they might be forced to sell their land. Buyers knew that it would revert back to the family at some time in the future and the price paid was set accordingly. This was supposed be for the common good and was a way to prevent a population of permanently poor people.  The prophets complaint was because the poor were not being treated fairly and this was a violation of the common good.

It seems to me now that Christianity can be expressed in two concepts – proposed by Jesus: Love God and love your neighbor.

Loving God is to enter into a relationship with God based on trust and obedience.  There is a life with God (as described by Richard Foster in his book by that title).  The “love your neighbor” part could be thought of as living for the common good. The kingdom of God on earth could certainly be understood in terms of the common good for all people.

But current Christianity has little regard for the idea of the common good for all people.  The emphasis is skewed totally toward getting people into a relationship with God, principally to avoid hell, that there is no thought of entering into a life to be lived for the common good.  I’ve heard it said by many that if we could just get everyone “saved” then the kingdom of God would be on earth. I don’t think so. Because getting “saved” is only half the deal. The other half is to love our neighbors by entering into a life lived for the common good.

Another side note: I’ve also heard it said that Satan owns the world and any talk about the kingdom of God on earth is folly until Jesus returns and whips up on the devil.  But does Satan really own the world? Where do we get that idea? It’s in the bible, but it was said by Satan, the arch liar. Jesus didn’t buy it and I don’t either. God owns the world!

Saving Jesus from the Church by Robin R. Meyers, 2009.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, 2006.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Fiction. Great story and a good set up before reading Three Cups of Tea.

Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg, 2010

“The skeptical environmentalist’s guide to global warming with a new afterword.”

His premise is that global warming is happening and much due to human activity, releasing CO2.  But the massive amount of money needed to curb CO2 would be better spent on projects that relieve the massive extreme poverty around the world.  Then the former impoverished nations could cope with however the environment changed.  He would tell Al Gore supporters to work on alleviating poverty instead of attacking global warming.

(Thanks to my friend Jon Hollingshead for the book.)

Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas by Dr. Alan Bean.

This is a long, involved story of an actual case of a legal battle in a small Texas town that did a drug bust that was racially motivated.  Written by a former Baptist pastor who helped initiate the fight for justice, the whole story is a mess, from beginning to end.  What first got his attention was very long prison sentences for seemingly minor crimes.  A few other concerned people got together and kept pursuing the issue.  He does not hide the conflicts within the justice-seeking group, the tainted conditions of the blacks who were set up by a corrupt narcotics officer, the rage of the white folks incensed at being called racists, and the folly of some of the victims after they were pardoned by the governor.  Some involved in the effort were Biblically motivated by Micah 6:8 “What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy…”  Others were not necessarily religious people but concerned for justice.  It seems to me a real portrayal of our human condition that is far from the black and white version so many folks want it to be.  The story got national media attention, and the ACLU lawyers tore the local justice people to shreds.  It will be a movie in a year or so.  Starting the book led to a desire to see how this was going to be resolved and how justice would eventually prevail, but as the story progressed, a sense of frustration began to build.  When I finished the book it seemed to me that only a damned few people ever learned a blessed thing in the whole ordeal.  To serve justice is complex, not simple.  Maybe that’s because we are all wrapped up in the situation in various ways and we all want to be “pure” and don’t realize our own contribution to injustice.

Sadly, this same story is repeated across our nation.

Out of Darkness into Light, by Lauralee Lindholm.

True account of the missionary Lindholm couple in an isolated area of Ethiopia in the 1970’s.  It reads like it could be Acts chapter 30.  The author emailed me that she had entertained this for the book’s title but decided it might not mean much to most people.  The description of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia was shocking as to how far they have strayed from biblical Christianity.  Part of the problem was that the Bible was not readily available in the native language of the people.  The Bible was read in worship, but the person reading the words didn’t really know what it was saying.  When the Lindholm’s made Bibles available in the Amharic language and began teaching the Bible, it was all new to the village people.  They were ruled by fears and the clergy earned most of their living by casting spells and various rites aimed at appeasing Satan.  Besides the Bible, Lindholm’s brought better farming methods and medicine, taught literacy and weaving.  It took several years until they were trusted by even a few of the people.  And then those few people who accepted their message of God’s love in Jesus had great struggles.  It was several more years, with many challenges and setbacks, for these few to grow into a small community of believers who began to spread out to surrounding villages.

This book should be widely read.  It should be required reading by all people considering on going to foreign mission work.

The Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory A. Boyd, How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.

Boyd’s “day job” is pastoring a large church in St. Paul, MN.  He begins by saying that the book arose out of a sermon series he gave in 2004 prior to a heated presidential election.  Though many in his church urged him to speak out for or against various issues and candidates he consistently refused and finally decided to preach his thoughts.  The response was overwhelming, both positive and negative.  On the negative side, about 20% of the congregation left!  (about 1,000 people).

Had I been there, I would have encouraged him since I have had misgivings about the American version of “civil Christianity” for many years.  This book expresses with great clarity about the stark difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, including the USA.

In the introduction Boyd poses two contrasting kingdoms.  “While all the versions of the kingdom of the world acquire and exercise power over others, the kingdom of God, incarnated and modeled in the person of Jesus Christ, advances only by exercising power under others.  It expands by manifesting the power of self-sacrificial, Calvary-like love,” p.14.  Chapter one describes the kingdom of the world as having the power of the sword – “the ability to coerce behavior by threats and to make good on those threats when necessary.”  It is natural that nations exist in their own interests, and the course of human history is consumed by the tit-for-tat actions among tribes, groups and nations.  So naturally, violence is the result.  “The true cause of violence, of course, is not ‘the enemy’ but something much more fundamental, something both we and our enemy have in common. … Any peace achieved by violence is a peace forever threatened by violence, thus ensuring that the bloody game will be perpetuated.” p.26-27.

Chapter 2 – The Kingdom of the Cross.  The heart of Jesus’ teaching was ‘the kingdom of God’ and he compared it to mustard seed that he is planting in the world for it to grow and expand and finally end the rule of Satan and restore the world to God, the rightful owner.  This is to happen by the community of his followers established by Jesus to in a real sense be Jesus to the world.  “This … is the primary thing God is up to in our world.  He’s not primarily about getting people to pray a magical ‘sinner’s prayer’ or to confess certain magical truths as a means of escaping hell.  He’s not about gathering together a group who happen to believe the right things.  Rather, he’s about gathering together a group of people who embody the kingdom – who individually and corporately manifest the reality of the reign of God on the earth.  And he’s about growing this new kingdom through his body to take over the world.  This vision of what God is about lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and it couldn’t contrast with the kingdom of the world more sharply.” p.30.  The contrast between the “power over” kingdom of the world and the “power under” kingdom of God is “Lion power” versus “Lamb power.  The kingdom of God advances by people lovingly placing themselves under others, in service to others, at cost to themselves.” p. 31.  “Coming under others has a power to do what laws and bullets and bombs can never do – namely, bring about transformation in an enemy’s heart… When God flexes his omnipotent muscle, it doesn’t look like Rambo or the Terminator – it looks like Calvary!” p.32  Jesus’ “very identity was about serving others – at cost to himself.” p35.  If you have all power in heaven and earth, use it to wash the feet of someone you know will betray you!  In serving like this, Jesus declares to all who are willing to hear that he would not rule by a sword, but by a towel.” p.37.

In the rest of the book Boyd affirms that he is a good citizen of his country but does not put his country above the critique of the holy purposes of God.  He affirms that God’s way of serving others has a beauty like nothing else but it is very costly because it means that God’s people willingly bleed for others.  God’s people are not to be moral judges of the world but servants.  His treatments of homosexuality and abortion are among the best I’ve seen to be consistent with the followers of Jesus.  He exposes the hypocrisy of all the clamor over certain sex sins, like when Janet Jackson exposed her breast for 5 seconds during a superbowl show, yet making no response to greivious social injustices, like 30,000 Asian girls held captive as sex slaves for rich westerners.

For those who feel that Jesus’ teachings, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, are impractical for us today, Boyd claims this only shows how they are more aligned with the kingdom of the world than the kingdom of God.

Civil Christianity is not the real thing but is just a religious version of what the world already has.  Christianity has not been doing well in many places because the “christians” aren’t any different than non-christians and thus are dismissed.

Overall, an excellent read!  (my little summary doesn’t do it justice, not even close)

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light  Edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C.

Read in march 2011.  Borrowed from Sharon V.  Thank you, Sharon!

The book is based on letters from and to Mother Teresa.  They are very revealing into her inner spiritual life.  Maybe that is why she wanted them burned.  Also she was adamant that her work belong to Jesus and she did not want to accept any praise or credit for it.

She was born in Poland (?) and became a nun at an early age and went to India to be a teacher.  When she visited some of the poor students and saw how they lived and how the poor were being neglected, she was stricken with intense desire to take Jesus to them.  She saw their condition as being in gross darkness.  In her prayers she heard Jesus call her to be the one to take his light to them.  She called it a “call within a call”.  But she never shared this with anyone except her spiritual adviser.  She developed a model for a small group of sisters who would live outside the convent, dress in mostly normal clothing, and tend to the poor and needy and presented her plans to her bishop.  He was in no hurry to send her out into the street like this and it took about 2-3 years of back and forth tugging to finally get the permission.  She pestered the bishop who finally had to tell her that she had to wait.  She felt the bishop to be her commander and thus submitted to wait.  All the while, no one in her convent knew of her call or her plans.

Her Missionaries of Charity grew from a few sisters to groups on every continent.  But the striking thing is that the voice of Jesus that called her initially departed her for the rest of her life.  She felt spiritually empty and dead.  Yet she pressed on because she could see that God was using her efforts and reaching the poor and needy.  She never complained of this to anyone else and instead sought to always serve others with a smile.  After she died, the sisters were amazed to hear of her emptiness, since there was never a hint of it they could tell.  I guess one reason might be she kept if from them was because the work was not hers but Jesus’ and it didn’t matter what she felt inside.  Amazing!

In her letters to her spiritual advisers and bishops, she often would request that they would pray for her that she would not spoil the work of Jesus that she was doing.  This is a very interesting concept and I have seen many a good work for Jesus spoiled by those doing the work.

Another interesting thing is how she recruited people to pray for her who were infirmed and were physically unable to participate in the work.  She saw them as ones who could identify closely to the poor and needy.

She said that the Missionaries of Charity were not social workers but contemplatives in the world.  [this concept is almost like an oxymoron! but she make it work very well.]

Mother Teresa was a tireless worker and pressed herself even into old age until health issues slowed her down.  Her devotion to Jesus was intense and puts mine to shame.

The world is glad these letters were not burned as she wished (though many were destroyed).

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, special illustrated edition.

Read in Feb. 2011. Given by my son for Christmas.  Thank you, Jon!

Covers the natural sciences, like astronomy, physics, geology, biology, paleontology, but not medicine or psychology or sociology.  Completely secular with only a few references to God by way of clashes with the religious types.  Yet does not condemn theists.  Very interesting reading.  The author makes what could be some very boring stuff into something interesting.  He considers the lives of the scientists and the kind of persons they were and doesn’t mince words to avoid some of their quirky behavior or some who were downright mean people.

This leads to one consistent theme across all sciences – the way the personalities and “humanness” of the scientists often hindered the advance of the science in several ways.  First, long held beliefs are hard to let go even in the face of otherwise overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Second, arrogance is not uncommon among the highly educated and scientists can get into childish disputes and rivalries with others in their same expertise.  There are so many examples, here are a few.

(Pages 410-411) In 1946 a geologist found fossil relics of the earliest complex living organisms yet known but it caused no interest among palaeontologists because he was a geologist, not a palaeontologist after all.

Einstein, even in all his brilliance, could not accept the ideas that turned into quantum mechanical physics.

Perhaps the most notable is the two researchers who first did the most to discover and catalog dinosaur bones.  They became fierce enemies constantly veying to outdo each other and claim the first discovery of a new species that they left the study in shambles by mis-classifying so many fragments it is still being straightened out after a hundred years.

Another theme is that after all the history of scientific exploration there is still so much unknown and so many unanswered questions as to be astounding.  Perhaps the least know in our world is the ocean and what does on down there.  Yet by the end of the 1800’s, as many large scientific questions were being answered, it was felt by some that they were coming to an end of scientific discovery.  Perhaps palaeontology might be next in the unknowns where there seems to be so much conjecture it borders on science fiction.  Yet the palaeontologists furiously debate the scantiest of evidence among themselves.

In the chapter on the origins of life, Bryson concedes that no one knows how life could have started, yet never even hints of the possibility a supernatural origin. Such an idea is unthinkable in a completely secular frame of mind.  Yet he acknowledges that humans, above all other creatures as far as we know, look for purpose and meaning in existence.  But the naturalistic view leaves our existence the result of a cosmic accident or fluke of nature – something seemingly meaningless.  He goes to some length to show how improbable life is and how our existence is based on a very fine line of parameters that favor life.  Finally, before leaving astronomy he describes earth’s fate if struck by a large meteor – our annihilation – which leaves humanity entering and exiting existence by accident.  How can evolution alone account for our self-knowledge and insatiable desire for meaning and purpose?  In my way of thinking, these point to a supernatural origin.

The Noticer  by Andy Andrews

Read on 3/12/2010 loaned from Ron Shugart.  Easy reading but great story.  Fictional wisdom about an old sage who called himself Jones (not Mr. Jones) who mysteriously appeared to many people when they needed some help.  The narrator lived under a pier when Jones came.  Then Jones helped a couple about to divorce.  Another recipient was an old woman who thought she had no purpose. He offered a new perspective and encouraged people to enlarge their perspective.  Jones appeared to be between a white and a black – to the white narrator.  But to Hispanics in the story, he was known as Garcia.  To an Asian woman he was known as Chen.  To every race, he appeared as one of them.  Jones carried a brown briefcase around with him and was never seen without it.  No one ever saw what was in it.  The book ends with the briefcase in the middle of a parking lot and about a 100 people eventually gather around it wondering where Jones might be and if they will ever see him again. The finally open the briefcase to find it full of seed packets, flowers and vegetables of all kinds, and a note from Jones.

The best parts of the book for me:

1.        Five seagulls were on a dock and one decided to fly away.  How many seagulls are then on the dock?  If you say four, you’d be wrong.  “There are still five.  Deciding to fly away and actually flying away are two very different things.”  Page 111.

2.       In Chapter 8, Pages 115-119.  The difference in admitting a “mistake” and making a bad choice.  Henry was a hard driving contractor who cheated and lied.  When Jones convinced him to enlarge his perspective about success, he decided to apologize for his mistakes and that he was sorry.  Jones explains the difference between a mistake and a choice.  When we make a bad choice a simple apology or saying I’m sorry will not suffice. 

3.       The chapter with the old woman.  Jones showed how we cannot judge the significance of what we might consider some tiny, insignificant act.

On the critical side, the short book makes the characters so thin and the “advice” of the sage while true seems trite, especially in the 2 chapters dealing with marriage where the sage expounds the five love languages of Gary Chapman.  In just a few exchanges the sage turns around a couple headed for divorce after years of mis-communication – not very believable to me.

Epic: The Story God is Telling  by John Eldredge, 2004

Humans love stories.  All of life is a story.  All the great stories that have been told, in books, movies, etc. have the same common elements.  Life is good, but something goes wrong.  A hero emerges who faces great danger and finally rescues the world from certain disaster at the last moment.  Eldredge says we like this story format because God has written it in the human heart; it is God’s story, too.

But I’ve read the book of God’s story, too.  And the movie Eldredge would make leaves out a vital part which causes him to get another part of the story wrong.  The part he leaves out is that the salvation God offers is not just for individual souls to go to heaven instead of hell but for all of God’s creation to be restored – human and non-human.  How could the great story of God leave out the tragic toll of human suffering on a global scale?  How could God have sweet fellowship with some of his children while a few billion other of his children are starving to death?  If God is not deaf to the cry of a billion poor people, then I think God would want to do something about it.  And who would God use to rescue them, if not US?

Having left out the part where God desires to bring his kingdom on earth through God’s servant-son and his followers, Eldredge makes the sadly common mistake of pushing this restoration into the afterlife, ignoring the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

His movie is the story of personal salvation which has not propelled Christians out into the world to bring God’s justice for all people, to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up against those who would dominate over others.  Why should we if the restoration awaits us after death?

Further, as to Jesus’ death on the cross, the only meaning mentioned is that of a ransom for our sins.  While true, there is so much more: it was Jesus’ last act of example of how to live the life of ultimate obedience and trust in God;  it was the most graphic portrayal of the evil of man – that we could kill the perfect one from God;  it was the pinnacle of God’s love affair with humanity;  [what else?]

Eldredge has a great idea of a way to tell the story of God.  But I’ve read the Book and his story misses some vital parts.  Our churches miss them to their own pearl and the pearl of the lost world! 

The poor are not just souls to be saved from but persons to be rescued from death.  The social dysfunctions that lead to massive global suffering must be understood and stopped.  If this is not the job of the followers of Jesus, who laid down his life for many, then who?  Politicians and governments haven’t done it.  Science and technology haven’t.  I believe that God is weeping for the suffering of the poor and weeping in anger for the lack of concern of the rest of the world, especially the ones who call his name every Sunday.  How can God bless us if we neglect the poor?

Richard Stearns makes this analogy.  If a jumbo jet were to crash and kill all people on board, it would make the news.  If over 10  planes crashed in one day, it would be considered a disaster.  But if 400 planes crashed, and all they had in them were poor children, it doesn’t register much at all.  Just another day with business as usual.  And even if 16,000 children in 400 planes die every day all year from starvation or easily preventable diseases, it doesn’t make much news at all.  Is this the world that God had in mind for his children?  God’s story must include the poor.

Epic is an excellent presentation of what I call the “conventional wisdom” about Christianity.  The focus is on individual salvation where a person says a prayer of confession and thus avoids eternal punishment in hell.  The restoration of all that was lost in the garden will be in the after-life.  In the meantime Satan has rule over the earth and the true believers do well to keep in hiding, except maybe to occasionally offer a few handouts to the poor along the way, which is optional since Jesus said we will have the poor with us always.

This is the predominant story of Christianity told for the last 100 – 200 years while the influence of Christianity has steadily declined even to the present day.  The decline could be explained by at least 3 possibilities:  1) The world today is much more wicked and evil than it Jesus day.  2) The message of Christianity actually doesn’t relate to this modern world.  3) The Christians are missing something in the message and spirit of Jesus that the first followers of Jesus had.

What are we missing?

1.  The conventional wisdom about salvation is too limited.   Salvation is only presented as a private, individual matter.  This makes the scope of salvation too limited.  Jesus came to save the world.  And that salvation is not defined or limited by only the afterlife.  His message is that the kingdom of God was here and now and all his hearers were invited into it.  It involved healing the sick, freeing those held captive by not only their own personal sins but the sins of society. 


This book is an excellent presentation of what I call the “common wisdom” about Christianity.  The focus is on individual salvation where a person says a prayer of confession and thus avoids eternal punishment in hell.  The restoration of all that was lost in the garden will be in the after life.  In the meantime, Satan has rule over the earth and the true believers do well to keep in hiding, except to occasionally offer a few handouts to the poor along the way which is optional.

This is the predominate story of Christianity told for the last one to two hundred years while the influence of Christianity has steadily declined even to the present.  The decline could be explained by at least 3 possibilities:

1.  The world today is much more wicked than in the past.

2,  Christianity doesn’t really have much to offer the present world or relate much to it.

3.  The Christians are missing something in the message and spirit of Jesus that the first followers of Jesus had.

What are we missing?

1.  Salvation is more than a personal, individual matter, such that when I get “saved” I’m ready for heaven and I’m done.  Jesus did not go around saving souls.  He healed the sick, cared for the poor, taught the masses, invited the outsiders in, rebuked the insiders for keeping them out, taught folds how to live in this new kingdom of God he announced.  He lived his message.  Besides showing the power of God, the resurrection of Jesus was a validation of his message.  God is saying to us, “Live this way, like Jesus, and you will live, really live.  Trust completely in me and you have nothing to fear.”  The message of Jesus is not how you can get saved from going to hell after you die, but how you can get saved from a life of selfishness, greed, fear, purposeless living with little love or power;  saved from following the thoughtless crowd; saved from a life of constant consumption yet never feeling satisfied or grateful for what you have;  saved from being owned by the things we own;  …

Isaiah talks much of the salvation of the Lord that was about the coming of a just society, the end of oppressions, ending war by “beating swords into plowshares”,  where even governments trusted the Lord.  It is remarkable that Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming what Isaiah wrote centuries before;  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Luke 4:18, 19.

2.  Jesus death on the cross is seen only as a sacrifice for sins.  Yes, it’s that, but so much more.  …  It’s the exposing of the evil of humanity,   The salvation offered by “conventional wisdom” Christianity sounds more like a legal contract with God the offended judge or a business deal with God who needs paid back as in a ransom deal.  What if salvation is also like finally succumbing to the advances of an relentlessness lover?  Like a lost son finally coming to his senses and returning home?  Like a cheating tax collector who promises to give back what he stole? 

3.  Jesus proclamation that the Kingdom of God has arrived is the beginning of God’s restoration, of winning back the fallen world. 

Jesus’ invitation is not to get saved but to join him in living in the kingdom of God and working for the kingdom of God and joining in God’s great mission to win back his fallen world, not by fighting but by loving and serving and suffering.  Jesus invites us to join him in God’s great mission for his lost world – to give up our privileges to help the poor, to oppose oppression and injustice and violence without being violent, to free the captives of society.

Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren, 2007.

McLaren writes about two pressing questions that have been in his mind for 20 years:  1) What are the biggest problems in the world?  2) What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?  And a few corollary questions:  “Why hasn’t the Christian religion made a difference commensurate with its message, size, and resources?  What would need to happen for the followers of Jesus to become a greater force for good in relation to the world’s top problems?  How could we make a positive difference?

Maybe the reason this book resonates so strongly in me is because I have wondered about these same questions for many years myself.  Long ago I read early church history and how the first followers of Jesus overcame the mighty Roman Empire, against all odds, not by fighting back against persecution but by serving and loving and suffering, just like Jesus said to do.  And I see the church today consistently loosing influence in society and wonder how can this be.  I see three possible answers:  1)  The world is so much more wicked today than it was back then.  2)  The message of Jesus doesn’t really relate to our world today.  3)  The followers of Jesus today are missing something in Jesus’ message and spirit that those first followers had.  For a long time I have suspected we Christians are missing something in the message of Jesus but couldn’t point to it.  McLaren and others like Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, Donald Miller, Jim Wallis, Richard Stearns are pointing it out.  McLaren echoes my pangs of discontent:  “a message purporting to be the best news in the world should be doing better than this.” p. 34

In the first few chapters McLaren goes through his quest for answers to his pressing questions.  He has traveled around the world speaking, listening to and observing other Christians.  A key to McLaren is something called “meta-narratives – framing stories that weave together memories of grievances that need to be avenged, stories of dangers that need to be avoided, or stories of superiority that explain why one group should be advantaged to dominate over others.”  p. 39.

McLaren highlights 4 sources of societal dysfunction that lead to our current state of massive global problems.  None of these sound very “spiritual” and it took me considerable time of meditation and thought to process this for it to make sense to me.  First he cites something that is getting more attention from many different sources – the advanced, industrial nations have adopted a lifestyle that is not sustainable on a global basis.  Many others are also saying that it would take 5 or 6 earths to support the lifestyle of our American way of life if it were lived globally.  If everyone on the planet were to live like we do, the earth’s resources could not support it for very long.  (I read this in my electrical engineering journal from IEEE.)  McLaren uses an analogy and likens society to a machine that takes in energy and produces an output. The non-sustainable lifestyle leads to dysfunction in three other areas:  Prosperity, Security, and Equity.  These are normal and very useful functions of society but when they are used by some people to dominate others and take unfair advantage, the machine becomes suicidal.  

McLaren is well-read in a wide range from history and literature to economics and politics to philosophy and religion.  Before he became a pastor and author he was a college English professor specializing in literary criticism.  His footnotes consume 25 pages at the end of the book.

McLaren shows how the message of Jesus actually does relate to these massive global problems and why the church in general is missing this connection in many ways.  He explains Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God as a new way to live and Jesus’ invitation is so much more than to get our souls saved so we can go to heaven when we die.  It’s an invitation to join with God in God’s mission of love to reach the fallen world that does not trust him, which, in fact, is why the world is in such a mess.    It seems obvious to me now that the reason for Christianity’s lack of influence in the world is because we are so focused on getting to heaven we’ve forgotten about life here and now.   We have become society’s judge instead of God’s agents of mercy and love to all mankind.   McLaren calls for the Christians to simply believe Jesus’  message that the kingdom of God IS here and to join in it and live like it.

If you have ever thought that the world is more than a little off kilter and wondered what’s the future of civilization at it’s present rate of decent, then you would find this book interesting and maybe find here a source of hope for mankind.

In addition to explaining how the message of Jesus relates to the world’s biggest problems, this book gives me a new sense of hope and purpose – if only more people would actually believe the message of Jesus, especially the ones called Christians, instead of the stories the world tells.

Blue Like Jazz “non religious thoughts on Christian spirituality” by Donald Miller, 2003, a NY Times bestseller.  Read Oct. 2009.  A very different book.  While reading, I kept wondering who this guy is.  It is very “non-religious” and many self-righteous Christians would be put off by this.  Yet the theology he has seems to me to be right on the message of Jesus.  He feels he doesn’t fit in most regular churches that would not accept his humanness, not offer him authenticity, and treat love as a commodity to be bartered and traded.  He audited classes at a very liberal Reed College in Portland where the students are very bright and socially engaged but anti-christian and “immoral”.  With the few Christian friends there they made a Confession Booth on campus during the annual party weekend.  Except the Christians were the ones confessing – that although Jesus told them not to condemn others they had been condemning, and though Jesus wants his followers to love everyone the Christians are not doing that very well not through the ages nor now.  The whole idea of it moved me to tears.  And it moved the “godless” students to open up some to the real Jesus.  Powerful.

The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell, 1976. Read October 2009 at Shugarts.  Lindsell was editor of Christianity Today. Aimed at evangelicals who were waffling on claiming inerrancy for the Bible. Lindsell is well read and knows what’s going on in Christianity around the country, and his book has lots of quotes.  His arguments for the inerrancy of the Bible were unconvincing to me.  One of his arguments is that biblical inerrancy has never been an issue for the church until modern times and this is proof that departing from it now is a departure from the faith of our fathers.  My response to that is that this rather proves the whole argument to be one that comes from a modern philosophical approach to the Bible that demands concise true/false precision.  I don’t think the Bible has to live up to our modern concepts of academic precision and historical accuracy for it to be a valid source of religious truth.  Further, perhaps the real battle here is not with the Bible so much as it is with our understanding of truth.  To me the fundamentalist insistence on inerrancy comes from a black and white understanding of what constitutes “truth”.  It seems to me that “truth” to them ought to be a simple matter to discern by going down a checklist.

Though he would not make the belief in inerrancy a matter of personal salvation, if the Bible has “errors” then it cannot be trusted as a source of truth. So for Lindsell, not to accept the inerrancy of the Bible is the first step down a slippery slope to gross unorthodoxy and apostasy. For proof of this he cites many people and denominations who have gone down.  But it seems to me that to pin the “blame” on a single hinge is a stretch.

Why does Lindsell insist that Isaiah must be written by one Isaiah?  And that Moses must be the author of the Pentateuch?  Why is it necessary to say that Jonah is historical?  To Lindsell, if these are not so, then he just can’t trust the Bible. 

One of his arguments goes like this:  If Jesus referred to Jonah, for example, then this proves that Jonah is historical because Jesus can’t lie!  This makes no sense to me.  Not that Jesus can’t lie, but how this proves the historicity of Jonah.  My observation on Jonah is that the most time Christians spend on speaking about Jonah is to defend the fish story and never get around to the real message of Jonah – that God actually loves and forgives our enemies, too!  Who is the author of Jonah?  The book doesn’t say.  But the literalists seem to want to make the author more like a newspaper reporter who is trying to get the story straight.  Nothing but the facts, ma’am.  But what if the author was more like a preacher who had a message from God and told this story to give the message?  If Jonah is a story with a message, does that mean it is not “true”?  If Jonah is “just” literature, does that mean it’s a lie?  The biggest problem with Jonah is with the fish.  Could that actually have happened for real?  As unlikely as it seems, it shouldn’t be ruled out, as many literalists can “prove.”  But I say there is something more important to Jonah’s story than the fish. 

The message and the container of the message are not the same.  To force the Bible to be inerrant is to elevate the container beyond the status of a container.  There is an old Chinese proverb about pointing out the moon to someone who only sees the finger pointing and never sees the moon.  It seems to me that the fundamentalist Christians have lifted the Bible up to an object of worship almost equal to God himself.  It seems almost dangerous to me to refer to the Bible as “The Word of God” when the Bible refers to Jesus as the Word of God.  The danger is that this reduces God’s communication to us to a written code instead of a living spirit.  The written code can be made into a comprehensive list that can be taught and observed but the living Spirit cannot be codified, categorized or contained fully in any list or teaching.  We cannot envelop this living Spirit like we could grasp a codified list but rather the Spirit envelops us.

Quotes:  “I regard the subject of this book, biblical inerrancy, to be the most important theological topic of this age.” Preface.

“From where do I get my knowledge on which my faith is based?  The answers to this question are varied, of course, but for the Christian at least it always comes full circle to the Bible.  When all has been said and done, the only true and dependable source for Christianity lies in the book we call the Bible.”  p. 17.

The Jesus Way:  A conversation on the ways that Jesus is the way   by Eugene H. Peterson.   Read Oct. 2009.

Citing John 14:6 where Jesus says , “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” he says the church has rushed on past “the way” to get to Jesus’ “truth” and have missed the way!  He mentions means and ends.  “”…if the nature of the means has been compromised and is in contradiction to the nature of the end, the end is desecrated, poisoned, and becomes a thing of horror.” p.7. 

Liberty Falling by Nevada Barr  Murder mystery fiction.  Story based on Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty written by a NPS ranger.  Just for fun.

90 Minutes in Heaven

The Hole in Our Gospel

The Church on the Other Side

The Case for Faith

The Case for the Creator

The Case for Christ

The Shack

Simply Christian

The Powers That Be

September 2008

Just Courage by Gary A. Haugen.  I got this book from my brother Dave.  The author is a founder of International Justice Mission, a Christian group that seeks to rescue victims of violence and abuse in foreign countries.  He was an atorney in the civil rights division of the U.S. Dept. of Justice until he left to direct IJM.  His claim is that seeking justice for all people is not just a special calling for a few but is what ALL followers of Jesus are to do.  The followers of Jesus have been rescued by God, but then they are to become rescuers themselves, otherwise, our Christian life is just a eventually boring roiutine of pleasantries and nicities.  Once we’re saved, secured, redeemed, sanctified, etc.  then what?  If we worship without serving others, and doing justice, he quotes many scriptures about how God really hates it.  Ch. 6:  “For those who take the teachings of the Bible seriously, there can be no doubt that the call to seek justice is fundamental to our devotional life as Christians…  The massive biblical mandate has been marginalized in most of our churches ove the last hundred years.”  He cites many examples of people who have put themselves at risk to free people forced into slavery, kidnapped into sexual exploitation, or weak people taken advantage of by stronger people and how they made a difference.  Ch. 10 “Would You Rather Be Safe or Brave?” challenges us to consider how we aim to play it safe and miss God’s adventure into real life where we have to rely totally on God.

August 2008

The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McClaren.  3rd and final book in the New Kind of Christian series addresses the conservative/fundamentalist view of hell.  He shows how it is used today in the same way the Pharisees used it in Jesus’ time as a tool to degrade sinners and as a means of separating folks into the good ones who will go to heaven and the bad ones, mainly sinners and any others who don’t agree with their narrow views, go to hell.  It asks tough questions about our modern views of hell.  How can the saints in heaven enjoy it all when they know that there are others in eternal torment and torture?  In seeing God mainly as a judge who sends sinners to hell to dispense justice without mercy, then it is saying that there is some higher moral authority than God such that after we die God’s hands are tied and our fate is sealed.  He debunks the modern idea that the true believers, the Christians, will  not be judged and shows that they will, in fact be judged.  And the judgement is a process of God stripping away all that is not worthy in us and forgiving it and forgetting it so then we can live on they way God intended for us.  Most interesting is his table of every mention by Jesus of hell or final judgement and how it is to be treated, ch. 19.

July 2008

The Story We Find Ourselves In by Brian McClaren.  2nd book of a trilogy.  The story is the Bible.  Neo takes us through the Bible with an aliteration of C’s:  creation, crisis, conversation, community, consumation.  The setting is mainly in the Galapagos Islands and is a natural place to discuss creation and evolution.  The Bible is taken seriously in this treatment, but not in the literalist, fundamentalist sense.   To me, this makes the Bible more alive and presents us with a better view of participating with God in God’s mission for his creation.  In the consumation discussion, he portrays God’s judgement in terms that I have thought of for a long time, that when we are face to face with God, we see ourselves in all honesty, good and bad, and God purges away, forgets, the bad and we begin a new life in harmony with God and oursleves in a new creation.  The condemnation and fate of the ungodly is left somewhat open as after they are judged, there is little left of any good to go on with. 

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch  June 2008 loaned from Alvin Koons.  A distinguished computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon Univ. with 2 small children was found with inoperable cancer and given only a few months to live writes about life.  Very moving.

The Powers That Be by Walter Wink.  A very interesting book.  Explores the “spiritual” side of corporations and society in general.  Talks much about the “myth of redemptive violence” and how Jesus advocated non-violent protest.  Our society tells stories of heroes who fight for the right with the same violence as the villains which drums  this “myth of redemptive violence” deep within us.  The author goes to some length to show how violence goes against everything that Jesus taught and lived. 

The Healing Light by Agnes Sanford  June 2008  recommended by Gary Olson.  This is a 50 year old classic.  She makes healing seem so natural.  Her focus encompasses love and forgiveness and openness to God for all of life.  She sees tremendous power from God that flows through all people, if we would but recognize it and claim it.  There are many examples of how she has seen people healed of everything from a headache to an enlarged heart to internal gangrene to cancer.  She fears no condition to be beyond hope in the power of God.  [Sept 2008, gave a copy to Kristen and another to Lisa Jones.]

The Invisible Wall: A Love Story That Broke Barriers by Harry Bernstein  June 2008  given by Lisa Jones.  Lisa knows the author’s daughter.  This is a true story of growing up in a town in England spanning WW I on a street where Jews lived on one side of the street and Christians on the other.  Well told and very moving.  Mentioned it to Will R.  The author is in his 80’s and has never published a book before.  That, in itself, is amazing.  This book has inspired me to get back to work on my own story of growing up in a garage.

A New Kind of Christian by Brian McClaren.  Fictional account of a pastor struggling with his faith, Dan Poole, who is guided by his kid’s biology teacher, Neo, away from a narrow religious fundamentalism to a post-modern view of Christianity.  McClaren’s message is in the conversation between these two main characters.  This is in keeping with McClaren’s view that instead of only keeping track of conversions the evangelizing Christians ought to also log conversations.

Ch. 1 – This takes the Bible seriously, but not literally.

7/30/2008  Joe Vandegriff