Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright--A Book Review of Yawning At Tigers: You Can't Tame God So Stop Trying

When I first read the title of this book, I was intrigued. What in the world does yawning at tigers have to do with the topic of trying to tame God? Hook. Set. Reel it in. Maybe you too are intrigued. You should be.

In Yawning At Tigers,Drew Dyck discusses several topics centered around the theme of God's holiness and love. While it is difficult to summarize this book in a paragraph, I can give you a drive-by, whistle-stop tour. 

We like taming God because it makes us feel safer and in control. At the same time, we get bored because we thrive on awe. By and large, churches in Western culture have lost this sense of awe and holiness and our worship suffers for it. Reading scripture reveals how far we've gone off the mark. Worship is a natural response to holiness. We have become obsessed with safety and security, but God is dangerous and calls us to live dangerously. But, lest we get too focused on His otherness, His hiddeness, or His dangerousness, we must also look at His nearness, tenderness, and intimacy. God is a God of Holy Love. He is the Word made flesh. We are to take our cues from God as found in Jesus Christ. [End of tour]

There are many reasons why I like this book. First, Dyck writes well and with style. I felt that he was writing about something that really mattered to him and that he had wrestled through over a period of many years. He's not trying to ride the wave of angst filled books on why Christians aren't doing a good enough job. I sense that he has read deeply and observed first-hand the issues he addresses. His end notes are littered with references and he gives numerous examples from his own travels and church life. It all comes together with clarity and authority. (Great job, Drew!)

Plus, he actually used his gifts in writing to tell stories and convey imagery rather than sending me to some website to watch a quick video. If you haven't read enough of my book reviews to know--I hate that. I'm reading a book. Don't have me go to some other site. Bloggers and website developers will tell you, that outside links can increase your "bounce rate." In other words, it pulls you out of the experience of reading. If you are planning to write a book, let my plead with you to take a lesson from Dyck or any other good writer--write, don't refer out. This ends my diatribe...Let me continue.

Secondly, this book is all of the things that Crazy Love should have been but wasn't. I'm almost reluctant to draw the comparison/contrast, but over and over again I thought, "This book is so much better than Crazy Love. It's balanced, well-written, and not confusing in its call to action." But don't misunderstand me--Dyck isn't asking to be compared or contrasted. This isn't a debate or academic exercise. It is its own thing.

Thirdly, and this is really a subset of the second point, Dyck realizes that if we have a spiritual malaise or Christian lifestyle deficiency, then it stems from our theology and lack of experiencing God. There is no brow beating in this book. His solution is to look to God and the Gospel to overcome our idols. He writes, "Too often we answer the question by looking around instead of up. We take our cues from ministry models that succeed in attracting  lots of people. Even weighing biblical passages that stress purity against ones about love can miss the point. What we need to do is look at God. I'm convinced his very nature holds the secret. The divine otherness and intimacy provides the model for how we can relate to outsiders with both conviction and love." And there's more where that came from.

In short, Yawning At Tigers is a well-written, engaging, and thoughtful book. Grab a copy, give it a read, and let me know what you think.

P.S. You can follow Drew Dyck on Twitter @drewdyck. If you found this review helpful, please leave me a comment and/or tweet me @pastornickjones.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Over-Simple Faith? Over-Simple Gospel?

"...the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity."  
                                                 --Alfred North Whitehead

I am indebted to Dr. Stephen Seamands for drawing this quote and its implications to my attention. It was a good dose of validation when I heard it, and I immediately knew that many of the frustrations I have had with the modern church/Christian music thought process is because of this concept. Many in the Christian world today fail to understand this concept.

Let it be noted that I don't endorse Whitehead's Process Theology. I just think he's right in saying this statement. Albert Einstein said something similar when he wrote, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Yet again, someone else has said, "Simplicity is not the same thing as simplistic." These quotes together make a good platform from which to launch my own questions. 

 How simple are our sermons? How simple are we making terms like "gospel" and "faith"? How simple is it to be a Christian? How simple-minded are our congregations?

I ask these questions because I have seen a strong push to over-simplify the gospel, salvation, Christian-living and Christian-thinking. We have books like The Bible for Dummies and sermons that seem to have been plagiarized directly from them. We have worship music and popular Christian songs that reflect the same theological framework as Aaron Neville's song says "I don't know much, but I know I love you. And that may be all I need to know."

I understand that people have to start simply and work up to the complex, but when we set the bar at the theological equivalent of "Chop Sticks" instead of Rachmaninoff we short-change believers who then can't "give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1Pet 3:15).

There is a big difference between a child playing a simple tune on a piano and a professional playing the same song. That difference is that the child can only play the simple song (and probably poorly at that), but the professional has the skills to play it with full control and mastery. It's fine that the child starts her music career where she does, but she should grow in her skill and her ability as she moves forward in life.

I think the writer of Hebrews would be frustrated with the depth of the average Western Christian and his/her lack of knowledge. This statement could easily have been written to the North American church today:
"We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (Heb. 5:11-14)
The motive behind this movement to over-simplify the gospel, salvation, and discipleship is most likely to meet people (simple people) where they are. We've taken these concepts and put them on the bottom shelf. The real problem that I see is that many are leaving them on the bottom shelf without telling people that a richer and deeper experience can be found on higher shelves. 

In the forward to Scot McKnight's book The King Jesus Gospel N.T. Wright writes, "For many people, 'the gospel' has shrunk right down to a statement about Jesus' death and its meaning, and a prayer with which people accept it. That matters, the way the rotor blades of a helicopter matter. You won't get off the ground without them. But rotor blades alone don't make a helicopter. And a microcosmic theory of atonement and faith don't, by themselves, make up 'the gospel'" (kindle location 85 of 3110). I agree wholeheartedly.

My daughter has a BabyLit™ book called Pride & Prejudice: A Counting Primer. It tells the basic story of Jane Austen's class novel through pictures and numbers, but it would be a travesty if someone believed that this baby book was all that was needed to get the Pride and Prejudice experience. How much worse is it that mainstream North American Christianity is passing off skim milk as "all you need to know."

We shouldn't be in such a rush to strip our faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ down to its bare essentials that we strip it of its power. If we strip too far, many in the Christian world today may find that their emperor has no clothes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Examine the Evidence Like A Cold-Case Detective

What would happen if a cold-case detective turned his skills towards examining the truth claims of the gospels? Would the Bible come up wanting? Would he expose faulty evidence and discredit their reliability? J. Warner Wallace is such a cold-case detective, and he shares his findings in his highly readable book, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels.

Detective Wallace did not grow up in a Christian home, attend church, or read the Bible for the first 36 years of his life. As a matter of fact, he was an avowed atheist who liked to antagonize Christians. Once he finally sat down to study the Scriptures for himself—using all his skills in forensic statement analysis, eye witness questioning, and abductive reasoning—he discovered something startling. He was coming to believe that the gospel accounts were actual eye-witness testimonies. Throughout this book Wallace shares his own journey of coming to faith in the Scriptures and the God of whom they give testimony. And it is not a journey of existential angst or subjective emotion but one of a man examining the facts and weighing the evidence.

For a culture that is so steeped in police procedural shows and courtroom dramas, this book offers an understandable and relevant gateway into Bible study, defending your faith, and becoming better skilled at examining and weighing evidence. In order to bridge the gap between good old-fashion police work and Biblical case-making, Wallace uses examples from cases he has worked to illustrate how these methods are fully accepted in our legal systems, therefore we should find them to be credible methods for investigating the claims of the Bible. This blend makes for an enjoyable and thought-provoking reading experience.

Some Christian apologetics books may be content with telling readers what to believe through theological and/or philosophical reasoning. These are important and have their place, but J. Warner isn’t satisfied with simply stating his findings and telling readers why they need to believe. He takes it further and gives instructions on how to think and do the hard work for yourself. In his first ten chapters, he sets out to teach his readers how to become detectives through “ten important principles”:

1.       Don’t Be A “Know-It-All”
2.       Learn How To “Infer”
3.       Think “Circumstantially”
4.       Test Your Witnesses
5.       Hang On Every Word
6.       Separate Artifacts From Evidence
7.       Resist Conspiracy Theories
8.       Respect the “Chain of Custody”
9.       Know When “Enough Is Enough”
10.   Prepare For An Attack
In the second section of the book, he walks the reader through applying these principles to the claims of the New Testament.

While this book is by no means comprehensive, it offers a window into the hows and whys of evidential reasoning. Wallace focuses his work on the gospels and makes an excellent case for them being reliable sources for our faith. He does not spend time on philosophical or scientific reasons for Theism in general. Rather he hones in on historic and critical reasons why Christianity is reasonable—given the evidence. If you are the type of person that avoids enjoyable reading in favor of stodgy academic material, then this book is probably not punishment enough for you. Thankfully, you should be able to find plenty of reading material up your alley among the stacks of doctoral dissertations at your local seminary. However, if all you read is cotton candy fluff (and first of all, thank God your on this blog because there’s hope for you yet!) then this book is equally not for you. To my mind this book has an excellent blend of entertainment and educational content. Highly recommended!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What Do We Do With Fallen Theologians?

What do we do with less than perfect (or downright problematic) theologians and Christian leaders?
Of course all Christians sin, but there is sin that would seem to disqualify a person for public ministry based on some of the implications of I Timothy 3:2-10 and the surrounding passage. There are also examples from the Old Testament with Eli’s sons and many others throughout scripture.

Over the past several months I have read several articles about John Howard Yoder, including a very good article in The Other Journal about Yoder and the problems of his legacy. John Howard Yoder was the most prominent advocate of Christian Pacifism during the late 20th century and one of the theologians that moved the modern study of pacifism and Anabaptist theology to the mainstream of Christian academic thought.

Yoder, from evidence that has been gathered over a long period of time, was sinning in a way that deserved some type of censure and real rebuke (and maybe legal prosecution.) The evidence says that Yoder sexually harassed women, exposed himself, and abused his power with female students. It is likely that he coerced women into having sex (which may have crossed the line to rape) although no charges were ever filed with police.

The Other Journal article and other blog posts have suggested that Yoder was, by his own definitions, violent against women in a way that his public theology was opposed to.  

The Other Journal article notes that Yoder used the Matthew 18: 15-20 passage to stop or hinder his victims from speaking out against him similarly to the way that Sovereign Grace Ministries and others have used the passage to stop public discussion of sexual abuse of children. Or how it has been used to terrorize victims long after the initial abuse by forcing victims to confront abusers and forgive them publicly while not holding the abusers accountable for actually changing their actions.

So what do we do with Christians that not only sin, but use church structures to hide their sin?

Social media and blogging are both blessing and curse in this regard.  While, social media and digital space can allow victims to be heard, the rise of very narrowly concerned ‘watch bloggers’ can lead to its own problems. It was at least partially blogging that forced the exploration of Yoder’s sin.  Long work by Recovering Grace eventually led to Bill Gothard being removed. And bloggers played key roles in SGM and a variety of Catholic sex abuse cases. 

But there are also bloggers that have raised concerns that have proven unfounded, and the recent case of the suicide of Ergun Canor’s son is a case where a watch blogger may have gone too far and possibly contributed to pushing an unstable teen over the edge. (Although in this case there has been a clear apology and some good introspection that we might be able to learn from.)

It does not take long to find someone that calls exposing sin gossip. However, my concern is that the meaning of the word gossip has become slippery. Is it possible to address issues of sin within a church without it being gossip?  Should church discipline only happen within a local congregation? Is there a place for censure or disassociation if there is not a oversight role (especially in the Evangelical world where church and ministry autonomy is a common practice)?  What about nationally known pastors and ministries that have a footprint that is far larger than their physical geography?

As Christians, I think we have a particular call to listen to the less powerful, the victim, the poor and the non-institutionally connected person. I have been aware of (and sometimes participated in) too many instances of institutional or personal cowardliness where something could have been done but wasn’t because of fear (of losing income, prestige, reputation, influence, etc.)

What I do know is that we need to find a way to hear victims, appropriately call perpetrators of sin to repentance (and assist them toward restoration), and we need to depend on God’s strength to allow us to overcome our fear and do the right thing, especially when it is hard.

I, also, think that ‘rules’ are not going to solve any of these problems.  There is no rule that will allow a person to know where the hard line is between real concern and gossip.  Our motives are always a little mixed.  Rules often keep the powerful in power instead of elevating the concerns of the powerless.

And after all of this, how do we appropriately use Yoder's theological work, which is an important voice for peacemaking, even though his personal life seems to counter his theological contributions?

So here is the start of some questions that have been troubling me and that I don't have answers to:

  • How do we build institutions that take the reality of sin into account better than some of our predecessors have done?
  • How do we appropriately use the theological work of flawed theologians? (And all theologians are flawed as this post rightly notes.)
  • How do we rightly value claims of victims and the less powerful while still protecting against unfounded claims?
  • How do we appropriately lead flawed leaders toward restoration and flourishing while not excusing ongoing sin?
  • How do we create institutions that value repentance and restoration over image and reputation?
  • And how do we deal with the sin of nationally known pastors, theologians or authors that our outside the scope of our own immediate circle of contacts?

Guest post by Adam Shields 
Adam Shields currently writes at, is a stay at home Dad, and a part-time non-profit consultant.  Adam reads about mostly young adult fiction, science fiction/fantasy, history or biography and Theology and listens to a lot of audiobooks.
Follow him on Twitter @adamshields