Monday, November 30, 2015

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion - Os Guinness

It will never be enough to win an argument if we lose people. 

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion
Author: Os Guinness
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 267

C. S. Lewis. Francis Schaeffer. Josh McDowell. When Christ took hold of me these individuals were highly influential in the world of evangelical apologetics. The latter is a term used to describe the task of defending the faith, particularly against the attacks of those who seek to undermine it. One example from this time period is Evidence that Demands a Verdict, a bestseller that is an astonishing array of factual and historical analysis, even if it isn’t highly readable.

In Fool’s Talk Os Guinness argues that apologetics can no longer be the same. Today, someone like Roger Waters (co-founder and principal lyricist of Pink Floyd) proclaims himself a radical atheist. The new atheists are not marginalized. They brazenly write best-selling books, give their lectures on college campuses and gain the attention of mainstream media.

It’s not enough in response to present facts, proclaim the truth and win arguments. This book is all about becoming winsome. The subtitle says it all. This subject has never been more of a necessity, since so many have little or no interest in listening to what Christians have to say.

Guinness is masterful in every aspect of where we are today and what we need to do. I cannot imagine a better book on the subject being released this year.

This is not a presentation of facts to be learned but an approach to be made. If the heart of apologetics is the heart of the apologist, this covers all the bases. The author consistently gets it right on every topic.

A favorite response to the anatomy of unbelief, which is covered quite extensively, is a strategy used by G. K. Chesterton known as “table turning.” “This strategy turns on the fact that all arguments cut both ways. It therefore proceeds by taking people seriously in terms of what they say they believe and disbelieve, and then pushing them toward the consequences of their unbelief. The strategy assumes that if the Christian faith is true, their unbelief is not finally true, and they cannot fully be true to it. At some point the falseness shows through, and at that moment they will experience extreme cognitive dissonance, so that it is no longer in their best interest to continue to persist in believing what they believed until then. When they reach this point, they are facing up to their dilemma, and they will be open to rethinking their position in a profound way” (109).

I wonder if someone like Roger Waters is aware of all the consequences of his belief. Has he ever considered the logical outcomes? He may be aware that believing “A” implies “B, C, D,” but what happens when you get further down the line.

I appreciate the fact that Christians can believe “A” and suffer no loss of integrity in the consequences that follow. Christ is the Alpha and Omega. From A to Z there is no breakdown in truth.

To be sure this is a strategy from the negative side, but there is also a broadly positive one called “signal triggering.” “This strategy proceeds by making people aware of their human longings and desires, and what these passions point to. These are longings and desires that are innate and buried in their lives. In particular, the strategy draws their attention to what have been called the ‘signals of transcendence’ that are embedded in their normal, daily experience. These are indicators that grow out of very positive experiences and, like beeping signals, puncture their present beliefs and point beyond them toward what would need to be true if these signals are to lead to a fulfilling destination” (109-110).

Does this rely too much on strategies and techniques? “The lost art of Christian persuasion certainly includes a method, but a method that is overwhelmed and utterly lost in the message that shapes it and the Master whom it serves. In other words, whatever little of apologetics is method must come from our experience of God and his love, his truth and his beauty, which are the heart of faith” (45). All that is said must come from and lead to love and the One who is love.

I respect Roger Waters for his accomplishments. The music that he helped create has been part of the soundtrack of my life. I would to God that he becomes as I am in relation to faith. Never have I found anything that makes better sense of life. Nor have I ever found greater peace and love. That’s not to say that I can comprehend or explain all the incongruities of life, even in my own experience. But I’ve come to trust One who is more real than the air I breathe. 

Anyone interested in apologetics and evangelism—the two cannot be divorced—will be well-served by this book. It shows how to be persuasive and so much more. It will never be enough to win an argument if we lose people.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

God With Us - Laura Story

“Let us find our rest in Thee”

God With Us
Artist: Laura Story (
Label: Fair Trade Services
Length: 10 songs/41 minutes

I could not help being interested in God With Us by Laura Story. I like Christmas music, and secondly, anyone who can write songs like “Indescribable” and “Mighty to Save” gets my attention. Plus, I know that her faith has been tested in the furnace of affliction. Her husband, Martin, was diagnosed early in their marriage with a brain tumor and their lives have never been the same. It’s not that they are worse off. It’s more like broken but better and that carries over into her ministry, making it all the more appealing.  

God With Us is Story’s first Christmas album. This includes “Emmanuel,” which was previously released in 2008. Story lists Amy Grant as a favorite for Christmas music, so it’s not surprising that this incorporates a variety of styles including an orchestra and choir on some tracks.

Like many Christmas releases there is a mix between classics and new songs. In this case, all are spiritually-oriented, which makes sense given that Story has become an established artist in the worship genre. Several tracks are along those lines, and the material here can stand alongside the best of it.

An interesting hybrid of old and new is “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” A chorus has been added to the classic text and the music is similar to what you hear in congregations that employ modern worship. This third track gives us the first taste of orchestration, which complements but never overwhelms. It’s almost like an introduction to a couple of later songs that are highly orchestrated. The latter may be a bit much for those who favor contemporary sounds and can live without the strings and such.

And yet one of them, “Behold the Lamb of God,” an Andrew Peterson song, though heavy with orchestration, is a beautiful duet with Brandon Heath. This is a definite highlight.

Another notable collaboration and highlight is “O Come All Ye Faithful,” where Steven Curtis Chapman harmonizes on the vocals. This has a roots rock-like feel with banjo and handclaps. It’s a joyful sound. It may be my favorite.

It took me a few listens to appreciate the a cappella version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” I’m not sure that I like how the choir backs the lead vocal in the first part.  Not employing instruments makes the opening on the next track, “Emmanuel,” all the more powerful.

Perhaps the most gorgeous moment comes after an instrumental overture, when Story opens “I Lift My Eyes” by softly singing, “I lift my eyes to the hills/Where does my help come from?” This is an orchestrated track but in this quiet moment she is just accompanied by piano. It’s a lovely lead up to the last song.

“Silent Night” is little more than Story and an acoustic guitar, but it’s one of the best songs.

If you collect Christmas albums, and even if you don’t, this is worth having. It succeeds in being modern but incorporating ancient elements. For those who favor spiritual substance, there is plenty here. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Burning Edge of Dawn - Andrew Peterson

Gracious Uncertainty

The Burning Edge of Dawn
Artist: Andrew Peterson (
Label: Centricity Music
Length: 10 tracks/38:12 minutes

If you like literate expressions of faith, The Burning Edge of Dawn by Andrew Peterson is one of the best you will find on record. I’m not being literal with regard to the latter. Unfortunately, the album is not available on vinyl.

Striking lines abound. One of my favorites comes in a dream sequence from the opening “The Dark Before the Dawn,”

I had a dream that I was waking
At the burning edge of dawn
And I could finally believe
The King had loved me all along

Why is it such a struggle to believe that last line?

What moves me about this release is the grace through which Peterson walks the line between certainty and uncertainty. In “We Will Survive,” Peterson addresses his wife,

Oh, Jamie, I’m all alone out here
And all I need to know is in the wind

And now I don’t recognize a thing
I need a brand new song to sing

In my Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers speaks of this graciousness of uncertainty, “We are uncertain of the next step, but we are certain of God” (April 29th). In the preceding verses, Peterson conveys something similar. We may be shaken and not know what lies ahead, but we can be sure of God. As Chamber puts it, we can be certain in our uncertainty.

Peterson’s willingness to share doubt and weakness makes it easier for those who struggle to relate. In the same song, which is 10 out of 10, he goes on to say,

So tell me the story I still need to hear
Tell me we’re gonna make it out alive again
I need to know there’s nothing left to fear
There’s nothing left to hide
So look me in the eye
And say we will survive

Peterson has the humility to ask for reassurance since the outcome is unknown. When he sings “tell me the story I still need to hear” it speaks to me of our ongoing need of grace. We need to be continually reminded of the truths of the gospel.

Peterson’s unpredictability in verse is intriguing, but this track had me before Peterson even uttered a word. It starts with the beautiful notes of a hammered dulcimer. You can hear it elsewhere, but not as prominently as here.

“The Rain Keeps Falling,” inspired by the Luci Shaw poem, “Forecast,” is almost alarming.

I’m so tired of this game, of these songs, of the road
I’m already ashamed of the line I just wrote
But it’s true, and it feels like I can’t sing a note
And the rain keeps falling down

You will never hear a song like this at a health and wealth conference, but that’s a pity because it’s rich in authenticity. “And the rain keeps falling” is a repeated refrain, which is a metaphor for the relentlessness of trouble. In the middle of this storm, Ellie Holcombe sings a counter refrain, “Peace, be still.”

Towards the end, though the words reflect desperation, I find comfort in the object of their desire,

I just want to be new again
I just want to be closer to you again
Lord, I can’t find a song
I’m so tired and I’m always so wrong
Help me brave tonight
Jesus, please help me out of this cave tonight

Musically, Peterson has been heavier—this might be described as acoustic pop/rock—but he has never sounded better. This is one of the best albums of the year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Old Testament Theology, Volume One: Israel’s Gospel - John Goldingay

The First Testament is good news that has not been heard

Old Testament Theology, Volume One: Israel’s Gospel
Author: John Goldingay
Publisher: IVP Academic (
Pages: 940

This is the first (originally published 2003) of three volumes on the Old Testament. The “first volume amounts to a theological commentary on the Old Testament story” (Preface). It does not focus on the contents of the “law,” the Prophets and the poetic books.

The author confines his study to the books of the Old Testament. He makes occasional references to other Jewish writings but does not treat them as a source for stating Old Testament theology.

“Old Testament theology attempts not merely to describe the faith implied by the Old Testament but to reflect on it analytically, critically and constructively” (17). Goldingay defines the task as seeing “what greater whole can encompass the diversity within the Old Testament” (17).

I appreciate the author’s point of view that it’s “wise to keep closer to the Old Testament’s own categories of thought in order to give it more opportunity to speak its own insights rather than assimilating it to Christian categories” (18). In other words, he avoids reading Christian meanings into the text. It thus provides an opportunity to know what a text might have meant to the original author and recipients. New Testament writers may make a different application, but that doesn’t mean it did not have an important meaning in its original context. Where the two testaments differ, Goldingay sees it as an opportunity for Christians to learn something.

Further on, along the same line of thought, Goldingay writes, “Only when people have learned to take the Old Testament really seriously can they be entrusted with the story of Jesus, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer more or less argued” (21). The author’s perspective is that the Old Testament is good news that has not been heard. Goldingay’s aim in this volume “is to discuss the Old Testament’s own theological content and implications, working with the assumption that the Old Testament is Act I to the New Testament’s Act II (or Acts I-IX to the New Testament’s Act X!)” (26). Therefore, he prefers to call it the First Testament.

This first volume treats “the Old Testament as the story of God’s relationship with the world and Israel” (28). Goldingay’s telling of it is masterful. It’s a little like reading it for the first time. His scholarly exegesis continually surprises and even puzzles.

An example of the latter is the idea of God gaining knowledge through the process of discovery. “Stories about Babel and about Abraham (Gen 11; 18; 22) will concretely show God taking steps to come to know things. They will again show that God has extraordinary knowledge, but will incorporate no declaration that Yhwh is omniscient, and preclude that by the way they portray God acting so as to discover things: ‘I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether in accordance with the cry that came to me. If not, I will know’ (Gen 18:21) … Talk of God acting to find something out is anthropomorphism, but like talk of God having a change of mind or loving or speaking, such anthropomorphisms presumably tell us something true about God’s relationship with the world” (137). Further, he adds, “In dialogue with Greek thinking, Christian tradition let God’s possession of supernatural knowledge turn into God’s possession of all knowledge” (137). Give him credit for being faithful to what the Scriptures seem to say, but what are the implications. Is God, therefore, not all-knowing? Would other scholars support this interpretation?

Right or wrong, when Goldingay is provocative it can lead to closer examination. What does the text actually say?  Christian tradition can read potentially suspect meanings into a passage. What is commonly called the “Fall” is one example. “In Christian tradition the ‘sin’ of Adam and Eve thus brings about the ‘Fall’ of the human race” (144). The author sees the story as “more about loss than one about a fall: about loss of innocence, loss of relationship, loss of possibilities, loss of life” (144).

He continues this elaborate discussion by discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the term. Though it might seem just a matter of word usage, it shows the author’s commitment to being precise and accurate. Although sometimes the attempt to differentiate may leave a reader slightly confused about what the author means. The book doesn’t provide the luxury of clarifying questions as in a classroom setting.

Overall, I find his discussion praiseworthy like when he reviews the union of divine beings and humans in Genesis 6. He carefully avoids the kind of wild speculation that sells popular books. He is not interested in going beyond what is clearly stated in Scripture.

For me the Creation part of the story was interesting but not as compelling as it is for the stories that follow. This is not a commentary, but because of its comprehensiveness and the extensive Scripture index in the back, it can serve as one. It’s a first-class textbook and excellent companion for making sense of the Old Testament on its own terms.  

Saturday, September 26, 2015

No Longer My Own - Cheri Keaggy

Refined faith makes for a mature perspective

No Longer My Own
Artist: Cheri Keaggy (
Label: Independent
Length: 11 tracks/44 minutes

Cheri Keaggy’s faith has been tested since her Charlie Peacock-produced debut, Child of the Father (1994). That opened with the soaring, worshipful “Make My Life an Altar.” Keaggy opens No Longer My Own with questioning, “What would You have me to write/What would you have me to tell the world/What could I possibly say/How can I possibly change the way things are …” The music jogs along with a sober assessment of the pain and evil in the world.

“Overcome” truly speaks to our time, reminding us that God is here and that nothing escapes his notice. There is no need to fear. This is not a na├»ve view; it’s an honest look informed by the reality of God. It’s this perspective, which you find throughout, that makes this rewarding.

In the next song Keaggy sings, “It was good for me to be afflicted that I might learn your decrees.” This is a line from Psalm 119:71. The lyrics follow the pattern of the psalm by extolling the virtues of Scripture. The shuffling rhythm builds in intensity while Keaggy describes what the Word accomplishes.

Whereas some past efforts could fall into the praise and worship category, this goes deeper with thoughtful musings on a variety of subjects. These songs are not designed for congregational singing and that’s fine because I enjoy the reflections, whether serious or lighthearted.

The most startling is “Be My Sabbath.” “If faith without works is dead, I need to die for a day or a very long weekend.” It’s maximum angst with a gritty sound. It expresses a desire to cease from striving and have God as your source.

This song has the heaviest-sounding guitar work; most tracks are keyboard-driven. My guess is that the majority came into being through the piano. They are mostly mid-tempo songs. I wondered if the guitar playing was her uncle, Phil Keaggy, who makes guest appearances on her releases.

I discovered that he is responsible for the joyful ukulele sounds on “Whatever is True (Phil. 4:8).” It’s the primary instrumentation. In the last stanza she applies the list of attributes from the verse to Christ.

“I Love Your Company” is a beautiful picture of a parent’s love for a child. It made me think of God’s love for His children, how He longs for them to abide. The melody is like a gentle caress.

I hear longing in “Jesus, One and Only.” It’s just Keaggy playing a simple tune on the piano while she intimately expresses her desire for God’s comfort.

This closes with Annie J. Flint’s “He Giveth More Grace,” which leads into part of “I Surrender All.” It includes a uillean pipe, the national bagpipe of Ireland. Some may recognize this hymn from the lines of the first stanza:

                He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater,
                He sendeth more strength as our labors increase;
                To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
                To multiplied trials He multiplies peace.

Choices like this are indicative of the maturity found on this release.    

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ancient Christian Texts: Commentary on John (Volume 2) – Cyril of Alexander

Key early text defends the Christian faith

Ancient Christian Texts: Commentary on John (Volume 2) – Cyril of Alexander
Translator and author of introduction: David R. Maxwell
Editor: Joel C. Elowsky
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 394

Cyril of Alexandria’s commentary on John challenges me in a way never intended. As the translator notes in his introduction, “Cyril’s literary style is complex and wordy. His sentences are lengthy, full of interlocking clauses, and his vocabulary can be unusual, even idiosyncratic” (xx). I confess to struggling with the drawn-out ideas.

I recognize that at times I was too tired when I sat down to read. In addition, Cyril wrote this to be a reference. Commentaries like this one are not designed for casual reading.

The translator in his introduction provides helpful advice in how readers can enter Cyril’s world of thought, which covers John 8-21. Volume 1 covers the first seven chapters of the gospel. In short, passive reading is not recommended.

One thought that helps me is that Cyril is engaging in “doctrinal explanation” and “he clearly employs the Gospel of John to refute the arguments of the Arians, Jews and pagans” (xvii). He equips his readers to answer their arguments.

He strongly defends the divinity of Christ and is careful to use precise language, “When we say that the Son and the Father are ‘one,’ we do not confuse the individuals who are numerically distinct, like some who say that the Father and the Son are the same person. Rather, we believe that the Father subsists on his own, and the two come together into one identity of substance” (77). He glorifies God by continually defining the members of the Trinity.

A point of view that differs from more recent reference works is just one aspect that makes this and the related volumes valuable. Cyril frequently looks at a passage from more than one angle, which helps to clarify the possible meanings.

One example is the beginning of John 9, where the disciples asked Jesus who sinned, the man born blind or his parents. The answer, of course, is that neither of them sinned. In explaining the passage, Cyril makes reference to an Old Testament passage that refers to God visiting “the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation.” He then describes the distorted view of some, who thought of God as bearing grudges and being severely wrathful. He suggests what it might mean for God to visit sins upon the third and fourth generations. In the end he justifies his view that the meaning of this passage does not contradict the idea of God being long-suffering and abundant in mercy.

The way Cyril uses Scripture to interpret Scripture and his tendency like others at that time to “interpret a given text in light of the overall sweep of God’s salvation” (xxii) is something to watch and enjoy. The latter differs from the emphasis today of discovering the original intent by looking at surrounding verses and historical context. Cyril does not ignore this; for him it’s step toward the goal of defining how a passage fits into the oikonomia, the technical term used for God’s plan of redemption. He repeatedly uses this word, which shows the centrality of it to his exposition.

This makes 12 volumes in the Ancient Christian Texts series, with five more projected. The related Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, differs in that you have multiple sources in one volume. Here you get a key early text that shaped the thought of Christians.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


I find it enriching to listen to music that communicates from a cultural context different than my own. 

Artist: Blanca (
Label: Word
Length: 14 tracks/48:35 minutes

In the wake of recent events, I want to find solidarity with African Americans. One small way I can do that is gaining a greater appreciation for their music.

Looking back I had little influence toward the work of black artists. What I heard was on the radio or the occasional Supremes record played by my dad. As I reached the record-buying age, my first purchases were Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys and The Beatles. Most of the sounds that surrounded me were pop and then later rock. Maybe I naturally gravitated towards this, and not having family and friends into Motown and R&B, left me listening to mainly white artists. Whatever the reason, I can see that I was impoverished by not exploring other styles.

Imagine the void in our culture without the music of African Americans: no Hendrix, no Robert Johnson, no Miles Davis, no Aretha, no Michael Jackson, no Sister Rosetta Tharpe, no Ethel Waters (who else could have immortalized “His Eye is on the Sparrow”), no B. B. King, no Stevie Wonder, no Whitney, no Smokey Robinson (“The Tears of a Clown” is a classic), no Reverend Gary Davis, and I could name many more. Not only the black community, but our world would be the poorer without the Negro spirituals.

How can the haters hate a race that has helped bring humanity together through its music? In this sphere alone they have shined like a light from heaven.

Perhaps unknowingly and in a small way, African American artists have done what professor and author, Jeremy Begbie envisions as a role of Christian art, “Christian art, I believe, whatever else it evokes, will surely have a dimension of promise about it, a flavor of hope” (Image No. 85, p. 55). 

Now unless I’m mistaken, Puerto Rican-born, Blanca, shares this ethnic origin. If I’m wrong, there goes my introduction, even though it’s something that I have wanted to say. It should now be obvious that racial violence and injustice remain a problem.

From 2003-2013 Blanca was a member of Group 1 Crew, a Christian hip hop group. On this, her first full-length release, she branches-out from that base, fusing electronic and organic elements with urban and pop styles, tending toward one or the other on different songs.

Interestingly, “Sunshine” has a wonderful Caribbean rhythm, made all the more sunny by the happy sound of steel drums in the background. Is this the island influence? Perhaps more importantly, it is the flavor of hope. The theological concepts in her music provide that added dimension of promise.

Similarly, “Echo” adds euphoric notes on the stanzas. Listen closely for those sounds of joy. We need all the encouragement we can get.

Two of the more urban-sounding songs feature guest appearances by Lecrae and Tedashii giving rapid-fire raps.

Some tracks deal with identity and affirmation; others are discipleship-oriented, advocating surrender and obedience in relation to God. Blanca is not coy about sharing her faith.

This is a fine debut (not counting an EP released earlier this year) that stands on the shoulders of artists, some previously mentioned, who have given us some of the best music this world has ever heard.

I find it enriching to listen to music that communicates from a cultural context different than my own. We can learn to hear what may be foreign to us and become part of a conversation. It involves effort to get out of one’s comfort zone, but the reward can be greater understanding and communication. It’s detrimental when we dehumanize those who are different. Engaging with releases like this enhance my ability to dialogue.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Challenge of Jesus - N. T. Wright

Wright makes the quest for the historical Jesus a matter of discipleship

The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is
Author: N. T. Wright
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 204

Each time I read N. T. Wright I am the better for it, and The Challenge of Jesus is no exception. This dives deeply into the quest to discover the historical Jesus. In a field that is often marked by liberal scholarship, it’s refreshing to read someone who takes the subject seriously while avoiding much of the confusion and errors.

For those new to the subject, this is a fine introduction. I trust Wright even if I don’t always agree. He brings a depth of scholarship and wisdom to each subject that he engages. If nothing else, his applications at the end make this worthwhile. I never imagined that I would be promoting the work of someone in the Anglican faith, but Wright thrills me with his breadth of analysis, an evangelical heart and an all-encompassing vision.

Early in my Christian life, a church I formerly attended frequently referenced the proverb, “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint …” (Proverbs 29:18 ESV). We heard it as “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” No danger of that here. If I had a complete collection of Wright’s works, something I would relish, I would be well-served. I would not be casting about to find some larger narrative to make sense of life.

Wright is consistent is asserting that God’s plan has always been to save the world through Israel. The birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the fulfillment of that intention. It’s not just a matter of personal salvation. It’s much bigger. It includes the eventual redeeming of all creation. In the meantime, it groans with us as we long to be part of the ultimate manifestation of the kingdom of God.

Some may be tempted to think that thoughts and studies like this have no practical value. Wright answers: “If church leaders themselves spent more time studying and teaching Jesus and the Gospels, a good many of the other things we worry about in day-to-day church life would be seen in their proper light” (31).

Wright never advocates engaging in “abstract dogmatics to the detriment of our engagement with the world, but that we should discover more and more of who Jesus was and is, precisely in order to be equipped to engage with the world that he came to save. And this is a task for the whole church, especially those appointed to leadership and teaching roles within it” (31).

I commend his attitude: “I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship. I doubt very much if in the present age we shall ever get to the point where we know all there is to know and understand about Jesus, who he was, what he said and what he did, and what he meant by it all” (15). Wright sees this as the leading means to exploring God himself.

He goes on to examine what Jesus meant when he said the kingdom of God is at hand. “First, he believed that God had purposed from the beginning to address and deal with the problems within his creation through Israel…. Israel was to be the means through which the world would be saved” (35).

Wright then explains that the works and words of Jesus “make the point that the return from exile was happening in and through his own work” (42). Christ “was doing what the prophets always warned: he was judging Israel for her idolatry and simultaneously calling into being a new people, a renewed Israel, a returned-from-exile people of God” (41).

The author then turns his attention to what it means to become the new people that inhabit the kingdom coming into being. What Jesus did in relation to the key symbols of Israel—Sabbath, nation and land, and temple—play into what God was calling His people to be.

Would a Jew in the time of Jesus have any concept of a crucified Messiah? How did Jesus think of himself and his role? Wright briefly looks at these issues but saves the best for last.

Probably even more than the scholarship, I enjoy when Wright gets practical because he advocates creativity. It’s not just preaching; it’s enacting the saving message of the gospel in every sphere of life. He tells us: “You are called, prayerfully, to discern where in your discipline the human project is showing signs of exile and humbly and boldly to act symbolically in ways that declare that the powers have been defeated, that the kingdom has come in Jesus the Jewish Messiah, that the new way of being human has been unveiled, and to be prepared to tell the story that explains what these symbols are all about. And in all this you are to declare, in symbol and praxis, in story and articulate answers to questions, that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not; that Jesus is Lord and Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are not; that Jesus is Lord and neither modernity nor postmodernity is. When Paul spoke of the gospel, he was not talking primarily about a system of salvation but about the announcement, in symbol and word, that Jesus is the true Lord of the world, the true light of the world” (187).

Sometimes, for whatever reasons, our horizons begin to shrink. Our vision can die. It’s for this reason I appreciate the expansive views that Wright offers.

Don’t misunderstand. He’s not advocating triumphalism. “It’s a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world …” (189). Our means must always be cross-shaped. Suffering love is the order of the day.

There is so much more than can be conveyed through what I have written. This is a valuable resource in the search for the historical Jesus.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Above it All - Phillips Craig & Dean

Nothing but open road; this is what hope feels like

Above it All
Artist: Phillips Craig & Dean
Label: Fairtrade Services
Length: 10 tracks/39:27 minutes

On a recent trip I went to bed feeling utterly discouraged. I woke the next morning with “Come as You Are” going through my mind, one of ten songs from Above it All by Phillips Craig & Dean.

The melody and words conveyed a sense of God’s presence and comfort:

Come as you are
As you are
with your heart wide open
And broken
Come as you are
With your wounds and your scars

I appreciate the encouragement to come in my brokenness. It implies acceptance despite failure, which broadens my outlook.

Grace and hope are themes in this recording. The opening, “What Hope Feels Like,” puts it like this:

It's nothing but open road
Now that I'm not alone
I'm saying hello to life
This is what hope feels like

The open road is a picture of no obstacles and progress on the journey. Not being alone, having Christ in one’s life, leads to a brighter day.

I'm learning to live again
I'm learning to love again
I'm learning to dream again
It's like I've been born again

Those with more sophisticates tastes can easily find fault with praise-band worship styles, but I recognize that it can add power to the lyrics. It can be like the sound of rushing waters. After my dark night of the soul, the strong melody and the words of “Come as You Are,” reminded me that God was with me. I could begin again. That very morning my scheduled reading included: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). If I can only keep coming no matter what happens, I will find rest.

Phillips Craig & Dean are among the artists that rose to prominence with the surge in modern forms of worship. Some of their greatest moments have come when they harmonize on power choruses and moving, ballad-like expressions of devotion. “Shine on Us” from My Utmost for His Highest and “Let My Words be Few” from the album of the same name are examples of the latter.

These quieter expressions don’t seem as popular today. The sound here mostly thunders, particularly on the choruses, and the producer has done an excellent job of adding EDM elements to modernize without significantly changing the group’s style. “Let it be Known” goes the farthest toward EDM, and it works. I never would have expected this from Phillips Craig & Dean, but I give them credit for wanting to stay relevant musically.  

These slight deviations interest me the most. Two of my favorite examples are “Hope Has a Name” and “Voices from the Other Side,” back to back tracks. They feature a beautiful interplay of acoustic instrumentation, restrained vocals, and even some storytelling. It left me wanting more, but I realize that many may prefer the more forceful songs. I like them too, but I also appreciate the more acoustic and organic moments, revealing another side of worship.

This consistently sounds a triumphant note. So if you are feeling a bit broken, come as you are. Listen and feel your horizon expand as hope comes alive.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Duck Commander: Devotions for Kids - Korie Robertson & Chrys Howard

I don’t know much about Duck Dynasty, but I recognize a worthwhile devotional.

Duck Commander: Devotions for Kids
Authors: Robertson, Korie & Chrys Howard
Publisher: Tommy Nelson
Pages: 223

Before reading Duck Commander: Devotions for Kids I knew little more about the Robertsons, the stars of Duck Dynasty, than I did about the Kardashians. Thanks to this book I have a new respect for the former. I don’t know much about duck hunting, but I know an excellent devotional when I read one.

It uses concepts and language that a child can understand. Each devotion starts with a simple story from the Robertson family. Sometimes humorous, but always attention-getting, they lead to basic thoughts about a verse of Scripture.

The first one is a favorite: “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb. They make a person happy and healthy” (Proverbs 16:24). This and most of the other passages are taken from the International Children’s Bible.

The verse above precedes the thought, “You have the power to change someone’s day just by the words you use” (16). The concluding idea sums up the focus, “When you use your words to build someone up, that is using your voice to make God happy” (16).

Each section includes a short prayer and ideas for application. The title, “Words to Waterproof,” is drawn from the latter. “There are special sprays that will waterproof your boots so rain will roll right off them. Using kind words helps to waterproof the people you love, causing other unkind words to roll right off them. You will be like a kindness umbrella, covering your friends and brothers and sisters with love!” A profound thought for any age group; this is representative of the well-written and creative exposition of Biblical truth.

You don’t have to know about the Robertsons or their show to benefit. I have not seen a single episode, but reading this showed me how serious they are about their faith. There is nothing controversial here, just solid, insightful thoughts about putting the Bible into practice.

During the course of reading this I had a discouraging morning at work one day. As I sat in my car on a break, I decided to read the next devotional. It just happened to be “Handling Disappointments.” I read the verse, “Give all your worries to him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

The story followed. Sadie wanted to be a cheerleader, but when she didn’t make the team, she became discouraged. Discouragement is common to all, but “What we don’t have to do is stay disappointed” (126).

I kept reading, “When something disappoints you, learn to get over it quickly” (126). It was just what I needed. I left my car feeling a little lighter than when I started my break. I was better prepared to return to the trenches of working retail, an environment that I sometimes liken to controlled chaos.

The application section for this theme references the expression, “turn lemons into lemonade.” It then instructs, “Make some fresh-squeezed lemonade to remind yourself to turn ‘sour’ days into happy days” (127).

The book succeeds in providing activities like this one that serve to get a child interacting with family, friends and others, the outdoors, and in general, the world at large. Actually doing something related to what we read reinforces it.

This covers a wide range of subjects, including an emphasis on sharing Jesus with others. So much of what a child needs to live a well-rounded Christian life is here.

Holli Conger, the illustrator, makes the graphics and colors eye-catching. I’m glad that the human figures represent the diversity of skin shades in our world.  

I learned more about the Robertson family through the engaging stories, but of course, this is not the focus. The Robertson’s experiences point to Jesus and the Word. The emphasis here is helping children get closer to God and others. This is an admirable effort that works well toward that end.

Reborn - Finding Favour

Rural sounds and storytelling among the highlights on first full length

Artist: Finding Favour
Label: Gotee Records
Length: 11 tracks/40:42 minutes

Just learning that Toby McKeehan (aka tobyMac) is a co-executive producer and that this is on Gotee Records, the label he cofounded in 1994, is enough to interest me in Reborn, the first full album by Finding Favour.

Don’t expect this to sound like tobyMac’s music. Casey Brown is the producer, and the opening “Refuge” is a soaring worship anthem along the lines of Phil Wickham. The sound and style also remind me of Coldplay. I’m thinking, This is a pop/rock/worship band.

Though this Vidalia, GA band formed in 2005 may be that in part, I’m glad there is more. I appreciate variety; I don’t want to hear the same song over the course of an album. They could have easily done that on the remainder of this release.

The next song, “I’ll Find You,” has an energetic hook that sounds a little like an Irish reel and includes a shouted “hey!” It may be a small departure from the first song but that is just the beginning.

Song number three takes me back to my classic rock days. “Cast My Cares,” turns on power chords similar to what you hear on “Baba O’Riley” by The Who. It makes the forceful delivery of the chorus all the more powerful. This is not a sweet “cast your cares” song. I like those, but this is a declaration. It’s a resolve not to be anxious. This is also the first single.

“Feels like the First Time,” song four, is a joyous ode to marriage. One reason for this is the prominent banjo playing and the lighthearted sentiments. This erases any thought that this is just another praise and worship band.  

The fifth song, “Be Like You,” is sentimental but not overly sweet. It could easily chart on country radio. It expresses desire for God’s help in anticipation of the birth of a baby girl.

It’s becoming apparent that I hear a welcome Mumford & Sons influence. It’s a full sound complemented by acoustic and rural accents.

The title track, the sixth song, has a brief hammer dulcimer prelude. How I wish that had remained more prominent in the mix. The song celebrates new life in Christ. It reverts to a pop/rock sound; not unwelcome with its fullness, but I would like to hear what it could be with the dulcimer not being buried and more acoustic highlights. Calling tobyMac! I want a remix.

Track seven, “Tiny Town,” celebrates hometown roots. Again, this has a strong country influence. Like songs four and five, it engages in storytelling, which I find desirable and is not typically found on praise and worship recordings.

The next song, “Till Your Kingdom Comes,” mines Mumford & Sons territory with spirited singing and prominent handclaps. This is the kind of welcome variation that the worship genre needs and is becoming more prevalent.

Track nine, “On the Water,” is a favorite for its vulnerability. Here walking on the water is a metaphor for risk in the Christian life. It’s sometimes scary. I appreciate the unadorned electric guitar playing in the first part. The instrumentation is beautiful throughout and the production more sparse, a plus in my outlook.

“Hallelujah One More Time” is modern worship but sounds a little too common.

The closing, “Say Amen (Reprise),” ends in an appealing subdued style. This is a revamp of the song that was released as the band’s second single in 2014. The lyrics would fit well in an African-American setting, but the style is more country than gospel.

This is easy to like; a welcome relief from one style of worship. I appreciate the variation.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Eye’M All Mixed Up: Remixes - TobyMac

A fascinating mix of sounds adorns an unassuming style

Eye’M All Mixed Up: Remixes
Artist: TobyMac
Label: Forefront Records/Capitol
Length: 11 tracks/43:48 minutes

I never knew booming beats, high tech wizardry and scratchy noises could sound so good. And this is a remix! What must the original sound like?

Normally, I think of a remix as a lesser creation, but hearing Eye’M All Mixed Up by TobyMac has my head swirling. It’s like stepping onto the dance floor and suddenly the lights go down, the music drops, and my senses are dazzled.

I’m out of my natural element, but developing an appreciation for art of the highest caliber, I’m impressed by such a wondrous blend of synthesized and organic sounds. I could never imagine this back when I first heard Jesus music. I’m grateful that a Christian artist could become so relevant to a new generation.

Those accustomed to more conservative fare may not relate, but for the young and those open to appreciating new ways of communicating this is entertaining and meaningful.  

As TobyMac sings, “It’s always been about the music/Hoping God would use it to set some people free.” His combination of truth and grace in an assuming style goes a long way towards that end.

Being a lover of verse, many lines caught my attention. One of the most dramatic is sung over a sublime quick-tempo beat, “I want to lose myself, lose myself to find you (repeats)/I don’t care how it sounds/Burn it all to the ground/Your kingdom I desire” (Lose Myself – Capital Kings Remix). I appreciate the willingness to endure any cost to gain what matters to God.

A powerful autobiographical moment relates to concert performances: “The crowd is calling out/They want the beat to drop/But what we really need is you.” This mature attitude is also reflected in the chorus: “If you want to steal my show/I’ll sit back and watch you go/If you got something to say/Go on and take it away” (Steal My Show – Jack Shocklee Remix). May every servant of Christ have a likeminded humility.

On “Mac Daddy (Tru’s Reality) (Telemitry Remix)” TobyMac gets playful and humorous as he recalls a time when he desperately wanted a Mac computer to begin mixing beats, “I want a Mac/I want a Mac, Daddy/I need a Mac/Them apples don’t grow on trees.” This world could use more lightheartedness in music. I applaud this subtle effort.

One of the most refreshing moments comes right after the opening, high-energy title track, “Cause we all make mistakes sometimes/And we all step across that line/Nothing sweeter than the day we find, we find forgiveness” (Forgiveness – feat. Lecrae, Neon Feather Remix). It resonates because it rings true.

How different the world might be if we started a gentle revolution along these lines by speaking life to those around us. “Speak life, speak life to the deadest darkest night/Speak life, speak life when the sun won’t shine and you don’t why/Look into the eyes of the brokenhearted/Watch them come alive as soon as you speak life” (Speak Life – Telemitry Remix).

I would say more about the music but words fail to convey the creativeness. Advances in technology elevate this to a level that did not exist back in the days when it was mostly organic instrumentation. It’s a little like the leap when Bob Dylan angered his folk music following by going electric. It shows the power of this means when used with restraint and a pop sensibility. It’s a fascinating mix of sounds.

My only disappointment, be it ever so slight, is that two tracks are remixed twice. I favored the first ones over the second ones that come towards the end.

It’s no wonder that TobyMac has met with so much success since his former group DC Talk disbanded. He knows what matters most and it’s obviously not what comes with being a pop star. His faithfulness to calling, as evidenced here, is as inspiring as the music.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III: Luke

Beth Kreitzer provides a female perspective on Luke’s highlight of women.

Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III: Luke
Editor: Beth Kreitzer
Publisher: IVP Academic (
Pages: 573

I find myself listening for the voice. Not just the voice of the many fine commentators found in Luke, volume III in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series, but the voice of the editor, Beth Kreitzer.

Readers have the opportunity to get a feminine perspective on commentary derived from Luke’s gospel, which highlights the role of women. As the general editor, Timothy George, notes, this volume, along with those in the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (a related set), makes a special effort to include the voices of women whenever possible. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that for various reasons few theological and biblical works were published by women in an earlier time period.

So for each passage examined, it’s more than a little interesting to get Kreitzer’s views on the assorted comments that follow. Her thoughts provide background and clarify the reformer’s overarching concerns.

She is also not afraid to gently chide them, “The Savior of the World is now present, and all those who hear the good news are saved by their faith in him—including Mary, who, these preachers are at pains to point out, is saved by her faith in her son, not by being his mother” (22).

Her brief articulation of Luke by way of an introduction is excellent. She explains that the majority of comments come from sermons, as they best fit the purpose of this work. The reformers never wavered in preaching the gospel. She also covers major themes, controversies and sources.

Timothy George’s extensive introduction to this series is equally impressive. It’s a joy to start with these two fine summaries.

One of the pleasant surprises is the occasional appearance of an unexpected voice, William Cowper, the author of the hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” He was a friend of John Newton, the writer of “Amazing Grace.” It’s not just his spirituality that intrigues, but his lifelong struggle with depression and despair. Yet despite the valleys he descended, the words he wrote, some found here, should resonate with those who wrestle with the complexities of the spiritual life.

His inclusion is representative of many lesser known lights included in this book. There is plenty here from the likes of Calvin and Luther, but the other voices are no less profound.

Their perspectives, as well as the others, are sometimes less common than modern ones. In his thoughts on the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, Johannes Brenz writes, “He (Christ) came to this poor cottage to show that poverty and sickness are not as neglected and condemned by God as they are by human beings. For in this world there is nothing more abject than poor people, and no one less regarded than those who are sick. But Christ comes to these and shows that of everyone he cares the most for them. Therefore, those who are oppressed with poverty and afflicted by sickness should not faint or be discouraged, neither should they think that because of their poverty and sickness they are rejected by God. But let them be sure that the more they are pressed down with afflictions, the more they are beloved and regarded by God” (107).

Devotional thoughts like these remind me of Matthew Henry, a saintly commentator. His godliness shaped his outlook. To read his words and those found in this volume is like breathing a rarefied air. It’s refreshing!   

A pastoral concern is evident. If modern commentaries lean towards the academic, this is closer to shepherding the flock. Both aspects are necessary, and it’s a good reason to have both kinds. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors.

Projected volumes in this series will cover the entire Bible. As of this writing there are seven volumes available. This should not be confused with the related series, Ancient Christian Texts and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. All three are recommended for the early perspective that they offer. They will be a great addition to any theological library, and it helps support this valuable work.

It gives voice to the reformers, who occupy a particular era of church history. They deserve a place at the table just as much as anyone else. Though they have passed on to their eternal rewards, they still speak in these beautifully done volumes. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Transcending Mysteries - Andrew Greer & Ginny Owens

Getting beyond Jesus versus the God of the Old Testament

Transcending Mysteries: Who is God, and what Does He Want from Us?
Author: Andrew Greer & Ginny Owens
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Pages: 188

July 20, 1999 marked the release of Without Condition, the debut recording of Ginny Owens on Michael W. Smith’s Rocketown Records. The album contained the disarming piano ballad, “If You Want Me To,” her best known song.

The transparency in that song is evident in this collaboration between Owens and Andrew Greer, another singer/songwriter. The personal stories they tell are captivating. It enables readers to know them in a way not possible through their songs. So if you are a fan of either artist, this is worth reading. Those not familiar with their work need not wonder if they can benefit for God is the focus.

This looks at Old Testament passages to see how He reveals Himself. Is He different from what we know of Him in the New Testament? This is what these two authors take turns exploring.

This investigation reminds me of what fellow recording artist Michael Card has been doing through his writings. Greer and Owens are following in his footsteps by leading readers into Bible study, and in this case, illustrating what it looks like to be in relationship with God.

I cherish their insights. In identifying with the inferiority that Moses felt, Owens, who is blind, writes, “Blindness was a sign of brokenness. Who wants to wear brokenness as a badge for all to notice? Who wants to allow her weakness to be on display? Give me a few more years of life experience, and I am convinced that the weak, broken parts of me have the most potential to encourage and relate to others in the way the put-together me simply cannot” (82-83). This kind of insightful application is representative of what you find throughout.

It all springs from an examination of God’s character. In considering how an enemy of Judah’s King Hezekiah misrepresents God, Greer writes, “Hezekiah’s challenge is an opportunity to understand how scriptural history reiterates the notion that God does not operate tit for tat. The dictatorial, micromanaging personality often prescribed to the God of the Old Testament by generations of believers who have been scarred by legalistic pasts is simply not present in this passage. God’s sovereignty, His authority or prerogative as Creator of the cosmos, relies solely on His character. God is operating out of His innate qualities, which we are trying to carefully uncover throughout this book” (95).

Passages like this should dispel any notion that you can expect a lightweight read. I was pleasantly surprised by the accessibility and depth of the material. This is helpful for anyone wanting to know what God is like.

Especially meaningful to me as a single person were the stories shared by both authors that touch on relationships. As Owens writes, “I ended up in a relationship that would eventually bring me lots of heartache and regret. The effects would take years to work through” (27). Each author shares some of their personal failings in their ongoing journey toward wholeness. Owens readily identifies with the longing that Hannah felt. They both suffer but gain hope as Owen writes, “From the broken parts of our stories, the best songs emerge” (38). Perhaps only a musician could put it in such beautiful terms.

The challenge the authors present is not just to study the Bible but be in community. “The notion that we are designed to be in communion with each other has been reiterated over and over in my life experiences,” (33) Greer writes. He even sees this in relation to Scripture, “The support of community in valuing and understanding Scripture has been imperative to my spiritual life.… I make a frequent habit of asking friends whom I trust, as people first and as thinkers second, to discourse on a handful of cultural hot topics infiltrating the cross-section of society and church today. What is their take on what Scripture says about each topic? How do they interpret that Scripture in the day-in and day-out of their lives? How are their relationships and their lives directly affected by each topic of conversation?” (175). The objective is to “live well and connect with God even better.”

Most impressive is how others have been there for both authors at their most vulnerable moments. Owens writes, “As we eliminate false gods and re-center our worship on the Eternal, we need trusted community to walk with us, pray for us, and enlighten us with their own faith-building experiences” (169).

The format of this volume is noteworthy for its liberal use of white space and creative way of highlighting key sections and thoughts. The display of The Voice translation, the primary bible text used, makes it easy to read. It’s the first time I have seen it, though it was published in 2012. God is referred to as the “Eternal One.” Reading an unfamiliar translation helps me to see the text anew. Questions for reflection, song lyrics and quotations grace the front and back of each chapter.

This is part of the Refraction book series published by Thomas Nelson. Several other interesting-looking titles are now available at The aim is to offer biblical responses to the biggest issues of our time and to respond to those who differ in transparent and respectful ways.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How Can it Be - Lauren Daigle

A voice like Adele and a passion like Misty Edwards make for an impressive debut.

How Can it Be
Artist: Lauren Daigle (
Label: Centricity
Length: 12 tracks/50:48 minutes

The voice I hear on Lauren Daigle’s debut, How Can it Be, reminds me of Adele and the International House of Prayer’s, Misty Edwards. Each of them can sound both smoky and delicate. It adds weight in this God-directed release.

Like Edwards, Daigle is a worshipper. She continually addresses the Almighty. These songs have more in common with the intricacies of the Psalms than the sing-a-long variety. Modern worshippers rejoice! This has plenty of substance.

Like Adele, the music is a hybrid of styles creating something new and modern. It’s a triumph of acoustic and synthesized sounds. A number of tracks have a distinctive hip-hop rhythm.

A personal favorite is “Trust in You,” whose title could easily be a theme for the recording. The handclaps bring a smile, as well as the chorus, “When you don’t move the mountains I’m needing you to move/When you don’t part the waters I wish I could walk through/When you don’t give me answers as I cry out to you/I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in you.” I hear an endearing lightness and it’s easy to identify with the thought of life being a battle and more than a little unpredictable.

“I Am Yours” has allusions to Psalm 46 and perhaps unknowingly to Psalm 29. “Let the waters rise I will stand as the oceans roar/Let the earth shake beneath/Let the mountains fall/You are God over the storm/And I am yours.” This is unshakeable confidence framed in majesty. No matter what may come, “The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever” (Psalm 29:10). Though our world be shaken, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Daigle’s voice makes this regal, fitting for a King that presides over all.

She can make a chorus epic, but the last two tracks offer a change of pace. They have minimal production and are primarily acoustic. They convey tranquility as Daigle exhibits a softer side. Whether singing softly or at the top of her lungs, a passion for worship is evident. Her focus is God.

The closing “Once and For All” is just Daigle accompanied by piano. She starts off soulfully and becomes increasingly earnest, “Oh let this be where I die/My Lord with thee, crucified/Be lifted high as my kingdoms fall/Once and for all/Once and for all.” It brings to mind what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

One of my favorite thoughts from Scripture highlights our need: “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). As Robert Robinson wrote in a hymn, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.” It’s why I like the line, “Be lifted high as my kingdoms fall.” Live enough years and it’s not hard to see the wreckage. Our kingdoms fall. Our best efforts fall short. Thankfully, it’s not about our performance. It’s all about the God who continually gives grace to the undeserving.

I can imagine “Once and For All” closing a concert. The most appropriate response might be silence rather than applause. Hearing it makes me feel like the psalmist David when he writes, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Psalm 131: 2).

“Oh Lord, I lay it down/Help me to lay it down,” Daigle sings. It strikes a responsive chord within. My attention is no longer on the singer and song. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Radical Disciple - John Stott

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of our Calling
Author: John Stott
Publisher: IVP Books (
Pages: 142

“Radical” in relation to the Christian life has seemingly become more popular in recent years. I have not read the books that touch on this in one form or another but have read with interest the reviews. Some point out where the authors miss the mark even if some ideas have merit and serve as a needed corrective to Christianity here in the West.

Having read a number of John Stott books, I did not have any misgivings about reading The Radical Disciple. I trust him. I greatly appreciate the succinct Biblical wisdom that he imparts on whatever topic he examines. He is a masterful teacher that unfortunately is not as well known as those on the bestseller lists.

His work has a timeless quality because he stays close to Scripture and avoids fads. He makes the truth seem utterly reasonable and void of controversy. For instance, this has a chapter on creation care, which can be a controversial subject. Stott’s main thought is that taking care of the earth is a matter of stewardship and an expression of love for God. How can a reasonable person find fault?

Stott is not radical in a left or right sense. His way of being radical in relation to the environment or any other subject is to apply scriptural principles. He may be too basic for those wrestling with complexities, but I applaud his ability to inspire readers to do what lies before them. Our problems are more often a failure of the will than a lack of knowledge. As G. K. Chesterton has written, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

The subjects (nonconformity, Christlikeness and maturity) in the first part of the book may seem obvious, but lovers of the truth, and perhaps even inquirers, will appreciate the well-rounded presentation. Again, these areas are neglected not because they are unknown but not achieved.

The latter chapters, beginning with “Creation Care,” are where the material becomes more diverse and more challenging. “Dependence” and “Death” towards the end are worth the price of admission. Stott is at his most profound as he reflects on his own state of dependence and nearness to the grave at age 88. These are literally the last words from his pen; he did not make the leap to computers.

As has been said, illustrations are like windows to let the light in, “through them the truth shines.” If the use of such is an art, Stott is one of the masters. He is not overindulgent but like an enlightened disciple who brings forth treasure out of the entire range of human experience. In talking about becoming more personal in “Dependence,” he quotes the late Dr. Paul Tournier, “We have given things priority over persons, we have built a civilization based on things rather than on persons. Old people are discounted because they are purely and simply persons, whose only value is as persons and not as producers any more” (108). This striking truth seems to be lost in a society filled with distractions and a disposable mentality.

The last part of the preceding leads to Stott’s point, “When we are old, … we have the time and qualifications necessary to a true ministry of personal relationships” (108-109). This is but a sample of the borrowed insights, in addition to Stott’s own, that fill every page.

At the end of “Death” Stott summarizes how life comes through death in salvation, discipleship, mission, persecution, martyrdom and mortality: “a death to sin through identification with Christ, a death to self as we follow Christ, a death to ambition in crosscultural mission, a death to security in the experience of persecution and one of martyrdom, and a death to this world as we prepare for our final destiny” (133). We must die to live. “And we will be willing to die only when we see the glories of the life to which death leads” (133).

What is a Christian classic? Does it have to be more than 50 years old? I hope not for this must come close if not in that category.

Stott died not long after this writing. His farewell is not a bad place to start if you are unfamiliar with him and/or the Christian faith.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms - Tremper Longman III

What do the Psalms mean?

Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Volumes 15-16): Psalms
Author: Tremper Longman III
Publisher: IVP Academic (
Pages: 479

It caught me by surprise! Someone I knew to be a Christian for many years spoke about The Psalms in the bible as though they were a riddle that needed to be solved. “What do they mean?”

In hindsight it’s not so startling. What does a New Testament believer make of verses like, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9).

Similarly, Christians today may balk at using swords in worship: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishments on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written! This is the honor for all his godly ones. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 149:5-9). The typical modern worship service looks tame in comparison.

After reading some of the psalms, a non-Christian friend was somewhat shocked by the irreverent expressions. I guess he figured the bible contained only pious sentiments, not people expressing grief, turmoil and complaint as you find in this Hebrew poetry. So what does it all mean?

This complete revision of the original two volume set (now one book) in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series goes a long way towards answering that question. In trying to provide an update that conforms to modern standards, the format is updated “to reflect a key emphasis from linguistics, which is that texts communicate in larger blocks rather than in shorter segments such as individual verses” (8).

The upside is a concise analysis of texts that are naturally grouped together as a unit. The downside, if there is one; readers don’t get exposition of every verse. On occasion users may want more insight and will need to turn elsewhere. Buyers should keep in mind this is not an exhaustive commentary. What you get is careful and structured exegesis of blocks of thought with a few highlights of individual verses.

It all starts with a Context section that provides the background for each psalm. The Comment section features standard commentary. The concluding Meaning section focuses on key theological themes and seeks to relate them to New Testament understandings of Scripture.

One praiseworthy aspect: the author consistently is careful to avoid inserting New Testament revelation into the Old Testament meaning of a passage. For example, the understanding of the afterlife is not nearly as developed in the Old as in the New. When the author of Psalm 17:15 writes, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness,” the original meaning is not exactly clear. Longman points out that there is no prior reference to sleep in this passage. Even so, he surmises, “Whatever the meaning in its Old Testament context, the light of the more robust teaching on the afterlife given in the New Testament allows us to read it in that fuller sense” (110).

This commitment to letting words be defined by their context is what makes this a valuable resource for study. It’s essential to determining meaning. This succeeds admirably in this regard.

The author further adds value by reiterating common styles and themes. In his opening remarks on Psalm 77 Longman writes, “The psalmist informs his hearers that he turned to God for help. His distress is unspecified, as is typical in the Psalms, allowing later worshippers to use this prayer as a template for their own addresses to God in the midst of similar, though not identical, troubles” (286). Here and elsewhere the author makes the point that the psalms omit references to specific historical events so that they can be used by anyone facing like circumstances. It underscores that these words can be prayed today.

If you have ever struggled with this kind of prose, this book is worth it just for the introductory section on the different types of language and subjects in the book of Psalms. As someone who seeks to better understand poetry, I find it helpful.

This volume reflects an academic approach, so if you are looking for the inspirational, get this along with something like A Treasury of David by C. H. Spurgeon. As much as I might like the latter, if I could only have one commentary on the Psalms, I would not go wrong with this one. It quickly puts me in touch with the relevant historical background and provides central meanings. This is an excellent place to start on the road to discovering, “What does it all mean?”

Monday, February 23, 2015

Uncountable Stars - Joanne Hogg

Wrestling towards rest and the wonder of the Kingfisher

Uncountable Stars
Artist: Joanne Hogg (
Label: Independent
Duration: 13 tracks/51:40 minutes

Inspiration from the created order is immediately evident on Uncountable Stars by Joanne Hogg. Turquoise, turquoise everywhere! “A blaze of turquoise, between the greens/and the browns/All hidden from the sky.” The cover has an artful depiction of the Kingfisher in flight, fish in beak and turquoise all over its tiny frame. A part of its glorious wingspan is shown on the back cover. A kaleidoscope image adorns the CD label. Alternating pages in the CD booklet have a turquoise background. This wondrous winged creature even has a song named after it.

“Kingfisher” captures the sentiment of someone reveling in the beauty of nature. “And here I lie/The meadow grasses swaying over my head.” It’s a picture of the rest of faith, a ceasing from striving and enjoying all that God has made. A pastor once said that joy is a mark of maturity. Being able to enjoy inward rest is also characteristic of growth in grace.

This particular track introduces a new element in Hogg’s sound—a muted trumpet, also heard on “Lay Down,” a song that takes its inspiration from Psalm 23. Here and throughout Hogg distinguishes herself from Iona, the progressive Celtic rock powerhouse that she fronts. I like Iona and Hogg’s previous solo work, but this sounds a little different, which appeals to me. It’s the sound of Hogg branching out, exploring some new arrangements and themes.

“Mountain of Debris” is an intriguing example. I’ve repeatedly listened to gain greater understanding of the intended meaning. It begins with Hogg surveying the life forms (including human) that are sustained by a massive garbage heap. She asks, “Do you see mercy, do you see love/Why don’t you come closer and take a look.” Is she seeing God’s goodness and kindness in a situation where many might be tempted to turn away? “There’s something there for everyone, from the greatest to the least.” She comes to see it as an opportunity to express mercy, “God, won’t You send Your angels to clean up such a mess/You say … Come with me, roll your sleeves up/and we’ll heal the brokenness.”

Even though many of these tracks encourage and convey trust in God, Hogg continues wrestling on “River of Tears.” It could describe so many of the war-torn areas in our world. “And so the children learn/The history of the fight/Who to love and hate/Each believing they are right.” In the midst of her heartache Hogg asks, “How can I come to you and rest/When all the world’s in such a mess.” Even without an answer, she feels her burden lifting, her fears dissipating, as God washes her in the river of her tears.

Glimpses of Hogg’s mystical side are heard on “Come Away,” adopted from the Song of Solomon and “My True Love,” which is in the same vein. These somewhat meandering keyboard ballads may not satisfy those who prefer a more structured rhythm and a complementary beat. There is, however, a richness that can inspire toward greater intimacy with God. It’s the Song set to music.

I relish the guitar strumming and earthy sound of “Rest.” It reminds me of the simple but sublimely organic sounds of The Band. It also may be the closest thing to a Celtic sound.

The words “uncountable stars” come from “Out Here,” written by Carole McGlashan. Much of the inspiration comes from the glorious outdoors. The chorus transitions into a gorgeous musical interlude of a familiar lullaby. I will keep the title a surprise for the benefit of those who may purchase this release.  

Frank Van Essen of Iona on violin leads the way in this segment. Van Essen on violin and viola and Gwyneth Reid on cello play on a number of tracks and it’s always beautiful.

Even though some of Hogg’s previous work may initially be more accessible, I might prefer this for its depth. It rewards repeated and careful listening. 

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