The Reading Life

Ever since I was a young boy, I have loved reading. Even today, my personal library is the thing I value most. Marie Kondo, she of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up will never be allowed near my booksheves. Kondo suggests that a home needs no more than 30 books. Hey, I have that many books on my nightstand!

With the new year at hand, permit me to share some of my best reads from 2021 with you. I don’t claim that these are the best books of the year, just that they are books that I particularly enjoyed and that I think you might as well. My reading focuses on three broad areas–history (especially Christian history), theology, and Christian formation. I need to read more novels and hopefully 2022 will be the year I get to some of those on my shelves. So here are my top eight for 2020-21, not in any particular order.

  1. Where the Light Fell: A Memoir by Philip Yancey (Convergent, 2021). Yancey describes his experience growing up impverished in the American South during the 1960s. His father died when he was just a year old leaving Philip and his older brother, Marshall, to be raised by a single parent with little income. The Yancey’s were part of a strict Baptist fundamentalist church in the Jim Crow era and so fundamentalist doctrine and racism mixed together easily in their world. Philip and Marshall react in radically different ways, but were both haunted with sorting out what was real from what was false. Philip’s life and writing points to his continual struggle to do just this and we discover what Flannery O’Connor meant when she spoke of the American South as a “Christ-haunted world.”
  2. Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs (Penguin, 2020). Alan Jacobs follows in the steps of C.S. Lewisand suggests the need for reading “old books” (think Chaucer, Melville, Milton, Orwell, and so on) to provide us with the necessary “bandwidth” to ponder and process the information deluge we face in the 21st century. Jacobs suggests that this is the best way we can deal with what he terms “social acceleration,” the sense that we must live with our “petal to the metal” 24/7. Reading older books allows us to inhabit a different time and place and build the “personal density” we need to discern the time and place in which we live.
  3. We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie (InterVarsity Press). I read a lot of history. I teach Christian history to graduate students. As their instructor, I challenge them to look at actual historical evidence from primary sources themselves, and then think about those sources both historically and theologically. I grew up with the nebulous idea that the United States was a Christian country founded by Christian patriots. But upon reading the evidence, we discover a far more complex story. As George Marsden has shown, the United States has both Christian and secular roots (think George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin). McKenzie helps us recognize that while the United States has some unique Christian roots, it is no more a Christian country than Canada, Italy, Mexico, or Brazil. Hence, our Christian mission should not be formed by the dictates of party or politician, but by the biblical teaching that our true citizenship lies in God’s kingdom ruled by the Triune God.
  4. Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2021). This book combines two of my reading loves–the American revolution and books about the road. Think John Steinbeck meets the Continental Army. Philbrick’s earlier work on the Puritans in Mayflower and the Massachusetts rebellion in Bunker Hill are masterful narratives. Here Philbrick road-trips to all of the locations that our first President travelled to during his three extensive trips through the new republic, and discovers that the country was as politically and culturally fragmented as we are today. I’ve wondered whether the United States can survive another 20 years without coming unglued. Apparently, George Washington wondered the same thing.
  5. Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great Amerian Story by Wilfred McClay (Encounter, 2020). Every American ought to read a good American history especially now. This is one of the best–an excellent survey especially for students and non-historians that captures the essence of the American story as it has unfolded so far. McClay teaches at the University of Oklahoma where he has taught U.S. history for many years, and he narrates the American story based on solid historical evidence and points toward several overarching themes we see as the story unfolds. I spent an enjoyable three weeks with this book last January during the pandemic.
  6. No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear by Kate Bowler (Random House, 2021). Bowler teaches Christian history at Duke Divinity School and has written extensively on the “prosperity gospel” movement that has become a powerful force in American Pentecostalism. While researching that movement, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer and this is her story of navigating that awful diagnosis and what came afterwards. (Fortunately, she survived and is still teaching and writing today.) In her research and in her life, she heard all of the positive-thinking cliches that well-meaning people told her as she suffered and struggled with the possibility of death. Often those maxims hide more complicated realities. For example, when people say “let go and let God,” the more complicated truth is that “God loves you, but won’t do your taxes for you.” Or, instead of “everythng happens for a reason,” the more complicated truth is “We must learn to face uncertainty with courage” (and I would with a deep trust in our God and savior Jesus Christ. A fabulous book if you want to explore a realistic Christian faith.
  7. Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters by Carmen Joy Imes (InterVarsity Press, 2020). OK, this makes my list for more than the quality of the book. Back in the 2000s, Carmen spent many afternoons and evenings studying in the GCTS-Charlotte library and we had some great discussions of theology, history, and biblical studies. She went on for PhD work at Wheaton and has now joined the faculty at Biola University. This, her second book, describes how the events surrounding Sinai recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy form the core of the Old Testament and frame the redemptive events that surround Jesus Christ–his life, death, and resurrection. Carmen writes here not for scholars (though they will benefit from reading), but for pastors and laypeople, especially for those who want to understand how the themes of Holy Scripture fit together. If you want to know more about the Old Testament and how to read it, I can’t think of a better place to start.
  8. Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the Ameriican Revolution by Gordon Wood (Oxford UP, 2021). Gordon Wood is my go-to historians when it comes to understanding how the United States constitution was written, debated, and ratified. It was not a smooth process to get from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, especially given the political independence of the states, the hostility of most Americans toward any kind of central authority, and slavery (the elephant in the room at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia). Wood describes that process and the surprise of many that the constitution was ratified by the states. I grew up with a sense of solidity about the United States. Now, I’m discovering that our divided society has beeen fragile all along and is nothing new, but something that the American founders had to grapple with as well.

So many books. So little time. But reading is one of the best, most enjoyable, and most practical ways to spend your time. You discover that life is far more than your own opinions and views. You also learn to change your mind about things when new evidence and new perspectives challenge you. So I hope that you will spend many happy hours reading in 2022.

I just got the January/February 2022 issue of Christianity Today with their 2022 book awards. The listing is a great place to start selecting titles that you may want to dive into. And the entire issue is a reading feast filled with a dozen excerpts from their awards. I’ll read those to see what titles I might want to read this year. At the same time I value recommendations from friends, announcements from publishers catalogs, and reviews of titles in places like the Wall Street Journal. I also keep an eye out for works by favorite authors like Alan Jacobs, Mark Noll, Alister McGrath, Michael Lewis and others. Most of all, make sure that you regularly read Holy Scripture.

“Free at Last”

“Early Morning, April 4; Shot rings out in the Memphis sky; Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride.”

–U2 “Pride (In the Name of Love),” The Unforgettable Fire, (1984)

Each year, as the Martin Luther King holiday draws near on the third weekend of January, I read one book about MLK, the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement, or African American history. Billy Graham was right when he called racism “America’s original sin,” and I think it is impossible to grasp the force of that statement without exploring the impact of Slavery, Jim Crow, and racism in American life.

This year, I found a new biography that looks at MLKs life from a fresh perspective–that of Martin Luther King’s Christian faith and the philosophical and theological impulses that shaped his convictions and his work: Martin Luther King: A Religious Life by Paul Harvey. Harvey, a historian who teaches at the University of Colorado (Colorado Springs), has written extensively about African American history and I’ve been privileged to use his excellent book Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity as a text for my graduate course on American Christian history.

Harvey protrays King “as a prophet in the full biblical sense” (3). He was hard to pidgeon-hole, yet he was clear that his mission involved securing the same rights, liberties, and economic opportunities for African Americans that most whites enjoyed. Politically, he was a social democrat (in the European sense) and not a Communist as many of his racist detractors claimed. Throughout his brief adult life, King tried to teach and practice non-violent protest as the best way to call attention to injustice. Before his assassination, he was imprisoned and illegially surveiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at a time when that agency routinely broke the law in its in-house opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

Permit me to take a different approach in my words about Harvey’s excellent work. Obviously, “MLK: A Religious Life” deals with how King’s theological and cultural convictions informed his life and work. Yet, I’ve discovered an interesting sub-narrative in its pages; that of MLK as pastor first at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL and later as a kind of “pastor-at-large” to over 20 million African Americans living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. For those of us who are pastors and church leaders, there are valuable ways that King’s ministry can inform ours. Let me suggest several:

1. King understood his calling. At Dexter Ave. MLK enjoyed a successful first year in a relatively obscure location; a far cry from Atlanta; the center of the American South and of African American Christianity in that region. When a series of events thrust him into leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, the result of Rosa Parks’s unwillingness to give up her bus seat to a white rider, the story hit the newspapaers and MLK started receiving death threats.

A couple of days before a stick of dynamite detonated in front of his home, King experienced a kind of conversion: “Religion had become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee, I will never forget it. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone” (62-63). MLK “experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him belfore….My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

God’s call to leadership and ministry is a serious matter and to withstand the pressures of ministry, leaders have to be certain of their calling.

2. King understood his mission, even when God changed the mission. At first MLK was called to serve a specific congregation and he hoped that through his congregational ministry he could fuel a local movement for African American freedom and liberty in the midst of the Jim Crow south. When those efforts met success, God gave him a different, larger mission; one that would tax all of his strength. In that larger mission he would wrestle with the demands of celebrity while trying to accomplish what seemed an impossible task–the complete emancipation of African Americans from political and economic Jim Crow. (Personally, I’m relieved that God never called me to this large of a mission.)

MLK knew that the mission was impossible; there was simply too much opposition from the vast majority of American people at the time and from the minions of local, state, and federal government. White supremacy had been firmly entrenched since the 1870s and to confront that directly could easily lead to violent reprisals as had been seen in Wilmington, NC in 1898, Tulsa, OK in 1921, and in other locations throughout the country. But MLK and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) discovered ways to keep their opponents off-guard through non-violent protest. Non-violence became the heart of the movement as countless men, women, and children were taught how to practice it, and in Montgomery, Birhimgham, Selma, and later throughout the American South, their message of freedom and liberty took hold. Through all of this MLK spent lots of time on the road raising money for the next non-violent action and being the up-front leader of the movement.

Obviously, most of us are not called to the same kind of broad-based ministry and leadership. Most of us are called to serve individual congregations, many of those in rather out-of-the-way places in cities, small towns, and rural areas. Hence, we need clarity about the mission to which God has called us and to the kinds of strategies and tools that God asks us to use. We may not use nonviolent protest, but perhaps God calls to a ministry of peace in communities where conflict threatens the health of a congregaton or ministry.

3. While King exercised the kind of top-down leadership found in many American congregations in the 1950s, he still gathered a group of leaders around him and he listened, even to those who disagreed with his approach. In Montgomery, some felt that others were doing all of the work of the bus-boycott and MLK simply came in and took the credit. In the mid-1960s, when student radcalism emerged in both the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements, King faced harsh criticism from those who thought non-violence was passe or thought he should join the anti-war movement (something he did later in 1967). Instead of rejecting their criticism, he listened and engaged his critics. He didn’t necessarily think they were right, but he did think he could learn from them.

Yet, MLK did not deviate from his non-violent path. Instead he doubled down with non-violent protests in Chicago and Memphis and laid the groundwork for a poor-people’s campaign in the nation’s capital. His non-violence was grounded in his understanding of human beings and human nature, which solidified during his PhD studies at Boston University in the early 1950s. King was tutored in the Boston personalist school of Edgar Brightman and Harold DeWolf, a school of thought that placed great emphasis on the value and dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. MLK aslo embraced the idea of human depravity articulated by another of his teachers, Reinhold Niebuhr, the most prominent public theologian of the mid-20th century (though King did not share the almost total pessimism about humanity that Niebuhr did).

Those convictions meant that for MLK, ethical ministry was about the value and dignity of the human person and that how we approach ministry must be ethical in practice and in result. I think we can learn alot from King here. Megachurches across the country adopt models of ministry that to put it bluntly are soul-killing; to leaders and to the individual Christians who are part of them.

So far, you might think that I’m offering a portrait of MLK that makes him out to be near perfect. Nothing can be further from the case. The final point that I suggest is something where MLK deeply struggled.

4, King struggled with his own self-care and that led to near implosion of his work and to times of personal moral failure. From the early 1960s on, MLK took little if any time for vacation, rest, and spiritual reflection. He was constantly tired. He needed sleep. He needed time with his wife and children. He did not allow himself time for reading. Why? The cause was too big and too important. There was always a new campaign to organize, a group to meet with, a potential donor whose support was needed to keep things going and pay the team, government officials to meet about policy. It was incessant and unending.

When MLK came to Memphis, on the night before his death, he appeared before nearly a thousand striking garbagemen. (The term “sanitation engineer” had yet to make an appearence.) If you watch the tape closely, you see the fatigue and exhaustion in his eyes. In other words, MLK was running on empty and had been for many months. Perhaps the only thing that gave him energy was the opportunity to speak.

Especially for those who are younger and new to ministry, it is easy to lose yourself in the ministry vocation. After all, the work seems so important; the needs so many; and the expectations so high. How can we not spend almost every waking hour giving ourselves to them? All of a sudden, we collapse. We find ourselves distant from God, from our families, even from our own humanity. MLK is not the only one who burned out; there are hundreds and thousands of folks called by God who did not practice proper self-care and spiritual care. Let me suggest that those are the two most important aspects of life and ministry. The Triume God is not an add-on to our work. He is the essence of it, and if we neglect him we can find ourselves in a very bad place.

For MLK, life came to an end that April day due to an assassian’s bullet. It probably would have even if MLK had tended to his own personal needs and his need to reflect on his realtionship with his Creator. One thing I admired about MLK was his ability to remain resolute in practicing love for all, friend and enemy alike. Harvey suggests that King struggled with anger and at times rage toward his opponents. I think all of us struggle with feelings about our critics. Yet, MLK was able to put those things aside and practice love for others, even the Bull Conner’s and Lester Maddox’s of the world. He knew that their supremacist hatreds harmed themselves far more than they realized. And, he is one of the last great public leaders in America whose work was animated by the Christian faith.

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Paul Harvey’s Martin Luther King: A Religious Biography is published by Rowman and Littlefield Press (2021) and in my view represents one of the finest biographies of MLK or of any leader from the mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement. The book contains an extensive bibliographic essay that covers works related to MLK and the Civil Rights campaigns in which he engaged. Another outstanding resource is the Martin Luther King Encyclopedia hosted online at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia. This comprehensive online reference work is the go-to first source for reseach related to MLK, the Civil Rights movement, and Christian influence in the movement.

Twenty years

Nine-eleven. Or, in numerical terms: 9/11. Twenty years ago today, many woke up thinking “another day.” We had jobs to get to. Kids to drop off at school. Renee and I worked for the same company at that time, and this was a day we would need to take separate cars. She got on the road at just after 8:30 to make the 17 mile drive through downtown Charlotte to the office. I would be 20 minutes behind her as I had a meeting that night and would not be home until late.

Time for a quick breakfast. I flipped off the television and picked up the Charlotte Observer to scan the headlines. All of a sudden, Renee called me from I-77 telling me to turn on the TV because a plane had run into a building at the World Trade Center. I ran to the set and the first image was fire coming out of the north tower. Whatever hit it seemed to be big, and the anchors were speculating about what had happened. The early speculation was a plane had gone off course and accidentally hit the tower.

Then I saw it live. A passenger jet aiming for the second tower, and “Bam!” Fireballs explode. Siding shatters. Black smoke now pouring out of both towers. This was no accident. Something awful was happening. And we knew that the world had changed in front of our very eyes. I called my mother in New Mexico and told her to turn on the television immediately. Then I realized that I had to get to work because our agenda for the office dramatically changed.

Driving south on I-77, I hear the news flashes. Then Pentagon has been hit. The FAA has grounded all aircraft. I look up and there are rows of planes trying to land at Charlotte-Douglas airport. Southbound traffic went crazy as folks realized that this was no longer a normal day.

I get to work where I had a research appointment with a military chaplain to help him with his dissertation research. We crowded into my little office with a black and white TV tuned to the one network station I could get. We watched the chaos, and then saw the towers come down–first the south tower, then the north tower. Then we saw the Pentagon. Finally, we saw Shanksville, PA where one of the hijacked jets had come down in a cornfield outside of town.

The chaplain got a call from his base commander instructing him to return to base ASAP as the military had issued general orders for all soldiers on leave to report immediately. After he left, those in the office sat stunned as we watched the news reports. We cancelled classes that evening and then closed for the rest of the day. That evening Renee and I would join Christians at our church both to process and pray. The grief of the coming days would be intense for all of us amidst all the uncertainty. My mom remembered Pearl Harbor and said that the day felt much like that day decades ago. We’re we once again at war? Was this the beginning of more attacks inside the United States? What seemed like just another day now brought new and unanswerable questions.

What change that day brought to our lives. Thousands of our young men and women gave their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq in hope that future 9/11-type attacks could be stopped. The kindness and unity we saw in America in that day’s aftermath are gone, replaced by deep suspicion, mistrust, and division that permeates American life, even in our churches. Twenty years ago today, the Internet seemed to hold enormous potential for political freedom, economic opportunity, and even spiritual renewal. Now, our technologies threaten to enslave us with a brave new world marked by authoritarianism, economic division, and decadence. Pay homage to the leader and party on.

Conspiracy theories once confined to the margins of society now animate millions. It started with the bogus claims that 9/11 was an “inside job,” a plot hatched by the government against its citizens. Now we contend with those who tell us that Covid-19 vaccines have nanobots that the government will use to track us. Craziness has become mainstream. We battle a pandemic that continues to kill far more people than 9/11, and the Afghan and Iraqi wars combined. Despite the death of so many loved ones, friends, and colleagues from Covid-19, we turn public-health measures into weapons for political combat.

It’s a picture that can easily lead to despair on this 20th anniversary. However, as a Christian I should not be surprised. Because when I read the Old and New Testament narratives, I’m confronted with the reality that human depravity is embedded in our personal lives, in our interpersonal relationships, in the very institutions of our society (both public and private), even in the very created order itself. Yet Jesus tells us in Mark’s gospel that the Kingdom of God is at hand in the very person of Jesus Christ.

For me, that provokes two responses. First, no matter what happens I’m a citizen of something far bigger than any temporal place. I’m a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and a time will come come when God will triumph and I will live with him eternally with all of his people.

Then, in terms of this world in which we live, our work as Christians is twofold, in light of the Jesus teaching about the essence of the Christian life. We desire that people learn to love God through Jesus Christ and live in ways that contribute to the flourishing of every human being created in his image. That is still true now. Like our Lord and Savior we never give up–we continue to tell people of the gospel freedom that God offers in Jesus Christ. And, we work to create places where human beings can flourish.

Sometimes I wonder why God has placed me here in this time and place, in a society that seems to be crumbling all around me. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo wondered the same thing. He lived in a world of great evil, much like the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s in which the author, J.R.R. Tolkein lived. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Push Back

At church this morning, I learned that three of our congregants died from Covid-19 in the past week, one of whom was a missionary in Columbia. The disease is ravaging the Charlotte metro-area where I live as well as much of the American South. Vaccination rates here are significantly lower than other parts of the country and given that the Delta variant is as contagious as the chicken-pox, I’m not surprised that our hospitals and ICUs have filled to the breaking point. Throw in a category-four hurricane, and we face a potential meltdown in medical care.

Frankly, I’m baffled. Things have changed so much since last December when the first Pfizer vaccines received emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. (Pfizer was given full FDA approval just last week.) I myself was one of 30,000 participants in the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine trials, something that I wrote about earlier this year. In retrospect, I’m glad that I participated despite the initial risks. I learned so much from doctors, immunologists, and medical professionals about Covid-19, its effects, and the drive to create a safe and effective vaccine to protect as many of our citizens. They have done such good, even sacrificial work providing vaccines that have stood up to scientific trial after trial, and we have excellent scientific evidence that supports their efficacy. Is the shot risk free? Nothing is risk free, but the chances of major illness or death from Covid-19 is far greater than from getting the Covid-19 vaccines.

Yet, thousands throughout the American South are getting very sick and even dying from Covid-19. A few days ago, I started hearing that some people were taking Ivermectin (essentially a horse de-wormer) to treat Covid-19 as opposed to getting the vaccine shot. In the last 48 hours, I read about three individuals, folks whom you would think are sensible adults, die from Covid-19 after trying to stop the disease with Ivermectin, a drug cleared for use in animals. My heart breaks for their wives and children. What would possess people toward off-label usage of a horse de-wormer? Add to that the scores of people who have contracted Covid-19 after refusing the vaccine who plead with others from their hospital beds for vaccinations. Three months ago, I was angry about this. Now, I can only respond with sorrow and despair.

Cheers and Applause?

One of the social groups most resistant to vaccination are those who identify as evangelical Christians. Two days ago, the National Religious Broadcasters fired one of its vice-presidents because he spoke positively about the need for people to be vaccinated. A few days ago, evangelical megachurch pastor Greg Locke called the Delta variant a hoax and the vaccines a government plot. According to the Washington Post, “If ‘you start showing up [with] all these masks and all this nonsense, I will ask you to leave,’ Locke, 45, told scores of Global Vision Bible Church parishioners during his sermon on Sunday. His statement was followed by cheers and applause.”

Cheers and applause in the face of a deadly disease. Let that sink in. I thought Christians were supposed to be about the gospel of life. Locke and many of his fellow megachurch pastors seem more inclined toward a culture of death. Given that like Global Vision Bible Church, the National Religious Broadcasters is located in Nashville, I’m wondering if the evangelical culture of death is now headquartered in central Tennessee. I’m not surprised that many look at this and think, “if that is evangelical Christianity, I want no part of it.”

Well, neither do I; and I hope you don’t either. What’s driving this? First, celebrity culture has infected American evangelicalism, and so-called “evangelical leaders” and megachurch pastors view themselves more as spiritual gurus and empire builders than pastors who provide for the care of souls. Then, an inability to think and act biblically and theologically has made many congregations more American than Christian. Add to that the expressive individualism grounded in the idea that we are responsible to “construct” our own reality and find “our own truth.” We like tyrants who make us feel good. Finally, most media has been reduced to entertainment and exists so that in the words of Neil Postman we can “amuse ourselves to death.” Connect those and the spiritual disaster taking root in evangelical Christianity is easy to grasp.

American Christianity has lost much. We no longer think about important theological ideas like “common grace” and “general revelation” (how God makes himself known through his creation). We have given in to the idolatry of politics. When I was a young man in the 1970s, I remember how evangelicals spoke and sometimes acted harshly toward those mainline Christians who brought politics into church. We thought they had bought into what Jacques Ellul termed “the political illusion.” Guess what. It wasn’t long before American evangelicals were seduced by the same things that the mainline struggled with–power, prestige, money, political favor, empire building. As the political left became more secularized, the Christian right jumped in and pursued all of the things for which we criticized the liberals. From there, it becomes easy to abandon the centrality of Christ.

Push Back Against the Culture of Death

So here we are. Many of us are so anti-government that we embrace the lie that everything the government touches turns to evil. That ideology is far from the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Biblical truth is alien to the fashionable conspiracy theories trafficked on Cable TV news and in the propaganda from politicians and political parties that fill our social media feeds and our mailboxes. This kind of propaganda views the Delta variant as a hoax, fires people for rightly encouraging people to get safe and effective vaccines, and chooses horse de-wormer as some kind of magic bullet.

We push back in several ways. I think we start with a proper grasp of common grace and general revelation. God has chosen to allow humans to discover things like electricity, nuclear power, airplane flight, and medical knowledge. These are all good gifts from a merciful God who desires that human beings (including you and me) should flourish. Yes, these good gifts can be used for great evil as evidenced by nuclear weapons and the horrid work of the Nazi doctors in World War II. They are not evil in themselves, but because of the fall described in Genesis 3, they can be used for great harm.

We stress in our lives and our churches the centrality of Jesus Christ. Partisan politics has no place in congregational ministry. A few years back, I started reading about congregations (more than you think) who made partisan politics almost a litmus test of faith. Followers of Jesus with different political views were isolated from their congregations because they did not support the strong political views of their pastors and leaders. I see their Facebook posts and the sorrow and anguish in their words. Biblical preaching and pastoral care are replaced with pressures to conform.

My advice to those who express these concerns is twofold. First, speak to the church leaders about your concerns. If they refuse to listen, then take the second step: Find another church where Christ is central. Christ loves Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Green Party members, Independents, and the apolitical; and any congregation that anchors partisan politics in its life and ministry engages in sin.

And we push back by gently encouraging those we know and love to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones. That means we need to understand the fears and concerns of those who are hesitant or opposed to the vaccine. That involves conversing with them. To do that, we need to understand the strong evidence for getting vaccinated (for example, the risk of dying from Covid-19 is far, far greater than the risk of dying from the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines), as well as what is behind the conspiracy theories (which is usually some media darling’s personal agenda).

I’m pushing back because I’m tired of seeing families left in grief and mourning when we have the vaccines and mitigation strategies necessary to stop Covid-19. I’m pushing back because I’m frustrated by conspiracy theories and propaganda dividing our congregations. I’m pushing back because the arguments made by many anti-vaxxers are just like those that pro-abortion advocates use to justify their brutal acts. (“My body, my choice.”) And, I’m pushing back on behalf of many faithful pastors and leaders who are not celebrities, but called by Christ to preach and teach the Scriptures and care for souls like mine who struggle to follow Jesus every day. Hopefully, I push back with care, concern, and grace for others. We speak the truth, but as Paul writes, we “speak the truth in love.” Push back with me today armed with the gospel and Christ’s love for the world, one person at a time.

“Biblical Womanhood” in the Crossfire

One of the things I love about Advent Christian Voices is the ability of those who blog here to disagree respectfully on matters that are often more complex than we like to admit. That is an amazing quality in a time like ours fraught with division and fear of others who see things differently.

I’m diving into one of those areas, and adding my two cents into the good debate that Catherine Rybicki and Luke Copeland have had on these pages the past couple of weeks. This dive is prompted by my reading of Beth Allison Barr’s controversial new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Woman Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, 2021).

Drop the Hammer

All of us bring spoken and unspoken biases to our work and I am no exception. So, let me state my point-of-view. Since 1977, I have been a biblical egalitarian who thinks that in family, church, work, and life women and men are partners in God’s call to ministry and service. My convictions are strong enough that I could not in conscience sign the 2000 SBC Baptist Faith and Message nor the Danvers Statement of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). My egalitarian convictions began with my experience at a Bill Gothard Basic Youth Conflicts week-long seminar held in Long Beach, CA. Mr. Gothard was the complementarian poster-boy of the 1970s and thousands of evangelicals flocked to his seminars and soaked in his “teachings” about hierarchy. Mr. Gothard illustrated his teaching with his now infamous “umbrella” diagram complete with hammer and chisel; the tools for “molding” people, especially women and children, into his vision of Christian maturity.

I sat stunned as I watched 9,000 people lap up this stuff. No questions were permitted (those who know me know that I had lots of questions that I wanted to ask), especially questions that might challenge the entire house of cards that comprised the Gothard system. A couple of years later at one of his advanced seminars held in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Gothard told the group of pastors and leaders assembled that if a husband was assaulting and beating his wife, the wife had the obligation to stay and accept that in the hopes of witnessing to him. (Fortunately, one of the pastors there stood up in that large gathering, yelled out “you’re crazy!” and stormed out for all to see.) This was complementarian paradise and I wanted nothing to do with it; so I left behind Bill Gothard eager to discover a more Christian way, a way that affirmed the dignity, worth, and giftedness of every Christian man and woman.

Money, Sex, and Power

Fast-forward 45 years past the hundreds of books written and in my view, that way has become more clear even if the issues have become more complex. We’re not only talking about how we order our families, or about who can do what in our churches. Now we face the horrid reality of rampant sexual and spiritual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant churches throughout the United States and the entire world. Not a week goes by anymore when some prominent megachurch pastor or leader is outed because of gross sexual abuse or abuse of power. Richard Foster was right when he argued that almost all sin can be categorized as the abuse of money, sex, or power.

Barr offers her readers a helpful way of seeing how “biblical womanhood” of the past 50 years is more a creation of recent history than of early and medieval Christianity. The historical reality has been that the more centralized institutional structures of church and society become, the most restricted the lives and ministries of women. This is well illustrated by missions history. Many of the great endeavors in world missions were accomplished by women exercising gifts of preaching and teaching that they were not allowed to exercise in North America or Europe. Why? Because there was nobody else to communicate the gospel through preaching and teaching. And the folks who thought it was wrong for women to preach and teach were all thousands of miles away. You know what? God honored those women and thousands of men and women, boys and girls came to know and love Christ because God worked through their preaching and teaching. I’m fortunate to have met a few of them.

John Piper and others like to speak of Christianity as having “a masculine feel” and this “masculine feel” involves notions of authority and submission. This idea has become popular in circles where “biblical womanhood” is taught. Often it is connected to the heretical idea of the “eternal subordination of the Son,” Advocates of this rather Arian concept argue that “the Son, the second person of the Trinity is subordinate to the Father not only in economy of salvation but in his essence” (193). In other words, within the inner workings of the Triune God there is a hierarchical relation of authority and submission. There is a tactical reason for why some advocates of “biblical womanhood” like this idea. As Barr writes, “if Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father, women’s subordination becomes much easier to justify” (195-96).

What about the Bible?

All of this is nice, you say, but what about the Bible. Does Scripture not clearly limit the roles of women both in marriage and the church? Space prohibits me from going into all of the exegetical arguments, so let me make two points. First, throughout the Old and New Testaments we see women performing tasks that those who advocate for “biblical womanhood” argue are off limits for them. Junia (yes, she was a woman) was honored among the Apostles according to Paul’s words in Romans 16:7. Phoebe was described as a “deacon” earlier in the same passage. The first two witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection were women and they proclaimed it publicly first to the twelve, and then by extension to Jesus other disciples. Women prayed and prophesized, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. The are more examples. I think we begin with what the New Testament (and the Old Testament) tell us that women actually did, and we interpret the Pauline and Petrine teaching regarding women in that light, and not the other way around.

Second, In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul is clear that we are to “submit to one another our of reverence for Christ.” Then he identifies three pairs where those who are view as stronger (husbands, parents, and masters) and who are weaker (wives, children, and slaves) are asked to practice mutual submission in important ways. As Barr writes, “Instead of endowing authority to a man who speaks and acts for those within his household, the Christian household codes offer each member of the the shared community–knit together by their faith in Christ–the right to hear and act for themselves” (49). Exactly.

I don’t like labels, even though here I’ve used the term “biblical egalitarian” to describe my views. What does that term mean? For me, the following:

(1) Women and men are created in the image of God and hence are equal in terms of identity and function.

(2) There are no ministries in the church of Jesus Christ that are off-limits to women, even preaching and teaching.

(3) Marriage is a partnership where both partners learn to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

(4) There is no place for the spiritual or sexual abuse of women (or men) in the Church of Jesus Christ and instances of that must be addressed with the utmost seriousness when discovered.

(5) There is a place for complementarity as we recognize that there are physiological and emotional differences between men and women, but complementarity does not imply hierarchy in home, in church, and in society.

The writer Dorothy Sayers authored a short book in the first half of the 20th century with a simple question as the title. Are Women Human? You would think that the answer is simple and clear, but Sayers had noticed all of the overt and covert messages in church and society that appeared to scream out, “No, they are not!” She lived in a society where patriarchy was still the order of the day. Hopefully, that will continue to change and Christians like you and me will have opportunity to offer a biblical word that affirms that like men, women truly are human in Christ.

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There are several good books that I would suggest for further reflection. The book that I have made mention of here is Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 244 pp. The best exegetical book that I have read is Philip Barton Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 541pp. This in my view is the best exegetical study of Pauline passages in the New Testament where Paul address women in family, church, and society. It solidified my biblical egalitarian convictions through outstanding biblical exegesis of those relevant texts. The little book by Dorothy Sayers is Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprint 2005).

Retirement Thoughts

Earlier today, my friends and colleagues at Gordon-Conwell hosted a retirement luncheon in my honor. It is hard to believe that this was the culmination of 15 years as editor of the Advent Christian Witness followed by 24 years as the Library Director at Gordon-Conwell. Below, I want to share my own reflections which I shared with those assembled at the close of the event. I share them in gratefulness to the Triune God for his providence and care for me over these past many years. I’m not done yet. There is more to do. But this represents the transition to the next stage in my journey of faith. Many of you have shared this with me and I am grateful to you.

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Thank you for your kindness toward me this afternoon. It is hard to believe that I’m wrapping up almost a quarter century at GCTS-Charlotte. Over the years, I’ve labored with you to build something special in this place—a campus that could contextualize theological education to a rapidly growing city and metropolitan area. While we probably have not accomplished all that we hoped, we’ve still done a lot against all kinds of odds. Gordon-Conwell Charlotte has been in the center of God’s purposes both for the people of God and for this community.

We have kept the gospel central to our mission. We have sought to prepare people for life and service with academically and spiritually strong programs. We’ve encouraged world missions and involvement with the great matters of contemporary life. We have welcomed Christians of all kinds—Black, Latino, Asian, and White; Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians, folks from independent congregations and evangelical ministries, even from the Advent Christian churches where I first learned about following Jesus.

We have over a thousand graduates serving around Charlotte and around the world. Most of all, in the time that I have worked here, those of us who have worked here have sought to be a real Christian community in how we value each other and treat each other. We’ve rejoiced with each other and suffered with each other. We’ve seen times when things appeared impossible, and yet God has sustained us.

I remember being the new kid on the block. Wayne Goodwin gave me a look at the library and I thought to myself, “This will be a challenge!” And those of you who were here when I started know what I’m talking about. When I came, I had three goals in mind. 1. Find ways to serve well our students and faculty; 2. Connect the work of the library to the academic mission of the school; and 3. Build a high-quality theological library focused on the degree programs and courses we offer. That third goal took over 20 years to accomplish, but with a library team like Matt, David, Audrey, Nick Valadez, Abby Vinez, and a host of student workers, we accomplished it. As I have always told the library team, if you love students and you love books, what better job in the world is there?

Last month, during his retirement dinner Rodney shared some things that he has learned about life and leadership in his pastoral and academic ministry. If you will permit me, I would like to do something similar. I’m going to steal some from a poster that had graced my office here and earlier when I worked across town. But first, 25 somewhat  original thoughts:

1. Ground your life in the joy of Christ and pay attention to your own journey of faith. That allows your work to become a sharing of that joy with the others you serve.

2. Never stop learning.

3. Lead by example.

4. Always be willing to do any task that you ask others to do.

5. Listen to individuals on your team. They often have great ideas.

6. Remember that we do not live to work, but we work to live.

7. Almost all library mistakes can be fixed because books don’t talk back to you.

8. Listen, then speak.

9. Read more than one book at a time.

10. Don’t think you have to finish every book that you start (unless it is a textbook assigned by Dr. Davis or Dr. Wheaton.

11. Go see a minor-league baseball game every once-in-awhile. It’s good for the soul.

12. Charlotte is a great city with lots to see and do. Engage with the community in which God has called you to live and work.

13. Remember that technology has its limits. People are not machines.

14. Write personal notes and send them by snail mail. (Think of the joy you receive when you get a personal, handwritten letter or note.)

15. Communicate often and generously with others especially when you are introducing new policies or procedures that impact them.

16. When you get an Email or text message that rings your chimes, wait 24 hours before you respond. You need time to cool down and reflect.

17. If you are finishing an assignment for work or school, never submit it immediately. Wait a day and then give it one final proofreading.

18. Never, never, never, never ask a question that you don’t intend an answer or want someone else to answer.

19. If you have the opportunity, take two weeks off and drive west to the Rocky Mountains. There is something about driving through the Great Plains that opens up your soul and offers a sense of connectedness to God’s beautiful creation.

20. Worship is an embodied experience so be part of a congregation where you can worship and serve.

21. Remember that most sin comes down to the abuse of money, sex, and power. Be very wise in how you approach those areas of life.

22. Don’t be afraid to change your mind about something.

23. Keep in mind how little you know. When I graduated from Seminary, I thought I knew a lot. Now I realize that I know far less than I thought I did. But I know Christ, and that is the one important thing.

24. Remember that legitimate concerns make up only two percent of all the things we worry about. (I confess that this is a hard one for me.)

25. Have a favorite passage of Scripture that frames your life, a theme verse or passage if you wish. Mine is a simple phrase found in Colossians 1:27 “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Let me thank you for making GCTS-Charlotte such a good place to work While here, I had opportunity to work with six of the Seminary’s seven presidents, five Vice-presidents for Academic Affairs, six Charlotte academic deans. I have met and worked with so many wonderful Christian people who have studied and worked in this place.

And that is what has made GCTS-Charlotte such a special place. The people who have worked and studied here. In American organizational life since the industrial revolution there has always been a bias that people exist to serve the organization and that the preservation of organizations is paramount. I disagree with that. I think people are primary and that institutions and organizations exist to promote human flourishing and when they stop doing that, then they are propped up by either fear or force.

I think the Apostle Paul would agree as well. When Paul was challenged about his ministry on behalf of Christ, he responded in a rather startling way. He didn’t point to himself. Instead, he put it this way. “Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Cor 2:2). I won’t go into the context of this passage, but when folks ask me about what I’ve done for the past 24 years, my simple answer is “you.” You, all of you who have worked here and you, all of the students who have come through this place, are my lasting legacy. So again, thank you for your friendship, your collegiality, and your love for Christ.

I’ve changed my mind

With formal retirement just over a month away, I’ve been pondering a half-century of adult life and all that has come with it. For example, folks around my age often identify major events that have shaped our human experience–the Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination, the Richard Nixon resignation, the Challenger disaster, and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I can tell you where I was when those events took place, and I have vivid memories of each.

I’m also fascinated by things about which I have changed my mind. I bet you’ve heard politicians and others brag about how they have never changed their minds. That always scares me because not changing one’s mind at least about some things tells me that you are not open to new evidence or better ways of seeing what you believe and live by. Changing your mind about something now is much harder than it was 50 years ago simply because all of us are bombarded with so much information that we have little time for disciplined thinking about things that matter.

So here is a list of some things about which I have changed my mind. It is not an exhaustive list. Some are trivial; others more important. Some are matters of preference; others a matter of conviction.

  • When I was a young adult, I used to think that preserving and building institutions was the most important thing I could do, especially within American Christianity. Now I’m deeply skeptical of institutions because way too many Christian (and secular) institutions strip the very life out of persons. Persons and communities of persons are far more important than our structures, and our structures should be framed by justice, compassion, and flexibility.
  • In my twenties, John Denver was my favorite musician. In my late sixties that honor goes to Paul McCartney.
  • When I graduated from Seminary, I thought it was important to get people to believe rightly about the right things. Now I see that Christian faith is both affective and cognitive, and in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” You cannot divorce knowledge from love for others.
  • In my younger years, I thought that pets were luxuries that detracted from serving God. Wow, have I changed. Now my cats remind me of God’s purposes for all of creation, and like C.S. Lewis, I will not be surprised if my favorite pets, Marbre and Tuptim, will be part of New Creation that the New Testament describes in various places.
  • When I first started voting, I was a registered Democrat. Now I’m a political independent who thinks that both the D and R parties are dangerous to our Republic.
  • I used to be skeptical about climate change. Now I think the evidence for climate change is overwhelming and that we face hard choices in terms of how we address it.
  • Once upon a time, I was sanguine about megachurches. Now I’m deeply skeptical of the celebrity culture they foment.
  • A long time ago, my favorite beach was Santa Cruz, CA. Now it’s Pawley’s Island, SC. (Let’s hear it for “arrogantly shabby!”)
  • Have you ever thought that you could preserve happiness by keeping everything the same? Yeah, I was there. Now I realize that joy comes as we follow the Triune God in our unique journeys through life.
  • Like a lot of Christians, I went through a big prophecy kick in my teens and early twenties. Now I don’t care about any of that stuff. I simply know three things: Our Lord Jesus Christ will return. Only God the Father knows for sure when that will happen. When it does, it will be beyond my imagination!
  • Family and friends can no longer be taken for granted; they are valuable in and of themselves and are God’s gifts to us.
  • In my early twenties, I was concerned for Civil Rights for African Americans but lived in my own racial bubble. Today, my historical studies have convinced me that African Americans have faced brutal realities long ignored by white folks like me (the evidence is overwhelming), so I’m reading more American history (especially African American history), listening to my African American friends describe their experiences, and looking for ways that I can influence church and society to come to terms with our horrid racial past (which spills into the present).
  • Fifty years ago, I was proud to be called an evangelical. Now I avoid the term like the plague; and prefer the simple term “follower of Jesus.”
  • I used to like labels like “Reformed,” or “Pentecostal,” or “Wesleyan,” or “credo-baptism” (and others). Now I reject labels like these and refuse to be pigeonholed by them. Life is far more complex than labels.
  • In college, I used to think that some ideologies were bad. Now I see all ideological thinking as essentially corrupt.
  • Forty years ago, I found myself mostly reading American theologians. Now I ignore most of them in favor of British theological scholars like N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, John Stott, and others not as affected by the “Modernist-Fundamentalist” controversies that split American Christianity in the 1920s.
  • In the 1980s I did not think NASCAR was even a sport. Now, I love it especially since I’ve seen a few races in person at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
  • Growing up, my favorite teams were the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. Now my favorite teams are…you thought I was going to say some other teams? Sorry.

That’s an incomplete list, but you get the picture. Changing what we think about some things over time is normal and natural. You know what? I’ll probably change my mind about more things. But the one eternal reality on which I stake my entire life is Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from death. On May 1, 1965, I gave my life to Christ and started on this amazing journey of faith. It is hard and challenging; there are times of deep sorrow and pain as life takes unexpected twists and turns. But ultimately, to turn a phrase from C. S. Lewis, it “surprises me with joy.”

Why I Read “The Message”

Earlier today, I finished Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson titled A Burning in My Bones. I remember Peterson’s first book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction published back in the early 1980s. That almost seems another time, another place and in many ways that captures just how out of place Eugene Peterson was in our world of megachurches, celebrity CEO pastors, and congregations modeled on the latest management theories.

Complexity shadowed Eugene Peterson through his 84 years on earth. An average student who became a brilliant linguist in terms of the biblical languages. An introvert who valued silence and solitude whose pastoral ministry focused on engaging people and being their spiritual friend and guide. Someone who grew up in Pentecostalism and found his way into the Presbyterian ministry. One who travelled in broadly Reformed circles who wasn’t much of a Calvinist. A human being who sought seclusion but much to his surprise wound up hanging out with Bono and U2.

Translations and Paraphrases

Eugene Peterson is best known for is his paraphrase of the Bible simply called The Message. My leather bound copy of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs sits at my kitchen table marked with my underlines and marginal notes. For my devotions, I like to read the biblical text in different translations. One year I will use the NASB; the next the RSV; the next the NIV; and so on. That gives me opportunity to read different translations and discover how they present in English texts that were written originally in koine Greek and Hebrew. I also like to use specialty translations and paraphrases like The Kingdom New Testament done by N.T. Wright or The First Testament translated by the Old Testament scholar John Goldingay. My goal is simple. I want to read the text in a way that allows God to speak to me from its pages.

Along with my selected translation which for 2020-21 is the NIV (its most recent edition was published in 2011 and that edition fixes many of its earlier problems), I read the same passage in The Message. Beyond that I use The Message for longer blocks of Scripture reading. For example, when I start with a biblical book like Mark’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the Old Testament wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, I like to read it through in one setting to sense the larger context and discover what the author seems to be up to. And I use The Message to help me catch that larger context. (I don’t use it for preaching and teaching unless it is for illustrating the point of the NIV text I use for those activities.)

More Than Mere Words

Reading Winn Collier’s biography gave me an even deeper appreciation for what Peterson was up to in paraphrasing Scripture. His academic training in the biblical languages helped him grasp how those languages worked. Translation or paraphrase is not merely of converting a word or phrase from Hebrew or Greek to one in English. Languages are far more than mere words; they frame how people think and communicate in the era and the context in which they live. Moreover, all translation is interpretation and the point of translation is capturing the essence of what the biblical writer communicated in his cultural context and expressing that in ways that are sensible to English readers today.

Winn Collier captures Eugene Peterson’s sense of this work. “Languages are not mathematical equations; they are complex and expansive modes of thinking and communicating” (218). But there is more, because translating (or paraphrasing) involves communicating the written word of God. “Eugene believed translation is a kind of ‘lectio divina–more than only getting the words right, there is spirit, the vibrancy of the text, the livingness of the message.’ The Bible was not a dead book. It was vibrantly alive” (218). What Peterson was trying to do was paraphrase the biblical text into idioms common to the folks who worshipped at the congregation he served in the Baltimore suburbs and even more to working-class folks like his father, a butcher, and the people he grew up around in Kalispell, Montana.

Slow, Hard Work

It was slow, hard work. “This is going slower than I expected–and sometimes I think I’m doing excellent work, but sometimes it is pretty pedestrian….The translation continues to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy–and pushes me to prayer–trust–egoless work” (220-21). In addition, Peterson invited evangelical biblical scholars to read and critique his work and often adjusted the words and idioms based on their feedback. The Old Testament took ten long years. But the product offers a fresh window into Holy Scripture. Let me illustrate. Perhaps my favorite passage in the New Testament is Romans 12:1-2. Peterson’s paraphrase captures Paul’s intent and communicates it in idioms that we can grasp:

“So here is what I want you to do. God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping eating, going-to-work, and walking-around-life–and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Romans 12:1-2, The Message).

That’s what a good paraphrase does. It captures the biblical writer’s intent in ways that he might say it if we were his original audience. The Greek that the New Testament writers used was not the classical Greek of the philosophers; it was the “street Greek” used by common folks in their daily lives. That was Peterson’s goal, to paraphrase the biblical text into the “street English” of our day, and do that while capturing the essence of what the biblical writers communicated in their day.

Did he get all of it right? Does any English translation or paraphrase? I know just enough Greek to be dangerous, but one thing I do when reading is when I read something that seems to be a mistranslation, I pull out my trusty purple pen and make a note by the text. That is not to judge the hard work of so many who have given us good translations like the NIV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and others, nor does it besmirch the work of Peterson, J.B. Philips, Eugene Nida, and others who have offered paraphrases that hopefully capture the essence of the biblical texts.

I love reading The Message, and if you are looking for a good paraphrase that captures well the overall contexts of Holy Scripture, I recommend it to you. Eugene Peterson died in October 2018, but God has used him to our generations a marvelous gift. My guess is that long after I am gone, someone else will craft a paraphrase that captures the “street-English” of the mid- to late-21st century.

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Winn Collier’s new biography of Eugene Peterson was released in March 2021 and titled A Burning in My Bones. It’s published by Waterbrook Press. Collier was given access to Eugene Peterson’s personal papers and his private journals, and spent significant time near Kalispell, MT interviewing and conversing with Eugene Peterson before Peterson’s death in October 2018.

Heroes

We don’t hear much about heroes today. Perhaps folks are too jaded and cynical to think that there are public figures worthy of our admiration for their character, their accomplishments, and for their contributions to humanity. Heroes are those who step up to challenges. They don’t back down in the face of struggle or difficulty. They inspire others. They do the right thing even when it costs something. They are folks who are not so much “me” centered as “we” centered. They are people who give us something to aspire to; folks whom you want your kids to admire and emulate.

I have four heroes, individuals whom I admire and desire to emulate. Let me tell you about them and why they inspire me. They are not anti-heroes, self-centered rebels, or quintessential lone-rangers. Instead, they are individuals of great accomplishment and character who see their contributions as beneficial for others.

Willie Mays

As a young boy growing up in San Francisco, baseball was my first love and the San Francisco Giants were my team. I remember my first major league game on July 29, 1959 when I got to see my first hero, Willie Mays, warm up right in front of me before the Giants played the St. Louis Cardinals. (Stan Musial was in the twilight of his career and in the starting lineup for the Redbirds that day.) Willie Mays was not only my hero; he was a hero to every boy my age who followed the Giants. I learned to read the newspaper by following his stat line every day in the box score and reading the San Francisco Examiner sports section as they described his play.

What I loved about Willie Mays is that he played baseball with such great joy, the joy that comes when men and women get to play a kids game and make a living doing it. As a child, I loved not only his exploits on the field, but the things he did to make San Francisco a better place to live, especially for children.

Later on as an adult, Willie Mays remained one of my heroes for very different reasons. I became aware that as an African American growing up in segregated Birmingham, AL (the place where Bull Conner turned his dogs loose against children in 1963), Willie Mays was not afforded the opportunities that were given to white children. In fact, if he would have been ten years older, he would never had played in the major leagues no matter how good a player he was. Even in San Francisco, he experienced the sting of racism when he tried to buy a home and a number of whites in the neighborhood objected to his presence. His life was difficult (especially when his second wife contracted early-onset Alzheimer’s and he focused on her care). But he rarely complained and today at age 89, he is still employed as a good-will ambassador for the Giants. Definitely a good selection for my childhood hero.

John Stott

My Christian faith reached a crossroads in college and during my sophomore year, I wondered whether Christianity could stand up to the intellectual challenges I found as I studied philosophy and mathematics. The Jesus Movement was at its peak and I had come through a “Pentecostal” phase that had lasted a couple of years but now seemed intellectually bankrupt. I can’t remember who, but someone handed me a little book by a British guy titled Your Mind Matters which I read between calculus assignments and Plato. It was a series of lectures he had given to a group of college students and as I read, I discovered that he was addressing my questions, my qualms, my concerns.

That British guy was John Stott whom I discovered knew the Bible better than anyone I had ever read or heard. Not only did he know the Bible, he was able to explain the Christian faith in ways that were intellectually credible for college and university students and for people like me who enjoyed asking hard questions. There was never a question that John Stott was afraid to answer.

I started devouring more of Stott’s work and twelve years after I graduated, he published his magnum opus titled The Cross of Christ, an amazing work that captures the essence of the Christian gospel. It wasn’t just his books, but his Christian character and his public ministry. What I saw in John Stott was an integration of mind and heart (of intellect and affections) that refused to reduce Christian faith to a cold intellectual/doctrinal framework, or to the continual seeking after emotional highs where people lived for experiences that were often times walled off from life.

John Stott became my second hero in life. I was blessed by the opportunity to meet him personally in the 1980s and hear him lecture on preaching. I’ve been blessed by the fruit of his ministry and his passion for both evangelism and social concern. Unlike so many “celebrity” Christians, John Stott never desired attention. I think heroes are folks who give us examples to which we can aspire, and John Stott, even though he died several years ago, remains that kind of hero for me, even today.

John Perkins

In 1968, a relatively young man left a good job working at a Ford factory outside of Los Angeles and took his wife and children to a small town south of Jackson, Mississippi with what seemed like a crazy dream–bringing the Christian faith to poor and disenfranchised people who had suffered the brutality of Jim Crow. His message was far more than talk, though proclaiming Christ was certainly at its center. He believed that Christ wanted not only to bring the gospel to Mendenhall, Mississippi but that the Lord wanted to lift its African American citizens out of poverty and help them claim their full rights and privileges as American citizens, especially the right to vote.

Perkins’s activities drew attention, not all of it good. In August 1970, he was stopped and arrested by Brandon county sheriff’s deputies, taken to the county jail, and beaten nearly to death that night. I heard him describe that night years later at a Fuller Seminary chapel. And I asked him about what he had learned that night when I had opportunity to interview him in 1992 for the Advent Christian Witness. (He describes this night in his first book, Let Justice Roll Down.) John Perkins came from a non-religious family with little use for Church. It was not until he had fled Mississippi the first time in the 1950s for a good job in the Los Angeles auto factories that he first heard the gospel at the little Baptist church where his daughter went to Sunday School. I wondered if he ever imagined that in turning his life over to Christ, God would call him back to Mississippi to suffer on behalf of Christ.

After hearing him in that Fuller Seminary chapel service, John Perkins became another one of my heroes; not so much because he suffered as I’ve met many who have suffered for Christ in one way or another. But what set John Perkins apart was how he came to love others, even those who brutalized him in that county jail and even white folks like me who had little clue of the deep harm that so many African American families had suffered because of segregation and Jim Crow. Loving others did not mean excusing their sin, and even today at nearly 90 years old he’s still active in community development and in fostering justice and reconciliation among Christians in society. If John Perkins could love those who harmed him and act to reconcile others to Christ and to each other, that was something to which I wanted to aspire. (And yes, I still have ways to go.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer was only a name to me until in one of my first seminary classes, I was assigned his little book Life Together. This short little book described a small theological school that Bonhoeffer established in 1937 in Finkenwald, Germany as the Nazi regime strengthened its grip on the German church and German society. Three years earlier, the Nazi’s had added the so-called “Aryan Paragraph” to German law. The law forbid any person of Jewish ancestry from being a pastor in the German state church and from holding a government position in Germany. A sizable group of pastors and laypeople disagreed and organized the “confessing church,” in opposition to Hitler and the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth were prominent voices among the confessing church. Barth was responsible for the Barmen Declaration and Bonhoeffer was asked to organize a school to train pastors for the confessing church.

Before the rise of Hitler, both Bonhoeffer and Barth had been part of a reaction to the rise of German theological liberalism that dominated German theological schools and had minimized the role of Scripture in the life of the church. Both had studied under Willhelm Herrmann, the most prominent individual in the German theological establishment, and both ultimately rejected his theology and argued for an approach that viewed Holy Scripture as central to the life of the church. Both advocated a “Christocentric” approach seen in Bonhoeffer’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer also spent 1931 in New York City worshipping and teaching Sunday school at Abyssinian Baptist Church, at the time the most prominent African American congregation in the United States. His time there allowed him to grasp what it was like for marginalized people in society, and left little doubt in Bonhoeffer’s mind what he must do when the scourge of anti-Semitic totalitarianism struck his own country.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer abhorred war and violence and considered himself a pacifist. Because of that, he faced one of the great moral challenges of the 20th century when given opportunity to be part of a plot to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. His response was that in a world plagued by what Genesis 3 describes as the fall of humanity, there were times when we face flawed choices and therefore his task as a Christian was to “drive a spoke in the wheel” of the Nazi machine. The plot failed; Bonhoeffer and his allies were arrested, and he was killed by the Gestapo on April 9, 1945 three weeks before the Allies liberated the Flossenberg concentration camp. Christ had bid him to “come and die” on His behalf.

So Dietrich Bonhoeffer became my fourth hero because he was willing to say “no” to evil when an entire society said “yes.” He was willing to say “no” when that same society declared Jewish people to be “other” and unleased unspeakable violence against its neighbors. He was willing to say “no” in the name of Christ when so many in the Deutsche Christen chose Hitler over Christ. I think that Bonhoeffer’s example frames my suspicion of anything that smacks of political authoritarianism– worship or veneration of “the leader,” marginalization of people because of their ethnicity or race or religion, and the use of money as a tool of political power. I want to learn more about how to live with Bonhoeffer’s courage.

Heroes are human

My four heroes are far from perfect. When you read about their lives, you discover that they never pretend to be perfect. They’ve all made their share of mistakes and misjudgments and they are comfortable with naming those. They are OK with their humanity. At the same time, they don’t let their mistakes stop them from living with integrity and to paraphrase Rick Warren, they recognize that “it’s not about them.”

Do you have any heroes? Think about that question. Whom do you admire and why? What is it about your heroes that inspires you to live in Christ-like ways? You don’t need too many heroes. In fact, having too many defeats the purpose. Moreover, do your heroes point you to Christ; the One who is our greatest hero, the One who took on human form, lived among us, suffered and died on our behalf, who was raised to life, and who lives today to draw you and me into vital relationship with our Creator.

I would love to read about your heroes. Post a response and let me know about your heroes, public figures whom you admire in church and in society.

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There are numerous books written about the four individuals about whom I have written. For Willie Mays, read 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say-Hey Kid by John Shea and Willie Mays (St. Martin’s Press, 2020). For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the best biography is Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh (Knopf, 2014). There are several excellent books written by and about John Perkins. Start with Let Justice Roll Down, his first book republished by Baker Books in 2012. Then read Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win (Baker, 2018). John Stott has published many works including the two that I have mentioned above. The best short biography is Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott by Roger Steer (InterVarsity, 2010).

“Away with the Atheists?”

Last week like many of you, I read about the results of a new survey that claimed less than half of Americans are now linked to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Guess what; it didn’t take long for the pundits to pile in with warnings, prognostications, and blame. “It’s all the fault of the religious right and their love of Trump.” “No, it’s those on the religious left who have succumbed to ‘woke’ culture.” The blame goes on and on.

Once we get past the blame game, others then tell us that this portends disaster for American Christianity, even America itself. Their implication is that this is bad for both. But what if it is not? Perhaps, we’re so ready to wring our hands in despair that we miss what this means. And what this means, at least in part, is that we now find ourselves in a religious context more like the first century AD than at any other time in history.

The first century and our century

Think about that for just a moment. The Christian faith was born into a world where multiple religions and multiple spiritualities flourished. Judaism in the first century experienced a massive transformation from Temple-based to synagogue worship. (The destruction of the Second Temple in AD70 forced this dramatic change, a change that has framed Judaism for the past 2,000 years.) A quasi-philosophical religion that we call Gnosticism flourished throughout the Roman empire in the three-hundred years after Christ walked the earth. Emperor worship became the Roman state religion and practicing this religion was a defining mark of patriotism. Religions like these and others were everywhere and people often practiced more than one.

What made Christianity different was its insistence on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christian confession was three words: “Jesus is Lord.” Hence, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not. Now, Rome did not mind you practicing another religion as long as you acknowledged Caesar as supreme. Caesar had room for other gods, as long as Caesar remained supreme. But Christians could not confess the lordship of Caesar. And (get this), they were labeled “atheists” because they did not recognize Caesar’s lordship; and that meant they were off-and-on subject to harm and persecution.

The persecution was not constant. Instead it broke out at different times and in different places. The New Testament Book of Revelation and the post-Apostolic letter of Clement to the church in Rome were written at approximately the same time (AD90-95). Yet they describe very different contexts. The Roman church that Clement addressed seemed able to live their lives peacefully (though with memory of the brutal Neronian persecutions of AD64-68); while the churches that John wrote to in Asia minor (modern-day Turkey) were challenged by him to live faithfully in the face of oppression. John spends most of his narrative describing Rome as a “beast” that will unleash massive evil on the world before the return of Christ.

The best illustration of what many Christians experienced came from the second-century pen of a writer who described the martyrdom of bishop Polycarp. Polycarp was probably mentored by the Apostle John himself; and when he was arrested and brought to the Roman governor, he was 86 years old. The governor asked Polycarp to recant his Christian faith, and the writer described the scene like this, “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say “Away with the atheists!” So, Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd…who were in the stadium and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!” But when the magistrate said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 10.2-3).

Our chief enemy: Distraction

I’m deeply moved every time I read that account. What Polycarp’s martyrdom helps me grasp is the challenge Christians like you and me face every day: to live our lives with no other ultimate allegiance than Jesus Christ. It sounds simple on the surface, but it is not; especially in a world that offers so many competing loyalties and bombards us with hundreds of daily messages clamoring for our attention. Distraction is the order of the day.

And distraction is the enemy’s tool to draw us away from Christ. When we care more about religious things, about political things, about personal desires, they, and not our Lord, become our focus in life. Since the 1950s, American Christianity in its more liberal and conservative forms has become far more partisan in political terms. One of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, described how dangerous this is; “Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then, let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “Cause” (The Screwtape Letters, 39).

No earthly nation-state can be called “Christian”

How that describes American Christianity, especially American evangelical Christianity in our day and time. The root of this lies in the misguided idea that somehow the United States is a nation especially ordained by God for some special purpose. This idea has both Christian and secular versions, though in the past century it has been interpreted in different ways by liberal and conservative Christians.

The United States is not nor has it ever been a “Christian” nation. Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other nations the U.S. has origins rooted in different versions of Christianity as well as in non-religious ways of thinking. Lewis is right. When people and churches make it their mission to elect the “right” politicians or get a particular political party in power, Jesus Christ is moved from the center to the periphery. The nation-state becomes more important and we become beholden to whatever political party we claim membership. Jacques Ellul had a name for this–the “political illusion” and far too many American evangelical Christians have embraced it.

Does that mean American Christians should simply withdraw from society? No, it does not. Our Lord teaches us to live our daily lives in whatever society he places us. He wants us to care for others, especially those who are poor and who have been harmed. He desires justice tinged with mercy. Jesus wants to use us to draw others to him and he wants to use us to make the United States (and the entire world) a better place for humans to live and work.

I’ve always viewed myself as a somewhat independent thinker. I think abortion needs to be curbed because it involves the taking of innocent human life. I think we brutalized African Americans and Native Americans for nearly 300 years and too many white Americans pretend that people of color should simply be able to get over it in one or two generations. I think that money, sex, and power are the American drugs of choice for many (and that is not to take away from the seriousness of opioid and other physical addictions). I think climate change is very real and that to pretend that it isn’t is to ignore massive scientific and anecdotal evidence. I think that Donald Trump won a free and fair election in 2016, and I think Joseph Biden won a free and fair election in 2020. I think our two major political parties are now a great threat to our Republic and our way of life.

I can hear some of you reading this. He’s a “communist.” He’s a fascist.” He’s a “Republican.” “Horrors, he’s a Democrat.” That demonstrates my point. We have traded Christ for our favorite political and social ideology, and our ideology no matter what it is determines how we perceive things, not actual evidence. So, I’m not asking that we agree. I’m asking how we as followers of Christ can resist the drive of political ideology and display the values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about over and over in the four gospels, values that apply to both individuals and communities. What if Christians like you and me become political independents for the sake of the Gospel. Even more, what if we treat folks who disagree with us for whatever reason not as somehow evil people who should be “cancelled” but individuals created originally in God’s image who need to hear the gospel? (Yes, “cancel culture” exists on both political extremes and sadly, even in American evangelical Christianity.)

This is part of the ongoing struggle that you and I have in following Jesus. Yes, I struggle with it. I have for a long time (and my opinionated nature makes it an ongoing struggle). But let’s not despair. Amidst all of the distractions we face, we can find ways to center our lives on Jesus himself and and create outposts for the gospel and for the Kingdom of God. Above all, let’s learn to give each other grace, especially when we disagree. And don’t worry about this latest Gallup poll. After all, it makes our Kingdom mission even more clear.