Thursday, June 30, 2011

1 Peter: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series - I. Howard Marshall

If I could only have one commentary on 1 Peter, I would be well-served by this one.

1 Peter: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series
Author: I. Howard Marshall
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 184

The biblical book of 1 Peter is a letter for our time. I. Howard Marshall conveys that with astute observation in 1 Peter, his commentary.

He believes the readers were “people who were discriminated against rather than being actually persecuted. The discrimination arose out of the unwillingness of Christians to take part in societal life associated with idolatry. The theme of the letter is not persecution as such but rather the situation of Christians in society and their consequent responsibilities. This accents the good behavior that they should practice and maintain despite malicious attacks.”

Written in 1991 when the book came out in hardback, but now published for the first time in this paperback edition, these words have striking relevance for our own time, as Christians face increasing discrimination and pressure to conform to today’s societal norms.

This book received the Christianity Today 1992 Critics’ Choice Award, and it’s not hard to understand why. Marshall’s succinct writing and levelheaded exposition remind me of reading John Stott’s classic, Basic Christianity. Precise, with no wasted words and a minimum of personal illustrations, he continually uncovers the original meaning with the intent of discerning what it means for Christians today.

What helps him and the reader in this pursuit, is Marshall’s wide reading of past scholarship, which he frequently references, pointing out where others may be right or wrong. Several pages of bibliography are included in the back.

Practical applications abound: “Christian conduct is an important ingredient in evangelism … alongside the actual preaching of the gospel to non-Christians, which Peter assumes to be taking place as a matter of course.”

The author wonders if Christians today have become short-sighted: “Have we lost the future dimension from the life of the individual Christian and of the church? Have we grown used to a situation in which the coming of Christ and the revelation of salvation do not fall within our expectations? True, we believe in the future hope in principle, but has it lost its importance as a factor in our daily living? And as a result, do we lay too much stress on salvation now, both in our lives and in the life of the world, and too little on what Christ has yet to bring?”

A cause for concern is Marshall’s references to the Church replacing Israel. In the “Notes” section on page 35 he writes, “Peter’s use of inheritance further exemplifies the typology that occurs so often in this letter, which draws a parallel between the experiences of the people of God in the Old Testament and the new people of God. This implies that the church replaces Israel as the recipient of God’s promises—that the promises of a ‘spiritual land’ are the real promises.” He does not explain this position as that is not the focus of his analysis. But it can leave the impression that God is finished with Israel, an idea that cannot be justified from Scripture. It would be unwise to spiritualize all the promises made to Israel.

Aside from the few references to this subject, 1 Peter by I. Howard Marshall reads like a classic. If I could only have one commentary on 1 Peter, I would be well-served by this one. Its brevity is more of an asset than a problem for those who want to quickly get at the heart of a message that is as needed today as when it was first written.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do - Phillip Cary

Lighten your burdens here

Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do
Author: Phillip Cary
Publisher: Brazos Press
Pages: 197

Good News for Anxious Christians by Phillip Cary reminds me of Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen and J. Robin Maxson. The latter challenged what the authors called the traditional view that God has an “individual will,” a specific plan for each life that a person must discover through prayer, reading the Bible, getting counsel, considering circumstances, etc. I read it early in my Christian life, and though it was Scripturally-based, I found it troubling because I believed the more common view. Back then I thought the will of God was like a steep precipice, difficult to reach and with little room to stand, but these two books picture it more broadly like a plain bounded by the truths of Scripture.

Good News references Decision Making and builds on it. The subject matter is more diverse, but like its predecessor it challenges widely-held views. Both books help Christians to become responsible for their decisions by acting wisely.

Cary believes that a “new evangelical theology” has infiltrated the church. It’s his name “for a set of supposedly practical ideas about transforming your life that get in the way of believing the gospel. They are the result of a long history of trying to be ‘practical’ in evangelical theology, which has now thoroughly adapted itself to consumer society.” This critique is his opportunity to preach the gospel to Christians. He writes that the “understanding of the gospel that has shaped my reading of the Scripture was articulated most famously in Martin Luther’s little treatise The Freedom of a Christian ...” Cary is Anglican, but someone who believes that Luther was right most of the time. This influence, with its emphasis on faith in Christ rather than what we do, is refreshing.

A prime example is when he writes about how God changes us, “The inward transformation of our hearts … happens not through anything we try to do but through faith in the gospel, because that’s how we receive Christ. He is the one who really change us.” This emphasis “frees us from anxiety” and “makes us cheerful and glad.” He continually exalts Christ, “What the gospel of Christ does is give us Christ, and that is enough. We can let everything else be what it is—hard work, worthwhile work, works of love, and the heartaches that come with all of that. And we can let our feelings be what they are, whatever that may be. What matters is Jesus Christ, and the gospel tells us that all is well on that score: that we are our Beloved’s and he is ours.”

To his credit, Cary encourages readers to judge what he has written, “To everyone who reads this book, I say: don’t believe any of this just because I’m saying it. Please do think critically—and that includes thinking critically about what I say in this book. Above all, search the Scriptures to see if these things are so, like the Jews and Gentiles who first heard the gospel in Berea (Acts 17:11).” He makes it easier by providing careful analysis based on the Scriptures and his own experience.

Where he may miss the mark is in the motives that he ascribes to those teaching or practicing the new theology. On the part of leaders, he sees it as a means of control and a way to build bigger churches. From my experience, I think people genuinely believe in the validity of the practices. Sometimes it takes someone like Cary who stands on the outside to get people to examine if something is true. It’s unwise to assume wrong motives when ignorance and/or deception can be involved.
Another reviewer of the book found himself agreeing and disagreeing with Cary’s critique, which may be a common reaction. The book makes you evaluate what you believe, and can lead to a helpful desire to know the truth.

Cary starts by challenging the whole notion of hearing God in your heart, advocated by Dallas Willard in the book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. How can you be sure that the voice you are hearing in your heart is God’s? According to Cary, you can’t be sure because the voices that you hear are your own. “The revelation of God comes in another way,” Cary writes, “through the word of God in the Bible, and this is something you can find outside your heart.” He shows here and in other practices, that Christians are left looking within, whereas in the Bible revelation comes from without: the Scriptures, counsel, corporate gatherings, etc. He’s not saying to disregard the voices from within. When shaped by wisdom and experience these voices, which are our own, can be helpful.

One might ask about the impressions experienced by Christians that seem inexplicable apart from God. Cary writes about this in Chapter 2, “Why You Don’t Have to Believe Your Intuitions are the Holy Spirit.” But what are we to make of a verse like Acts 16:6? “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (ESV). Through some means the Holy Spirit gave these believers specific direction. Cary might argue that it was something outside of themselves, a prophecy or some other sign, but isn’t it possible that they were redirected through an inward monitor?

In the book In Pastures Green, F. W. Boreham recognizes the danger of impressions, especially when they harmonize with our desires. Nevertheless, he shares a personal experience that is hard to explain apart from God’s guidance, “I set off one afternoon on a round of visits. I knew exactly in which direction I was going, and had made a list of the homes at which I intended to call. On my way to the tram I suddenly thought of a home in an entirely different direction. No visit to that home was due, and there was, so far as I knew, no reason why my mind should turn that way. But as I drew nearer to the tramline the impression deepened, and, absurd as it seemed, I decided to abandon my program and make my way to that home. To my astonishment, the door was answered by Dr. Player, a medical practitioner whom I knew well. ‘Oh, thank God you’ve come!’ he exclaimed; ‘Mr. B------ has just died very unexpectedly on my hands; Mrs. B------, whom I came to see, is ill in bed; there’s nobody else in the house, and there’s no telephone!’”

How do you reconcile an example like this with what Cary has written? Regardless, more often than naught I found myself agreeing with Cary, and I appreciate his wisdom and experience. This is a worthwhile read even if you have to wrestle with the ideas that you find here.

The book title is a winner as is the cover drawing showing an umbrella shielding from the rain. Wise teachers can protect Christians from teachings that can be like an oppressive rain. The right focus (Christ) provides its own uplift, and this book has it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Just As I Am: The Hymns of Ira Sankey - The Hymn Makers

Sankey’s light shines through these hymns

Just As I Am: The Hymns of Ira Sankey
Artist: The Sheffield Celebration Choir, conducted by Jackie Williams
Label: Kingsway
Length: 14 tracks/49:17 minutes

In the firmament of song leaders, Ira Sankey is one of the brightest stars. What Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea were to Billy Graham, Ira Sankey was to the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody. This selection comes from the 1,200 published in Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos, which is still in use today. If these are indicative of his relationship to God, Sankey is to be admired for his affinity with so many classics that include “Trust and Obey,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “It Is Well.”

With so many beloved lyrics, the focus is rightly on the words and singing. The music is understated throughout, most often carried by piano and embellished with strings, and occasional marching drums and trumpet calls. The acoustic orchestration gives this a timeless feel. The arrangements are traditional but imbued with subtle creativity.

I enjoy modern interpretations of hymns, but I like these simple and straightforward renderings, which are one of four CDs released by the label at the same time.

It’s rare to find songs that cover such a wide variety of theology in just a few stanzas. You don’t often hear the triumphant note sounded in “Marching to Zion,” “O Happy Day” and “Stand Up for Jesus.”

“Just as I Am” sounds just like the moving version that ended so many Billy Graham meetings. One of the most fun songs, partly for its childlikeness, and for the way men and women alternate on ascending and descending scales is “Count Your Blessings.”

“Have You Been to Jesus” searches the heart and is evangelistic. You may know it by the common refrain, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”

“Shall we Gather at the River,” strongly affirms the future hope for every Christian. Most of the verses are sung by a soloist, which makes the chorus all the more powerful as the choir sings it forcefully.

There is also the dignity and majesty of “Rock of Ages,” here sung acappella, and the comfort of “It is Well.”

Concentrate on the words to these songs, though occasionally they are hard to make out, if you are not familiar with this style of singing. Give yourself a chance to acclimate to what might be a foreign environment to your ears. It can take time to appreciate something different, but the potential rewards are here. If nothing else, you get inspiration and thought that is unique to our contemporary context.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Worship and Bow Down - John Michael Talbot

The Mass brings out the best in John Michael Talbot.

Worship and Bow Down
Artist: John Michael Talbot
Label: Troubadour for the Lord (http://www.johnmichaeltalbot.com/)
Length: 17 tracks/54:46 minutes

John Michael Talbot’s Worship and Bow Down recalls 1979’s The Lord’s Supper. After converting to Catholicism, Talbot released the latter’s unique musical adaptation of the Mass, intending for it to be his goodbye to the music world. Instead, its well-received reception launched his new career, following in the spirit of St. Francis as a modern day troubadour for the Lord. His discography is now more than 50 recordings plus a number of books.

Worship and Bow Down, which has a CD release date of 6/21/11, but was released as a digital download on Easter day of this year, finds Talbot once again adapting the Mass using the new translation of the Roman Missal into what he calls the “Mass of Rebirth.” There are new settings for every element of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Angus Dei, etc.) and for the Hail Mary, the Jesus Prayer and a portion of the Lectio Divina. Many of these songs will be included in the new hymnal published by Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) this fall. Talbot teamed with OCP for this release.

“Hail Mary” is already one of the new concert favorites and it’s not hard to understand why. Talbot sets it in a minor key that adds a beauty and solemnity that is characteristic of a number of compositions found on his recordings. It’s moving even if you are not Catholic. Some non-Catholics might object to some of the lyrics, but Talbot is just taking the existing prayer and setting it to music. I have no problem here and on his other recordings overlooking the occasional reference that I might disagree with from a theological standpoint. Such instances are few and far between, which is why Talbot has an appeal beyond Catholic believers. It’s worth being able to hear such sacred music.

Talbot is truly an artist. He forged his own way, which led him away from the contemporary trend that characterized (and still does) so much of Christian music. He’s unlike anyone else and continues to make relevant and meaningful music.

One prime example on this release is “Hind’s Feet on High Places,” a title that many protestants might recognize from the classic book by Hannah Hurnard. This approaches his best work. It starts with a reference to Psalm 91:7 “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (ESV). From there Talbot leads us to Habakkuk 3:17-18, (though) “the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD” (ESV). This takes us to the triumphant chorus: “The LORD God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” (Habakkuk 3:19 KJV). Multi-tracking John Michael’s voice on the chorus (here and elsewhere), along with soaring music, that both end on a high note make this an exhilarating track. Any future collection of Talbot’s best songs should include this.

Talbot’s trademark acoustic guitar style is mixed throughout with superb orchestration. The only exception are the non-musical tracks 10-16 (the “Mass of Rebirth” section), which consists of a series of short acapella chants, and calls and responses.

Artistry and beauty are evident on every track, though the encouragement toward contemplative practices in tracks 7-9 may not be quite as aesthetic lyrically but is still well done.

Among his output in recent years this has to rank as one of his best efforts. He unplugged for this one; the electric guitars and drums were shelved in favor of the acoustic and organic sound, but it’s not sleepy. This is something to wake up to on Easter day or any other, for every day is like a resurrection day for the believer in Christ.

Something about the Mass brings out the best in John Michael Talbot.

The Legacy - Michael Phillips

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