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  • WHERE REZA ASLAN’S “ZEALOT” GETS IT WRONG ABOUT THE HISTORICAL JESUS 

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews, Culture

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    As I mentioned weeks back, I finished Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and came to many different conclusions from the book.  Among those is that Aslan overcorrected his fundamentalist upbringing by tossing out the baby with the bathwater.  51lP2ZBJ7hL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

    Aslan forcefully argued for the narrative of Jesus the historical figure transforming into a divine “Christ of faith” through the exploits of Paul and later century figures.  He saw that after the many messianic claims of the early centuries, the belief that Jesus the Nazarene was God is purely wishful thinking from later followers of Jesus.  However, I find his thesis lacking, and let me tell you why.*

    Something Crazy Happened

    Here’s what we know concerning the claims of the New Testament and First Century Palestine:

    • Messiahs were meant to lead military revolutions in First Century Israel.
    • Messiahs and good Jews do not typically claim to be god/God.
    • Jews worship on Saturdays.
    • Women are not reliable legal witnesses.
    • Resurrection of the dead was believed to happen at the end of history.

    Here’s what we know from common sense:

    • Dead men stay dead— this is a fact of nature.
    • If you make something up, at least make the leaders look somewhat intelligent.

    As the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out in Surprised by Hope, something happened that turned Second Temple Judaism on its head.  There was a historical Jesus who had a group of followers and he eventually was crucified for insurrection (claiming to be like God, claiming to be a king).  Instead of disbanding, as so many followers of crucified messiahs did, the disciples started saying he rose from the dead.  They claimed to have seen him as a physical person.  Not only that—women were the first to encounter the empty tomb and connect the dots to a resurrection!

    As alluded to above, if you are going to make something up in the First Century, don’t say women were there first.  Because in the First Century, women were not legal witnesses.  If you made something up, why not show Peter as the smart, faithful one?  Why not tell the great exploits of the early leaders and simply remove the asinine stories that portray the disciples as faithless, prejudiced people?

    The four gospel accounts recorded in the Bible provided differing accounts of the Jesus and are not four similar copies.  Aslan is certainly correct in this.  However, four witnesses will often times provide four different takes on a single event.  The existence of narrative tension does not make the four different accounts false.  It would be less believable and reliable if all four gospels were in unanimity in relaying the history (and theology) of Jesus the Messiah.

    On another point, to be Jewish meant that you worshipped at the Synagogue or Temple on Saturdays.  To move your worship day as a Jew to Sunday is a tremendous move.  Moving days is not just a convenience factor, instead it is a reflection of the culture-shattering resurrection of Jesus.  This is another element to hearing out the argument for a historical resurrection.

    Concerning the resurrection, a lot of Jews at that time believed in the bodily resurrection of the just.  Of course, this resurrection would occur at the end of time, when God intervenes in history.  They did not expect for a resurrection to occur at that particular time.  They certainly did not have a category to affirm a bodily resurrection in the Hellenistic Greek understanding either.  Unless something out of the ordinary happened.  

    James vs Paul?

    Surprisingly, Aslan created a narrative that pitted Paul against James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem church.  He suggested that Paul took the teaching of Jesus and perverted them, turning the vast majority of the diaspora (Jews who did not live in Israel) and Gentiles against the traditional Jewish church in Jerusalem.  However, this is grasping at straws, since Paul went throughout the Mediterranean collecting money to financial relieve a Jerusalem church.  He also came under their authority several points in Acts (not to mention his writings are the earliest ones we have).

    It is pretty well known that Martin Luther saw the Book of James as a sketchy book, propping up the false religion of works over faith in God.  Aslan flips Luther’s idea over and suggests that Paul attacked James in his writings.  However, the faith that Paul wrote about is not in opposition to the works that James wrote about.  We are saved for good works, not saved by them or from them.  This was his weakest point, because even a cursory look at how Reformational scholars interpret Paul and James shatter his hypothesis within a few pages.

    If Christ Was Not Raised…

    With all that said, Zealot is a well-researched book that is a very captivating read.  However, this book is done with a motive.  My guess is that Aslan’s work was written as a type of antidote to kids caught up in the subjective fervor of contemporary evangelicalism.  Yet, reading the New Testament with modern eyes is just as pervasive in secular heads as it is in orthodox Christian heads.  I simply do not think you have to separate the Christ of faith from the Christ of history.  Because something happened in the First Century that changed everything.  Something happened that has mystery to it.  Something happened that is not found on a recorded video.

    The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith are the same person.  Jesus the Messiah changed the cultural script for a conquering messiah and he meant to die a brutal death on the cross.  It was not an accident that he died in his thirties.  This was his mission: to give his life as a ransom so that we can enjoy a life with God both now and forever.

    Maybe the reason why people argued with Jesus and rejected him at that time was because he claimed to be God and claimed to be a messiah who would not overthrow the Romans in a glorious coup d’etat.  Maybe the reason why people rejected him then is the same reason people reject him now: he interrupts our lives and our own preconceived notions of what it means to truly live.

    *I am indebted to the works of the brilliant scholar NT Wright for these arguments, and I commend you to read his material on the Early Church

    Photo: Christ Cleansing the Temple by Bernardino Mei (Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum)

  • WASHED AND WAITING: FINDING OURSELVES IN JESUS’ IDENTITY

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Liturgy

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    I am currently reading through New Testament scholar Wesley Hill’s powerful and vulnerable memoir called Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.  In his book, Hill recounts his coming to terms with his evangelical faith in Jesus with his homosexual attractions.  While there are more than a few places that are worth drawing out, I wanted to highlight one particular passage.

    In one passage, Hill discovered for the first time the necessity to understand his status as the beloved child of God.  Above all identities and all beliefs, he needed to hear that he is the beloved child.

    For Hill, his baptism identifies him with Jesus and it gives him a measure of strength and grace to wait in the tension of this present life.  He remains faithful to the calling of Jesus while living in the tension of unfulfilled sexual desire.  That is very tough.

    His memoir, though, got me thinking about my own identity.  As I go through a season of unemployment, I have found the need to transform my identity from what I do for a living, to who I am apart from a business card.  Every time I log into LinkedIn, I am confronted with my lack of employment, and it is pretty painful to be reminded of it.

    Have you ever had a similar feeling?

    That’s why Hill’s reminder of identity is so crucial in difficult stations of life.  He brings in N.T. Wright’s grace filled admonition to look to the cross of Jesus, for there we see the extravagant and inexorable self-giving love of the triune God.  There we see our identity.

    Did you catch that?

    When we look away from ourselves and place our vision on the crucified Christ, we are able to see that we are radically loved.  We are loved not because of our job, or deeds, or talents, or charm, but simply because.  Simply because of Jesus and in our union with him (which deserves a ten part blog series).  

    Is there more to it?  Of course there is!  I’ve heard it said that the Christian faith is a pool that has ample room for toddlers to wade in the shallows and has enough depth for those who want to dive.  But for now, we are simply loved by Jesus.  And I simply hope you grasp this incredible news.

    Photo Credit: Steampunk Family the von Hedwigs via Compfight cc

  • THE ART OF WORK: A LIFE WELL LIVED

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews

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    Have you noticed there has been a recent influx of “find your calling/passion” sort of books?  Fortunately, I have also found that Jeff Goins is a brilliant voice in the middle of such a crowded field of authors.  Goins’ work came into my life several years back through a little ebook he wrote called “You are a writer, so start acting like one.”  I am happy to say that Goins does not disappoint in his recent book “The Art of Work.”

    Goins attempts to provide a pathway for those seeking what they are meant to do.  For those searching for their calling, he breaks down our trajectory to these major topics:

    Finding our passion through listening to your life_140_245_Book.1544.cover

    Connecting with a teacher through apprenticeships

    Practicing with purpose

    Making intentional decisions through

    Failing well

    Mastering a trade

    What I found refreshing toward the end of his work, was how he summed up his message.  For Goins, art is not the main thing.  Borrowing from Stephen King, life is not a support system for art.  Art comes secondary, art comes through the experience of life.  Our life, in a sense, becomes the magnum opus, and no amount of success is worth losing the ones we love.

    As you continue on your adventure of life, I would recommend that you consider picking up “The Art of Work.”  It is more than the typical “go find your passion” sort of book, instead it is filled with gracious wisdom and encouragement.  Find your passion, of course, but don’t let it consume you.  Live life and realize that your work will never be done.  Ultimately in Jesus, our life’s story will be woven into the tapestry of God’s Kingdom and our work will not be in vain.

    _____

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255  : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

  • GOD’S DIRTY LAUNDRY: THE SKELETONS IN GOD’S CLOSET

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews

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    Have you ever felt like there were dark stains in the Bible that you were embarrassed about?  In a new book by Joshua Ryan Butler, the Portland-area pastor speaks to three common stereotypes of God in his work “The Skeletons in God’s Closet.”  Tackling the topics of hell, judgment, and holy war, Butler seeks to reframe our understanding of God in a modern world.

    Butler sees these three tough topics differently than many in the more secular areas of the West Coast.  He sees that God has mercy in hell, that judgment is incredibly gracious and just, and that holy war in the Old Testament is actually full of hope.  Butler is up front in his philosophical framework, arguing from a place that God is good—regardless of our understanding.

    What I appreciated about Butler’s works is that he did not shy away from these topics, but instead chose to paint the big caricatures first.  Hell is a torture chamber with people begging to get out, Jesus is over the top in his judgments, and God is too violent (after all he ordered his people into genocide).  He does not diminish objections, but systematically addresses them one by one in a gracious manner.

    Butler does not leave it at diminishing opponents’ arguments though, what he does is so much greater.  He chooses to offer something more productive through the reframing of arguments and constructing alternate narratives about God.  He does take some interpretive license at times, so I would recommend doing your homework as you walk alongside Butler in his arguments.

    For those who might be struggling with the harsher skeletons in the closet, I recommend Butler’s “The Skeletons in God’s Closet” for an open conversation on the dirty laundry of the Christian faith.

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    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

    Photo Credit: tj.blackwell via Compfight cc

  • MY TOP BOOKS OF 2014

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Story

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    In the spirit of reflective 2014 posts on the borders of 2015, I wanted to submit to you, dear reader, a list of books that I found to be quite excellent.  Here are my top reads of the past year:

     

    The Price of Privilege

    Working with youth in a prep school setting has raised a lot of questions in my mind within the ministry context. Fortunately, this work has been a tremendous eye opener. Written by a therapist in Marin County (where I live), the Price of Privilege explores adolescents in the privileged community.

     

    A Game of Thrones

    This was by and large my favorite fiction book I read this year. GoT is an incredibly deep novel full of character development, intrigue, and intricate details (down to the family tree). Not for the faint of heart, this book series is a pretty lengthy one.

     

    Called

    I was challenged and encouraged in Mark Labberton’s (Fuller Seminary’s new president, which makes him even more cooler) work. In his book, Labberton reminds followers of Jesus to live boldly within their calling. This is not just about our vocation, but instead it goes much deeper into the core of our identity.

     

    More Than Enough

    One of my mentors (from afar, of course) Dave Ramsey reminds his readers that life can be found outside of the credit driven buy more and save less. He calls his readers back to common sense and discovering that a life lived within our means is a good step to discovering more than enough.

     

    The War of Art

    For the creative types, this book is a must read. Creating art can be difficult, it can be a fight. But it’s a fight worth having. A Short but gut punching read by Steven Pressfield.

     

    The Adam Quest

    It seems as if the question surrounding God and the relationship of faith with science will always be in the forefront of those wrestling with Christianity. The Adam Quest seeks and succeeds to draw out key scientists who believe that science and faith go together like a shirt and tie. Drawing on the interviews with young earth creationists, intelligent design proponents, and evolutionary creationists, Stafford allows the scientists to speak for themselves and let the reader decide. (My review of the book can be found here)

     

    Knowing God

    Many people have called J.I. Packer’s classic as a formative reading for their own faith journey. I would add this work up there with my own journey too. Packer succeeds in this engaging overview of the Christian faith, expounding on the major beliefs that run throughout it. Packer’s wisdom and clarity is certainly on display.

     

    Unbroken

    This book is incredibly engrossing and reads like a novel. Based on the true story of Louis Zamperini, this is a story set in WWII that centers on the themes of survival, forgiveness, and hope. The message of forgiveness and peace is a remarkable find in this excellent biography.

    For my complete reading list, visit me on Goodreads!

    What books helped shape you this past year?

  • UNCOVERING GOD’S RHYTHM OF GRACE

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews

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    More.

    It seems as if the fast paced society we dwell in craves more.  More of our time, talent, and treasure.  Kerri Weems stands in the gap and boldly proclaims that we don’t have to buy into the demands of more.  Instead, we need to step into God’s gift of Rhythms of Grace.

    Weems argues that we pace ourselves to the wrong rhythm, the rhythm of more and “mammon.”  The true pacesetter ought to be God and the Shalom he offers.  Shalom, as defined by Weems, is peace and wholeness that comes from walking in the rhythms of God, full of rest and grace.  Shalom does not come from productivity, it’s experiencing more of God’s peace in the midst of all the things we have to do.

    After making her case for Shalom, Sabbath, and Grace, Weems pivots to practical applications of combating pace stealers by guiding her readers to embrace saying yes to their needs (which are really God’s means for sustaining his creation).

    Rhythms of Grace is very approachable and easy to digest.  I especially enjoyed her study questions given in the back of each chapter.  With that being said, this book is clearly geared toward women.  There weren’t too many examples geared toward males, so I would recommend this to my female friends for an engaging devotional read to challenge the underlining cultural narrative or more.

    Photo Credit: jacqueline-w via Compfight cc

  • “DAVID LIVINGSTONE, THE ABOLITIONIST, I PRESUME”

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews, History

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    I must confess, the only things I knew about David Livingstone prior to this past month was his quest for the source of the Nile River and the famous line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.”  I thought Livingstone was a mere explorer and had no idea that his deep faith shaped him in tremendous ways. _140_245_Book.1345.cover

    Jay Milbrandt’s “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone” painted a wonderful picture of this complex man who embodied the spheres of science, exploration, and missionary work so well.  Livingstone was a driven, complex man who was painfully aware of his own deficiencies.  Often times he would not yield to counsel, but instead would press on out of his driven (or perhaps, stubborn) nature.  After initial triumphs, he experienced setback after setback, ultimately dying in the land he loved.  His drive to expose and abolish the East African slave trade ultimately cost him his life and his family.

    One of the major themes that struck me was how Livingstone did not live to see the fruit of his life’s ambition.  He instead died nearly penniless and separated from his family.  He never saw the abolition of the slave trade in East Africa, never discovered the source of the Nile, and had only one convert to his missionary goals.  Like Moses, he never entered into the promised land he so desperately wanted to see.

    Milbrandt’s work was well done and thoroughly researched.  The book was riveting and full of lively descriptions of the expeditions.  Upon closing the biography, I felt like I knew Livingstone better and understood in part the East African slave trade.  I also appreciated how Milbrandt brought out the imperialistic vision of Livingstone and let him argue for this movement, allowing history to be its judge.  Overall, Milbrandt is an excellent biographer.

    If you are into biographies and want to learn about a relatively under-the-radar historical figure, I recommend Jay Milbrandt’s “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone: Exile, African Slavery, and the Publicity Stunt That Saved Millions.”  His narrative style and honest portrayal of a flawed yet heroic man is certainly well worth the read.

    ——

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  • “LET ME PRAY ABOUT THAT”

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews

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    “Let me pray about that”

    Have you ever said those words to someone?  Have you ever said those words and either forget to pray about what you committed to pray about (No, I have never done that…)?  What about committing to pray for the decision because you actually did not want to commit to volunteering for X or contributing to Y or going to Z.

    Yeah, me neither.   WP

    Odds are, if you have ever been in the Christian context for some time you have used those words as a call to pause.  A call to pause and consider the will of God and the next step of action.  Praying for a lightening bolt to strike and mark the way.  Little do we know that God wants us to stop praying and start doing.

    At least that’s what Greg Darley’s “Waster Prayer” is challenging us to consider.

    Darley is quite clear from the beginning.  This is not a book on salvation, for salvation is a gift from God and can never be earned by us.  This is a book on discipleship and following Jesus our Messiah.  Obedience to Jesus and building for the Kingdom of God necessitates that we stop praying and start doing.

    Praying without ceasing is a very important point to Darley’s argument.  Our lives need to be cultivated in such a way that we are constantly communicating with God and creating a real relationship with him.  We become more focused on our relationship with him instead of fixating on a transaction.

    A powerful argument Darley uses is the stories found in the Bible.  There are so many individuals both within the OT and NT that acted when God called them.  They did not pause to pray for a week, instead they were obedient to God’s call.  They jumped, even when it was scary.  But they jumped out of already having a real relationship with God.

    Sometimes we need the nudge from God and remain faithful to his leading, even when it seems unclear.  Even when it seems risky, sometimes God’s call is one for an adventure that will lead us down precarious situations only to end up right where he wants us to be.  Stop procrastinating by praying.

    Prayer without action is wasted.

    ——

    Photo Credit: Ian Sane via Compfight cc

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

  • THE ROMANCE OF RELIGION: THE SURPRISING APPEAL OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews, Culture

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    Have you ever heard the phrase, Christianity is a relationship, not a religion?  I, for one, have heard this all too often and was intrigued by the provocative title of Dwight Longnecker’s work “The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.”  Longnecker’s work was well worth the whimsical investment, for this is a remarkably refreshing book.

    Longnecker takes the objections to religion by both the modernists and postmodernists alike, embracing their charges and flipping them on their proverbial heads.  Arguing that we need to learn from the great stories that transcend cultures and centuries, acting as romantic warriors on the road for Truth.  For Longnecker, these tales all possess a kernel of truth that is ultimately bound up in the one who is the source of all that is True.Site

    “The Romance of Religion” connects the stories of culture and unashamedly claims them for the Christian faith.  Much in the vein of Chesterton and Lewis, Longnecker draws on the myths and legends of humanity and aptly points them to the source of all Truth.  For Longnecker, good stories incarnate truth on many levels. 

    I found the strengths of this book is Longnecker’s powerful command of the English language and the effective use of the Western (and at times the non-Western) cannon.  He calls out the battle between good and evil in the world and the necessity for those who are romantics (those who seek after God and after this truth) to confront this evil.  For Longnecker, the romantic is someone who is neither a Stoic (someone who merely muscles through the tough aspects of life, keeping a stiff upper lip) nor an Epicurean (someone who drowns out life through the pursuit of pleasure alone), but they see rescue beyond the horizon and goes out after it.

    To be a romantic, they head out for adventure, knowing full well the dangers it could bring.  They head out in pursuit of all this beautiful, good, and true, ultimately finding it in the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth— Jesus the Messiah.

    If you are tired or bored with the Christian religion, maybe this book will do you some good and help rekindle the romance with religion.

  • FOR ALL WRITERS: WHY YOU SHOULD READ STEPHEN KING

    AUTHOR: // CATEGORY: Book Reviews, Growth, Story

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    Writer's Block

    I have never thought much about reading a book by Stephen King, I’m a scaredy cat and horror books aren’t exactly of interest to me.  Yet, after hearing so much about one of King’s nonfiction works On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft I decided to give it a shot.  To be candid, I could not have asked for a clearer book on writing to be written.

    On Writing

    King breaks his book up into two major parts.  The first section of the book is his memoir and it highlights certain portions of his writing life, including the creation and publishing of Carrie.  I could not believe that this novel under development was saved from the trashcan by his wife!  This portion offered valuable lessons on finding art wherever you look– even cleaning out bathrooms.

    The second portion of the book offered his take on the writing process and it is here most writers will find it to be helpful.  Here are a few highlights that stuck out to me:

    • The first draft of your work should be a brain dump of your story and then put away for six months.  The second draft of the story is where you will pick it apart and polish it.  2nd draft = 1st draft – 10% of the text
    • Always have two or three drafts to your stories
    • Stories are like fossils needing to be excavated.  The writer should start with the characters and general premise of the story, but the details, themes, and even the ending (!) needs to be unearthed in the writing process like the skeletal frame of a T-Rex.
    • Write with an Ideal Reader in mind
    • Be honest!  With the exception of adverbs (adverbs kill your writing), nothing is worse than lying to your readers
    • Read a lot so you can write a lot

    If you write or want to write, this work is both accessible and engaging.  I highly recommend it!

    What books have helped you write?

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