Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wonder - Michael W. Smith

Still creating wonder

Artist: Michael W. Smith (http://www.michaelwsmith.com/)
Label: Provident Label Group
Length: 12 songs/53:54 minutes

Michael W. Smith’s Wonder, his 22nd album, combines the best elements of his recent releases: passionate worship, heartfelt pop and a touch of classical and orchestral arrangements (a la Freedom).

The opening song and first single, “Save Me From Myself,” makes it clear that this is not a praise and worship recording. It blasts from the start with a massive guitar-driven sound. The three songs that follow, however, are on par with his recent praise-oriented recordings. The downside is that the atmospheric, arena rock sound, common to artists like Hillsong, has become almost too prevalent.

Smith gets more personal on “Forever Yours” and “You Belong to Me,” which are beautifully penned and performed odes to Smith’s wife Debbie. The former is similar in content to “I Will Be Here” by Steven Curtis Chapman. Both highlight fidelity to one’s spouse. They also feature Smith’s piano playing, always a delight to hear, and his proficiency as an arranger.

“Welcome Home” wonderfully balances the grief of losing someone with the joy of knowing that they have entered their rest. The lovely melody keeps this from being overly melancholy, which makes this an ideal song for a memorial or funeral service. It exudes hope in sadness.

The title track is a whirlwind of synthesizer-led pop holding forth God’s nearness and all-sufficiency. This and many of the songs convey encouragement while acknowledging harsh realities. “I think this record can bring healing,” Smith said in an interview with Charisma. “Times are tough, and I personally believe it’s a record for our time.”

This is especially true on “One More Time” where affirming words float on a bubbling melody. Smith comes along side saying, keep on reaching … keep on moving.

At first “Leave” is like the dark side of one of the Psalms. The instrumentation is sparse, a lone acoustic guitar helping to paint a bleak picture. A young person struggles with abuse at home. If that isn’t bad enough, outsiders give conflicting advice including, Why don’t you just kill yourself? It’s from that place of brokenness that he reaches upward for help, hoping and then believing that God is there. Because it’s so different, it may be my favorite.

This recording is one of the first to use a new technology that allows songs to be cut direct to tape instead of digital, providing additional warmth and depth. “Sonically I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Smith said.

The album closes with “Take Me Over” a worshipful orchestral pop tune.

Smith’s skill as a music composer (his greatest strength) is what impressed me from the earliest days of his career. Even though he is somewhat constrained by the limitations of pop and praise songs, his brilliance still shines through. Smith’s creative flourishes keep me listening.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas on Highway 101 DVD - Highway 101

Excellent country versions of classic Christmas songs

Christmas on Highway 101 DVD
Artist: Highway 101
Uptone Pictures and Pure Flix Entertainment (www.pureflix.com/highway101)
Running time: Approximately one hour

Christmas on Highway 101 by the country music group Highway 101 features excellent pop renditions of classic and inspirational Christmas songs. These are highly accessible versions of “Joy to the World,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Deck the Halls,” “O Holy Night,” “Six Gold Coins,” “Away in a Manger,” “Let it Snow,” “We Three Kings,” and “Jingle Bells.”

This production has the band miming studio recordings at the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, North Carolina. The only exception is a brief live version of “Let it Snow” performed around a piano. “Six Gold Coins” is an original song that tells a story, which is fleshed-out by actors in a music video. The setting for the other songs is the lodge, which is beautifully decorated with lights, trees and ornamentation.

In between the songs, band members share brief and humorous Christmas recollections. Old home movies and scenes of Christmas lights are also woven into the stories. The tone is upbeat throughout. The band members are relaxed and clearly enjoying the opportunity to do this project.

The studio recordings sound superb, but watching the band perform to the tracks can be slightly distracting if you notice any syncing that is off. It’s well-done, but I wonder if playing the songs live would have been better.

The content does not delve much into the spiritual side of the holiday aside from the songs, which speak for themselves. It’s definitely family-friendly, suitable for all ages.

Wynonna Judd makes a curious cameo (she is seen for just a few seconds) and does not sing.

Highway 101 has been together for over 22 years, winning two CMA Awards and two ACM Awards for Vocal Group of the Year along the way. They have been on Billboard’s Country Chart more than 15 times. Best of all, they make these Christmas songs instantly likeable with a country flavor that sounds fresh.

A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions

Discovering truth in a university setting

A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions (http://www.veritas.org/)
Editor: Dallas Willard
Publisher: IVP Books (books.ivpress.com)
Pages: 326

Despite all the advances in knowledge, universities, with their reliance on science, at best deal uncomfortably with questions about truth and meaning. In 1992, inspired by Harvard’s motto, Veritas (truth), a small group of Harvard Christians led by Chaplain Kelly Monroe hosted a weekend of lectures and discussions at the university that explored some of life’s most important questions. That first Veritas Forum was the impetus for more than 100 universities in the US, Canada, the UK, France, and the Netherlands for holding their own forums.

Being hosted by Christians, their purpose, as summarized in part of their mission statement, is no surprise: “We seek to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ.”

The book features presentations on a range of topics from leading Christian thinkers with varied backgrounds. The late Richard John Neuhaus, Os Guinness, Timothy J. Keller, Alister McGrath, Hugh Ross, N. T. Wright, Dallas Willard and Ronald J. Sider are among the contributors. Each chapter identifies the forum location, date, subject and speaker(s). Sometimes the format is a debate that provides a Christian and a secular position. Pete Singer represents the latter in debating, “Does Atheism or Theism Provide the Best Foundation for Human Worth and Mortality?”

This volume brings together the best Veritas lectures. It’s a delight to read such highly developed and civil arguments. Non-Christians open to a faith perspective will most likely appreciate the winsome tone and the thoughtful basis for Christian conviction. Since the presenters were addressing general audiences, the material in most cases is easy to follow and not too technical.

The openness and frankness is astonishing. Where else in our society can you find this kind of dialog? It’s a shame that rational discussion about these topics is generally not tolerated in public settings.

The Veritas Forums are obviously meeting a need in our culture that secular institutions are unwilling or unable to address. The campuses serving as hosts deserve credit for facilitating these valuable events.

Some of the speakers include their personal stories of conversion, which provides context for their thought. One of the more dramatic is given by Mary Poplin in her talk, “Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Social Justice.” Her quest for meaning led her to India to work alongside Mother Teresa. What this radical professor learned gave her the desire to become a Christian.

One may not agree with all of the ideas. Francis Collins supports a non-literal reading of Genesis in his attempts to reconcile creation and science. Ronald J. Sider’s holistic approach to the gospel is a challenge to find the right balance between evangelism and social action. Regardless of one’s persuasion, communication of the logic and reasoning behind the various views makes this rewarding.

Pilate famously said to Jesus, “What is truth?” However he may have meant it, this book is an excellent resource for wrestling with that question and all its implications. More often than not, it succeeds in pointing the way toward personal discovery.

Might this book even encourage a love of the truth? That is something that all can aspire to gain. If this book like the forums that it represents nurtures that in the hearts of readers, it will provide a valuable service.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bethlehem Skyline 2 - Various Centricity Music artists

Some great new Christmas songs

Bethlehem Skyline 2
Various Centricity Music artists
Label: Centricity Music (http://www.centricitymusic.com/site/)
Length: 14 tracks/53:47 minutes

Bethlehem Skyline 2 is worth having for the new Christmas songs created by a variety of Centricity Music artists. This is a follow-up to the original Bethlehem Skyline (2006).

With the exception of High Valley and Andrew Peterson, who each contribute one track to this CD, the other artists have two songs: a traditional Christmas song and an original composition.

The best cover is “Away in a Manger” by High Valley. The country trio fill it with warm acoustic sounds that include a Dobro. How can you not like a song with Dobro?

My favorite original is Andrew Peterson’s folksy “Long, Long Ago.” Of course, I might be a bit biased since Peterson is one of my favorites.

“Starving Artist Christmas” by Lanae’ Hale may be the best written humorous Christmas song that I have ever heard. The Downhere songs are two of the best from How Many Kings: Songs for Christmas (2009). All of the other songs appear to be unique to this release.

Me in Motion’s opening “Give It Away” is terrific. It exudes the same vitality and creativity heard on their self-titled release. Expect to hear more from this band.

Jason Gray’s “Love Has a Name” is another winner for him. He is a recent discovery for me and continues to be a favorite. I think highly of the entire Centricity roster. It’s hard to lose on one of their releases.

The covers are good but don’t move me like the new songs. The latter are so well-done, I would have enjoyed an album of all originals, but I recognize what a challenge it is for the artist. They all deserve credit for creating such great new songs.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture - Tim Muehlhoff and Todd V. Lewis

Integrating biblical truth with communication theories

Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture
Authors: Tim Muehlhoff and Todd V. Lewis
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 219

Authentic Communication by Tim Muehlhoff and Todd V. Lewis is written for students majoring in communication studies, but it has something to offer to any Christian interested in the subject.

This book is part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series, which is designed to show how Christian convictions relate to the issues and ideas in a college major, career or the culture at large. The authors admirably demonstrate how biblical concepts and communication theories can work together to produce a more effective witness.

One need not look past the Series Preface, written by Francis J. Beckwith and J. P. Moreland, to find practical applications. One point that has largely been overlooked in our day is the value of Christians becoming familiar with subjects outside of the Bible. The editors reference an address by John Wesley, who admonished ministers to know logic, metaphysics, natural theology, geometry and the ideas of important figures in the history of philosophy. Wesley saw that study in these areas (especially philosophy and geometry) sharpens the mind to think precisely, which is a great asset for theology and Scripture. He saw it as a means of growth and maturity, recognizing that we can learn from those who are outside the faith.

Part one of the book deals with components: definitions, perspective taking, the use of words, and the art of persuasion. One of the key points of this section is summarized in a chapter conclusion: “If the term Christian was originally intended to mean ‘little Christ,’ then perhaps we should ask God to make us into the kinds of people who sound and act more like Christ, and less like highly predictable pseudosaviors with our own selfish motives driving our persuasion efforts. I’d love for someone to say to me, ‘He sounds like he’s been with Jesus!’ ”

Part two focuses on application. It begins with an excellent Christian perspective of conflict management. Here, and elsewhere, the reader may occasionally long for greater depth, but that is outside the scope of this introductory study. On the plus side, the book does provide a broad overview of each area with sufficient detail and analysis. A chapter on communicating forgiveness follows.

The remainder of the book is the most stimulating. These chapters touch on how Christians should relate to popular culture. The authors summarize the basic premise: “We must guard against merely copying secular social networks for Christian fellowship. Instead we should embrace the more difficult task of engaging the popular culture with our faith-driven worldviews offered in reasonable and civil responses.”

The authors use William Wilberforce to introduce the idea of a counterpublic, who work to change the publics’ perception. “Counterpublics operate within mainstream culture to challenge the dominant culture’s understanding of their beliefs and the message they advance.” Beginning in the late 1700s, Wilberforce worked hard to change political and public opinion leading to the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire. Against the idea of being “treasonous revolutionaries,” Wilberforce portrayed abolitionists as “reformers who wanted to help the existing government be righteous in the eyes of God.”

A crucial point, one which has applicability to other disciplines, is made by media-ethics scholar Clifford Christians, “Unless we come to grips with our field’s core – its intellectual life – our impact will be partial and ineffective…. We need a powerful stream of Christian thinking that academia as a whole cannot ignore.” This is reinforced by a thought from C. S. Lewis when he writes that what “we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.” This is what this book and others in the series are trying to foster – integrating biblical scholarship with the finest academic knowledge of our day.

One example is found in the second to the last chapter, “Abnormal Communication.” It addresses the following questions: “Is there a communication strategy we can employ that would bring honor to Christ? Specifically, what do we do when encountering people who not only disagree with us but are hostile?” Christians are guilty of adopting the adversarial tactics of our culture. This continues degenerative communication spirals and hardens opponents in their position. Philosopher Richard Rorty identifies what we need as abnormal discourse. This occurs when someone entering a discourse is unaware of established patterns of communication or deliberately chooses to set them aside. One form of this places “dialogic civility over conquest.” The authors provide biblical examples using Jesus, Paul and Peter. “The end result may not be agreement, but it will at least be respect and civility – a communication goal highly valued by the writers of these ancient proverbs.”

The book closes with the chapter, “Social Justice: Speaking for the Marginalized.”

This is an excellent primer, integrating biblical truth and communication theories.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ancient Christian Texts: Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus imperfectum)

Early commentator gets voice at the table

Ancient Christian Texts: Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus imperfectum)
Author: Kellerman, James A. (Translator and Author of Introduction and Notes)
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 213

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,” writes G. K. Chesterton in this well-known quotation from Orthodoxy. What the Ancient Christian Texts commentary series does is bring classic Christian writings to the table so that they too have a voice in the exposition and application of Scripture.

Like the unknown author of this incomplete commentary on Matthew, who was steeped in an early exegetical tradition, their style and content differ from modern commentators. They see things that those of us who are walking around might miss.

That’s not to say that this particular volume doesn’t have its deficiencies. It’s missing Matthew 8:14-10:15, 14-18 and 26-28. The text consists of 27 homilies covering the balance of the passages and an index.

Theologically, the author has “one of the milder forms of Arianism that survived in the fifth century.” A handful of passages reflect the author’s understanding that the Son is inferior to the Father. The author also has views that have been characterized as Pelagianism, but may be more indicative of an asceticism that may seem Pelagian. The translator explains it like this: “holiness and sanctification receive far more attention than grace and forgiveness, and there is a greater emphasis on the power of the human will to resist evil and to choose good.”

Marriage is seen as something that “ceases to be sin, nonetheless it does not deserve to be called righteousness.” The commentator believes that Joseph never knew Mary after Jesus was born, “Joseph saw that she remained a virgin after her birth…. But after he (Joseph) learned that she had been made the temple of the only-begotten God, how could he have taken possession of this temple?” The attentive reader will encounter other questionable thought. Additionally, some of the allegories are tedious.

Like the previous commentary that I read in this series, what makes this worth reading are the devotional insights, which obviously stem from the devout lifestyle of the commentator. He lifts up a standard of holiness that is challenging. There is much that edifies.

It springs from the author’s practical orientation. This is highlighted in his views on teaching: “Teaching was invented not so much for the sake of revealing obscure matters as much as for the sake of stirring up the heart and spirit…. Let him who teaches be an example of his own words so that he might teach more by his actions than by his speech, as the apostle said to Timothy, ‘Set the believer an example.’”

His devout outlook also lends beauty to his writing: “When the sun is getting near its rising point, before it appears, it sends out its rays and makes the east grow light, that the dawn that goes before it may show the coming of the day. So when the Lord was born into the world, before he appeared, he illumined John (the Baptist) by imparting the splendor of his Spirit to him, that he might go before him and announce the coming of the Savior …”

Rather than read this like a book, which can be wearisome, it’s better to use this as a resource to supplement your own study of Matthew. If one’s heart is focused on what can be gleaned, you can easily pass over the chaff to find what will be beneficial.

The ancients still speak and their voice is still heard. It will be worthwhile to have all the volumes in this series.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Caught-up in a wave of worship

A Beautiful Exchange
Artist: Hillsong Live
Label: Sparrow
Length: 13 tracks/75:14 minutes

A friend who has been a fan of Hillsong Live recordings expressed his disappointment that recent ones seemed to feature Darlene Zschech a little less than earlier recordings. On A Beautiful Exchange she leads two songs (“Greatness of Our God” and “Believe”), which are among the best on this release.

The reason why she isn’t spotlighted more may be twofold: the presence of equally-talented songleaders (they deserve an opportunity to use their gifts), and perhaps the desire to keep the focus on God rather than any one person, since this series is all about worshipping Him.

The male vocalists lead songs that have more of a rock edge, and the more that I listened, the better the songs sounded. The rock never gets too heavy, which gives this broad appeal. The songs are often atmospheric and anthem-like, building to a crescendo like a cresting wave, receding and sometimes coming back again.

Brooke Fraser takes the lead on “Like Incense/Sometimes by Step,” which combines poetic stanzas with the familiar chorus written by Beaker and recorded by Rich Mullins. Here and periodically it’s great to hear the voices of all those in attendance. It’s an exhilarating experience to be surrounded by thousands of people worshipping God in song. Aside from the CD, you can share these moments by picking up the DVD release of this title. I did not have a copy to review, but judging from past DVDs, it’s the next best thing to being there.

After so many CD and DVD releases over the years, what works against Hillsong is that their songs tend to be similar-sounding. The mix can also be a little muddy because it’s live, and there are multiple musicians playing similar instruments. The radio version of “Forever Reign,” a studio cut, at the end is a pleasant change-up, even if it lacks some of the energy of the live version.

In writing new songs, there is always the danger of inadvertently using clich├ęs that creep in here and there. Hopefully, Hillsong will rise to the challenge of drawing on those fresh springs of inspiration. It’s not that they don’t do it here; I like what they have done, but I hope they can somehow reinvent themselves a little in the future.

I give them credit for continuing to modernize their sound in small ways (compare this with past releases), and they may do live worship as well as any. Fans won’t be disappointed.

As long as you are not adverse to contemporary styles, it’s hard to listen to this and not feel the spirit of praise.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Counting Stars - Andrew Peterson

Lost in wonder at these stars

Counting Stars
Artist: Andrew Peterson (http://www.andrew-peterson.com/)
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 12 tracks/43:44 minutes

I am a huge fan of Andrew Peterson, having almost all of his releases. Counting Stars may be his best yet and my personal favorite. What is somewhat surprising is that this is a little more acoustic and folksy than some of his recent recordings that were more rock oriented. For those who favor the latter, and want to hear Peterson cut loose, this could be a slight disappointment as the songs tend to be mellower.

The two songs that are driving, “You Came So Close” and “The Reckoning (How Long)” differ stylistically from the others in that they employ more electronic sounds and percussion. They almost don’t fit, but they do provide contrast.

Most of the songs are mid-tempo and are awash in beautiful acoustic sounds. “The Magic Hour” and “Isle of Skye” are piano-driven and bathed in minimal but gorgeous accompaniment. Perhaps Peterson was signaling this intention with the opening “Many Roads,” which starts with nothing but strings.

That’s not to say that this is sparse. Produced by Ben Shive with Andy Gullahorn, who also perform on piano (Shive) and guitar (Gullahorn), there is a rich blend of sounds. The prevalence of warm acoustic tones gives this a timeless quality.

Peterson’s songwriting is as good as ever. It’s interesting that though there are no songs written specifically for “praise and worship,” this leads me to such a peaceful place that I want to look up in wonder at the stars that are too numerous to count. The lyrics are mature and poetic communicating hope and encouragement. As he typically does, Andrew weaves thoughts and stories about family life together with lofty spiritual themes.

On “World Traveler” he surprises with lines about a personal journey, “I walked the hills of the human soul, a tender girl / I’m a world traveler /She opened the gate and took my hand, led me into the mystic land where galaxies swirl / So many mysteries I never will unravel / I want to travel the world.”

His first music video, something he promised himself that he would never do, also pays tribute to his wife. Peterson said he gets emotional every time he sees the older couples dancing in “Dancing in the Minefields.” You can watch the YouTube video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtTa81LyuQM&feature=related. It’s so well done that I hope he does this again.

I’m sure that a lot of work went into this, but the flow makes this feel like this is more than just Peterson striving to come up with something. The Psalmist reminds us that “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1a ESV). God must have had a hand in this because Peterson’s labor has not been in vain. It has little of the edginess heard in some previous work, but that’s part of what makes this so inviting. God’s peace runs through it like a river. This is a masterpiece of folk, pop and spiritual reflection.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

An artistic triumph

In Feast or Fallow
Artist: Sandra McCracken (http://www.sandramccracken.com/)
Label: Independent
Length: 15 tracks/53:39 minutes

On In Feast or Fallow, Sandra McCracken makes hymns sound old and new. The lyrics could come out of any hymnbook, though all but one, “Faith’s Review and Expectation (Amazing Grace),” are not the familiar ones so often covered. The production and electronic sounds (particularly various keyboards) give the basic acoustic instrumentation an alternative feel that is rooted in the past but also has a modern sensibility. It’s a taste of Americana with a contemporary flavor.

It’s a masterful and unique blend that combines the talents of McCracken and husband Derek Webb. The latter makes his presence known as producer and provider of back-up support without ever being intrusive. This is one of their finest moments both individually and as a couple.

This overflows with creativity. Listeners may scratch their heads wondering how a particular sound was produced. Webb’s studio wizardry provides a quirky blend of retro and slightly off-kilter sounds. Diverse notes take their place without jostling each other or thinking it strange that they occupy the same place. They harmonize to create a sound that is both earthy and spiritual.

The music is both sparse and richly textured. It’s a tapestry of sound worthy for such eloquent compositions.

This is not a run-of-the-mill hymns recording. It’s probably not for those who just want conservative, straightforward renderings. However, those who appreciate the way an artist can create as she sees it will want to give this a try.

The opening “Petition” is a precursor of things to come. It starts with an intro, a common element on this CD, consisting of spindly synthesized sounds that seemingly bounce off the walls. Simple piano chords kick-in as McCracken begins to sing. It builds with layers of sound.

As she sings, “You raise your hand to still the storms / that rage inside my head /Revive my heart with gratitude /Love quell my doubt and dread,” the only music you hear are the warm tones of an electric guitar. The rest of the music returns like a welcome friend on the chorus.

The layers go beyond the music. The words here and throughout this release plumb the depths of theology in a way seldom heard outside of hymns.

One of the more driving songs, “Justice Will Roll Down,” with its memorable chorus and vision of equity will most likely be a favorite of many. The title song, another standout, is a folk anthem with multiple vocalists.

This is one of the best and most artistic hymn recordings ever conceived. McCracken’s previous hymn effort, The Builder and the Architect, is also excellent and worth having.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

I Have a Song - Shannon Wexelberg

Encouragement wrapped in hope

I Have a Song
Artist: Shannon Wexelberg (http://www.shannonwexelberg.com/)
Label: Discovery House Music (www.dhp.org/music)
Length: 11 tracks/58:38 minutes

On “Jehovah Shalom” Shannon Wexelberg sings, “In the darkness Your presence wraps around me / Like a blanket of rest that covers me.” It’s a comforting thought, one of many on I Have a Song. The Biblical worldview, winsome melodies and inspirational pop provide powerful consolation.

It springs from a season of suffering. When Wexelberg began writing in the spring of 2009 (aside from a few hymns she writes all the songs), her husband had just started to recover from a terrible motorcycle accident in which he broke 23 bones and endured three major surgeries. As she applied the finishing touches in early 2010, a devastating earthquake struck Haiti on January 12th. As she pondered these events, she could not escape a bigger reality; God is faithful and full of love. Even in tragedy there is hope. There is music. There is song.

The title track epitomizes this release. The music is basic and highly accessible, tending toward adult contemporary and inspirational. The words have depth and restrained production makes them stand out. Wexelberg is blessed with a voice capable of a gentle caress or belting-out an anthem. The song ends with a stanza from “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

The CD includes a few hymn interludes and a complete version of “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” As pleasant as these are, she shines brightest on her own material. The songwriting is excellent. “Becoming” is a stripped-down, keyboard affair that conveys a longing to be like Christ in every way. You can feel the tenderness and intimacy.

Songs with faster tempos have a fuller sound and a hint of edginess. “Boundless” rocks! It’s the kind of song that makes you want to stand and pump your fist in the air. It’s a victorious declaration of the lack of limits to God’s love.

Wexelberg varies the styles and hits the mark each time. Typical of the publisher, this strikes a cautious but wholesome balance between ministry and relevance. Discovery House Publishers is known for products that feed the soul, and this is no exception. It’s a triumph for publisher and artist.

Friday, September 17, 2010

God of the Impossible - Sarah Reeves

A bright light on the horizon

God of the Impossible – EP
Artist: Sarah Reeves (http://sarahreeves.sparrowrecords.com/)
Label: Sparrow Records
Length: 3 tracks/12:10 minutes

In the firmament of praise and worship, Sarah Reeves is a bright light on the horizon. Atmospheric guitars fill the soundscape. Poetic imagery frames her importunity. One moment she leads a chorus of adoration; the next she stands in the gap as an intercessor.

On “Father’s Prayer,” she turns the prayer that Jesus taught into a compelling chorus. “God of the Impossible” puts into perspective God’s awesomeness: “My biggest storm, a drop of rain. My raging fire, a candle flame. My deepest ocean is like a puddle at your feet.” Even more amazing, He turns our brokenness into beauty.

With only three tracks, this leaves you wanting more. Reeves has yet to have a full-length release, but she has earned it with this EP and a previous one.

If her lyrics and thoughts are any indication, Reeves heart is undivided: “I love my Jesus and all I want to do is serve Him and make Him famous.” She wants to lead young people into a lifestyle of praise and worship. Despite being young, she is well on her way, sharing stages with some of the best in this genre.

Reeves is one of the featured artists in the Acquire the Fire conferences, a ministry to teens, where she will be singing these songs. Get information and tour dates at http://www.acquirethefire.com/.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ancient Christian Texts: Commentary on the Gospel of John - Theodore of Mopsuestia

Devout commentator gives the clear sense

Ancient Christian Texts: Commentary on the Gospel of John
Author: Theodore of Mopsuestia
Publisher: IVP Academic (http://www.ivpress.com/)
Pages: 172

Theodore of Mopsuestia’s commentary on John brings to mind an incident in the history of ancient Israel. The people gathered together, and Ezra the scribe read from the Book of the Law of Moses. Ezra was joined by others that “helped the people to understand the Law … They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:7-8 ESV).

Theodore does much the same throughout this commentary. He recites the verses and then gives the sense of the passage omitting extraneous words. He uses paraphrase to make it understandable. His commentary of John 16, where Jesus predicts persecution for the disciples, is characteristic: “(16:4) But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. ‘If I had not predicted these things,’ he says, ‘you might have lost your courage because these afflictions would have befallen you unexpectedly and you would have been unprepared. But if instead I predict what will happen to you, then, after it has happened, you will have to admire the power of the one who made the prediction, which is why you should have no doubt about the blessings I promised you.’ “

His way of using expansive thought to get at the underlying meaning seems unique. Although some of it is conjecture, most of it is plausible. He avoids being overly analytical and instead offers insight from an early era.

This was written in the late fourth or early fifth century. Theodore died in 428. His proximity to the church fathers gives him a different perspective than modern commentators. He highlights some of the erroneous interpretations of John’s gospel present in his own time. He draws attention to particulars (including refutation of heretics) in John’s writing that may be overlooked.

He makes it clear that John was writing to include those events omitted by the other gospel writers. In addition, John was concerned about the precise order of events, because, as Theodore puts it, “the others had taken no care in this regard.”

A major aspect that informs his reflections is his reverence. What one sees is a reflection of character. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). “With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous” (Psalm 18:25-26 ESV). It’s obvious from his writing and language that Theodore’s eye was single, making his body of work full of light.

That’s not to say that he is always right. He was not without controversy. His Christology is somewhat flawed in that he sees “an excessive separation between Christ’s human and divine natures, which is due on the one hand, to the fact that an accurate definition of the unity of Christ’s nature was established only after Theodore’s death; on the other, to the fact that in his polemic against the Apollinarists he exaggerated the separation of the two natures of Christ.” This is something that the reader must keep in mind, and occasionally it makes for awkward reading, but this is no reason to skip this commentary. The editor includes helpful notes as a reminder and for clarification.

Aside from getting a clear sense of what John is all about, finding a passage like the following, where Theodore comments on Jesus’ example of service at the Passover meal, made this worth the read for me. Here we see how his reverence toward God, others and all of life informs his insight. “Humility is the principle of all virtues. It removes any conflict, division or dissension among people, planting peace and charity among them instead. And through charity humility grows and increases. Our Lord frequently desired to teach this to his disciples through his words and works."

Modern commentaries may go deeper and provide more suggestions for application, but this devout commentator succeeds in providing the basic sense of what is being said.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament, Volume 2

A Christ-centered view of the inseparability of belief and behavior

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament, Volume 2: The Collective Witness
Author: Ben Witherington III
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 838

In volume one of The Indelible Image, Ben Witherington shows the interrelationship between theology and ethics given by Jesus and the New Testament writers. He ties the two together through the concept of God’s image being renewed in fallen human beings by the salvation that is in Christ. “Salvation involves the restoration not merely of relationship between God and humankind, but of human character so that the relationship can be both ongoing and positive rather than sporadic and broken. The aim of salvation is not merely to start a relationship, but to conform a people to the image of God’s son …“ Salvation involves both belief and behavior. Since God is loving, holy, just and good, he works to produce the same in the lives of his people. This is a constant theme throughout both volumes.

The present volume is more of a synthesis than the first. Witherington writes, “What I offer in the present volume is the distillation of what can only be called the theology and ethics of Jesus and of the various New Testament writers as it is revealed in detailed exegetical study.“ Witherington brings the voices that sang individually in the first volume together as a choir, showing how they harmonize and complement each other. He also highlights their solos, their unique contributions that make them distinct.

He eschews categories and groupings in favor of a Christological focus. First and foremost in developing a theology of ethics is seeing how the New Testament writers deal with Christology, which Witherington rightly sees as the pivotal change-event in their world. He does, however, deal with many other subjects along the way, but there is a continual recognition that Christ brings theology and ethics together. “The longer I work with the New Testament, the less satisfied I am to see theology and ethics divided from one another as if they were discrete subjects. By this I mean that the figure and pattern of Christ binds the two together and grounds both the indicative (what Christ was and did) and the imperative (what his followers should do and be).”

Witherington starts by going deeply into the symbolism and thought world of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Theology and ethics must not be stripped of its first century context. He also emphasizes the importance of narrative or story. “Story is the primary means by which the meaning of God and the divine human encounter is conveyed from the very first chapter of Genesis.” There’s no need to choose between story and history in the work of interpretation. Removing either would be like a picture without a frame.

When it comes to analysis, though Witherington may not always be right, more often than not I felt as though he was uncovering the true meaning of texts. Witherington’s extensive background and study give rise to careful interpretation. This is what kept me reading page after page, until I finished the entire book.

One of my favorite sections is an exposition of Revelation 11 and 12. If Witherington’s handling of these chapters is any indication, his commentary on Revelation is worth getting.

His purpose is to provide a sense of the character of visionary material in Revelation. I thoroughly enjoyed his thoughtful reflections on the identity of the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown with twelve stars. He sees her not as Mary or Israel but the community of God’s people.

Witherington further shows the importance of precise analysis in his handling of the Pauline household codes, where Paul gives instruction to husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. He identifies the crucial question as, “‘What does Paul do with these preexisting structures and customs?’ Does he simply endorse them, or does he modify them, and if he modifies them, what is the direction or aim of his remarks?”

He convincingly shows that Paul is ameliorating the harsher effects of patriarchy, guiding “the head of the household into a new conception of his roles that Christianizes his conduct in various ways and so turns marriage into more of a partnership and turns household management more into a matter of actualizing biblical principles about love of neighbor and honoring others.”

Witherington saves for the end one of his most thoughtful insights, which some may take issue with, but which is nevertheless worth considering. He has written in detail about the subject in a prior book, “In The Problem with Evangelical Theology one of the main points I stressed repeatedly is that the problem with evangelical theologies of various sorts is, paradoxically enough, that they are not biblical enough, and even more to the point, they become unbiblical at the precise junctures where they try to say something distinctive from the things that all orthodox Christians basically agree on. He cites as examples, predetermination, sinless perfection, the rapture, which he sees as an exaggeration of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and the baptism of the spirit as a second work of grace.

These issues and ones like them can be controversial and debatable, but it’s no reason not to pick up these volumes if you have a different view than the author. These issues are never the focus, and there is a wealth of solid biblical exegesis that will benefit any student of the Bible. His point about distinctives is a reminder of the need for humility. It’s not only important to subject our beliefs to the utmost scrutiny; it’s good to recognize that we can be wrong. Where disagreements persist, Christ, his person, work and words can be a unifying factor.

Witherington ends with a fitting prayer: “Lord, may we understand not only your Word but also ourselves in the light of your Word, written and incarnate, and so become what we admire, mirrors of Christ, bearers of the indelible and restored image. Amen.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inspiration for times like these

Times Like These
Artist: Austin’s Bridge (http://www.austinsbridge.com/)
Label: Daywind Records
Length: 10 tracks/38:19 minutes

After winning a 2008 Dove award for “He’s in Control” (Bluegrass Song of the Year), Austin’s Bridge is back with their sophomore release Times Like These. The CD is produced by Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts.

For those unfamiliar with the band, their music is modern country, a blend of country, pop, rock and a little bluegrass. A full sound is accented by a few chugging riffs and some piercing guitar solos. Two acoustic tracks, “There is a God” and “Hold on to Jesus” standout like a pleasant oasis. Mandolin and dobro add beauty to the former.

The middle tracks are highly motivational. “Dash Between the Dates” was probably inspired by the book, The Dash. The song highlights that it’s not the year we were born or the year we die, it’s how we live our lives in between that counts.

“Times Like These” and “Love is on the Way” speak to our current dilemmas with hope and encouragement. The former projects a resolute stability, while the latter is filled with infectious energy that complements the idea that we need “to turn this thing around.”

Mercy is personified in the first single, “Mercy Never Leaves”: “Mercy never leaves when others walk away / Mercy’s there for you so you don’t ever have to be afraid / When you’re feeling hopeless, abandoned and lost / Mercy pleads your case before the cross / Mercy never leaves.” It’s a comfort to think that mercy is always available; we need never fear. However divine these attributes might be, these are actions that we can model towards others.

“Good Time” brings this to a close with southern-sounding, swamp blues reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s just another example of the slight style changes you find throughout.

Many of the musicians are well-known session players. The songs are finely-crafted coming from a variety of writers. Group members Justin Rivers and Jason Baird wrote “Hold on to Jesus” and “Good Time,” with Rivers also co-writing “Dash Between the Dates.” Their main contribution, however, and where they shine, are the vocals and harmonies. Jay DeMarcus co-wrote the title track and “Angels.”

This is a highly accessible fusion of country and contemporary Christian styles. Though it does not break new ground, it’s a near flawless production. Their talent and positive Christian message will find a receptive audience.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jimmy Needham - Nightlights

Just a nightlight against a blazing sun

Artist: Jimmy Needham (http://www.jimmyneedham.com/)
Label: Inpop Records
Length: 13 tracks/49:16 minutes

On Jimmy Needham’s Nightlights, soul reigns.

A funky bass line finds its groove on the gospel-flavored “Moving to Zion.” What makes this a delight is Needham’s use of allegory. It’s a tale of two mountains: Sinai (representing law) and Zion (representing grace). The former is no longer his home. It’s a strong opening.

On the lyrical side, Needham’s humility and self-deprecation is endearing. He takes his cue from John the Baptist, who said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30 ESV). This priority comes through on songs like “The Reason I Sing”: “Make me a singer who is unsung / 'Cause You won’t share Your fame // 'Cause even accolades someday will fade away / Just like me.”

Needham closes with spoken word on the title track, which summarizes the theme: “Be Thou exalted over my reputation/ 'Cause applause is a poor form of soul medication.” It becomes a stinging indictment of self, which in “advancing His (God’s) kingdom” may “snag some acclaim.” “Do we not know it’s evil to love ourselves more than both God and His people?” he asks.

Needham admits that reading A. W. Tozer had a big impact. This is the verbatim source for that opening line from “Nightlights.” The rest of the quote reads, “Make my ambition to please Thee even if as a result I must fall into obscurity and my name be forgotten as a dream.” Sentiments like this are woven into different songs giving the recording a special beauty. This alone makes the CD worthwhile, but there are other fine moments.

One of the most striking tracks is “Grace Amazing,” which combines an aggressive rock riff with the work of hip-hop artist (Trip Lee). It strikes like a bolt of lightning as Needham sings of God’s resurrecting life. This is music to the wake dead.

Needham reinvents a classic pop tune with a soulful, brassy cover of “How Sweet It Is,” a song popularized by a host of artists, including James Taylor.

If the music industry had not coming knocking, Needham would have been content to remain a history teacher. This project reinforces that modesty. He recognizes that promoting Christ is more important than promoting himself, even if the latter is a foundation of the music industry.

Needham isn’t blinded by lesser lights. Addressing God, he sings, “Compared to you, I’m just a nightlight against a blazing sun.”

Monday, July 19, 2010


Strong vertical focus

Artist: Luminate (www.myspace.com/luminate)
Label: Sparrow/EMI
Length: 6 tracks/25:17 minutes

Each track in Luminate’s six-song debut addresses God at some point if not throughout. It’s no surprise given that each of the five guys have a background in leading worship. It would be a mistake though to think of Luminate as a generic-sounding worship band. They sound more like influences that include U2, The Fray, Switchfoot and The Killers. The band conveys the passion and energy of rock through great production from Christian music veteran Ed Cash.

Tyler, Texas-based Luminate is guitar-driven, but keyboards are also part of the mix. They combine pop, rock and modern worship styles in a way similar to Delirious or Leeland. They have broad appeal with lyrics that mix brokenness, longing and adoration.

“Shine (Love Is an Action),” the first single, is an anthem that redefines love as heartfelt action. It’s a social justice song that has a vision for the world.

“Miracle” conveys yearning in word and sound. It’s the cry of the fallen who are reaching back to God. He is the miracle we need; it’s not something that comes apart from Him.

“Hear Our Cry” is propelled by an Edge-like guitar riff. The words recognize God as the source of strength.

“Fearlessly,” another standout for its introspection, offers a lifeline of hope and comfort in the chorus: “Don’t be afraid, and don’t feel ashamed / You’re one breath away from the life you’re meant to lead.” This ends the EP on a hopeful note with a picture of a life without fear.

These last three songs, which are ballad-like in varying degrees, are the most compelling.

This CD serves as a solid introduction to a band that has been together for four years.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Giving Church Another Chance: Finding New Meaning in Spiritual Practices - Todd D. Hunter

Practicing anew the traditional observances associated with church life

Giving Church Another Chance: Finding New Meaning in Spiritual Practices
Author: Todd D. Hunter
Publisher: IVP Books (http://www.ivpress.com/)
Pages: 189

The title Giving Church Another Chance is what drew me to Todd Hunter’s latest book. I nearly walked away from church. I see the problems, and as much as I might want to resist, we are made to live in community. I want to love the church, and Todd Hunter has a perspective that is different than mine, so I want to learn what I can from him.

His journey is fascinating. Early mentors include Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel and John Wimber of The Vineyard churches. He became the national coordinator and shortly thereafter the president of Vineyard Churches USA. After 12 years of ministry a crisis of confidence led to Todd’s departure.

He enrolled in a Virginia Beach seminary and sought counseling. A pivotal event came, when in an effort to reengage in some basic Christian practices, he read Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Through Richard he discovered Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson and host of other ancient and contemporary writers “who educate and train others on the practices associated with Christian faith.”

Today Hunter is the director of West Coast church planting and a bishop for Anglican Mission in the Americas. He pastors Holy Trinity Church in Orange County, California where he and his congregation practice the principles outlined in this book.

Hunter emphasizes that being a Christian is more than believing a set of truths. It’s a way of life. He writes, “To recover their rightful place in Christian life, beliefs need to be actualized, that is, we turn them into practices that (1) change us for the better in a way that (2) those around us experience as for their good.“

In succeeding chapters Hunter walks the reader through some of the observances found more typically in liturgical or traditional churches. He starts with the “Quiet Prelude.” It is preparation intended to help individuals live a life of settled peace.

He references Archibald Hart’s Thrilled to Death: “Hart recommends Christian meditation and times of quiet contemplation and concentration focusing on the presence of God.” Why is experiencing centered peace a big deal? Hunter answers, “Centered peace implies a deep and abiding form of confidence in Jesus and his care for the whole world, including us.” Our actions and living in carrying-out the teachings of Jesus are to spring from this fertile soil.

Other chapters cover “Singing the Doxology,” “Scripture Reading,” “Hearing Sermons,” “Following Liturgy,” “Giving an Offering,” “Taking Communion,” and “Receiving the Benediction.” Hunter succeeds in making each of these subjects not only meaningful but practical.

The only place he loses me is when he writes about the Eucharist: “The Eucharist conveys to those who receive it in faith, the body and blood of Jesus, that is Christ’s life. It transmits by faith all the benefits of his broken body and shed blood, these being sacramental signs of the totality of his virgin birth, life, teachings, works, death, resurrection and ascension.” I recognize different views, but isn’t Christ’s life conveyed through faith in him? It is not faith in communion or its elements but faith in the person of Christ. I received Christ and the benefits of what he did for me the moment I believed in him.

Where Hunter succeeds admirably is in connecting faith with daily life. Spiritual practices regain their meaning.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sixteen Cities

Sunny optimism takes the chill out of winter

Sixteen Cities
Artist: Sixteen Cities (http://www.sixteencities.com/)
Label: Centricity
Length: 11 tracks/39:17 minutes

The opening “Just Wanna Dance” to Sixteen Cities self-titled debut has a wistfulness that reminds me of Owl City, best known for the song “Fireflies.” Even though the two artists are different, I see some likeable parallels: simplicity of thought, an earnest voice, electronic enhancement (though here it just adds a little style rather than being predominant), and a sunny optimism that some might dismiss for its sweetness, but which I welcome in a world that has no shortage of heaviness.

One example of the bright outlook is “Sing Along,” where vocalist Josiah Warneking declares, “I love the way the stars shine for you, and every single mountain bows down. I love the way the universe is singing your song, so I try to sing along.” This chorus is carried by soaring pop/rock led by Dustin Erhardt’s shimmering guitar.

In a time when many are discouraged, I applaud songs like “Someone’s Work of Art” and “Bleeding for You” that emphasize the worth of a person. Teens and twenty-somethings, which have been the band’s primary audience, will find this affirming, as will all who are in need of encouragement. Like Owl City, Sixteen Cities, who get their name from a passage in Joshua 19 that deals with dividing the land, conveys hope.

They share it in places that might seem the least welcoming, but where it is truly needed, the public schools. It seems fitting since these songs are radio-friendly and God-pointing, without being preachy or too heavy. They have the subtle persuasion that is appropriate for this environment. The lyrics are not always explicit in speaking of God; and the name of Jesus is not used, but it’s not hard to figure out what they are referencing. They have the potential to reach a broad audience with the message of God’s love and grace.

The songs are not all sunny and light. Some plead for being saved from oneself. One standout ballad, “Pray You Through,” is about being there for someone when words are inadequate. The CD ends on a plaintive note with a piano ballad called “Winter.” It’s about a prodigal who wonders if he can find his way home.

This debut takes the chill out of winter and points us home.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide - Gerald R. McDermott

Wisdom in a multitude of counselors

The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide
Author: Gerald R. McDermott
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 214

In The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide, Gerald R. McDermott provides “a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians – so that any thinking Christian” can “get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each.”

Do we need to read and study what the great minds of the church have said? McDermott answers, “Ignoring the great and godly minds of the church – who have been ruminating on God for thousands of years – when we have them at our fingertips through books and even the Internet seems to be a kind of arrogance and presumption.” He likens comparing our thoughts with theirs as iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17 KJV). By studying their works we can learn what theology is best.

The author chose eleven individuals who, in his opinion, had the greatest influence on the development of Christian thought. This does not mean that all of them had good theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher gave rise to liberal theology, but understanding his thought is important to comprehending the strange turns taken by modern theology.

Each chapter covers a different individual and begins with a story about the person’s life, highlighting important events. This leads to a review of the main themes in their thinking. The author then zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that individual and examines it in detail. He concludes each section with lessons we can learn, a brief selection from the person’s writings, questions for reflection and discussion, and a list of resources for further reading.

The author’s knowledge of the subject matter, his eye for important details, his skill as a writer and his wisdom in providing practical application make this a delight to read. Even though I had read about most of these individuals before, I gained new insights. I marvel at the wealth of useful information to ponder.

As I read about Calvin I was struck by the comfort that can come through knowing God’s sovereignty. The author writes, “If I know that a tragic event in my life was permitted by God, I can be assured that God meant it for good. I might not understand why this thing was permitted, but at least I will have the comfort knowing that in the long run things will be better because of it.”

What a surprise to learn that Jonathan Edwards, best known for the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was obsessed by God’s beauty more than his wrath. McDermott summarizes Edwards’ thought on the subject: “The essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections and to sense his irresistible love.”

Years of experience have taught me the truth of John Henry Newman’s disciplina arcani, or “method of keeping sacred things secret.” McDermott summarizes what Evangelicals and Lutherans can learn from it: “Too often we have thrown pearls before swine in our evangelism and Christian education.… We Christians generally have been too willing to blabber the mysteries of the faith to anyone we can get to listen, forgetting that ‘the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God … and he is not able to understand them’ (1 Cor. 2:4). We have both said too much (when we explain the intricacies of atonement and justification to unbelievers) and too little (reducing the gospel and all the Bible to justification by faith).”

In describing how Athanasius defeated the Arians, the author makes a useful observation, “Sometimes it is necessary to use an unbiblical word such as Trinity to teach properly and clearly a biblical concept.” He follows with a revealing thought indicative of his personal leaning, “This is also why theology is necessary and the Bible alone is not enough – it needs an orthodox community and tradition to interpret it.” Some Evangelicals may take issue with that last thought, but this book makes a strong case for it.

McDermott’s background as a professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and a teaching pastor at St. John Lutheran Church have shaped his perspective. His appeal is to the collective wisdom of the church rather than to one segment. “The Great Tradition,” led by the orthodox thinkers in this book, provides a means to rightly assess the many competing ideologies that we face today.

Though all great theologians fall short in some ways, McDermott persuades readers that they have something to teach us. We see through the development of doctrine how theologians develop, supplement and correct one another. McDermott advocates learning from this heritage with humility and attentiveness that we might see our own shortcomings. This is an excellent introductory guide that is highly readable.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years DVD

A candid friend tells the story of the Church

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years DVD
Presenter: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Distributor: Ambrose Video (http://www.ambrosevideo.com/)
Running Time: Approximately 6 hours

Among other things, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years shows that seeds planted in youth flower in adulthood. This six-part series, co-produced by the BBC, the Open University and Jerusalem Productions, is hosted and narrated by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St. John Cross College in Oxford.

When MacCulloch’s father, an Anglican minister, and his mother took their young son Diarmaid on their explorations of historic churches, they probably never realized they were sowing the seeds of his future. Diarmaid became fascinated with church history and so began his life work, of which this series is a part.

Now, instead of his parents leading the way, it is MacCulloch taking viewers through ancient structures and landmarks around the world. Ever the explorer, he searches for meaning in places that hold clues to the past, interviewing local experts and people who provide a diversity of thought.

MacCulloch is not only a well-respected historian, but an excellent narrator and a likeable guide. He unashamedly professes his fondness for the Anglican faith, he being the last of three generations of Anglican clergy. If he has a bias, it may be against the western form of Christianity as practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. He seems more charitable toward the eastern wing, exhibited in the Orthodox Church. The good news is that over the course of the six episodes shown below, he gives equal coverage to each of the major branches of the church.

1. The First Christianity
2. Catholicism: The Unpredictable Rise of Rome
3. Orthodoxy: From Empire to Empire
4. Reformation: The Individual Before God
5. Protestantism: The Evangelical Explosion
6. God in the Dock

One of the highlights is that MacCulloch tells more than just the same old story. He is not afraid to correct conventional wisdom and to bring out what might be overlooked. For example, he believes that Christianity stayed closer to its Middle-Eastern roots than many people realize. To illustrate that point, rather than initially tracing the spread of the faith to Rome, he takes the eastern road, which goes from Jerusalem to Asia, including parts of China.

In another segment, he takes us to Skellig Michael, a place that might be overlooked by many historians, but significant because this remote island was a center for the monastic life of Irish Christian monks for 600 years. Equally interesting is his account of Russian history and orthodoxy.

Filmed in HD, everything about the production is first-rate. This is no surprise given that the series is licensed by the BBC.

For all its merits, it falters somewhat in the last episode. Calling himself a “candid friend” rather than a Christian, MacCulloch asserts that the church failed to resist the Nazis. He reasons that since the Jews were considered killers of Christ and enemies of the church, the church is “implicated in the murder of Jews.”

It gets even more controversial in his interview with Rev. Nicholas Holtam of St. Martin Church-in-the-Fields, London. MacCulloch believes that questions about gender and sexuality present significant challenges to the church. He identifies himself as a gay man, and in response to an inquiry from MacCulloch, Rev. Holtam states, “The Scriptures don’t say anything about faithful, same-sex relationships and therefore, what’s condemned in Scripture isn’t what we are dealing with now.… I think the Bible’s answer is that what matters between human beings is loving, faithful, honest relationships.”

It should be noted that MacCulloch does not accept the authority of the Scriptures. He alludes to being unconvinced that the Bible is different from all other books.

Throughout the series, MacCulloch continually emphasizes that the Church has survived by its ability to adapt. He may wonder if the Church will successfully adjust to changing gender and sexual norms. Conservative Christians must be prepared to discuss these concluding ideas if they want to use this in a group setting. Unfortunately, this last segment detracts from the overall excellence of the series. Even so, this production provides a thought-provoking overview of Church history, and I give MacCulloch credit for telling it like he sees it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

ESV Study Bible

May be the best study Bible available

ESV Study Bible (www.esvstudybible.org)
Publisher: Crossway Bibles
Pages: 2,750

The ESV Study Bible (2008) may be the best of its kind. The English Standard Version text, which is “essentially literal,” is a major reason. The ESV “seeks as much as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer.” It is not an exact word for word translation as you would have in an interlinear Bible, but it’s not far from it.

The ESV Bible made its appearance in 2001 with praise from a broad spectrum of evangelicals including Joni Eareckson Tada, Max Lucado, Dr. R. C. Sproul and Dr. Joseph M. Stowell. The text is a revision of the Revised Standard Version and is slightly more literal.

From my days working at a Bible bookstore, I remember a nifty handout prepared by Zondervan that showed where the different translations fell on a scale depicting their literalness. On the left side of the spectrum, you had the most literal versions and on the opposite, those that were the least. Everything fell in between the two outermost points, which in this case were the interlinear Bible and The Message.

The New American Standard Bible was in second position, followed by The Amplified Bible, and in fourth position, the ESV. The Revised Standard Version and the King James Version were next in line. For comparison, I found online an individual who had done a scholarly ranking, admittedly subjective, but nevertheless interesting. He ranked the ESV and the New American Standard as the two best for study. He had the King James Version and the New American Standard at 2½ on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being the most literal. The ESV was a 3 and the New International Version was further back at 4½.

The ESV Study Bible boasts that it is the most comprehensive study Bible ever published, and judging from all the additional material outside the Bible text, this may not be an exaggeration. All the notes, maps, illustrations, articles and other features are “new,” which probably means that they were either created for this Bible or have never been published before in this form in a study Bible. Those who purchase the print edition also get access to the ESV Online Study Bible.

The format is comparable to the New International Version Study Bible with notes filling the lower quarter or half of the page. The notes cover many but not all of the verses. These are preceded by highlighted boxes that summarize the thought of a section of Scripture. The notes on the individual verses fill in the detail.

The helpfulness and quality of the notes is impressive. Equally magnificent is a section of articles in the back breaking down major Bible themes like salvation, doctrine, ethics, interpretation, reading, the canon of scripture, the reliability of manuscripts, archaeology, original languages, and how the New Testament interprets and quotes the Old Testament. You also get a section that deals not only with the Bible’s relationship within Christianity, but how its teachings compare with those of world religions and cults. A concordance and color maps are in the back. Many smaller, colored maps are embedded in the notes. One thing this does not have is the words of Christ in red, which I know from experience is important to some people.

This was created by a team of 95 evangelical Christian scholars and teachers from various backgrounds. Their names, the institutions that they represent, and their educational attainments are listed in the front of the Bible.

Unless you prefer a study Bible with a special emphasis, as in the New Spirit-Filled Bible, which is geared toward Charismatics, or one that is more hands-on, as in the New Inductive Study Bible, which requires a great deal of discipline and marking, this is an excellent choice for use by a broad spectrum of Christians. It gives you a translation that is accurate, appealing from a literary standpoint, and places before you a large amount of scholarly but accessible reference material.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach - Leland Ryken

The other side of the argument

Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach
Author: Leland Ryken
Publisher: Crossway (www.crossway.org)
Pages: 205

A line of reasoning from Proverbs highlights the importance of Understanding English Bible Translation by Leland Ryken: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17 ESV). After reading the Essential Guide to Bible Versions (2000) by Philip W. Comfort, I was persuaded about the merits of the translation method known as dynamic equivalence or functional equivalence. Eugene Nida defines this as “the reproduction in a receptor language [i.e. English] of the closest national equivalent of the source language [i.e. Hebrew or Greek] message, first in terms of meaning, and second in terms of style (italics added).”

The difference between dynamic equivalence and the essentially literal philosophy advocated by Ryken is the former seeks to translate “meaning” while the latter is concerned with translating “into something that corresponds to or is identical with the words of the original (subject of course to the changes required by translation from one language into another.)” Whereas the former finds meaning in phrases (thought-for-thought translation), the latter is concerned with preserving the meaning found in the actual words (word-for-word translation).

This may seem rather technical, but it marks a significant change in translation philosophy. As Ryken points out, “The mid-twentieth century saw a paradigm shift in the theory and practice of English Bible translation.” Prior to this, the publication of the King James Version, marked “the culmination of nearly a century of profuse Bible translation activity in England.” Not only did the KJV translators build upon previous work, they “strove to find an English equivalent for the actual words of the original Hebrew and Greek texts.”

Thankfully, the author does not assume a King-James only position, but he does extol it as one of the finest examples of an essentially literal translation. Though it is not the author’s primary intent, this is the best defense of the King James Bible that I have read.

The shift in theory from translating words to translating meaning is the foundation of many modern Bibles. What makes this book essential reading is that Ryken shows clearly and convincingly what is lost. It stems from what dynamic equivalent translators do, “consisting of such things as changing syntax and word order, adding exegesis and interpretive commentary to the text, simplifying the content of the original text, removing figurative language from sight, producing a colloquial style for the English Bible, and adapting the translation to the expectations of a target audience.”

Ryken does a masterful job of concisely going into detail. His arguments are scholarly but readable. He illustrates changes with specific examples.

He is also charitable to the point of recognizing common ground and recognizing that dynamic equivalent translations have value as commentaries.

This should be required reading for translators and all in Christian leadership. Anyone interested in this subject will profit from this volume. If those on the other side want to defend the thought-for-thought theory of translation, they must convincingly answer the issues raised here.

This has given me new respect for the King James Version and other essentially literal translations. I also see the limitations of translations based on functional equivalence. I welcome the opportunity to read further on this important and fascinating subject, remembering the importance of weighing both sides of an argument.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Challenge of Easter - N. T. Wright

Leap for joy

The Challenge of Easter
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 64

In Luke’s gospel we see the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus. Not long afterwards, Mary visited her relative Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with the child that would become John the Baptist. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, Scripture tells us that the baby leaped in her womb. Being suddenly filled with the Spirit, she exclaims, “Behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44 ESV). Someone might rightly wonder what this prelude to the Christmas story has to do with The Challenge of Easter by N. T. Wright?

Obviously, without the birth of Christ there would be no Easter story, but that is not my reason for reminding us of the joy surrounding two historic births. As I read this slim volume, and especially as I progressed into the practical applications of Christ’s resurrection, which Wright rightly sees as the beginning of God’s new order—along with the crucifixion, a pivotal event in history—my spirit like the baby in the womb was leaping for joy.

Why is it that reading N. T. Wright can make me leap for joy on the inside? Let me use his own words where he describes our work as Christians to provide somewhat of an answer: “Your task is to find the symbolic ways of doing things differently, planting flags in hostile soil, setting up signposts that say there is a different way to be human. And when people are puzzled at what you are doing, find ways—fresh ways—of telling the story of the return of the human race from its exile, and use those stories as your explanation.” In his books, Wright models this idea of expressing the truth in fresh ways. This, along with a winsome blend of wit, wisdom and his expansive views when I sometimes fail to see the big picture, is what I find so endearing about his writing.

In this book, it all starts with a look at the resurrection as a historical problem. Wright shows that from the beginning Christianity was not just a kingdom of God but a resurrection movement. He then goes into Paul’s theology of the resurrection as a two-stage movement: “The Messiah first, then finally the resurrection of all those who belong to the Messiah.” From there he moves to the gospel accounts where “John tells us quite plainly Easter day is the first day of the week…. Easter day is the first day of God’s new creation. Easter morning was the birthday of God’s new world.”

The last two sections deal with the practical outworking of it all. Being in the middle of “the beginning of the End and the end of the End, should enable us to come to terms with our vocation to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel, and in the power of the Spirit to forgive and retain sins…. We are like the musicians called to play and sing the unique and once-only-written musical score.”

Wright concludes by unpacking what it means to be “kingdom-announcers” and “crossbearers” as we model a new way of being human. Concerning the latter my spirit rejoiced at these words: “God forgive us that we have imagined true humanness, after the Enlightenment model, to mean being successful, having it all together, having all the answers, never making mistakes, striding through the world as though we owned it.”

In answer to the challenges of our day, he shares a beautiful way forward: “The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even, heaven help us, biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically rooted challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way into the postpost-modern world with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom.”

This book is excerpted and adapted from The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is.

Thinking about this book reminds me of a popular worship song that includes the thought that nothing is the same; everything has changed. Christ is risen! A new order has dawned. The path of those who through faith in Christ have become God’s children grows brighter and brighter till it reaches the full light of day. When I hear about Christ, the resurrection and all that entails, especially when it is expressed in fresh ways, my spirit leaps for joy.

Christianity & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas & Movements (Volume 3 – Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century)

Welcome to the world of philosophy

Christianity & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas & Movements (Volume 3 – Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century)
Authors: Alan G. Padgett & Steve Wilkens
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 388

As I read volume three of Christianity & Western Thought by Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens, I was haunted by a thought similar to the one that F. W. Boreham had when he shared a train ride with a well-known actor. Reflecting on his companion’s occupation, he writes, “Now if there was a world of which I knew absolutely nothing at all—a terra incognito—a realm that I had never invaded it was the stage.” Here, in this volume, I invaded the world of the philosopher and felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Though the authors serve as the most excellent of guides—incredibly conversant and at home in the world of philosophers and their thought—at times it was as if they were giving voice to ideas in a foreign language. It’s not their own words or thoughts that can be hard to decipher—they write clearly—; it’s the subject matter that can be challenging.

Fortunately, in their survey of philosophers in the march to postmodernity, they tell the story of their subjects, including a summary of their major works, which I found quite engaging. Even so, this works best as a reference that can be repeatedly consulted. As the authors continually show, western thought in the 20th century is widely divergent, which makes it hard to stay on track when reading this straight through.

This book, the third and final volume in the series, will be much easier for academics and those schooled in philosophical thought. Written from an unashamedly Christian perspective, but with scholarly detachment, this is not a book that will take the average Christian by the hand and make philosophy plain and simple. This is not a criticism of the authors, nor is it intended to discourage non-academics from giving this a try. It’s just an acknowledgement of the complexity of the material. The authors have done an excellent job of making it accessible. The patient reader of any background will find it rewarding.

I don’t know how many would share my perspective, but theology almost seems like child’s play compared to philosophy. It may be that I am just more wired for the former, and yet, one can quickly get over their head in theology and feel like they are in the outside looking in. This book focuses on philosophy and only touches on theology, but the two are far from strangers. The authors introduce individuals and thought that seek to answer vital questions and have implications for both disciplines: How can philosophy be scientific? What is human being? What about language and meaning? What about postmodernity?

Though some voices may seem nonsensical, it’s helpful to remember that each, in their own way, is trying to making sense of the world we inhabit. It’s important that Christians understand different worldviews if we hope to engage them meaningfully.

If like me you have an interest in books and search for them in places like thrift stores and garage sales, you will most likely come across books by Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and wonder who are these people? The thought of these influential figures is explored in detail in a chapter that delves more deeply into theology. The authors use the term “dialectical theology” to represent their movement, which registered “its discontent with theological systems that attempt to reduce Christianity to a series of timeless, logical truths about God.” Whatever one’s views of these men and their thought, this provides an account of their influence.

Is there such a thing as Christian philosophy? This argument is found in another chapter, which goes into Thomism, the thought derived from Thomas Aquinas.

Perhaps a little of the everyday applicability of philosophy can be seen in the authors’ summary of one philosopher’s thought on play and art: “When we are caught up in a great play, a musical performance or a moving film, we encounter the play of the artist in making a ‘world’ for us to experience; this is the manner in which art discloses the truth to us. In the play between the world created by art and our world, we see our life in a new way. The meaning of art, and so the truth that it mediates, come out of the dynamic play between art and spectator/audience.” Philosophy then can be a friend of theology when it helps, either directly or indirectly, to clarify meaning, mediate truth and enable us to see ourselves in new and better ways.

Even though I may get a little lost in the world of philosophical thought, anyone with an interest in this discipline will be well-served by this volume, and the series, if this volume is any indication.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Evil and the Justice of God - N. T. Wright

All shall be well

Evil and the Justice of God
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 176

Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright reminds me of the series of talks about Christianity that C. S. Lewis gave on BBC radio between 1941 and 1944. This began as a series of five lectures given at Westminster Abbey on the cross and the problem of evil. After 9/11 and talk about evil from George W. Bush and Tony Blair, “evil” became a hot topic. Wright later summarized his thesis on a television program that aired in the U. K. on Easter Day 2005.

Wright like Lewis, in this expanded version of his original lectures, is addressing a broader audience than just Christians. As a consequence, this is not a Bible study or a scholarly analysis of specific texts, though there is a little of that here. This is more of a philosophical treatise that tries to make sense of a difficult topic from a Scriptural point of view without getting too technical.

Having read a book by Wright previously, I appreciate his ability not only to recognize distinctions but to never lose sight of the big picture. He does not let the reader get lost in the details. Evil is a multi-faceted problem, but contrary to how it may seem, God is doing something about it. What He has done and is doing through his people is what Wright unpacks.

Unlike those who may come at the subject from a purely secular stance, Wright acknowledges, though he realizes the potential barriers in doing so, that there is a “supra-personal, supra-human” aspect to evil. Somewhat unconventionally he refers to the devil as “the satan,” which in Hebrew is Ha Satan, meaning “the accuser.” Wright prefers to use the “term ‘subpersonal’ or ‘quasi-personal’ as a way of refusing to accord the satan the full dignity of personhood while recognizing that the concentration of activity (its subtle schemes and devices) can and does strike us as very much like that which we associate with personhood.” Fortunately, Wright maintains a healthy balance; avoid the extremes of not taking this aspect of evil into account or being overly fixated with it.

You see this too in his refusal to define evil between different groups of people. Rather, he rightly sees that “the line between good and evil runs through us all.”

Wright sees that evil finally meets its demise at the cross of Christ. In all its various forms and manifestations, it climaxes in the death of Jesus, only to find itself exhausted through what was the pivotal event in God’s dealing with evil. “On the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil.” The full outworking of it has yet to be seen, but Wright enumerates the ramifications throughout the rest of the book.

Wright is excellent about making personal applications. “‘The problem of evil’ is not simply or purely a ‘cosmic’ thing; it is also a problem about me. And God has dealt with that problem on the cross of his Son, the Messiah.”

Where does this leave us? Wright summarizes it beautifully, “The call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love.” The cross is not only the means but the model for what God wants to do by His Spirit in the world. “To imagine a community of beauty and healing is to take a large step toward seeing in our mind’s eye the world which God intends to bring about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the world toward which we are to direct our Spirit-given energies.”

He goes on to suggest five different ways or areas that we can be working to advance the signs of the new world:

1. Prayer
2. Holiness
3. Politics and empire
4. Penal codes
5. International disputes

The last three in particular, as may be obvious by the category names, involve furthering justice and serving to make the world a better place.

Phantom Tollbooth readers might appreciate what Wright has to say about the role of art, which includes the realm of music. “Art at its best not only draws attention to the way things are but to the way things one day will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. And when Christian artists go to that task they will be contributing to the integration of heart, mind and soul which we seek, to which we are called. They will be pointing forward to the new world God intends to make, to the world already seen in advance in the resurrection of Jesus, to the world whose charter of freedom was won when he died on the cross. It is by such means as this that we may learn again to imagine a world without evil and to work for that world to become, in whatever measure we can, a reality even in the midst of the present evil age.”

Lastly, Wright deals extensively with the importance of forgiveness. Forgiveness brings into the present what we are promised in the future, “namely that in God’s new world all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” He draws much on insights contained in Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, which helps makes sense out of how it can be right for God to bring about a situation where all is genuinely well, granted all that has happened and continues to happen. Again, the answer lies in evil being overthrown at the cross and “God’s creation of a new world which will bring healing rather than obliteration to the old one, under the stewardship of the redeemed. God’s offer of forgiveness, consequent upon his defeat of evil on the cross, means that God himself, the wise Creator, is at last vindicated.”

Rock Gets Religion - Mark Joseph

Christians making music for the many rather than the few Rock Gets Religion: The Battle for the Soul of the Devil’s Music Auth...