Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Gospel of Matthew - Matt Woodley




Readers will be hard-pressed to find a more fun yet informative commentary.

The Gospel of Matthew: God With Us (www.likewisebooks.com)
Author: Matt Woodley
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 299

Readers will be hard-pressed to find a more fun yet informative commentary than The Gospel of Matthew by Matt Woodley. The same could be said of the first volume in the Resonate series, The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town by Paul Louis Metzger. Having enjoyed these first two, I welcome the opportunity to read and review any of the planned future releases.

“Read” is the key word. Standard commentaries of the past are rightly regarded as reference works, consulted but not usually read from cover to cover. Purists may not take to this series like those who favor narrative accounts. If one was to relate this to Bible translation, this series is closer to dynamic equivalence than literal. Those who like The Message bible should appreciate that this is like a paraphrase.

Woodley reads between the lines to give a sense of a passage, which is broken into small segments. Each section focuses on a different theme or topic and can be read in just a few minutes. I read them like a devotional because they are not only short but inspirational. At the same time, they inform and accurately convey meaning, while challenging the reader and making the content applicable. The pop culture/current event references, while not overdone, make it entertaining.   

I appreciate Woodley’s emphasis on following in the “little way,” a reference to St. Therese of Lisieux, “a nineteenth-century French Carmelite nun who based her faith in Jesus on a very Matthew-like approach to the spiritual life.” It reminds me that that though we all fall short in many ways, we are not disqualified. Our failures highlight our need for Christ, which is something we never get beyond. Woodley writes, “For the most part, Jesus asks us to follow him with our little faith, allowing the Father to work through our poverty of spirit, failures and suffering, our quiet obedience and trust, and our small acts of mercy toward sinners, outcasts, the poor and the forgotten. This ‘little way’ makes discipleship accessible to all of us―except the self-righteous and the alleged experts” (19).

It gives hope to “little faiths” and those that we meet in the stories that Woodley shares. They are the last and least. Their situations are compelling because of the honesty in which they are told and in the reality that they convey. It is part of what makes this commentary so readable. Even a non-religious person should be able to comprehend the message. They may even find themselves drawn to the One who says in Matthew’s gospel, “Come to me.”   

This King who invites participation in his kingdom is a major theme in Matthew’s gospel, and Woodley moves it beyond a personal concern for salvation, “If the kingdom of heaven has indeed come to us in the presence of Jesus, then as his followers we will care about our choices as consumers and how those choices promote exploitation rather than compassion. I will consider these things because Jesus and his coming kingdom address large, global issues of economic justice, human rights and environmental wholeness. There is nothing that does not have kingdom implications” (56).

Occasionally, I wonder if the emphasis on social justice and related issues is actual or imposed on the Scriptures? The church has often swung between extremes. Woodley joins the chorus of those who offer a corrective to those that have overlooked these issues. The tendency is to readily see in keeping with our bent and background and be blind to other things. I appreciate Woodley’s balanced perspective.

He paints a wonderful portrait of the kingdom, but he is also realistic, “In this life, all wounds do not get healed; all aches do not get fulfilled; all wrongs do not become right; all stories do not end in triumph. In the words of the apostle Paul, we’re suspended between the coming of the kingdom and the fulfillment of the kingdom” (125).

Woodley is also relevant. I see it in relation to the Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus video, which has millions of views and sparked lots of debate. In the section titled SPIRITUAL BUT NOT RELIGIOUS he writes, “According to Jesus, this penchant for ‘church-free’ or ‘church-lite’ discipleship (let’s call it JNC, or ‘Jesus but no church’) isn’t just an innocent difference of opinion; it’s a colossal rejection of Jesus’ plan for a new genesis. Jesus restores the world through a new community, a specific, concrete group of real human beings―amazing, gifted and fabulous, as well as difficult, annoying and flawed―who live with him” (172).

In no way does he minimize the difficulty, “Loving, working for and living within his church isn’t easy. At times it feels like carrying a cross. Throughout the history of Christian spirituality much has been written about cross-bearing and self-denial, but in the context of this story, carrying our cross includes a call to enter and remain in Jesus’ broken church” (175). 

He summarizes it like this, “In other words, while being fully human just like Jesus, honestly expressing my pain and disappointment, I make a choice to follow Jesus by walking the path of love. Like John of the Cross, who was wounded and betrayed by his own community, I can declare, ‘If I put love into a community I will always have love to draw out of that community.’ So I choose to put love into the community even when I don’t feel love from that community” (175).

Woodley consistently gets at the heart of Matthew’s gospel. His illuminating stories and insights have a place next to the more formal commentaries. There is a place for both and those who have one alongside the other will be well-served.    

Never Look Back - John Barnett




God inhabits stark places as well as places of plenty

Never Look Back
Artist: John Barnett
Label: Vineyard Music (www.vineyardmusic.com)
Length: 13 tracks/53:38 minutes

Never Look Back by John Barnett is everything you would expect from Vineyard Music: original and classic covers of inspired, God-directed songs, solid musicianship and excellent production. But something unusual happened on the way to the recording studio. Barnett and company ended up in the middle of the desert, where tumbleweeds blow through ghost towns, the sky is big as Montana and signs of life are scarce.

It may even seem like God is absent but what is missing is the modern pop/rock sound that has characterized so many Vineyard recordings. Instead you get music that has an earthy, rustic quality. It reminds me of why so many people liked The Band. This sounds like a small group playing instruments without a lot of production or synthesized sounds. It would be easy to imagine that this was produced by Buddy Miller instead of Bobby Hartry.  

It is the mid-tempo, sometimes subdued nature of the recording that immediately caught my attention. It leans toward the acoustic with a raw and rugged feel. Drums rumble like distant thunder. Quirky percussion and instrumentation lend charm. There is plenty of strumming but an electric guitar breaks like lightning on “Better Than Life.” Electrified rhythm and solos add weight.

Some songs have a slight country-feel. That is particularly evident on the opening title track, where world-weary lyrics and lap steel give the song a haunting quality. The photos in the CD booklet aptly convey the stark mood. Who would have thought that in our over-stimulated age that this could serve as the backdrop for adoration?

“Our God Reigns” is indicative of the variety that exists. With its use of dulcimer, sleigh-bell like percussion, and Brian Wilson/Beach Boy harmony vocals, this is one of the tracks that veer towards a more indie/alternative sound.

In contrast, grunge-like riffs punctuate “Desperate Heart,” calling to mind Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But this is as heavy as it gets. These songs are more about finesse than power chords.

A wide array of outside-the-norm instruments, including Glockenspiel, Omnichord, SK1, Mellotron, Hammered Dulcimer, Melodica, etc. add uniqueness to predominantly new songs written mostly by Barnett. “Stand in Awe” comes from Jeremy Riddle. Barnett takes a classic, his own “Holy and Anointed One,” and brilliantly recreates it with just banjo and vocals. It is a beautiful and peaceful way to close a recording that provides evidence that less can be more. This is a welcome change, and I hope others similarly engaged will consider how they can offer up something fresh. It need not be complicated to be like water in the desert. These are simple expressions in a desolate context reminding us that God inhabits stark places as well places of plenty. 

If It Leads Me Back - Lindsay McCaul




Come rest applies to Christians

If It Leads Me Back
Artist: Lindsay McCaul (www.lindsaymccaul.com)
Label: Provident Label Group
Length: 11 tracks/41:33 minutes

How is it that what I hear resonates so deeply? More than a common humanity, it is a living God who communicates timeless truths through broken lives. It underscores our ongoing need for grace. We never outgrow it.

This is why Lindsay McCaul is continually addressing God in If It Leads Me Back. It is a form of worship. These are like Psalms: honest, vulnerable and earnest. These poetic expressions combine depth with a sophisticated sound. I rather like this hybrid of modern worship and the singer/songwriter muse.

McCaul has written or co-written every song. Her co-writers include seasoned pros: Jason Ingram, Mia Fieldes and Cindy Morgan.

It starts with “Say My Name,” which is indicative of our twisted nature: “I cradle the pain, regret that remains / I play it over and over differently.” We know how to meditate; the problem is that we tend to focus on the wrong things. The chorus offers a way of escape, “You say my name / And tell me I can walk away / From all my fears and yesterday.”

“Come Rest” is a favorite for lyrics rooted in one of the most sublime passages in Scripture, Matthew 11:28-30. McCaul applies it to the Christian life, “When you say come, rest / Should I be working so hard / When you say love, rest / Did you want hands or my heart.” She reckons that all our labor “is but a candle to the sun.” Ultimately, she chooses to trust in God’s promises and realizes “that all you ever wanted was me here.”  

Initially, “You Never Change” was my least favorite song, but its bouncy rhythm and whimsical voice are just playful packaging for something foundational. McCaul sings of expecting mercies to fade and grace to go away, but instead finds God smiling, waiting to see her look of amazement when she realizes that He is still there. The thought of never being separated and loved unconditionally is like a pillow for weary heads. The track extols God’s unchangeable nature.

It’s followed by “Speak,” a determination to lean into God, highlighted by sweeping guitar and ethereal programming, reminiscent of Rebecca St. James.

One of the more acoustic tracks, “Hold On to Me,” is another favorite. A quiet desperation in McCaul’s singing and delicate acoustic guitar evoke an appealing sense of fragility. What a comfort to know that “When I am barely holding on / You hold on to me.”

McCaul saves the best for last on the title track, written with Cindy Morgan. This would be at home on any of the latter’s recordings. McCaul plumbs the depths of Christian experience to the accompaniment of piano. The second half of the chorus states, “I would walk a thousand miles / And crawl if I have to / If that’s what I have to do / If it leads me back to you.”

It reminds me that no experience in this life is wasted if it leads us back to Christ. God can redeem any situation. The tension expressed here and throughout the recording is beautifully resolved in returning to God. Come rest!

Reading Scripture with the Reformers - Timothy George




The story of a book that changed the world

Reading Scripture with the Reformers
Author: Timothy George
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 268

Reading Scripture with the Reformers by Timothy George is the story of a book. It is the tale “of how the Bible came to have a central role in the sixteenth-century movement for religious reform that we call the Protestant Reformation” (11).

Three recurring tensions arise centered around the following: Scripture and tradition, making the Bible available to everyone in the language of the people, and the use of the Scriptures in the life and worship of the Protestant churches.

George brings a balanced perspective to these issues. “The reformers insisted that the Word took precedence over the church,” he writes. “But it was never simply a question of Scripture or tradition, holy writ or holy church” (13). George avoids simplifying throughout the book, which makes his observations valuable, and I appreciate the irenic tone.

I have often seen his name in print and read a few of his articles, but I am pleased to finally read one of his books. The back cover refers to him as a renowned Reformation historian and the author of Theology of the Reformers. He is also a contributor and part of the Editorial Council of Christianity Today, a favorite publication. He is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series, which is worth checking out.

George’s writing in this volume is scholarly but accessible. He enriches historical accounts with the kind of detail that makes them not only informative but fascinating. Calvin has a bad name in some circles, but as in the case of each individual covered, his life is multi-faceted. His story was so interesting that I did not want to stop reading.

Whether by history, community, individuals or geography, George expertly traces the development of the Scriptures into the vernacular of the people. Other key figures in the process include Erasmus and of course, Luther, but many others as well, including lesser-known individuals.

If like me, you have an interest in the various texts and translations of the Bible, this is stimulating reading. The same goes for students of history. There is a wealth of historical information that is applicable to our own day. It is a rich resource for interested readers, those in ministry, and academics.
One surprise, which is relevant for interpreting the Bible, is a similar outlook between Postmodernism and the reformers. George writes, “Postmodernism has emphasized the relational character of knowledge, the role of the community (for Christians the church), in interpretation and the situatedness (language, gender, culture and historical particularity) of every interpreter. This requires that all texts, including the Bible, be approached with humility from a posture of receptivity, not with the aim of mastering or dominating what is encountered. Postmodernism calls for us to recognize our limitations, our finitude. As it turns out, these are habits of reading already deeply embedded in the Christian tradition. They are found, among other places, in the hermeneutical legacy of the Protestant Reformation” (37).
Further on George summarizes a much-needed perspective, “From the reformers we learn that the true purpose of biblical scholarship is not to show how relevant the Bible is to the modern world, but rather how irrelevant the modern and postmodern world―and we as persons enmeshed in it―have become in our self-centered preoccupations and sinful rebellion against the God who spoke and still speaks by the Spirit through his chosen prophets and apostles” (42).
The research is broad and judiciously applied. There is so much here that I will profit from any future perusals. This is an excellent reference.
The reformers reverence toward and use of the Scriptures kindles my own devotion. If this book succeeds in leading readers to a deeper love of God’s word it will have served a valuable purpose.

Snowmen DVD




Snowmen is light and weighty with plenty of teachable moments.

Snowmen (DVD)
ARCENTERTAINMENT
Approximate length: two hours plus special features

Are gross-out scenes obligatory in children’s movies? I hope not. Early on in Snowmen one child dribbles nasal fluid onto another, which is something that I could do without. Thankfully, I cannot recall any other cringe-inducing moments.

Snowmen’s primary appeal is younger children but this could be enjoyed by an entire family. It has a welcome lightheartedness, though it sometimes is too cute for its own good. One boy’s repeated use of the word “profound” gets old quickly. The film also plays to stereotypes; witness a Jamaican character’s repeated use of the word “man.” These things detract but can be overlooked.  

The story focuses on Billy Kirkfield, a young boy diagnosed with terminal cancer, and two close friends, Howard Garvey, freshly relocated with his family from Jamaica, and Lucas Lamb. The names suit their characters. “Kirk” is an ancient word for “church.” While his auto dealership-owning dad fills TV screens with obnoxious car commercials, Billy’s pulpit is his school and the larger community. Howard Garvey is as noble as his name, a loyal person willing to fight for his friends. Lucas Lamb is as vulnerable and defenseless as his last name.

Together they make a startling discovery as they play in the snow outside the Kirkfield’s house. What at first looks to be a lone boot buried in the snow, turns out to be a frozen man, seemingly forgotten by the world.

It ignites a quest in Billy to accomplish something significant before he dies. He does not want to be forgotten like the “snow man,” who was missing for a week without anyone realizing it. Though subjects like cancer, death and significance are serious, the movie never gets heavy or overly sentimental. It maintains a sense of humor.

After searching with his friends for a way to make his mark, Billy settles on the idea of setting a Guinness World Records title for building the most snowmen in a day.

What follows are some surprising and rewarding turns. The moralizing may be predictable, but it is never heavy-handed. Only briefly does a more overt Christian theme emerge: a brief discussion about whether children automatically go to heaven. The implied answer is no. By the way, I would not classify this as a “Christian” movie; there is no sermonizing or explicit Christian teaching.

I enjoyed seeing well-known actor Christopher Lloyd, who makes a brief but significant contribution.  The cinematography and scenery are also beautiful to behold. One shot shows the three boys on a hill building snowmen as day’s end approaches. Their silhouettes stand out against a dazzling backdrop of colors.

Amazingly, for a children’s movie, Snowmen is both light and weighty. It handles its subjects in a relatable way without being scary or depressing. The goofiness will try the patience of mature viewers, but the payoffs at the end are piled high like snowdrifts, providing teachable moments. This is something that a family can watch for fun and not have reason to be embarrassed.

Snow Globe - Matt Wertz




For those who love everything about Christmas

Snow Globe
Artist: Matt Wertz (www.mattwertz.com)
Label: Handwritten Records (Provident)
Length: 12 tracks/42:10 minutes

Matt Wertz’s love of all things Christmas is obvious on Snow Globe. It’s like being shaken in the midst of one and being caught-up in a swirl of wonder. It’s enough to make you rethink the seemingly mundane.

With the help of producer Ben Shive (a collaborator with Andrew Peterson), Wertz has given us a near classic. It is one of the most enjoyable Christmas recordings that I have heard. In a word, this is fun. Given that it’s a celebration of every aspect of the season, it has broad appeal. You could give this to someone who is not a person of faith without concern about causing unnecessary offense.

There is not a single misstep, and this offers a lot: a wide range of music styles (sometimes in the same song), a selection of classics complemented by well-written new songs, all conveying different moods and sentiments.

The CD also includes a handful of guest appearances. The most notable is Amy Grant on background vocals on her classic, “Tennessee Christmas.” Dobro gives it a rural, country-feel. This album is worth having just to get this updated version.

A banjo adds to the whimsy on the title track. It is not the sort of thing that one normally finds on a Christmas recording, but it is indicative of the eclectic and sometimes retro production served-up by Ben Shive. Had a known when I first saw this that he was involved, I would have jumped at the chance to review this. He is a multi-talented artist and producer who graces this with wonderful variety.

To give just one example, the most spiritually sublime moment, The Nashville Children’s Choir on “O Holy Night,” is followed by a spirited, orchestrated instrumental rendition of “Sleigh Ride.” Hold on tight or you might fall off. The only other instrumental, an abbreviated “Christmastime is Here,” is just Shive on piano. It is just the right touch for a lovely song.

New Christmas songs can be hit or miss, but the ones here are excellent. One slight drawback is light spiritual content, but that is okay. There are plenty of other recordings where it is more of a focus. What makes this exceptional is the exuberance and in how much it encompasses.

It’s also decidedly upbeat. This is no blue Christmas. Just try to stay down after listening to this.

Even better, consider becoming like some I know who have a high regard for Christmas music and are not afraid to listen to it any time of the year. You might be surprised at how rewarding it can be.

Light - Heidi McKee




McKee defeats lies by affirming the truths of Scripture.

Light
Artist: Heidi McKee (www.heidimckee.net)
Label: Independent
Length: 13 tracks/40.7 minutes

Faith is essential in the storms of life. It is easy to believe under sunny skies. When buffeted by winds of adversity, affirmation provides strength to persevere.

On Light by Heidi McKee, declarations of biblical truth and personal testimony combine to encourage and comfort listeners.

The highlight comes in a three-song section in the middle. It starts with “Living in the Light,” which revels in freedom sought and found in Christ. A driving guitar makes the chorus soar, giving a sense of liberation.

“God has Big Plans for Me” is the centerpiece. The song mentions looking in the mirror, and be it literal or figurative, that can be enough to send one into a downward spiral. McKee serves as a role model by defeating lies through affirming the truths of Scripture. “I am a work of art,” she sings, “designed by the King of kings. My God, He loves me, and He made me His own. I can stand up tall, because I know that God has big plans for me.” We can follow McKee’s example by telling ourselves what God says is true.

Most tracks are mid-tempo pop rock, occasionally becoming more acoustic as on “No Matter What Tomorrow Brings,” the last of the three songs. This opens with a beautiful, cascading interplay between acoustic guitar and mandolin. You hear this strong hook throughout the song. Lyrically, the idea is that no matter what tomorrow brings, God already has a plan. Driving home through the rain the other night, that thought brought peace, as it has each time I hear it.

A few songs are more worship-oriented, addressing God and extolling His attributes. McKee’s three children add vocals to the last three tracks, standing alone in the spotlight on the closing and slightly reworded “God has Big Plans for Me (Children).” Children need to be reminded of the same truths as adults.

Are you in need of hope and healing? Give this a try. As McKee asserts in the liner notes, God’s Word does not return void. McKee shares light to combat the darkness of lies.

Paul through Mediterranean Eyes - Kenneth E. Bailey




Analysis of language styles unlocks meaning

Paul through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians
Author: Kenneth E. Bailey
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 560

By his own admission, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey is not intended to be a commentary on First Corinthians. Though it somewhat serves that function, Bailey’s primary concern lies elsewhere.

He looks first at Hebrew rhetorical style, presenting evidence that Paul uses language styles found in the Hebrew prophets, particularly Isaiah and Amos.

Secondly, Bailey brings to life Paul’s metaphors and parables, indicating that Paul was not merely illustrating but creating meaning.

Lastly, he looks at a representative sample of the translation history of 1 Corinthians into Syriac, Arabic and Hebrew. He continually shows how “Middle Eastern Christians have read and understood the text” (19) over the course of the last 1,600 years.

This serves as a wonderful supplement to a formal commentary. Despite the fact that it may not be classified as such, I think of it as one. Bailey’s knowledge of Middle Eastern manuscripts combined with his astonishing examination of Paul’s writing continually brings forth new understanding of the biblical text. He covers all the verses, though not all are examined in detail.

He looks at them in sections, being distinct parts of the messages that Paul wants to convey. He makes extensive use of diagrams that plainly show Paul’s precision. They are not as easy to read as the text that summarizes the meaning, but it is the best way to show the connections between the verses. In thirty plus years as a Christian, I have never seen anything so revealing. It is not as though Bailey is manufacturing hidden codes, he just quietly goes about showing what is there. I wondered if I could make these language patterns plain on my own, and I do not think I could. Bailey’s analysis is masterful throughout and represents a lifetime of learning. This book is a real gift to Bible students everywhere. However valid hidden Bible codes may be, this is much more exciting, especially since it seems authentic and sheds new light on familiar passages.  

Bailey’s study of 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul speaks of head coverings, a difficult passage for moderns to understand and apply, is astonishing. Some, to say the least, have seen Paul’s views in general as dishonoring to women. Bailey shows that this reputation is undeserved and clearly wide of the mark. In his summation he writes, “Seen in this light, our understanding of the text and of Paul’s view of women are transformed. Women, for Paul, are not created ‘for men,’ that is, for their bed and board. Rather women, as descendants of Eve, are placed by God in the human scene as the strong who come to help/save the needy (the men). In this reading of the text, Paul the Middle Eastern male chauvinist disappears. In its place Paul emerges as a compassionate figure who boldly affirms the equality and mutual interdependency of men and women in the new covenant. I would submit that this is the heart of what Paul has to say in the five cameos that make up the center of this homily. This reading of the text helps explain why Greek women of high standing were attracted to Paul’s message and why they joined the movement he represented” (310).

I imagine women everywhere cheering these liberating thoughts. Let me add that there are many other gems, for men and women, just like the preceding. I must admit though, this book was worth reading just to find that passage. It is not because Bailey is saying what appeals to me, but because more often than not, his reading seems to get at the heart of what Paul was trying to say.

Reading this book reminded me of how often, despite our well-intentioned efforts, we get it wrong. I am not saying that the average person cannot understand the meaning of Scripture. I just rejoice in getting closer to the truth through people like Bailey, who has a wonderful blend of scholarly insight and humility. Even he acknowledges that it is difficult to fathom the depths of meaning in some passages.
Bailey has the tools to unlock passages that do not yield their treasures to the casual reader. This is what makes this book so rewarding. It is the treasure that an enlightened teacher is able to bring forth drawing on what is old and new.

This is not devotional reading or application-oriented, although the reader can find material along these lines. If you enjoy sound exegesis, this is for you. Let devotions and applications flow from a better understanding of the text.

If I was a pastor consulting a commentary or commentaries on 1 Corinthians, I would want to compare what I found with what is contained in this book. This is an excellent choice for any library.

Glory - Michael W. Smith




Smith’s worshipful “Agnus Dei” is the crown of this recording.

Glory
Artist: Michael W. Smith (www.michaelwsmith.com)
Label: The MWS Group distributed in the US by Provident Distribution
Length: 12 tracks/52:24 minutes

I like to hear Michael W. Smith play the piano, and Glory features him in a classical film score mode backed by The London Symphonica. The latter makes for booming crescendos and delicate accents, all tied together by Smith’s piano, free from the constraints of popular music formats.

It is a little like Paul McCartney’s forays into classical music. No pop. No rock. This is the means for a creative genius to express himself in a different way.

In Smith’s case, this follows the similarly-styled Freedom (2000), another fully-instrumental companion. Just as “Thy Word” was interpreted in a new context on that release, Smith’s worshipful “Agnus Dei” is like the crown of this recording. It has never sounded so timeless, beautiful and majestic. Orchestration adds an element not found on the original.

Another highlight is Mark Baldwin’s classical guitar on “Joy Follows Suffering.” It complements the piano notes. The same could be said of the scattered violin solos of Concertmaster Gabrielle Lester. Conductor, arranger, and co-producer, David Hamilton, makes the orchestra sound superb.

The magical moments, when the music seems most transcendent, made me glad I was listening to this just prior to Christmas. It has a little of the wonder of the season. It is the sound of flutes and strings floating through the air.

The “Glory” relates to the dedication and the song titles, which carry a patriotic theme. It would be entirely fitting for this to be a soundtrack for an epic adventure with a war-time setting, such as our nation is in today.

Like me, fans of Michael W. Smith, may feel like strangers in a strange land, one moment caught up in broad sweeping movements of orchestration, followed by a gentle stillness. And yet, allowing myself to be immersed in this wild landscape of sound, I feel as though I could become comfortable. I can grow in my capacity to appreciate this style of music.

First, Freedom, and now, Glory. Well done Michael. Continue to create as only you can.   

Shake Heaven - Victory World Music



Multi-cultural worship shakes heaven and earth

Shake Heaven
Artist: Victory World Music (www.victoryworldmusic.com)
Label: Independent
Length: 12 tracks/1 hour

On “Shake Heaven,” the title track from Victory World Music, listeners hear “gonna shake heaven / takin’ back the music.” This talented group of worship leaders takes back the music by infusing popular music styles with praise and adoration to God.

In particular, the first four tracks rely heavily on programming to put the celebration of God into a modern urban context. Club beats, hip-hop and R&B join together. Although the soulful style is heard throughout, the electronic urban grooves are most prominent in these early tracks.

The songs that follow have more organic instrumentation and rely less on synthesized sounds. The rest of the recording moves closer to modern worship but the artistry and production save it from the generic forms that characterize much of the genre. New life gets breathed into tired expressions through creative variety.

“Hungry” and “Breathe” are new, not the popular worship anthems from a few years ago. In fact, all of the songs are new, which is the fruit of a desire to create original material.

Towards the end of this release it gets more acoustic with less production as the songs transition from praise to worship. “Lifter of My Head” is a beautiful piano-driven ballad with strings. It includes the lovely line, “Jesus, save me from all of my sadness / pour on the oil of gladness.”

“These Hands” is an epic song that creatively expresses God’s many works. The more praise-oriented “You Are” is a delightful change-up with its upbeat, joyful outlook.    

The smooth-voiced singing, a variety of music styles and stellar production make this unique. The urban, R&B influence has a broad multi-cultural appeal, which is part of what Victory World Church is all about. They seek to be a place where all nations and cultures worship together.  

This is the debut release from the music side of their ministry, led by Montell and Kristin Jordan. Montell Jordan enjoyed mainstream R&B success before becoming a full-time music minister at the church.  

One Silent Night: An FFH Christmas



Christmas is about God having the last word.

One Silent Night: An FFH Christmas
Artist: FFH (www.ffh.net)
Label: 62Records
Length: 10 tracks/38.9 minutes

Satan wants sin, shame and tragedy to be the last word. But as Michael Card put it in “The Final Word”:

He (God) spoke the Incarnation and then so was born the Son.
His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one.
Spoke flesh and blood so He could bleed and make a way Divine.
And so was born the baby who would die to make it mine.  

God has the last word, and it is Jesus.

It is the same word that FFH invites us to consider on One Silent Night. This goes beyond the celebration of a birth to the thought found in the familiar refrain, “Let all the earth receive her King.” No Christian contemplation of the birth of Jesus is complete apart from touching on the reason for it.

FFH does not disappoint in this regard. Mixed among seasonal standards and carols are four original songs, which all have spiritual depth. They take us from the manger to the cross, to the recognition that Christ is the long-awaited successor to the throne of David, Israel’s popular king. Unlike the latter, Christ’s reign will never end. He is King of an eternal kingdom.  

What intrigues are the new settings created for these themes. “Let all the earth receive her King” is part of the chorus of “One Silent Night,” which in its title references another popular Christmas carol. The song ends with the refrain “O come, let us adore Him.” Electric guitar propels “Winter Wonderland” into an upbeat pop song, which segues into a brief excursion of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

The crowning achievement comes on the finale “Heaven and Nature Sing.” This combines verses from John 1 with phrases from “Joy to the World.” Here the harmonizing is at its best on a simple but gorgeous tune.

This husband and wife duo alternate singing lead throughout, but in the opening “Baby it’s Cold Outside” they banter back and forth in a way that fully realizes the romantic nature of the song.  

Jennifer Deibler takes the lead on two of my favorite Christmas songs: “O Come O Come Immanuel” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The former appropriately has stripped-back production and more of an ancient feel, being acoustic with cello and flutes. The focus is on the solemn lyrics. This emphasis continues on the latter with a bit more production that includes a shimmering guitar.

This release also provides the opportunity for the effective use of violin, which is featured on a couple of tracks.

This is FFH’s first Christmas release, which was four years in the making. 

We Once Were - Rush of Fools



Rush of Fools rocks solid after two years of turmoil.

We Once Were
Artist: Rush of Fools (www.rushoffools.com)
Label: eOneChristian Music
Length: 12 tracks/44.2 minutes

“We Once Were” by Rush of Fools is a defining song. This is decidedly rock on the pop/rock spectrum, covering the same ground as artists like Switchfoot. Driving rhythms mix with snatches of acoustic bliss. The band moves seamlessly from one to the other in a matter of seconds.

“Come Find Me” calls to mind the words of the ancient hymn, “The Ninety and Nine”:  

There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold;
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold.
Away on the mountains wild and bare;
Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.

It’s a plea that “if you ever leave the ninety-nine / Come find me.” Fortunately, we don’t have to wonder if Christ is willing to come after a lost one, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 ESV). This second song also rocks, but is more melodic than the opening title track.

Though their sound has a hard edge, the band is quite versatile, encompassing a number of styles. “Grace Found Me” is a pop ballad that showcases a mellower side of the band. “No Other Love” stands out as a whimsical, joyful celebration of God’s unconditional love. The sound is acoustic with hand-claps and mandolin. Noted songwriter Jason Ingram shares a co-write on this and “Beginning to End,” which extols God’s attributes and is a solid entry into modern worship. “Help Our Unbelief” is hard rock with a touch of goth.

The CD ends fittingly with “Inside and Outside,” which chronicles struggle in the Christian life. It yearns to know that God is still working. It calls to mind the apostle Paul’s certainty in relation to a group of Christians, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6 ESV). The last words heard are, “I’ll be alright, I’ll be alright.”

This expresses the confidence that comes with experience. After making a big splash with their first two recordings, Rush of Fools encountered label problems, which sent them into hiatus for the last couple of years. Their future was in doubt. What they became through that difficult time informs the songs on this third release.

Invisible Empires - Sara Groves




Have you ever been lost in wonder at something quiet and beautiful?

Invisible Empires
Artist: Sara Groves (www.saragroves.com)
Label: Fair Trade Services
Length: 11 tracks/41 minutes

“Miracle” is a stunning opening to Invisible Empires by Sara Groves. It stops me.

Opening songs are often upbeat, but this is a beautiful, pensive ballad that makes me listen. I suddenly want to hear what I have not heard and see what I have not seen.

It is the antidote to Groves’ question to her friend Jill Phillips, “Do you feel that?” “I feel like the pace of life keeps getting faster and faster,” Groves explained. “Everything feels so frenetic these days.”

On “Precious Again,” Groves asks, “Where is the wonder?” Image is a journal that features the words “Art,” “Faith,” and “Mystery” on every spine and across the top of each issue. Often I am too dull to feel it, but these elements combine to break through my stupor.

It is what makes Invisible Empires appealing. There is depth that I can plumb. There is sophistication that makes me marvel. These songs take me to places inside myself, reminding me of the wonder awakened by music.

It can also be sobering. “Eyes on the Prize” is dedicated to International Justice Mission, an organization that seeks to bring justice to victims of sex trafficking and other types of enslavement. It is an encouragement to be in it for the “long haul.”

“Pain is no measure of His faithfulness,” Groves sings on “Open My Hands.” “He withholds no good thing from us.” The lyrics point out the fallacy of measuring God’s steadfast love by circumstance rather than His unchanging word.

“Right Now” is somewhat of a curiosity at only 48 seconds in length. At first, I thought it was a tacked-on ending to the preceding song. Actually, it’s a swift kick-in-the-pants. It is recognizing that we can do what God wants us to do. No excuse allowed.

“Finite,” written with Jill Phillips, is a witty rejoinder to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” I relish the weariness: “What God meant by woman, I’m hard pressed to find.” It reminds me of the apostle Paul’s sublime thought of glorying in weakness so that the power of Christ would rest upon him.

For the thoughtful, there is much to explore on this CD. It is not as loud as some of her previous work but there is plenty of subtle variation. It may be her best yet.

This is part of the invisible empire that God is building. Groves has not labored in vain. Our work is never perfect, but God shines through providing glimpses of His glory. Listen and be in awe of what God can do with an open hand and heart.

The Love in Between - Matt Maher


If you can relate to struggle, this CD will resonate.

The Love in Between
Artist: Matt Maher (www.mattmahermusic.com)
Label: Essential
Length: 12 tracks/47.6 minutes

Matt Maher’s The Love in Between is a pleasant surprise. Coming after Alive Again (2009) I was expecting more modern worship than pop rock. Maher may be best known for “Your Grace is Enough,” but on this release he shows empathy for the fight of faith.

In Between feels different than its predecessor. The emotion is raw and the sound edgier. Credit in part goes to producer Paul Moak, who I first encountered on Derek Webb’s How to Kill and be Killed DVD. His guitar prowess was a highlight. His influence gives this a rock sound that complements the gritty lyrics.

Moak and Maher share a number of co-writes, and Maher also writes with Chris Tomlin, Jason Ingram, Mia Fieldes, Leeland Mooring and Robbie Seay. Most of these are well-known in the worship community, but this is not modern worship. The last song, “The Spirit and the Bride,” is the exception.

The two songs written with Mia Fieldes are mature reflections. “Every Little Prison (Deliver Me)” reminds me of Rich Mullins’ “Save Me.” It covers some of the same ground, but this track is far better. “Every Thing and Nothing” is filled with the same longing that comes from world-weariness.

Maher finds freedom in being honest about faith. It is Jacob wrestling with God and receiving the blessing. The process is painful, but we are changed. As the line from “Turn Around” reminds us, it begins with a decision: “You don’t need to move / Love has come to you / All you gotta do is turn around.” Maher repeatedly encourages us to come to terms with reality.  

This includes two excellent, back-to-back love songs, which slow the tempo. Maher provides variation by making the second more acoustic. In the first his lover is compared to grace and mercy.

The CD title comes from “Heaven and Earth,” which touches on the familiar now-but-not-yet aspect of the Christian life. We are seated with Christ in heavenly places while having an earthly sojourn. God sustains us through the tension: “Between Heaven and Earth / Oh, You’re all I need, You’re all I need / Between Heaven and Earth / You’re the love in between, the love in between.”

I am all for various types of worship, especially those that exude creativity. Unfortunately, popular forms are often unoriginal. I am glad that Maher chose to make a pop rock record that explores the reach for God. This sounds fresh, and the truthfulness is a form of worship that we can appreciate. If you can relate to struggle, this CD will resonate. 

Response - Phil Wickham




A powerful God calls for powerful worship

Response
Artist: Phil Wickham (www.philwickham.com)
Label: Fairtrade Services
Length: 11 tracks/45:50 minutes

From the earliest days, expressing worship through music has been on a trajectory. You can trace it from the beginnings of Jesus Music through labels like Maranatha, Vineyard and Integrity. It will not peak until the day that Christ returns but all that has gone before has surely led us to this place.

Who knew that combining rock and worship could be so powerful? Power is sometimes associated with loud in Scripture: The God of glory thunders! Loud is not inconsistent with worship: “Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5 ESV, italic added). I like quiet as much as anyone, but loud is powerful. It can be an appropriate response to an all-powerful God.

This idea of response is behind Phil Wickham’s latest offering. Worship is our response to God’s revelation. Worship is personal, but Wickham makes it collective. He employs more musicians, writers and producers than on any previous projects, including the well-respected Brown Bannister as a co-producer. Wickham succeeds in creating songs that are inviting so that people will sing along.

This is a collection of tracks that are easy to get into but have depth. Wickham even waxes poetic as on “Sun & Moon”: “If you are the sun, I want to be the moon / I want to reflect the light that shines from you / And if this is war, then I’m gonna draw my sword / This time I know what I am fighting for.”

Modern worship can be narrow in scope, but I appreciate the subtle diversity found in both the lyrics and music. For example, how often do you find a song about joy (“Joy”), a response to all that God has done? The focus of the next track is all about there being but one God (“One God”).

It may be typical of the genre, but the yearning for God and recognition that He is all we need is movingly evoked. Thankfully, the focus is not on our lack but God’s sufficiency. There is a recognition here and elsewhere in this movement that worship is not about us but about the person of God. There is a good balance between the extolling of His attributes and the cry of our hearts to know and love Him.

The European influence in the music is felt throughout and adds a unique texture. The Edge-like guitar work, witness the opening sounds of “Heaven Fall Down,” can make it sound like Wickham is being backed by U2. You could also easily mistake this for Delirious.

Wickham is doing modern worship as well as anyone. He is among the leaders of a new generation that are declaring God’s praises.

The first single, “At Your Name (Yahweh, Yahweh)” is like a banner waving high with an anthem-like chorus accompanied by explosive guitars. A powerful God calls for powerful worship, and this song like so many on this release conveys it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Marauder - Mickey Thomas




A slew of classic rock covers from the voice of Starship

Marauder
Artist: Mickey Thomas (www.mickeythomas.com)
Label: Gigatone
Length: 16 tracks/70:15 minutes

If you are a fan of The Beatles, you will most likely enjoy Marauder by Mickey Thomas. He covers three Beatles’ songs and one each by Paul McCartney (“Maybe I’m Amazed”) and George Harrison (“Wah Wah”). “Rain” and “Across the Universe” have more heft but retain a touch of psychedelia and have brief nods to a couple of other Beatles’ songs. “Rain” is one of the best cuts. “Oh! Darling” is pushed further toward the ‘50’s sound that it was intended to honor. Like several songs it has some brass accompaniment. The piano runs on “Maybe I’m Amazed” are a delight. The notes are pristine.

In this collection, much of it classic rock but also containing more recent hits, Thomas faithfully recreates the originals while enhancing them in subtle ways. One that changes a little more is the opening “Gimme Shelter,” which is given a swampy blues treatment. It is decidedly acoustic but still has plenty of grit and works well.

One of the most poignant moments is Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.” Thomas sings it beautifully making it as moving as ever.

He consistently shows his versatility in being able to sing in a variety of styles. You could call him a musical marauder for being able to plunder different genres and making them work. On the longest track, Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova,” he is in the anthem rock mode. Whether it is ballads, pop or singing to heavier accompaniment as on “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Voices,” he does it well.  

One advantage of a collection like this is that you get songs you might not have in your library. Here you get two solid back to back classics, Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady,” made famous by Joe Cocker, and Bob Seeger’s “Hollywood Nights.” The changes are slight making these likeable substitutes if you don’t have the originals. Thomas does such an admirable job that you can almost forget that these are covers.

Thomas is best known as the voice behind Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” and the Jefferson Starship/Starship hits “We Built This City on Rock and Roll,” “Sara” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Though nothing here quite matches the emotional intensity achieved on those heights, Thomas’ voice is strong, and these are interesting and fun versions, which makes for enjoyable listening. Beatles’ fans in particular can be thankful for such fab versions of their songs, and all of these tributes are tastefully done. Praise is due for mostly strong song selection and the excellent support from long-time friend, producer, keyboardist and ace guitarist Jeff Tamelier. 

Saying Grace - Geoff Moore


Moore continues his solo career with some of his best work.

Saying Grace
Artist: Geoff Moore (http://www.geoffmoore.com)
Label: Simpleville Music 
Length: 10 tracks/41:43 minutes

I never knew Geoff Moore during his days of fronting The Distance, but I am glad to know him now. Aside from appreciating the music, my fondness for verse is rewarded on Saying Grace. As on his last outing, Speak to Me (2007), he offers seasoned perspectives on life. On “The Story of Love,” he wonders about his legacy, recognizing that his best moments are beyond his control, “Cause the sweetest moments of my life appear unexpectedly / And the reason they take my breath away have nothing to do with me.” Gentle wisdom like this is sprinkled throughout these ten songs.

This perspective is hard won, coming with age and the unexpected. But far from being morbid, Moore looks with hope toward that day when it will be over: “And when the sun finally sets / May I be free of all regrets.” He then emphasizes, “No regrets.” He may be reminding himself, but it is also something that he wants listeners to get. He reminds us too on “Loved” that God’s love for us never changes. It is constant, whether we rise up or fall down. Not even our worse days can separate us from it.  

Moore’s sentiments are alternately adorned with folk/pop styles and rock; the latter hearkening back to the days of his former band. A case of the latter is “The Long Way,” where the music complements the sense of abandon. It opens with, “How ’bout we empty out our pockets / How ’bout we cut a few strings / I think a lighter load might be what this journey needs.” The verses on this track are consistently good, one of my favorites being, “But I’ve discovered when I am honest / That’s when my faith is most alive.”

Whether he rocks or sings like a lone troubadour, the execution is excellent. I find him most compelling when he leans toward Americana. This is where his musings run the deepest. Plus, there are lovely accents like mandolin and pedal steel. Don’t be put off by thought of the latter. The twang is absent, and when employed it is beautifully blended. In general, this release has a judicious mix of electric and acoustic elements.    

“The Wonder of Kindness” is one of the most intriguing tracks. Is Moore singing of human or divine kindness or both? Is the care of others reflective or an extension of God’s consolation? Regardless, it is Moore at his most tender and delicate. Once again the mood is expertly conveyed not only in the words but the music.

Moore ends quietly with “Made to Love,” a song of worship. The keyboard-driven, pensive melody frames the chorus: “I was made to love You / I know this for sure / And as surely as I love You / I know this is what I was created for.”

Seasoned artists like Moore are often not at the height of their popularity, which is unfortunate, since they have the maturity that comes with experience. Here he is reflective, but also energetic. Moore is a songwriter and musician who should not be overlooked. Saying Grace is time well-spent. 

Telling Time - Tanya Godsey



Godsey shows that if you leave room for God, He still writes the best stories.

Telling Time
Artist: Tanya Godsey (www.tanyagodsey.com)
Label: Independent
Length: 10 tracks/45:35 minutes

The artistry in Tanya Godsey’s Telling Time sets it apart. It is a thoughtful engagement with life befitting a Christian artist. Truth and grace, struggle and hope are expressed in subtle but rewarding ways. Some of these treasures were gained in the darkness, which gives them more luster. The excellence found throughout adds to the beauty and makes this a pleasure to hear.  

Godsey deserves credit for great writing, which includes a few co-writes. She also gets the best possible support with musicians like Jerry McPherson, Blair Masters and Chris Donohue, studio players with long resumes. It helps too when you have Scott and Christine Dente of Out of the Grey and Chris Rodriquez singing background vocals. Scott Dente also plays acoustic guitar and shares the producer credit with Ken Lewis. Together they are known as Global Genius Productions.

The concept of story played a part in this release. In the fall of 2009, Godsey and her husband Jake read Donald Miller’s A Thousand Miles in a Million Years, which suggests that the elements in a great story also make for a well-lived life. Overcoming adversity to attain something is a familiar theme in the best dramas. Thankful for their comfortable life, but challenged by Miller’s thoughts, Godsey and her husband began praying for opportunities to live a better story not knowing what would come. A series of circumstances reinforced her calling to music but it also included a time of sickness, suffering and loss. It’s where lines like the following in “How to Be Thankful” come from: “Before I go to face my father's graves oh I pray ... Your storms would stay ... till they take what they came for ... take what You came for ... is this what you came for ... well take what you came for.” That maturity, which wants God to accomplish His purpose in the storm, informs the lyrics on this release.

The same confidence is found in the music. The opening “White Page” with its warm piano notes and snappy production sounds like a Top 40 song. It was the fourth track, “Daylight,” that took me by surprise. The tension in the stanzas is beautifully resolved on the chorus. Here and on the title track she sounds a little country, reminding me of Susan Ashton.

This release brings a new sound to the Christian market. The style and production is on par with the best mainstream recordings. You could hear these songs on the radio and not know they were by a Christian artist unless you were paying close attention to the lyrics. Ironically, there is more depth here than releases that have more explicit spiritual references.

There is not a bad song in the bunch. Hopefully, this will get the attention that it deserves even though Godsey is not well known and her last release, Nothing Less Than Everything (2005), was six years ago. If she qualifies, she deserves consideration for best new artist.

Godsey’s life experiences have given her plenty to share. No blank white page here. God has written some precious things that she shares in way that will appeal to a broad spectrum of people. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Lutheran Theology - Steven D. Paulson


Martin Luther’s theology discerns between law and gospel.

Lutheran Theology
Author: Steven D. Paulson
Publisher: T & T Clark International (www.continuumbooks.com)
Pages: 292

The emphasis on our standing before God makes Lutheran Theology by Steven D. Paulson a significant book. “Luther said the ‘sum and substance,’ of Paul’s letter to the Romans ‘is to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh’” (1). Paulson goes on to state: “The second task of all theology is to make way for a completely foreign, new righteousness that has no law in it at all―‘we must be taught a righteousness that comes completely from the outside and is foreign. And therefore our own righteousness that is born in us must first be plucked up’” (2). The goal or meaning of life becomes a person, Christ (3). It goes beyond just imitating Christ. “It is a new life outside the legal scheme without law at all. It means to have a new life outside one’s self who is dead according to the law, and in Christ exclusively” (3).

Paulson goes on to make a valuable point: “The key to any theology, especially done the Lutheran way, is to ask what role the law plays in its system” (4). Distinguishing between law and gospel is a major theme in this book, which is organized as a commentary on the book of Romans. The focus is on key verses and ideas rather than a verse-by-verse explanation, which Paulson elucidates from a Lutheran perspective. Even so, 

Paulson’s outstanding scholarship makes this a unique and valuable commentary. His breadth of knowledge is evident in frequent references to historical events, the writing of others, and his understanding of Scripture.
In relation to the latter, he is not afraid of controversy. Chapter 1 starts with the appropriate subtitle, “The Bombshell.” Predestination is central to Lutheran theology. “There is no free will, no choice, no decision, no acknowledgement, acceptance or any other verb you could try to give the human in relation to the Creator” (20). Presumably, this thought is drawn in part from Luther’s famous book on the subject, The Bondage of the Will.

Along with this idea, when the author repeatedly states that “everything happens by divine necessity,” (19) he not only puts a potential stumbling block before readers, he leaves me wondering how that relates to tragic events that occur. Does this mean that God was behind the terrible events of 9/11? As learned as Paulson may be and as skillful as he is with the Scriptures, I cannot help wondering about a doctrine that seems to imply that God causes horrific events. As controversial as this may be, it is educational to see Paulson’s defense of this teaching and to consider what is true. If you can get past this, there is much to appreciate in Paulson’s thought, but this doctrine is foundational to what he teaches in the rest of the book.

Though Paulson might in some ways be wrong on the issue, I appreciate how often his insights go deeper than what you typically find in churches, Bible studies and popular Christian books. Consider his thoughts about what Luther learned about faith: “Luther had discovered what made humans human―it was not thought, or will, or even love; it was faith alone. He learned that the heart is not made for itself; it is made to go outside itself and cling to that which speaks to the heart. Humans are therefore ‘hearing’ creatures whose heart is always clinging to some word or other. Unfortunately, words from the preacher are easily drowned out by other voices, and especially imaginary voices of what one sees or feels internally. Faith alone is what justifies us, but faith is never a virtue or attitude of a person, or some instrument or power which the person possesses. Faith goes outside itself, since faith requires something to believe in, and that something is God’s word as a promise―or else what faith grasps ends up being an accusing law” (57).

Typically, Luther is associated with thoughts like these and in particular the idea of being made right with God through faith. Reading this book helped me to realize how much more there is to Luther. His depth of insight is evident as Paulson walks us through Luther’s thought in relation to the entire book of Romans. 
Paulson points out that Luther recognized that God’s faithfulness is central to Romans. “For Luther the key teaching in Paul’s letter to the Romans is the certainty of faith. Faith is certain precisely because it is not a power of humans, but depends upon God’s faithfulness to the promise―precisely while the recipients are unfaithful. Hope does not yet see its glory, but faith already has Christ so salvation is secured in re―in fact” (220).

Lutheran theology is a theology of the Word. “The preached Word makes the church, which word is solely authorized by the law and promises of Scripture. Justification and church depend utterly on God’s faithfulness to that Word: ‘That thou mayest be justified in Thy words (deum justificare)’” (238). This is why Lutherans view the office of preacher as the highest in the church.

It is also why preaching is foremost in the signs of a true church: “Signs of (a) true church are therefore all acts of preaching: sermons that distinguish between law and gospel, baptism, Lord’s Supper, Absolution, the calling of a public minister from among the Royal priesthood, and suffering for the gospel―the exact opposite of any sign of glory or power in the world” (239). I appreciate the thought that suffering is the norm for this life (exaltation comes in the next), which challenges believers to cling to the promises despite seeing evidence that would seem contrary to them.

Lutheran Theology is but one in a series of books. The other titles and authors in the series are as follows:

Catholic Theology – Matthew Levering
Anglican Theology – Mark Chapman
Reformed Theology – Michael Allen
Methodist Theology – Kenneth Wilson
Baptist Theology – Stephen Holmes

If this book is indicative of the scholarship in the series, any of these volumes would be worth reading. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides: Luke


Let one of the world’s finest theologians lead you in a study of Luke.

N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides
Luke: 26 Studies for Individuals and Groups
Author: N. T. Wright with Patty Pell
Publisher: IVP Connect
Pages: 142

One of my earliest memories as a new Christian was answering questions in a bible study book. Back in the late seventies, branding of popular Christian authors was not what it is today where you have a multitude of bible studies tied to high-profile Christians. Nevertheless, my plain-looking booklet, covering the basics of the Christian life, accomplished the same purpose as its fancier modern-day relatives. It forced me to read and ponder the texts of Scripture that I might know and apply the meaning.

I wonder how many make use of this kind of resource? Most of the teaching we get is given to us without requiring much effort on our part. The potential payback of using a bible study guide is high. Finding truth through your own diligent study is meaningful and memorable. There is joy in discovery, and thoughts of what you learn linger.

Today there are a host of competent study guides that can be chosen. Each one will have some of the author’s distinctives, which is not necessarily bad but something to keep in mind. No person’s judgment is infallible. It is helpful, however, to learn from an experienced teacher, recognizing that what they see or highlight might be different from another teacher. This is why it can be beneficial to go through a study with others and even consult additional resources like a bible dictionary or commentary. It can serve to more fully bring out the meaning and possible applications of a text.

N. T. Wright’s Luke as the subtitle indicates is appropriate for individuals and groups. Each of the 26 studies starts with a creative open designed by Wright to get the reader thinking along the lines of the lesson. This is followed by a study section that includes questions and space for writing answers. Like a modern-day scribe, his questions lead readers to new discoveries. Along the way he interjects small bits of commentary. As a practical consideration, it may be easier to use a notebook or legal pad for writing and taking notes. Suggestions for prayer close each study.

Those who appreciate Wright’s ability to convey the larger picture will not be disappointed. His kingdom perspective that rightly sees Christ and His salvation as the continuation of one long story is an influence. Wright’s interest in how Scripture relates to history and social justice is also felt.

Wright has studies covering most of the New Testament books with the last four study guides forthcoming.

You can’t go wrong with a resource like this. If you can appreciate the scholarship of one of the finest theologians of our day, avail yourself of this or one of his other studies. It is helpful to let a favorite author, minister or teacher lead you in a study of Scripture.

Come to the Waters (Collector's Edition) - Children of the Day

Genuine come-to-Jesus moments make this a classic Come to the Waters (Collector’s Edition) Artist: Children of the Day Label:...