Essential Church

I like books-- especially free ones. And I really like author Thom Rainer, and his son Sam.

That’s why I was excited to see this: their book
Essential Church? is available for free as a downloadable e-book (PDF format). Only until Monday. Get it here.
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Books for September

  • Beyond Bells and Smells by Mark Galli. I was surprised by this book, as I had thought (and hoped) it to be something that would introduce the reader to the spiritual foundations of the liturgy, explaining the elements, etc. It wasn’t that, or anything like it, though I wasn’t disappointed with it overall. It is more a collection of essays on the spiritual impact and importance of liturgical worship, offering something more like a devotional approach to liturgy rather than an analysis of it. (8)
  • The Power of Speaking God’s Word: How to Preach Memorable Sermons by Wilbur Ellsworth (re-read). This book is very good, offering a perspective on preaching and the preparation for preaching that is different and fresh. Beginning with the premise question of “what makes a sermon memorable?” Ellsworth quickly moves in the direction of an increased oral approach to preparing and delivering sermons, instead of the more common written/literary approach. Great words on the “what” and “why” of orality, but lacking a bit on the “how” aspect-- a factor that I find myself both disappointed with (who doesn’t like “method” and concrete advice on something like this?) and grateful for (because the approach I’ve developed is fairly different from his, and I like the freedom to do it my way). (8+)
  • A Mile in My Shoes: Cultivating Compassion by Trevor Hudson. Hudson, it turns out, is one of the original “Christ-Followers”-- those who have eschewed the term “Christian” as being over-used and lacking the oomph they want in a label. If that suggests something about the ethos of this book, then you’re probably right on. Hudson’s contribution here is one part helpful reflection on the need for deeper compassion in a Christian’s (oops-- I mean Christ-Follower’s) life, a la Henri Nouwen; and three parts method for how to do what Hudson did. In all, sadly, the book amounts to only a little more than a planning resource for a Hudson-style spiritual exercise-- which is really a shame, since had the ratio been reversed it really could have been something. I give it slightly higher marks only because the gold to be mined within the method is good stuff, and maybe worth the work. (8)
  • Calls to Worship: a pocket resource by Robert Vasholz. Following his pocket guide to Benedictions, Vasholz has produced another very helpful book for pastors and worship leaders, opening the door to fresh material that is too easily overlooked. A useful addition, this time, is to break them down into sections-- Vasholz offers the following sets of calls to worship: for special occasions including the Church calendar (42), responsive readings (36), and those to be read by Pastors only (39). A great resource. (9+)
  • The Encore Effect: How to Achieve Remarkable Performance in Anything You Do by Mark Sanborn. I’ve already reviewed this one elsewhere. (6-)
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Would David Hasselhoff win America's Got Talent?



I don’t think so.

So why is he a judge?

(HT:
Leslie)

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Book review: The Encore Effect by Mark Sanborn

Waterbrook Press once again sent me a book to review: this time, it was The Encore Effect: How to Achieve Remarkable Performance in Anything You Do by Mark Sanborn. (I was actually supposed to blog this review by last week, but I hope they’ll forgive me of it.)

There’s no doubt that
Mark Sanborn is an effective communicator. A motivational speaker and a Christian, Sanborn has built his business and reputation offering wholesome leadership and personal achievement advice, peppered with biblical truth and spiritual reflections. The Encore Effect follows this model exactly.

There is a lot of good advice in this book, and a lot of good examples of how to put the advice into practice, whether personal stories from Sanborn’s life, accounts of others historical or contemporary, or analogies. Following something of a modern-day Norman Vincent Peale approach, Sanborn offers a classic take on life: “you can do it! Here’s how to focus your time, energy, and attention.”

Therefore, someone who is doubting their capacity for living a full life might find this book a great encouragement. Others, needing a few nudges in the direction of the pursuit of excellence, may also profit from a quick read. (The book isn’t long, and it reads fast-- I found it no trouble to put away 40-50 pages in a matter of 15 minutes or so.)

But here’s my concern, both for Sanborn and for Waterbrook: the book is published by a Christian publisher, and I suppose that Sanborn may present himself as a Christian author (though his website doesn’t make any specific mention of his faith). But the book doesn’t do great justice to the connection to biblical faith-- and in some ways, it does harm to it.

Each chapter ends with a section called “Intersection,” typically containing a quote of a Bible verse and a brief reflection about how Sanborn sees that verse applying to the content of the chapter. But there are two problems with this: first of all, these verses were frequently taken out of context, and Sanborn’s reflections further distanced the verses from their biblical meaning. It is a too-frequent commitment of a common mistake: having an idea, then finding a verse that
appears to have some sort of connection to that idea, and claiming the verse is then a support for the idea. Sanborn’s ideas aren’t bad ones-- they may be a bit saccharine, but they aren’t bad-- but his claim of their support from Scripture IS bad.

Secondly, and on a larger level: the whole “intersection” idea bugs me. Too often, Christians relegate their faith to a compartmentalized, segmented aspect of their lives. The idea I get from Sanborn’s “intersections” is that he views faith this way, too: live your life-- you can be remarkable!-- and every now and then, what you do and who you are will intersect with biblical Christianity. The fact that Sanborn almost never incorporates Scripture or even people or events from Christendom in the rest of the book underscores this; he quotes from secular philosophers and even leaders of other religions more than Christian folk in the main body of the chapters. I’m making some judgements here about Sanborn’s views on faith that may be unfair, but they are based on the portrayal he has put before me.

The net effect is like trying to straddle the two worlds, and it doesn’t really work: taking something popular among the unbelieving world, frosting it with a bit o’ Christianeze, then re-presenting it as something new and better. This is the model that most Christian popular music applies, and the results are little-satisfying to either side. Or perhaps it is like co-opting “
Free Ride” or the chorus from “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” to be used as praise songs; it just doesn’t really fit.

Overall,
The Encore Effect isn’t a bad book; like so many other self-help and motivational books, it offers some nuggets of truth. It would have been a much better book had Sanborn resisted the temptation to spiritualize it and present it as something that is Christian in nature.

My rating: 6-
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Book Review: A Handful of Pebbles

Banner of Truth asked me to write a more detailed review of this book, so I’m posting it here.

Publisher: Banner of Truth Trust
Publication Date: 2008
Rating (1-10 scale): 7+

Anytime I hear the term "liberal" these days, I'm not sure what to think. On the one hand, the word can mean a number of things that are threatening to orthodoxy, or it can mean some things that are actually very good. On the other hand, I wonder if the term has served its purpose, and no longer is the broad-sweeping inclusive category that it once was. So when I received my copy of A Handful of Pebbles and saw that it was subtitled, "theological liberalism and the church," I wondered which of these it would be.

Fortunately, author Peter Barnes is quick to define what he means by liberalism, even granting that it can sometimes have good associations-- yet qualifying how the liberalism he intends is that which is a threat and challenge to biblical orthodoxy. What follows is Barnes's summary of what liberalism is, how it came to find its way into the church, and how an orthodox Christian ought to respond.

This small book offers a brief history of the rise of liberalism in the church, and it does a fair job of that. The first half could be an outline to a historical theology class, if that class focused exclusively on the rise of heresy and philosophical departure from orthodoxy. I appreciated some of the discussion about key doctrines, especially, and thought the content in the couple of chapters given to the problem of "what do we do about it?" were helpful, at least in a limited way, to give the reader some idea about why theological liberalism is at odds with orthodox Christian beliefs.

However, at the end I was left with a nagging question about who the intended audience for the book is. If it is for pastors or professors, it is far too thin on history and foundations to be of great use; It clearly is not intended as an academic reference. If, on the other hand, it is intended as an apologetic for liberal thinkers, it is likely too thin on refutation and discussion of problems; only the most willing and self-skeptical liberal would be convinced by this little tome.

The best audience I can think of for this book is the average church member in an evangelical church, who is himself/herself already committed to orthodoxy; for this person, it would be a good introduction to the indicators of liberal theology and their problems. I could see it being especially useful to put in the hands of a "liberal church refugee," stepping into an orthodox church after years of having the edge taken off of his or her beliefs. Or perhaps it might be a good tool for church officers, who may at times encounter mild or vague questions along the lines of what this book answers.

At times the tone of the book is a bit too defensive or even aggressive. While this may be justifiable given the subject matter, it undermines the brief urging at one point of approaching those in error with love and forbearance. I would have liked a bit more gracious attitude in a book like this.

Overall, I appreciated A Handful of Pebbles, even if I felt it was appropriate for only a limited audience.
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"In God We Trust"

A friend of mine recently posted a series of notes on his social network discussing his concern for the fact that our national motto, “In God We Trust,” is being moved from the face of coins (as is common today) to the sides, or edges, of coins in some proposed future designs.

My friend’s concern is that, once the motto is moved to the edges of coins, it won’t be long before it is removed entirely. This is a
Slippery Slope argument, but that’s not what I’m concerned about here. Instead, I’m bothered by my friend’s insistence that this bodes badly for the spiritual state of our nation.

He asserts that we see all references to God being systematically removed from the “arenas of our culture.” This, he says, is a problem because, as with the motto on coins, this removes from the consciousness of the culture the truth of the
Biblical God. I think he assumes too much in this.

We in the church are accustomed to seeing the word “God” and immediately associating it with Yahweh, the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the trinitarian God. But I think the idea of “god” has become so vague and passé outside of the church that there is little or no association with the Christian God in the word itself.

For that matter, in a culture like ours-- where almost everyone has had
some exposure to more than one religious belief system-- the notion of “God” may, as often as not, conjure up an association with Allah (the god of Islam), Gaia or some other pantheistic idea, Hinduism or some eastern religious concept, or even some personally-invented idolatry or paganism. It is clear from the studies that have been done that, while a very large majority of the population of the U.S. say they “believe in God,” the idea of god that those respondents hold is frequently anything other than an orthodox understanding of God.

In stark contrast, I get the sense from my friend’s posts that he considers the presence of our national motto as a great boon for the spread of the Gospel. While this might be an interesting conversation starter that could lead to an evangelistic opportunity, I’ve never heard of anyone who actively inquired about spiritual truth because of the U.S. motto on currency. I could be dead wrong on this one, but I rank the motto on a coin as several notches below bumper stickers, t-shirts, and coffee mugs as tools for outreach.

So here’s my point: should my friend be up in arms? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is time and energy that is misplaced, that could have been spent doing actual ministry of evangelism and outreach. (So, too, is this post-- consider me sufficiently convicted.)
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On counseling and medication

An interesting discussion on counseling and medication over at another blog raised a good point that I’ve often found is a stumbling block to Christians. David Powlison, quoting the Director of the National Institute on Mental Health, said:

Psychiatric medications can sometimes take the edge off symptoms, but they can't give people what they really need. People need meaning and relationships. Psychiatry can't give that. Medication can't give that.


This is something that is apparently difficult to understand for those who have not had immediate contact with the effects of this kind of medication (known as “psychotropic” medication).

I once had a student whose comment revealed that even those who HAVE had contact sometimes misunderstand. She said in an off-hand manner, “I’ve taken anti-depressants. They make you happy!”

The truth is, they don’t. They might help you to be normal (in a chemical sense), but they don’t make you “happy.” My concern deepened as I counseled this student about this, because she had faced mild-to-moderate depression for so long that she had come to assume that her
depressed state was “normal”-- thus, having that edge of depression taken off was “happy” feeling to her.

Here’s my best analogy of what psychotropic drugs offer: Suppose you love running, and have your heart dead-set on running a marathon in a year. In preparation for a training regimen, you visit your doctor, who informs you that the slight pain in your knee is actually a problem that needs to be addressed surgically; in short, if you don’t have your knee scoped, you won’t be able to train for the marathon, let alone complete it.

Here’s the analogy: if you have your knee scoped, is that going to make you ready for the marathon? No. You’ll still have a lot of work to do to condition your body (and your mind) for running the marathon. But if you don’t have your knee scoped, you are guaranteed that you won’t be able to run the marathon.

So it is with psychotropic medication: they won’t overcome your depression for you, but they might address the physical/physiological obstacles that would keep you from being able to do the work of overcoming depression. (Likewise with anxiety and other clinical mental health issues.)
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Books for August 2008

I managed to finish a few more books this month than last-- and more importantly (to me, at least), I got my rhythm back for reading. I feel like I’m plowing through them lately, having finished four books in the last 10 days.

Here’s my list for August:
  • Evangelism in the Small Membership Church by Royal Speidel. This book is one of a series, entitled the “ministry in the small membership church” series, published by Abingdon Press. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am by this book. For one thing, most of it really isn’t about evangelism at all; after the first couple of chapters, the bulk of the content is just about pastoral ministry in general. Ironically, the author suggests that the book is a good one for groups of laypeople, but most of the book focuses on the pastoral side of church ministry. Secondly, the author doesn’t speak to small membership churches-- not really; he frequently cites examples from his own ministry experience where he refers to congregations of well over 100, several times mentioning events accomodating more than 500-- even though approx. 60% of all churches are congregations of 100 or fewer. Finally, much of his theology is just poor; there were a number of times that I just shook my head, wondering where he got an idea or how he found what he was saying in the text. While there are a few ideas in the book that I will come back to-- and I’m glad to have read it for those alone-- I simply cannot recommend this one. (3)
  • Waterbrook Press Children’s Extravaganza (children’s books)-- reviewed earlier in the month: God Gave Us Heaven by Lisa Tawn Bergren, When God Created My Toes and God Loves Me More Than That by Dandi Daley Mackall
  • Making a Meal of It: Rethinking the theology of the Lord’s Supper by Ben Witherington, III. I appreciate Witherington’s keen insight into the historical, social, and anthropological culture of biblical times; I’ve long been a fan of his “socio-rhetorical” commentaries. He brings that same insight into this book, giving a comprehensive look at what the institution and celebration of the Lord’s Supper would have looked like in Jesus’ day, and in the early church. There is good stuff to be found here, and Witherington affirms much of what has been something of a revival in Lord’s Supper theology. But I think the subtitle may take things a bit too far: the rethinking began well before this book was published (in 2007). Still, good stuff, even if Witherington is sometimes on the fringes with his theology, which makes me cautious about recommending him. Only because of that occasional theological variance, I rank this one a little lower than I might otherwise. (7)
  • How to Pick a Peach: the search for flavor from farm to table by Russ Parsons. This has been a great and fun read, one I picked up for our vacation in the NC mountains and have recently finished. Parsons offers a season-by-season, produce-by-produce guide for how to know when fruits or vegetables are ripe, how to store them, and even some good advice on preparation and cooking. He also has encyclopedic knowledge of the backgrounds of our modern produce, as well as the food industry (farm and market). His book is peppered with history, science, recipes, and tips for the garden and kitchen alongside a nearly-exhaustive reference for produce. It deserves a place on my shelf alongside my cookbooks and other kitchen references, but I found that I enjoyed reading it cover-to-cover, unlike any reference book I’ve read before. (10)
  • The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in broken bread by Robert Letham (re-read). I re-read this one quickly in preparation for the sermon series I’m about to begin on the subject of the Lord’s Supper. Letham does such a great job of covering this topic, with a lot packed into this little book (only 60 or so pages). I especially appreciate Letham’s practical approach: everything he has put into this book is geared toward a practicable use, and while the content is certainly theologically rich it is also written at a lay-level. So this would be a great book to introduce folks-- maybe in a Sunday School class, or officer training-- to the fundamentals of the Reformed theology of the Lord’s Supper. It’s not comprehensive-- there’s a good bit of Old Testament and historical content missing that is well-covered in other books (such as Given for You by Keith A. Mathison). But it is a great primer. (9)
  • A Handful of Pebbles: theological liberalism and the church by Peter Barnes. This small book offers a brief history of the rise of liberalism in the church, and it does a fair job of that. I appreciated some of the discussion about key doctrines, especially. However, my question is who the intended audience for the book is. If it is for pastors or professors, it is far too thin on history and foundations to be of great use; if, on the other hand, it is intended as an apologetic for liberal thinkers, it is likely too thin on refutation and discussion of problems. The best audience I can think of for this book is the average church member in an evangelical church, who is himself/herself already committed to orthodoxy; for this person, it would be a good introduction to the indicators of liberal theology and their problems. While the tone is a bit defensive, perhaps that is justified given the subject. (7+)
  • The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. I’ve already reviewed this book on my blog, and you can read my review here. (8+)
  • Serving in Church Visitation by Jerry M. Stubblefield. I was excited about this little book when I first got it-- and I wasn’t disappointed! This introduction to the approach, attitude, and practice of visiting others on behalf of Christ and His church is brief, yet as thorough as it needs to be. This would be a good tool to use in Officer Training, or perhaps more appropriately in ongoing study with existing officers-- though it is not limited to officers in its scope or audience. (9+)
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Book review: The Faith of Barack Obama

I was invited by Thomas Nelson publishers to review one of their new titles, The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. This is one of a small handful of books that are hitting the stores as the Democratic Presidential Nominee gains more attention in the U.S. and the world. Mansfield, who in 2004 wrote the similarly-eloquent title, The Faith of George W. Bush, brought the same approach to this look at Senator Obama’s life of faith.

You can’t consider a man’s story of faith without considering the story of his life, and Mansfield offers a brief but sufficient overview of Barack Obama’s family, childhood, early adult life, and entrance into the political realm. Senator Obama’s life story is rich and amazing in itself; through Mansfield’s pen it is a delight to read.

From there, the author presents us with Obama’s re-introduction to Christianity-- a more personal one than the senator had encountered before. We also get a closer look at Trinity Church of Christ of Chicago and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, both of which were instrumental in Obama’s spiritual awakening, as well as Rev. Wright’s version of Black Liberation Theology, which was less a part of Obama’s journey. And we are offered a brief contrast of Obama’s faith story with those of Senator John McCain, Senator Hillary Clinton, and President George W. Bush.

As a book, I appreciated Mansfield’s insight and perspective very much. He was light-handed with his own interpretation, instead relying on extensive interviews and quotes to tell the stories of Senator Obama’s life and faith for him. He was also mercifully light on political material or analysis, though at times (especially in later chapters) it emerged more explicitly, though not in a dogmatic way. Due to the timing of the book, I found some parts of it already felt a bit dated-- especially a couple of references to the likelihood that Obama would lose in the primaries-- but overall this aspect was masked fairly well.

As a message-- and every book has a message-- I appreciated Mansfield’s perspective, though less so. As
I’ve mentioned before, I accept Barack Obama’s profession of faith as credible, and find it frustrating when people assume otherwise simply because of his name or his background. Mansfield does a fine job of addressing this, and perhaps that was a major goal for his writing; his style and approach is a positive one, focusing more on affirmation than exposé. But I felt that the questions that needed to be answered in a book like this went unaddressed, such as how much or how little Senator Obama embraces the prominent Black Liberation Theology of his (now former) pastor and church, or how he reconciles some of his more extreme views with his professed faith and trust in the Bible. As such, the book felt just a little unfinished-- as if the rush to press meant that the time ran out for the interviews that would answer these and other questions.

Still, the country and the church-- especially the evangelical right-wing-- need this book, and others like it, to help us understand our brothers and sisters of the evangelical left. Overall, I’ll rank this book at 8+.
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Fostering and Adoption: how we gave up the family a long time ago

There is an interesting overture before the legislature of Arkansas that, if it succeeds, would put a bill before the state that would outlaw adoption and foster care by unmarried people who live together.

I find it interesting because it is addressing the very problem that, I believe, ended the current debate about same-sex marriage before it started: when we (and by that I mean the “royal we”-- the culture of our nation) granted same-sex couples the right to foster and adopt orphans, we tacitly allowed them to also define themselves as a family. How, then, could we possibly deny them other similar legal rights as a family?

So the people of Arkansas have realized that-- or at least they have recognized that granting same-sex couples (and other unmarried couples as well) the right to adopt, they put the “traditional” understanding of family under threat. This is a pretty bold move, given the widespread acceptance of divorce and even co-habitation in our society.

At the same time, I have to say I’m sympathetic to the response from the “other side”-- in this case, including the social workers and others who want to see the huge numbers of orphans placed with families that can care for them better than the state. Is it not the case that ANY willing parent-- single, unmarried, homosexual-- who will offer love and care for a child is better than none, leaving children in state care?

And this is where the rubber meets the road: if the church dares to demand that such measures be taken (i.e., stripping same-sex couples of the possibility of adoption), we must step up to improve our participation in adoption and foster care ourselves. We are biblically mandated to do so (James 1:27) if we claim to take the practice of our faith seriously. How can we say that unmarried couples must not be allowed to adopt, when they are willing to do what we are not?
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Blog tour: The Children's Extravaganza

Waterbrook Press invited me to participate in another blog tour-- where I read and review books on my blog(s). This time, it is the “Children’s Extravaganza” (their term) which is a set of three children’s books they have recently published.

We read through the books-- of course we read them with Jack and Molly-- and got their opinions as well as forming our own. I’ll take each one in turn and offer sort of a mini-review.

The first book we read was God Gave Us Heaven, by Lisa Tawn Bergren. In it we follow a family of polar bears, with Little Cub asking Papa questions about God and heaven throughout the course of a day. It is a sweet story, and Bergren takes care to answer many important (and complex) questions in a way that is understandable to children. The artwork, drawn by Laura J. Bryant, is fun and cute, and both Jack and Molly liked it. In fact, Jack and Molly liked this book the most of the three. Marcie and I liked it a lot as well, though both of us thought that a few parts toward the end open the suggestion that everyone eventually goes to heaven. Apart from that concern-- and the subtle notion that polar bears have souls and go to heaven because of Jesus, which I don’t consider a huge problem in a book like this-- we liked the book and thought it was very helpful to begin conversations with Jack and Molly about eternal life and heaven. I’ll rank this one an 8+.

Bergren has written nearly 30 titles in the publishing world, and God Gave Us Heaven is her fourth. I hope she will offer us more.

When God Created My Toes was a cute idea-- speculate about what God thought about creating the different parts of the body (which, of course, we know already: He pronounced them “very good” in Gen. 1:31). It was done in rhyme, which made it easier to follow for the kids. While some of the rhymes were a stretch, several of them offered interesting and good insights. Jack and Molly liked it okay, but it wasn’t a favorite for either. And we didn’t love it, either-- mainly because a number of the pictures (drawn by David Hohn, some of which made Jack and Molly giggle) portrayed the children doing mischievous things, which we didn’t think we wanted our kids getting ideas from! Overall, I’ll give this one a rating of 6/6+.

Both
When God Created My Toes and the last book, God Loves Me More Than That, are by Dandi Daley Mackall, who has written many, many children’s books (over 400!), and has other titles published by Waterbrook, as well.

Last, but not least, was God Loves Me More Than That, which we all liked very much. Focusing on how great is God’s love for us (Ephesians 3:17b-18, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”), this book does a good job of offering something of a balance to the many wonderful books that focus on a parent’s great love (think Guess How Much I Love You?). The illustrations (again drawn by David Holm) were terrific-- my favorites of the three books-- and complemented the book so well. I had no parental or theological concerns about this one at all, in either the content or the drawings, and it’s a toss-up about whether this one might not be my favorite of the three. Marcie felt like it might be better for kids a little younger than ours, though Jack seemed to connect with it. I rate this one as a 10.

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McCain's grim prospects

If you read very much on the internet-- especially stuff from other Christians-- then you’ve almost certainly encountered a lot of stuff about Senator Barack Obama. If you watch TV at all, or read the newspaper, he’s everywhere. Even Senator John McCain’s own ads call him the “biggest celebrity in the world.”

Even those who oppose Senator Obama, in one way or another, have given him a lot of attention. One of the blogs I read has averaged, it seems like, at least a post a week on why he’s not the guy that should be president. Plenty of Christians will offer great amounts of evidence for why Senator Obama is the worst possible future president for our country.

I almost never hear very much about Senator McCain. I don’t know anyone who is excited about his candidacy, or delighted about the president he would make. I’ve yet to read a well-written, thoroughly developed piece on why McCain SHOULD be president. (Or, for that matter, one on why he SHOULDN’T!)

In fact, the general sense I get-- even from those who strongly oppose Senator Obama-- is, in a nutshell, “I’m not that excited about [Senator] McCain either.”

No one is excited about Senator John McCain. No one is vigorously, zealously behind him. No one is concerned about zealously opposing him. At the beginning of an episode from the last season of West Wing, one of the candidates is told something like, this campaign is all yours-- you won’t even have to mention the other guy’s name. I think that pretty much sums up the status of Senator Obama’s status right now, too.

[Now, that last paragraph is all hyperbole, of course. I’m sure I’ll get some emails about it anyway...]

Senator McCain may have gained a bit of ground at Saturday’s Saddleback Civic Forum. Even there, though, many responses were that Senator McCain’s words were too “party-line” and sounded like he was appealing to that certain group of voters. Senator Obama came off as fresh and genuine to the same group, while others the same thing about him.

So, here’s how it looks from where I sit: Senator John McCain may, indeed, be exactly the man we need in the White House; Senator Barack Obama may, indeed, be the worst thing for Christians in the United States ever. Or both of those assumptions may be totally off. But unless he can get his campaign into a much higher gear (and there’s still plenty of time to do so), Senator McCain is going to become the next Walter Mondale, the next Bob Dole, and the next John Kerry: the “other candidate” who was easily forgotten, because the one who beat him was such a dominant presence. Right now, the election is Senator Barack Obama’s to lose.
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Books in July

Well, I came to the end of July and realized that, while I had actually begun a number of books through the month, I didn’t actually finish any of them. So August promises to be a heavier list of mini-reviews, but July is left with nothing to say (at least from my perspective regarding the books I read).

Instead, then, I’ll offer up this brief list of books that folks in my congregation are reporting that they have found to be of great help and interest to them:
  • Putting Amazing Back into Grace by Michael Scott Horton. This isn’t a new book, but there is a new edition out, and several HWPC members have been reading it. Horton does an excellent job of offering an overview of the doctrines of grace, which are pillars of our theological foundations in the PCA.
  • How People Change by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp. This one has (relatively speaking) flown off the HWPC book table, and tells the truths of the doctrines of grace from a decidedly different angle. It is, nevertheless, a great book that offers transforming truths to those who would look for gospel change in their lives.
  • Surprising Insights from the Unchurched by Thom Rainer. This great book, based on Rainer’s research a few years ago, gives an amazing look at what formerly unchurched folks report were the keys to the church having an effective ministry of outreach to them.
  • The Only Necessary Thing by Henri J. M. Nouwen. One of our members just lent me this book, assuring me that I would, as a Nouwen fan, be delighted in this look at prayer and the prayerful life.

Also, I’ve been asked to participate in several “blog tours” or blog reviews of books, so I thought I would mention those books at this point as a teaser:
  • A Handful of Pebbles: theological liberalism and the church by Peter Barnes. Published by Banner of Truth.
  • The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield (the same guy who wrote The Faith of George W. Bush). Published by Thomas Nelson.
  • Three Children’s books by Waterbrook Press: God Loves Me More Than That and When God Created My Toes by Dandi Daley Mackall; and God Gave Us Heaven by Lisa Tawn Bergren.
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Family man

I’ve mentioned Andrew Peterson before; he’s a guy with a lot of talent whose book I reviewed a while back, and he’s also a talented musician, singer, and songwriter.

One of Andrew’s songs that I love is “Family Man”-- it’s one of those songs that I wonder at how he ever performs live, because I don’t understand how he doesn’t choke up with tears.

Well, others love this song too. One church staffer created a video for the song, and it’s a pretty incredible video. Take a look:


"Family Man" from Trevor Little on Vimeo.

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Are you wit' us, or agin' us?

In light of yesterday’s post on single-issue voting, I’ll offer this post that re-covers the ideas that started it, plus the counter-points to those ideas.

I’m not throwing my support behind either candidate– and I don’t care to share who I’m voting for. I think there’s a good case to be made for a conservative on both sides, and I understand the “I’m socio-politically conservative and I’m voting for Obama” side completely.

Here’s the gist of that argument:
  1. Single-issue voting is wrong and unbiblical.
  2. Even if it were not, we’ve been told that “the next president will end legalized abortion through judicial appointments” since the 80s– has it happened yet?
  3. If that’s not reason enough to be skeptical, there is arguable evidence that abortion actually was reduced more under Clinton than Bush– so why is the default assumption that a Republican president will be better for the pro-life position? (Oh yeah: because the whole argument goes, the distant possibility of total elimination of legalized abortions is more important than the more likely possibility of reduction of legalized abortions.)
  4. A vote for McCain is a guarantee for continued waging of war that is unjust and has little possibility of ending soon or with effective outcome. A vote for Obama is at least a solid chance of ending that much sooner.
  5. The grim predictions of all who oppose Obama is that he is an extreme liberal who will be the enemy of people of faith. The last time we heard this was, of course, when President Bill Clinton was elected. But really, Clinton didn’t end up being that bad, and it is hard to argue that the U.S. suffered or got worse under his presidency. Why should we believe it this time around?
  6. Isn’t it natural to want to believe that all of the talk of change, a new tone, and truly productive political process is true? Even the most cynical among us must surely WANT it to be true.
So there is my take on the case for Obama from a conservative’s perspective. Now, here’s the argument for the other side: why should a Christian/conservative/moderate (or even liberal) vote for John McCain?
  1. Single-issue voting is wrong and unbiblical. (And just as many conservatives oppose Obama because of his position on abortion, many others oppose McCain because of his position on the Iraq War.)
  2. Even if it were not, the Iraq War is a commitment we have made as a nation-- good or ill-- and we ought to take that commitment seriously enough to see it through to completion. Yes, we’ve been involved in it for over five years; we were in Vietnam for 16 years, and our failure there was largely due to growing apathy and opposition toward the later stages, even when some evidence of success had shown up. The recent reports of the positive effects of the “surge” ought to be enough to at least slow down the urgency to pull out as soon as possible. So the next president will at least need to be open-minded to the matters at hand, and not dogmatically committed to immediate withdrawal. We may not “win” this war, but we can certainly finish well.
  3. McCain, though fairly moderate on many issues, has a solid record of “pro-life” support and congressional/senatorial voting. So if we ARE inclined toward the single-issue agenda that consumes so many Christians, he’s your guy!
  4. A vote for McCain may actually be a pretty good balance of conservative and moderate positions, appealing more to many of the younger generation of folks who don’t identify purely with a right-wing, conservative agenda.
  5. While McCain has, at best, been very tight-lipped about his personal beliefs and faith (to my knowledge he’s never gone on record stating that he considers himself a Christian or any other belief), he HAS shown himself to be friendly to Christians and other people of faith.
  6. McCain’s lack of Obama-like charisma doesn’t alter the fact that he speaks boldly of change as well; plus, his years of political and military experience bolster his claims of being able to be the leader we need to get true bi-partisan change effected.
That said, there are reasons why many believers may not wish to vote for EITHER of them! Whether it encourages you to a write-in (Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee are two names I often hear about as write-ins) or to go the “none of the above” route, here are a few more thoughts on the two presumptive candidates:
  • Neither candidate is a distinctively Christian candidate; Obama, who has openly discussed his faith, recently resigned his membership from a congregation that espouses Black Liberation Theology in a denomination that is probably the most theologically liberal denomination that still considers itself to be “Christian;” now he is, I presume, an unchurched theological liberal. McCain, as I mentioned, has NO open declaration of faith or belief on record, and when asked by Christians about his faith instead refers to the inspiration he has found in the faith of others. This may not be a deal-breaker for everyone-- I would rather see the “best” man in place than an adequate Christian-- but it’s probably a factor for most Christians.
  • Both candidates talk a LOT about change-- which may be good-- but have yet to really spell out what said change would really mean, at least in a way that has gotten through to the general audiences. In other words, nothing like the “lock box” of 2000 has really emerged. Time will tell; in the historic scheme of elections, it is very early (even though it seems like it has been going on forever already, and we still have six months left).
  • While so much talk about change is bantered about, we’ve still got a growing economic crisis and an over-dependence on petroleum. We know what they’ll do about the Iraq War and the military action in Afghanistan, but what will they do about the economy? How will they solve our oil dependence problem? We’ve heard the soundbite niceties that represent, at best, short-term relief; I’m not sure if either candidate has a solid plan (or even an idea) about how they will lead the nation to true solutions over the long-term.
  • Almost everyone I know seems fairly dis-satisfied with our candidate selection. Apart from those who have really been wowed by Obama’s style and charisma, most people I’ve talked to feel like both candidates represent something of a blasé option.
There it is: my assessment of the presidential race as it stands today. I hope this is, at least, food for thought.

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Why single-issue voting is unbiblical

In honor of Independence Day, I thought I would offer up a post that simultaneously speaks to our context and government, the Kingdom of God, and the current events of our political process. (I’m also taking this opportunity to respond to a question posed to me over at my friend Megan’s blog.)

Why is single-issue voting unbiblical?

I’ll work through this issue from the most practical to the most theological (but hopefully that’s a false dichotomy, and there are shades of each at the opposite ends of the spectrum).
  • Even someone with a die-hard “culture war” perspective has to begin to wonder if the culture war has been lost. If you follow principles of just war (which biblical Christians ought to feel obligated to do), and you appropriate these principles into the culture wars as well (after all, they are just a violent in many ways), the principle of “probability of success” has to give you pause. If your single issue is abortion or defining marriage, don’t you wonder if we’ve already lost those wars? (Ditto for other single issues.)
  • It is difficult to be a truly consistent single-issue voter. (Really, it’s difficult to be consistent about political issues in general; it’s just that the single-issue voter invites greater scrutiny of his or her consistency.) Most who hold up abortion as the defining issue, for example, claim (rightly, I believe) that abortion is murder. What, then, is the desired end-goal? To have would-be mothers arrested and tried for murder if they have an abortion performed? At least they should be tried as accessories to murder. Likewise, some claim that the definition of marriage as only that between a man and a woman is the ultimate issue of this year’s elections; they don’t want to allow same-sex couples to define their relationships under the terminology of marriage. But the outcries were far fewer when family courts began to grant same-sex couples the right to adopt, thereby allowing them to functionally define their relationships under the terminology of family.
  • Another difficulty in single-issue voting is the problem of which single-issue you decide is the most important. How do you decide? Even the most carefully-reasoned decision here necessarily excludes a number of vital issues. The decision will inevitably be at least shaped by your cultural context: your race, your socio-economic circumstances, your geography of origin. Morality has a role, but in the end deciding on one single issue as arbiter political decisions is a moral and ethical coin-toss. This sort of relativism is inherently contrary to biblical reasoning.
  • Whatever the single-issue is does NOT encompass the whole of any candidate’s platform or worldview. Thus, we may find that we are inadvertently supporting and aligning ourselves with a candidate with whom we utterly disagree on another issue. This is not always taboo, and there are times when we can and should join with those with differences for the sake of a particular effort; nevertheless, to do so thoughtlessly or ignorantly (because you simply weren’t paying attention to or concerned about other issues) is not being consistent to a biblical worldview of engaging and interacting with culture and world.
  • (Closely related to the third point) It is impossible for ANY single issue to be elevated as more important than others from a strictly biblical perspective. Suppose the most aggressively anti-Christian legislation were at stake-- say, making it illegal for Christians to gather for worship, punishable by death-- would that rise to the top as most important? Would defending our “right” to gather for worship (the loss of which has never stopped the Christian church from gathering over the centuries) be more important than the biblical mandate to care for the poor or evangelize the lost? Would it be consistent to have argued for these several decades that opposing abortion is the most important endeavor the church can undertake (yes, I’ve actually been told exactly that) and suddenly to switch issues?
  • Single-issue voting represents a segmentation of life into nicely compartmentalized concepts, as if they are completely unrelated. But the Bible clearly portrays a world where such things are inherently connected. Scripture shows us connections we can’t make in a segmented view, such as the value of building codes as a part of loving our neighbor as ourselves (Deut. 22:8). We can see these connections in our world today, as well. One person suggested recently that the solution to the economic crisis we’re in would be to cut governmental spending, which he fleshed out as, “get[ting] out of schooling, Social Security, and welfare.” Many Christians may agree. But the truth is that our society isn’t prepared for the fall-out for the reduction of governmental support in ANY of these areas, and until we establish a foundational structure for replacing ALL governmental education (and not just for the wealthy Christians, but for poor Christians and non-Christians as well), we ought not begin demanding that the government “get out of schooling.” Likewise, if abortion were outlawed tomorrow, the needs in adoption, health care, and soci