Tuesday, December 25, 2007

eight to remember

I enjoy reading. Here are my highlights from 2007 (in no particular order)...

1. William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: the fall of a dynasty, Delhi 1857 (Bloomsbury, 2006)

Having been based in Delhi from aged 10-17, I consider myself a Delhi-wallah (belonging-to-Delhi) and so does Dalrymple: Delhi is "a city that has haunted and obsessed me for over two decades" (6); "of the great cities of the world, only Rome, Istanbul, and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains" (8); during a six hundred year period climaxing with the 18th century, "Delhi had been the greatest city between Constantinople and Canton" (8); "sometimes it seems as if no other great city of the world is less loved, or less cared for" (24).
Fed by that passion and his supreme skill as an historian-writer Dalyrymple tells the story of the fall of the Mughal Empire (which gave us things like the Taj Mahal) and how the final emperor left the city in a bullock cart, heading for exile in Rangoon - having watched the easy relationship between Briton and Indian descend into hatreds and racisms ... and lead to "the most serious armed challenge to imperialism the world over during the course of the nineteenth century" (21).

2. Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace (Monarch, 2007)

Yes, the movie was staggering. I've seen it five times (and counting!). The scenes with John Newton in them impact me as much as any I have seen on the silver screen. Rarely have the spiritual and social implications of the gospel hit me with such force at the very same time.
And then a book to accompany the movie? Surely this is just a commercial gimmick? No! The book allows the timeline of Wilberforce's life to be opened and extended. I gained a new appreciation for his conversion experience ... for the way Wilberforce was the natural outcome of Wesley and Whitefield in an Ephesians 2:8-10 kind of way ... for his prevailing persistence and then the way he lived his final days poor and destitute. The book is so good I bought a copy for each one of my children. The world needs another generation of Wilberforces.

3. Christopher JH Wright, The Mission of God: unlocking the Bible's grand narrative (IVP, 2006)

This is one for the ages. After a slowish start to the book, I began to savour it page by page. Chris makes a case not so much for the biblical basis of mission but for the missional basis of the Bible: "The whole Bible renders to us the story of God's mission through God's people in their engagement with God's world for the sake of the whole of God's creation (51) ... The mission is God's. The marvel is that God invites us to join in" (67). As he is an Old Testament scholar I love the way he lingers there, valuing the ongoing contribution of Exodus, of the Jubilee, of covenants while also deepening our understanding of things like idolatry and holiness. Along the way he sees Genesis 12:1-3 as the first Great Commission. He concludes that "election is missional in its purpose ... God so loved the world that he chose Israel" (329). There is time to reflect on our care for creation (afterall "there is nowhere we can step off his property" (403) ); on the image of God and how it relates to the HIV/AIDS crisis ... it is just a wonderfully satisfying book for those who want to embrace the full gospel for all the nations.

4. Pete Hammond, Lessons, Prayers & Scriptures on the Faith Journey... (InterVarsity/USA Marketplace, 2007)

Pete has been one of the gurus in the faith-at-work movement around the world, affirming the place of God's call to places and people beyond just the gathered church context. In fact it is he who articulates church as both 'gathered' and 'scattered' (categories which I just love to use). He edited the WordinLife Study Bible. This little book is just as the title says - a collection of pieces drawn from his life and experience. There is wisdom here. There is tenderness and warmth. There is deep, deep spirituality. It is personal. It is counter-cultural. I do fear that its circulation will be more limited and that would be such a shame. Knock the InterVarsity (USA) door down until you get your copy! We do have one copy in the Carey Baptist College library.

5. Lorraine Moller, On the Wings of Mercury (Longacre, 2007)

I try to discipline myself to read biographies of people unlike me so that my understanding of people is always broadening. This was a good choice! I read it in two days. Just rivetting. Moller may be a famous NZ marathon runner, but she is also a remarkable writer ("Puberty was invented to humiliate humans" 48). What a mastery of metaphor (running as if "molten lead was seeping out of my shoes" 92). The opening pages on her health/family difficulties as a child - and how this served to stain so much of her life - contain such honesty and insight. There is then this rawness to the book. She stumbles into abusive relationships with men. She is drawn to odd spiritualities (with Mercury taking on a God-like identity in the story). She is so open about her angers and jealousies and griefs. She even talks about having a nose-job to correct a lifelong sensitivity about having a Big Nose as a child. There is a lost-ness in the story that provoked a sadness in me.

6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: a discussion of Christian fellowship (Harper & Row, 1954)

This is not much more than booklet - but how could I have missed it for all these years? The way it speaks from beyond our own time into our own time with such prophetic clarity and relevance is striking. We talk about it so much today - but what does authentic Christian community actually look like? Read the book (in a matter of 3-5hrs) with its chapters on Community, The Day With Others, The Day Alone, Ministry, Confession and Communion. Our annual Carey Staff Retreat in February will be built partly around an open and creative engagement with this little book.

7. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: practices that transform us (IVP, 2005)

In the embrace of spirituality - particularly the rediscovery by evangelicals of the richness in the Catholic heritage - something has been lost as well as gained. Calhoun corrects some of this by accumulating a full range of spiritual practises under the following headings: Worship, Open Myself to God, Relinquish the False Self, Share My Life With Others, Hear God's Word, Incarnate the Love of Christ, Prayer... In doing so she'll make room for the practice of PrayerLabyrinth but not let go of something like Bible Memorization, on her way to outlining 55 practices in way that makes it easy and clear to engage them. There is balance here. There is fullness here. I made it 'required reading' for a Spirituality class in 2007 as we made some effort to have a class blog by which to measure our progress through the book together. I think it now replaces the works of Richard Foster as the starting point for engaging the spiritual disciplines.

8. Manfred Kets De Vries, The Leadership Mystique (Pearson Education, 2001)

Don't we become a bit intoxicated with leadership-talk today? There can be a bit of a cult of leadership which develops. It almost becomes its own gospel. This book restrained me in 2007. In exploring the ‘inner theatre’, the unseen world that drives so much of what is seen in our behaviour, I encountered new perspectives on failure, change, dysfunction, transference, neuroses, and competency. Even the irrational has a rationale! And with the abundance of interactive exercises/quizzes designed to strengthen my self-awareness, there is no option but to progress in these areas. "People in positions of authority have an uncanny ability to reawaken transferential processes in themselves and others." (87) This makes leadership a lot trickier than it may seem. I'd rate this to be the most impacting book I have read on leadership in a decade.

I had some disappointments along the way in 2007. People I love and whom I like to draw alongside have recommended Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz and Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis to me (I love Bell's nooma stuff). However it does worry me that I could not stick with either of these books through to the end - particularly when so many find them to be so resonant with their own stories of walking with Jesus. I fear I might be losing touch with the key issues that people are facing.

nice chatting - for one final time in 2007!


Sunday, December 16, 2007

christian tv

I have just come from my TV.

A few weeks ago I discovered Christian programmes running on four different channels all at the same time. I lingered with each one for awhile. I moved on to the next one. But each time my response was the same - sad, to the point of grief.
My own growing conviction (happy to be proven wrong by any who can convince me!) is that while testimonies can be uncovered of the good that is being done through this approach, I bet no one is collecting anecdotes of the harm being done. On balance I ask aloud if more harm than good is being done to the cause of Christ through this medium at this time?

My grief had one of three causes (not always at one time, thankfully):

One is the enormous financial costs being expended on this programming. Is this the best use of God's resources - particularly when it is possible to choose from one among four? So much is so slick and so glitzy.

Two is the lack of faithfulness to the biblical gospel in all its fullness and balance and challenge. So much is so shoddy theologically. Sometimes I shudder to think that a random channel-surfer might pause to watch just what it is that I am watching.

Three is the cultural irrelevance of so much of what is viewed. Like the guy whose pulpit looked like a castle the other day. What?! He certainly isn't guilty of #2 - but gee, is he relevant to NZ society?! The Pacific Ocean is far wider than people realise.

[I am writing all this because there is a very big BUT coming ... here it comes]

BUT I have just watched the end of Shore Community Church's production at 8:30am on PRIME on Sundays. www.connectionresources.org.nz [the new site for www.shore.org.nz]
It is not the first time I have watched. And yet again I was impressed by the simplicity of the production, the biblical faithfulness of the message from Reuben Munn (I caught the last few minutes of a series on Hebrews), and the sheer cultural relevance of watching something that is authentically Kiwi. I was stirred deeply in my following of Jesus.

I hope that all those for whom Christian TV is a lifeline to God's Word each week will be tuning-in next week. The rest of you should be connecting with a local community of God's people :) - which is what I am rushing out the door to do right now.

nice chatting


Monday, December 10, 2007

the year of living biblically

This title caught my eye on the new book shelf at Borders. Check out the subtitle: "one man's humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible" (William Heinemann, 2007). A.J. Jacobs - an agnostic, or non-believer - sets aside a year to follow the 700+ rules in the Bible as literally as is possible, allowing them to impact "the way I talk, walk, eat, bathe, dress, and hug my wife" (8). Intriguing!

I was surprised
The cynicism which I expected did not eventuate. Even th0ugh he finishes the year as a "reverent agnostic" (329) he does benefit from the yearlong experience. It is easy to warm to his story. He is so open. He finds value in the rituals and the repetition as he goes in search of "the meaning beyond the wierdness" (87). He reaches a point where he can say "I no longer dread prayer" (94). Elsewhere he claims that "I feel more connected ... My life is more significant" (107). At times "the entire world takes on a glow of sacredness" (153). He is not trying to be destructive. There is some honest humble searching going on here.

Plus a lot of wisdom spills out as he writes - and not just from the spiritual advisors with whom he surrounds himself (including the 'pastor out to pasture', the Rev Elton Richards). I value his insight about speech: "the less I vocalise my negative thoughts, the fewer negative thoughts I cook up in the first place" (157).
I loved his appreciation of the prophets and Ecclesiastes - "I feel the thrill of recognizing thoughts that I have had myself, but that I've never been able to capture in such beautiful language" (114) - two of my own favourite rest areas in the Bible.
What about the usefulness of intercessory prayer? "It's ten minutes where it's impossible to be self-centered." (128) ... or, the wisdom contained in "stop looking at the Bible as a self-help book" (208).

Yes, I was surprised!

I was humoured
The guy writes so well ... and with a few laughs along the way.
As he struggles to shut down for a Sabbath he is feeling stressed: "the outside world is speeding along without me. Emails are being answered. Lattes are being sipped. George Bush's childhood friends are being appointed to high-level positions" (124).
On capital punishment in the Hebrew scriptures? "Think Saudi Arabia, multiply by Texas, then triple that" (92).
On living Israel's food laws in their pagan world: "they were marking their territory with menus" (170).
Or take his visit to Jerry Falwell's church or to Amish country or Israel.

Tracking alongside his year in the Bible is his commentary on life with his wife Julie and son Jaspar (and the growth of his own beard!). Part way through the book Julie becomes pregnant with IVF-assisted twins, a procedure having its own humour (like asking for pen marks to be put on his wife's but so that he knows where to put the needle) - as does the section on the dilemma of avoiding contact with a woman (ie Julie!) having her period near the beginning of the book and the decisions about circumcision when twin boys eventually are born near the end.

Yes, I was humoured!

I was frustrated
With an eye on the way the Bible is handled, Jacobs divides the Christian world into two sections. There are the fundamentalists. For them "the Bible emerged from God's oven like a fully baked cake ... God sat behind His big oak desk in heaven and dictated the words verbatim to a bunch of flawless secretaries" (200-201). Here is where biblical literalism is practised. Then there are the liberals - a word Jacobs does not use but still describes his position well enough: "the Bible has evolved, like humans themeselves. Like a Wikipedia entry" (201). He writes of a "cafeteria Christianity" where you pick and choose what you like form the biblical buffet - a position which he considers to be unavoidable by both sections.

I do beg to differ. There is another approach. Sadly the bibliography suggests that this was never really engaged - as it rarely is by people writing from Jacobs' perspective.
One where the 'literal' word is seen to be unhelpful.
One where you hold an ancient text at a distance before you bring it close.
One where issues like reading texts within their historical and literary contexts is the way to uncover their natural and plain sense.
One where a text's genre - and there are a dozen separate ones in the Bible - plays a decisive role in unpacking the meaning.
One where across the many authors and many centuries covered in the biblical text, a single story from a single divine author is discovered and any one bit is interpreted then in light of this whole bit.
One where oak tables and secretaries are dismissed in favour of fully human authors being fully inspired by God.
One where the New Testament does not feel like an afterthought (as it does in Jacobs' book) but the very fulfillment of the Old Testament, with passages like Jesus on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and Jesus in the book of Hebrews (which doesn't rate even a mention) leading the way.
One where the Bible is not seen to be an exhaustive encyclopedia of all there is to know and do, but a sufficient guidebook that sets up a trajectory of wisdom which we follow on into the challenges of today.

Yes, I do find this frustrating.

A.J. Jacobs has done what is so common today. He has deleted this third option. This option doesn't take all the problems away. But gee, I find it provides me with a compelling vision and feeds my sincere intent to aim at living my whole life biblically and not just a single year.

nice chatting

Paul Windsor