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Category: Reading (page 2 of 19)

Thoughts on The Shack

A decade ago or so, The Shack was a best-selling book. Millions of people read it, and many, many of those who did had strong opinions about it. For some, it was a wonder-working book, which offered healing for times of grief. For others, it was nothing short of heresy, portraying theologically dangerous ideas about the nature of God and salvation.

Fast forward ten years, and not much has changed: The Shack is now a blockbuster film, but the response to it has been largely the same: amazing or blasphemous. I have had people ask what I think about the story, and I have witnessed some of the discussion, and while I won’t try to convince you to love or hate The Shack, I would like to offer a third perspective.

My Story

I read The Shack for the first time in 2009, and when I did, I wasn’t impressed. There were some good elements to the story, and I found a few quotations that I liked, but I thought the book had major theological problems which were a big hang-up for me. If you’re interested, you can read a review I wrote back in 2009.

In the fall of 2014, I took a grad school class called Providence and Suffering, and The Shack was one of the texts that we were required to read for the class. Honestly, I was disappointed, because I had read the book before and largely dismissed it, and wasn’t thrilled to be reading it again. But I did read it again, and was surprised at what I found: the theological problems were still there, but they didn’t capture my focus in the same way. Instead, I read a powerful story of sin and suffering, and a God who loves us in spite of those things even when it feels like He doesn’t.

What changed between 2009 and 2014? It wasn’t that a new edition of the book came out that ironed out the theological difficulties; the text was the same. What changed was me.

When I read the book the first time, I was a 25 year-old minister who pretty much had it all figured out. In a lot of ways, I hadn’t experienced a whole lot in life, and I certainly hadn’t experienced any significant suffering. I “knew what the Bible taught,” was bothered by some of the finer theological points of the book, and basically, wrote it off.

When I read the book the second time, I was a 31-year old minister who had learned a lot in the intervening 5 1/2 years, and most of all, had learned that I absolutely did not have it all figured out. My wife and I had suffered through the heartbreak of miscarriage, and had been absolutely devastated by our beloved daughter’s diagnosis of a severe genetic condition that would greatly affect her life. I had learned much, much more about the Bible than I knew previously, and while my theological convictions remained (and, in fact, were deeper in many ways), I read the book in a completely different light. This time, I saw The Shack as an insightful and touching parable about suffering, and how God loves us in the midst of it.

Two Practical Considerations

Really, you can feel however you want to about The Shack, but here are some thoughts to consider:

The Shack is a parable; it is not a systematic theology. Parables are meant to make a point, but they are not meant to be pressed in their details. Even parables of Jesus can convey theologically inaccurate ideas if they are pressed in ways that they are not intended. If you go to The Shack looking for rigorous exposition of biblical theology, you are looking in the wrong place. That doesn’t mean The Shack is theologically perfect (it’s certainly not), but that’s also not its purpose.

Maybe The Shack is not for you. People are different, and that means that different things “speak” to different people differently (I wanted to see how many times I could use the word “different” in a sentence). If you are hung up on the theology, that’s fine; don’t read the book or watch the movie. But for some people, I think The Shack can be a powerful reminder that God cares for them deeply, even (especially?) in their suffering. I don’t think The Shack was for me the first time I read it; it was the second time.

So, those are my thoughts. Ultimately, I think there are a lot of more pressing issues for Christians to get riled up about than the orthodoxy of what is, in my opinion, a therapeutic parable. For my part, having read the book twice, I don’t feel a great need to see the movie (and honestly, am not eager about the emotional burden that I know will accompany my watching it), but I’ll probably catch it on Netflix in a couple years.

Book Review: The Need for College Ministry

Last week, I read Neil Reynolds’ brand new eBook, The Need for College Ministry: Awakening the Church to One of the Most Receptive Mission Fields in the World. Neil is the campus minister at the Church of Christ Student Center (CCSC) at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, AR, and also has a good blog, where he writes frequently about discipleship and campus ministry.

I am a youth minister, and my primary goal in working with young people is to help them develop a faith that will stick with them throughout their college years and, indeed, their entire lives. Because of that, I have been a fan of campus ministry for several years, because research shows that for students who do not attend a Christian university, getting plugged into a campus ministry is a vital part of their remaining faithful during their college years (and beyond).

So Neil did not have to do any heavy lifting to convince me that college ministry is important. However, The Need for College Ministry was a major eye opener for me in its emphasis on the college campus as a particularly receptive field for sharing the gospel and making disciples. In other words, college ministry isn’t important just because it helps “our” kids stay faithful during college (although it does); it is also vitally important because it is a particularly effective means of spreading the borders of the kingdom, and doing so among a generation that is typically considered to be hard to reach.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book:

But, there’s more to my love for the restoration movement than relational connections. I love what we stand for…I love the we have a high view of God’s word. I love that we’re a unity movement. I love that we’re a restoration movement, partnering with God to restore something he’s already done. Our focus on restoring the New Testament church is great. But, as a lifelong participant in the restoration movement, I’d love to see the missionary spirit of the New Testament church restored. (17-18; emphasis is the original)

No generation should be evaluated while they’re still in their twenties. (25)

[Donald] McGavran discovered that people are open to new ideas, including the gospel, in newly developed areas. College campuses aren’t exactly new settlements. But the school year rhythm creates a sense of newness each fall especially when you consider that 25% of the campus is new every school year. (36; emphasis is the original)

I believe that we could change the course of an entire generation, reach the nations with the gospel, and revitalize the Churches of Christ simply by prioritizing ministry to college students. (47)

In our campus ministry efforts, the goal is to make fully devoted followers of Jesus. I’m not suggesting that we compromise our convictions in order to attract students. We have one task: make disciples that make disciples that make disciples. (58; emphasis is the original)

The whole “I love Jesus but not the church” sentiment isn’t new but it’s just as wrongheaded now as it’s ever been. (58)

During college, most students will decide, consciously or unconsciously, what their priorities will be for the rest of their lives. (61)

Simply put: in order to start new ministries on many campuses, we’ll have to start new churches, too. If there were healthy, vibrant communities of faith in these university towns, they would already be reaching students. (80)

Here’s a simple litmus test. If you aren’t reaching students and you aren’t willing to change anything you’re doing as a church, you won’t reach students. It’s that simple. (81)

The Need for College Ministry is a quick and easy read, it is affordable, and for me, it was very convicting. If you are a minister or church leader in or near a college town, or just someone who is interested in reaching young people with the gospel, this is a must read.

Book Review: Embracing Creation

At the end of December, I finished one of the better books I read in 2016: Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson. Dr. Hicks is a former professor of mine, and I “know” Bobby through social media. Both men have written much that has challenged me, and I have been blessed by their thoughts on the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (Hicks and Valentine), suffering and the problem of evil (Hicks), and the “Jewishness” of Christianity (Valentine). I had not previously read anything by Wilson.

I will go ahead and jump to my overall conclusion and recommendation: this is an important book, deserving of a wide readership (especially within Churches of Christ, which is the primary intended audience). Although Embracing Creation is more complex than I am indicating here, it largely comes down to two significant arguments, which are both based on the biblical reality that God cares deeply about what He has created.

First, humans are to reflect God’s care and concern for creation, and should practice thoughtful stewardship of our planet. Truly, this should not be a controversial claim, but because conversations surrounding care for the environment are frequently hijacked for political purposes, it often is made out to be controversial. Embracing Creation does not argue for a godless environmentalism that holds up nature as something to be worshipped; it does encourage a deep, biblical care for a creation that God calls good, but has been too often treated as expendable and unimportant by humans.

Second, God does not intend that His creation be destroyed, but will redeem and recreate it, and will dwell with creation in the New Heavens and New Earth. This will also be a controversial claim for many, but again, it need not be.* Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson argue (and effectively, in my opinion) that the notion of an annihilated and completely destroyed earth and an eternal existence for God’s saints in an other-worldly heaven is actually a fairly modern notion, and does not reflect the biblical text, the belief of the early church, or the beliefs of pioneers in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. Instead, these witnesses all point to a redeemed earth, which will be refined and recreated in a way that is analogous to our own resurrection bodies, and will serve as the location of our joyous eternal existence with God. Three texts which are generally brought up to refute this perspective—John 14.2-3, 2 Peter 3.6-7,13; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17—are all addressed (and quite adequately, I thought).

Here are some of my favorite quotations from the book:

Creation does not belong to human beings. It belongs to God, and it is the Messiah’s inheritance. We are only stewards and junior partners, though we are coheirs with Christ. (16)

Too often we hear “dominion” in tyrannical, oppressive, militaristic, or manipulative ways, but this is not how God rules. As images of God, we rule in the likeness of God. (39)

Above all, Psalm 104 reveals an astounding truth: creation, animate and inanimate, is the object of divine love. If God, like an artist, dotes so tenderly over it, then should not those created in God’s image reflect the same divine delight, love, and care for creation? (53)

The resurrection of Jesus, then, is the pledge of a future harvest, a preview of coming attractions. It is God’s answer to creation’s lament. (91)

Though chaos remains in the old creation, chaos will disappear in the new. (130)

God’s promise is “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The text does not say that God will make new things. Rather, God will make all things new. This is restoration, healing, and renewal. (131)

Creation is intrinsically good, and this goodness is not based on its utility for humans. (139)

On one level, it does not matter if “global warming” is real or imagined, caused by nature or humans. Caring for God’s good world is a matter of obedience and discipleship…If the Father is mindful of the death of even a single sparrow (Matt. 10:29), then we, who reflect the divine image, will care as well. (140)

Scripture never says heaven, separated from the earth, is the eternal destiny of the redeemed. Forecasting a doomed earth and an eternal celestial abode can result in an escapist outlook that hunkers down until we “fly away,” diminishing support for creation stewardship. (166)

Before closing, there were a couple areas of the book which I thought were weaknesses. First, I think Embracing Creation is a very challenging read for the average Christian. I have spent years (and years!) in grad school reading books on Scripture, theology, and ministry on a regular basis, and felt right at home with this work, but I found myself wondering how well I would have followed it if I had read it as a young minister before I had any sort of seminary training. Now, the exact intended audience of the book is never stated directly (that I can remember), but because I feel the two main points described above are so important and so often neglected, I wish the book would have been written at a somewhat simpler level to make it more accessible.

Second, there is an intriguing chapter at the end of the book entitled, “God’s Restoration Movement: Revisioning the Restoration Plea.” This chapter will be of special interest for readers from Churches of Christ (or other branches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement), and basically argues that we should view the concept of Restoration not as a return to the practice and beliefs of the first century church (i.e., a look back to restore the church), but rather, a working towards the time when God will come and redeem all of creation (i.e., a look ahead to restore the entire cosmos). This is a thought-provoking proposal, but ultimately, I think it presents an either/or dichotomy which is not necessary: can we not be a people who seek to follow the basic design, practice, and spirit of the early church while also eagerly anticipating and working toward the day when God will make all things new? Interestingly, throughout Embracing Creation, early Restoration pioneers such as Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and David Lipscomb are quoted as men who understood God’s plan of Restoration for all creation, and yet they still held to the idea of Restoration as we have typically conceived and discussed itCan we not do the same?

With these gentle critiques in mind, the fact remains that Embracing Creation is a compelling and important book. It is a book that not everyone will agree with, but perhaps for that reason alone, it should be read by many people. And as I described above, I think its two main points are scripturally spot-on, and their understanding is greatly needed in the church today.


*Some will hear this and associate it with some version of Premillennialism or Jehovah’s Witness eschatology. What Embracing Creation proposes has nothing to do with either.

Reading and Walking in 2016

In April 2013, I started walking laps around the church auditorium while studying or reading. I found this helped me to focus better (read: stay awake), and also it was a good way to be a little less sedentary while at work.

Each lap around the auditorium is approximately 74 yards. In 2013 I walked a total of 5,608 laps, which amounts to a total distance of 235.8 miles. As I mentioned in my report at the start of 2014, that is basically the equivalent of traveling from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Kansas City, Missouri on foot. In 2014, I walked a total of 10,497 laps, or 441.4 miles, which got me from Kansas City, Missouri to the outskirts of Joliet, Illinois. In 2015, I walked 9,774 laps, of 411.0 miles, which got me all the way to Cleveland, Ohio.

This year was a little bit strange, in that we built a new (larger) auditorium at our church, and so part of the time I walked around the old auditorium, and part of the time around the new one. Still, for consistency’s sake, I converted new auditorium laps to their equivalent in the older, smaller auditorium.

My goal for the year was to eclipse the 10,000 lap mark again, but I didn’t even come close to this:

Total Laps in 2016: 7,288

Distance per Lap: approximately 74 yards

Total Distance in 2016: 306.4 miles

Total Distance to date: 1394.6 miles

So, in 2016, I left Cleveland, Ohio, walked through Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and made it just past Hagerstown, Maryland (that might sound like a random location, but I am heading to Washington D.C.).

I was disappointed in the drop-off in my mileage this past year, but I still walked over 300 miles while at work, which is certainly a healthy practice. My disappointment is also mitigated by the knowledge that I suffered a significant leg injury in June, and this cut into my totals during the summer. In 2017, I again hope to accumulate 10,000+ laps: I have fewer grad school classes this year, which could lead to less reading time, but I also have a bunch of theology/ministry books that I have been wanting to read for some time and haven’t been able to. So it will be interesting to see how I do.

Reading in 2016

A quirk of my personality is that I like to keep track of certain things in my life, and for several years, one of those things is the list of books that I read each year. Somewhat surprising to me, people actually seem to enjoy reading the list of what I read, so I have been sharing that for several years.

Here was my reading list for 2016:

  1. A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, by Gregory Stevenson
  2. Scribbles and Sketches, No. 2, by Ruby Tobey
  3. Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth*
  4. Fables Don’t Leave Footprints: Following a Trail of Archaeological Discoveries from Genesis to Jesus, by Jan Sessions
  5. The Book of Revelation, by Chris Koelle (Illustrator), Mark Arey (Trans), and Philemon Sevastiades (Trans.)
  6. A Missional Church: Assessing and Developing a Missional Culture in an Established Church, by Matthew Morine
  7. Just As I Am: Married, Divorced, and Remarried, by Wayne Dunaway
  8. Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last And What Your Church Can Do About It, by Mark DeVries
  9. God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God, by Gregory A. Boyd
  10. Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, by Norman Wirzba*
  11. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, by George A. Lindbeck*
  12. Pentecostal Theology and the Christian Spiritual Tradition, by Simon Chan*
  13. Four Views on the Historical Adam, by Denis O. Lamoureux, John H. Walton, C. John Collins, and William D. Barrick
  14. Change of Heart: Seven Money Truths to Help Teens from the Inside Out, by Joey Sparks
  15. #NoFilter, by Scott Utter
  16. Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson
  17. Learning the Art of Helping: Building Blocks and Techniques, by Mark E. Young
  18. Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, by Matthew S. Stanford
  19. Competency-Based Counseling: Building on Client Strengths, by Frank Thomas and Jack Cockburn
  20. The Practice of the Presence of God with Spiritual Maxims, by Brother Lawrence
  21. Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey
  22. The Bombay Boomerang, by Franklin W. Dixon
  23. The 60 Second Scholar: 100 Insights that Illumine the Bible, by Michael S. Heiser
  24. Essay on Negro Slavery, by James O’Kelley
  25. Firestorm: Preventing and Overcoming Church Conflicts, by Ron Susek
  26. Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, edited by David Fleer and Dave Bland
  27. Discover Your Conflict Management Style, by Speed B. Leas
  28. Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, by Peter L. Steinke
  29. The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, by William Barclay*
  30. The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, by the Arbinger Institute
  31. Guiding People Through Conflict, by Ken Sande and Ted Kober
  32. Building Conflict Competent Teams, by Craig E. Runde and Tim A. Flanagan*
  33. Living Jesus: Doing What Jesus Says in the Sermon on the Mount, by Randy Harris
  34. Why I Value the Bible, by Kerry Holton
  35. The Beatitudes: Jesus’ Formula for Happiness, by Rubel Shelly
  36. Managing Church Conflict, by Hugh F. Halverstadt*
  37. 11 Youth Ministry Hacks So You Can Spend More Time on What Matters Most, by Kindred Youth Ministry
  38. The Listeners’ Bible ESV, read by Max McLean
  39. Don’t Quit on a Monday, by Jeff and Dale Jenkins
  40. How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth, by Kerry Holton
  41. Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, by John R.W. Stott
  42. Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality, by Mark E. Powell
  43. Coming Clean: A Story of Faith, by Seth Haines
  44. Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, edited by Margaret Warker
  45. Paper Covers Rock, by Jenny Hubbard
  46. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
  47. The Story, by Biblica
  48. Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, by John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson
  49. The Castle Corona, by Sharon Creech
  50. The Big Field, by Mike Lupica
  51. Advent and Christmas, by Thomas Merton

A few major observations before I talk about a couple of specific books:

  • My reading total increased slightly from 2015, when I read 48 books. I actually think I read less total, however, because I did not do as much reading of articles or long commentaries. Still, I did a lot of writing and editing this past year on various projects, and I know that cut into my reading time somewhat.
  • Looking back, I think there were more books that I read this past year that I really enjoyed than in 2015. My Top 10 books for the year are highlighted in bold above, but there are several in the list above that did not make that cut that I still enjoyed.

Some of my favorite books for 2016.

Of those Top 10 books, I would like to highlight a few (Note: I previously reviewed Centered in Godand hope to review 2-3 others in the near future):

  • Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness, by Matthew S. Stanford: I read this book for a counseling class,  and it might have been the best book I read all year. It helped me consider mental illness from a more biblical and theological perspective, and also discussed various mental illnesses clinically as well. I really think this is a book that all Christians should read, as mental illness of various types is prevalent in our society and thus in the church as well, and traditionally, we have not done well showing grace and compassion to those who suffer from these illnesses that we generally struggle to see or understand.
  • Sustainable Youth Ministry, by Mark DeVries: I have been a youth minister for over a decade now, and I have tried to become a student of youth ministry in an effort become more effective at helping young people develop lifelong faith. With that in mind, I have read quite a few books on youth ministry over the years. Mark DeVries became one of my favorite Youth Ministry thinkers with his Family-Based Youth Ministry, but it is possible that I enjoyed Sustainable Youth Ministry even more. The basic idea of the book is simple: youth ministries should not be built upon the foundation of a specific person (the youth minister), but should rather be constructed in such a way that they are able to survive for the long term and not be dependent on one person. There is a lot in this book to digest and I am still determining how best to implement some of the ideas, but the key principle is outstanding.
  • The 60 Second Scholar: 100 Insights that Illumine the Bible, by Michael S. Heiser: I am not a huge fan of the title of this book, because it makes it sound shallow or not serious. It is not, however, as the material that Heiser presents represents solid biblical and theological scholarship. Honestly, I felt like much of what has taken me years of college and graduate school courses to learn was condensed in this one, very readable, volume.
  • I did a lot of study on the Sermon on the Mount this year, and read several books and commentaries as a part of that study. Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, edited by David Fleer and Dave Bland, was a good read that presented some excellent background information, and some challenging sermons based on the Sermon. But easily the best resource I read was Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, by John R.W. Stott. Stott writes with penetrating insight and a gentle spirit, and with rare exceptions, I thought his interpretations of the SOTM were dead on.

So, that was my reading for 2016. For comparison’s sake if you are interested, you can see my reading lists from previous years:

I have a ton of books I have accumulated over the last few years that I am anxious to read, and for the first half of the year I do not have any graduate courses so I am hopeful that I will actually get to read some of them! I am looking forward to reading a diversity of works, and in particular, I am hoping to read more fiction this year.

What are some of the best books you read this past year?

*Books that I did not read in their entirety, but read significant portions of.

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