Wednesday, August 21, 2019

If we survive

by Andrew Klavan
352 pages / 2013

This is a very different sort of story. When's the last time you've read Christian fiction that had someone dead by page 2?

Will Peterson is a 16-year-old visiting a small Central American village with his church's mission team, there to help rebuild the local cinder-block school. They've finished the work and are waiting in the cantina for the bus to take them back home when the room is suddenly filled with rebel soldiers and the pot-bellied, smiling waiter, who had been joking with them only moments before, is now on the floor, shot dead by the rebel leader.

What happens next is a not-so unusual chase-type adventure. The rebels have taken over the government and are executing anyone for any reason, and they don't want to let any American witnesses get out of the country alive. So now these church kids, along with an unexpected helper, are on the run, barely staying ahead of these murderous bandits.

What makes this something special is the characters in it. The most intriguing might be Jim Nolan, a 16-year-old intellectual who has read the biography and op-ed articles of the country's rebel leader...and who believes everything he's read. Even when the rebels start killing people, Jim is sure they're fighting for justice. Even when the guns are turned their direction, he's just as sure that it's all a horrible mistake, and if he can only talk to someone, things can straightened out. Jim steadfastly holds onto his rebel sympathies despite all the bloodshed around him. Author Andrew Klavan makes clear why Jim remains so loyal: because a lot of what he's being reading, about how the government was oppressing the country's poorest, is entirely true. Klavan isn't taking a cheap shot at the naivety of liberals here – this is a more nuanced look that admits the problems the Left points out might well be problems, even as the solutions they suggest are no solutions at all. Or, in the context of this story, just because the government is bad doesn't make the rebels good.

Will is also a well developed character. He came on the trip as a way of escaping his home life: mom and dad are always arguing and, he thinks, on the path to divorce. But now, unbelievably, things have gotten a whole lot worse, and as Will and the others bounce from one crisis to another, he has to battle a very understandable sense of panic. He does so by remembering two things:

  1. a Hemingway quote that cowardice is "a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination."
  2. advice from his youth pastor, who once told the group, "Don't worry about anything – pray about everything." 

CAUTIONS

While praying is always good advice, the way Will's prayers are depicted in the story makes it seems like it is more the act of praying, and not the God he is speaking to, that really helps Will.

Another caution worth noting is that while the church mission group is Protestant (and seemingly some sort of conservative Evangelical) there are postive, if brief, portrayals of other religions. This includes Roman Catholicism, in which a priest has a key role in saving them, and the villagers' ancient spirituality, when the missions group is invited to sit in on a pagan festival of lights. However, in both cases Will keeps to the facts, describing what they saw, but not digging into what it all means. A discerning reader would have reason to presume Klavan believes Roman Catholicism isn't importantly different from Protestantism, but that isn't a message the author is trying to hammer home here.

CONCLUSION

This is a gripping read that any teenage boy would really enjoy, and dad might not mind either. And if dad does join in, this could be a leap off point for some really good conversations about:

  • the American role as policeman of the world
  • one-sided news coverage, both from the Left and Right, and how that compares to what God tells us about the importance of hearing both sides in Prov. 18:17
  • courage and what it really involves
  • what prayer to God is actually
  • why we find nice people following other gods, or worshipping God in wrong ways
So, overall, I'd recommend this for teen guys with a little discernment, and a willingness to talk things through with their parents. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Tale of 61 Biographies

60 People Who Shaped the Church:
Learning from Sinners, Saints, Rogues, and Heroes
by Alton Gansky
316 pages / 2014
Baker Books

Jonathan Edwards: Lover of God
by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney 
155 pages / 2010
Moody Publishers

They were the worst of times; they were the best of times. In church history, as in Charles Dickens'  view of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities, those statements could be applied simultaneously to any given era, since the church is both in the middle of fierce spiritual warfare, and yet she has already won in the victory of her Saviour over our sin and guilt. The two books shown in the titles above demonstrate how God uses saints, sinners, rogues, and a lover of God to spread the gospel, glorify Himself, and build up His church - and one of them is especially strong in applying that understanding to God's people today.

Alton Gansky shows us the lives of 60 "people" who shaped the church. The book could be called 60 Men Who Shaped the Church if it were not for the story of Fanny Crosby, the one woman profiled in the book. Her biography, like many of the men's, inspires us with both her attitude - not despairing in spite of being blind from infancy - and her contribution to the Christian church - over 9000 hymns, many still well known. In a collection of stories like this one, we could always name people who should have been dealt with, or quibble with the choice of some that were tackled, but Gansky deals with many figures who had impressive influence on the church.

The main caution that I would urge about Gansky's book is that he treads too lightly where the person discussed had a significant negative effect on the purity, doctrine, or practices of the church. For example, he does not mention the effect of Constantine's making Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire - the influx of many into the church whose profession of faith was likely not genuine. The same problem relates to the introduction of Arminian doctrine or Arminian methods of evangelism into the church. Gansky says nothing about the problems involved with these innovations.

Strachan and Sweeney have the advantage of dealing with a man who is well known for his solidly Reformed writing and preaching: Jonathan Edwards. What makes their biography particularly valuable is the application, at the end of each chapter, of Edwards' insights, virtues, and flaws to our own lives as "lovers of God." Their book is the first of five in The Essential Edwards Collection, and based on this one, the rest of the series promises to show us clearly how this prominent American theologian and preacher is both a source of insight and an example for our lives lived to the glory of God. My only caution would be that in urging our "duty to fight doubt" (as Edwards did), the authors recommend Tim Keller's The Reason for God - a book that indeed addresses many of the reasons for doubt, but also compromises with the theory of evolution. Other than that, this is an excellent introduction to an American whose work and life both have much to teach us.

If you think that you can learn from saints, sinners, and rogues about how God built up His church, you can find Gansky's book here, and here in Canada. And if you think that we can use the example and wisdom of Jonathan Edwards to grow in your love for God, you can find Strachan and Sweeney's book here, and here in Canada.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

You Who? Why you matter & how to deal with it

by Rachel Jankovic
235 pages / 2019

I began reading my wife’s copy of You Who? only after she shared comments from the online critics who were savaging it. A good encouraging review won’t necessarily sell me a book – I have too many others stacked up already competing for my attention – but when a certain sort of critic just hates a book then my curiosity is piqued and I want to know, “What could have gotten them that riled up?” So I owe Rachel Jankovic’s detractors thanks for getting me started on one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The author’s premise is simple: “Who am I?” is a question everyone asks and most of us answer badly. The most common answers involve our jobs: people will say “I’m a farmer” or “I am a small business owner.” But there’s a problem with identifying with our career: we can lose our job, or retire from it. And who are we then?

Others will identify themselves with their abilities or interests (“I am an artist,” or “I am a surfer”), or in their marital status (“I am single”), what groups they belong to (“I am Canadian”), or in not belonging to any groups (”I am a free spirit”). And many women look for their identity in the roles of wife and mother.

But here, too, problems exist because here, too, things can change: over time our abilities fade and our interests can shift. Over time the country we were once proud of may betray the values we thought it held. And over time even the most loving spouse will repeatedly let us down. Sure, our children can be a frequent source of pride and joy, one week sitting side by side in the church pew, hair combed, shoes polished, lovingly sharing the songbooks, but the next week it’s just as likely you’ll be taking two out at a time, their legs kicking and little lungs giving full vent to their protests in front of the whole congregation. If we find our identity in being the perfect parent, it doesn’t take any time at all for that bubble to burst.

So if those are all wrong answers to the "Who am I?" question, then what’s the right one? Jankovic wants to:

“encourage and equip believing women to see their identity in Christ as the most essential part of them, and to see all the ways that will work its way out in their lives, manifesting itself as strength, dignity, and clarity of purpose.”

Encouraging believers to make Christ our first and foremost shouldn’t be controversial. So why were critics upset? Because they were confused, mistaking Jankovic’s call to God-honoring obedience for some sort of legalistic works righteousness.

There’s a sense in which that’s understandable. Legalism (or works righteousness) and antinomianism (or lawlessness) are a set of paired theological errors. The legalist can’t believe God’s grace is really free, so he wants to earn it by obeying God’s law and, like the Pharisees of old, will even add to and expand on God’s laws. Meanwhile, antinomians recognize that the law can’t justify us and conclude that since we can’t measure up to God’s standard then Jesus must have come to abolish all those pesky Commandments.

These are huge, dangerous errors, but if you speak out against one, it’s inevitable someone will mistake your point and think you are a proponent of the opposite error. And that’s what’s happened here.

In the Reformed circles that this magazine serves we all know we can’t earn our way to heaven, but if we have a tendency to err in one direction or the other then we’re probably more likely to tip in the legalistic direction (just think of all the additional rules we once had for Sunday and how often we heard "dat niet op Zondag").

But in the evangelical world – Jankovic’s target audience – the error is on the other side. In those circles many believe sin is no big deal because, after all, the more we mess up, the more it just shows how gracious God is. Or as the current star of the Bachelorettereality TV show (a self-professing Christian) put it this past month, after she had sex with one contestant and went naked bungee jumping with another:

“I refuse to feel shame….I am standing firm in believing that maybe God wants to use a mess like me to point to his goodness and grace.”

What this neglects is the Apostle Paul’s answer to the question, “Shall we then continue in sin that grace may abound?” to which he gave a definitive, “By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2). Of course, we shouldn’t expect solid theology from reality TV. But this antinomianism – lawlessness – is working itself out in the audience of evangelical wives and moms that Jankovic is speaking to.

There we find that the false identities some Christian women are adopting, are giving them reasons to disobey God’s call to faithful, mundane, day-after-day obedience. A mom who finds her identity in her abilities will ignore her children in favor of her career aspirations. Or if she’s made herself the center of her world, then she’ll have every reason to skip the laundry folding and partake in a little “me time” instead. And if her kids become her identity, then neglecting her husband to give the little ones more attention can be spun as downright virtuous.

That’s what it can look like, but as much as these identities promise us meaning and fulfillment, they never deliver. Jankovic wants us to understand we were made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Our identity is in Christ. We were made to worship. That’s our identity: God worshippers. And His people give Him glory by doing the good works that He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10).

Does that mean folding laundry is the key to pleasing God? Well, God might be calling you to get at that pile of clothes and, if so, then you should obey. Then that is how you can glorify Him. But the kids' homework might be a more important priority, and then that unfolded pile can also glorify God as you, in loving obedience, help with homework instead.

I am not a mom or a wife, but this book was a help to me too. There wasn't all that much in here that I didn't already know but it served as a much-needed reminder that I am not what I do. I’m at that stage of life where joints are giving out, and it’s more obvious now than it has ever been that I am no athlete. Before I read You Who? that was getting me down. But there is joy to be found when, instead of finding my identity in my athletic ability (or lack thereof) I bow my knee and ask my God and King, “How can I honor You?” When I make Him my focus, then it turns out I’m still able to throw a ball far enough to play with the three kids God has given me to raise and nurture. I can't glorify myself anymore in my athletic endeavors, but in playing with the kids He's given me, it turns out I can glorify Him. I can still, in this way, do what I was made to do. And instead of being depressed at being able to do less, I can be content knowing God isn’t concerned with the declining volume of my output.

But, as Jankovic notes, He does demand everything I have to give. If that sounds like a lot, of course, it is. Jankovic emphasizes obeying God in the day-to-day grind, making every moment about Him. We're not going to succeed at that, but when we understand what Christ has done for us, and how we are His, then we will want to try. And in trying, we will glorify Him. In failing we will also glorify Him. And we can glorify him, too, in repenting and then, secure in what Christ has done for us on the cross, going to bed assured of forgiveness and getting ready to do it all over again tomorrow.

If I’m not making this sounds exciting, then that’s a good reason for you to pick up You Who? where Rachel Jankovic says it a lot better. And if you are excited, well, what are you waiting for? You're going to love You Who?

I’d recommend it for any study group, women or men, and if your group is interested, then be sure to check out the study group e-book that you can download for free here.