Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: What's in a Word?

A posthumous republication of a book about word origins seems a strange offering for a book review program from a publisher known mainly for popular books about Christianity, but etymology interests me, so I ordered a copy. Unlike many word-origin books, What's In a Word? by Webb Garrison is not arranged alphabetically, but rather by categories of origin (Sports & Recreation, Military, Education, etc.). This organization makes the book easier to read cover to cover, but it is still best read in snippets, so it took me months to complete.

Individual entries are written for a general audience, but some seem obvious (a computer mouse is so called because it looks like the animal) and some out of touch (“any attendant or suitor is often termed a beau in the 21st century”). Some terms were new to me (“bread-and-butter note,” “curtain lecture”), and others are defined differently from what is common use (“dyed in the wool” as “high-quality goods” rather than a quality or belief that is part of a person’s core being). But overall, What’s in a Word? was an interesting book and is one I’ll likely keep for reference for my curiosity about word and phrase origins.

This review is written as part of Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze reviewing program: If you have a blog and love to read, check it out.

Monday, November 8, 2010

On Deadly Detours

Other than the Bible, Bob Briner’s Roaring Lambs is probably the single book that has most influenced my thinking. Yesterday, I finally picked up another book of his, Deadly Detours: Seven Noble Causes That Keep Christians from Changing the World, which I was thrilled to find at our local library’s used book sale.

Deadly Detours is nearly as good as Roaring Lambs, and it serves as a sort of counterpoint to Briner’s earlier book. Roaring Lambs tells the church what we should be doing to be salt and light in our culture. Deadly Detours tells us what we should not be doing.

I wish that I – and about a million more American Christians – had read this book when it first came out fifteen years ago. Maybe if we had heard the message and taken it to heart, we wouldn’t have wasted so much of our time and resources on side issues. Of course, we the church are still on the deadly detours Briner wrote about in 1995 – pining for the “good old days” when there was prayer in school; marrying faith and politics; fighting against “the homosexual agenda;” publicly bickering over comparatively minor doctrinal issues; funding Christian television as a substitute for personal, local evangelism; denouncing the lack of “family values” among those outside the church while ignoring the problems of divorce and extramarital sex within the church; and (the one that was hardest for me to read, as I have been personally guilty of it) attacking abortion with ineffective political protests. We in 2010 still need to, as Briner says, focus on the “first things of the gospel” and find more effective ways to tell the world “who Jesus is and why He came.”

Roaring Lambs and Deadly Detours are short books (especially the latter) and easy to read. They are written for laypeople, not academics, and yet they are filled with important ideas we need to apply. If you are a Christian and you haven’t read these books, do so.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado

I am admittedly prejudiced against books broken down into bite-sized chunks to be devoured by small groups, but I make exceptions for books by Max Lucado, who is one of the best living storytellers in Christendom. The chapters of his latest book, Outlive Your Life, are seasoned with enough stories to make it an enjoyable read.

The theme of Outlive Your Life – putting hands and feet to your faith – has become fairly common in recent years, but we Christians still have a lot to learn in that area. Outlive Your Life reminded me of Kay Warren’s Dangerous Surrender, but it seems to have a greater variety of practical suggestions for U.S. Christians (offering hospitality, making microfinance loans, praying faithfully) than Warren’s book, which focuses almost entirely on the cause of AIDS care. The small group discussion guide tends to be a bit too formulaic (“Finalize your personal action plan . . . “), and the role of the Holy Spirit is notably absent in the book, but Lucado offers enough inspiring-yet-practical ideas for putting the Christian faith into action to make Outlive Your Life worth a read.

This review is written as part of Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze reviewing program: If you have a blog and love to read, check it out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Is Sex with an Ex Okay in God’s Eyes?

An old friend posed an interesting question on Facebook: “If you are divorced from your husband & you decide to have an intimate relationship with him after the is that viewed biblically?” It’s a question I’d never discussed with anyone before, but I had thought about it, and I have fairly clear ideas on the topic, so I was surprised that once again I was the only one who seemed to think the way I did.

To simplify the question, assume that neither party has remarried and that the divorce was not because of marital unfaithfulness (which is the only exception Jesus gave to the biblical prohibition against divorce). What do you think? Is it okay to sleep with your ex-husband or ex-wife? What Bible passages would you use to support your answer?

Here’s what I think: It’s not a sin to sleep with your ex-spouse. In talking about marriage and divorce, Jesus said, “… they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). It seems to me that divorce is, in essence, man trying to separate what God has joined. Can we ever be successful at trying to undo something God has done?

I believe that once you are married, God views you as married until one of you dies -- whether or not the law agrees. Further biblical statements that someone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matthew 19:9) support the idea that God still recognizes marriages that the world has attempted to dissolve under “no-fault” divorce laws.

Whether or not it is wise to sleep with your ex-spouse is a different question. If you do so simply to satisfy your libido, with no intent to reconcile, you are likely to make matters worse. I’m not suggesting that married couples always have sex for the purpose of building their relationship, but sex does bring you together, and if you are sexually intimate without recognizing a commitment to each other, it may make continued separation more painful. Although, on second thought, sex is so powerful that it may draw you and your ex together in a way you don’t expect. Reconciliation and healing are good things.

Jesus came to restore our relationship with God, and I believe that restored marriage relationships (with a few exceptions) are part of what He wants to see happening among His people. Sex is one gift God has given married couples to draw them together; I don’t believe He rescinds that gift just because two people have tried to destroy the bond He has created.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis: A Review

I disagreed with less than I expected in Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. I’ve heard a lot about the bad theology of writers who fall under the “emergent church” label, but I’ve seen as much bad theology in the works of some “mainstream” Christian writers, and presented with more arrogance, than what I see in Bell’s book.

Velvet Elvis was full of thought-provoking ideas, some of which I’ve never heard in my thirty-plus years in the church and some I’ve heard a lot lately. I really enjoyed the sections about ancient Jewish language and traditions, which explained some Bible passages that always seemed odd to me and added dimensions to some other passages. (For example, the woman who wanted to touch Jesus’ clothes to be healed was declaring her belief that He was the Messiah, who was to come “with healing in his wings,” because “wings” was the same word as the one that described the edges of the prayer shawl Jesus would have worn.)

Bell flirts with some unorthodox beliefs, such as universalism, and suggests that the virgin birth might not be essential to the truth of the gospel. (I disagree, but that’s a debate for a different day.) His main message, though, is one with which I am starting to agree more and more: Christians should live in such a way that we are known for our love and service, not for the things we are against.

What did bother me about Velvet Elvis – and maybe it’s because I work as a copy editor – was Bell’s disregard for the rules of grammar. Even after I got used to the abundant sentence fragments, I had to stop and reread several sentences because poor punctuation or the wrong words for the context made me misunderstand them at first. (For example, one woman found that “Jesus had suffered far worse than her,” a grammatical construction that suggests the woman was so annoying that putting up with her might have been worse than death on the cross.) I’m surprised that a writer who cares enough about words to object to using “Christian” as an adjective and referring to the contents of the Bible as “data” would fail to see that violations of the standard rules of grammar and style can carry unintended meanings.

Correction: I believe I misused "emergent church" in the first paragraph. From what I understand, Rob Bell would be considered part of the "emerging church," a group that adheres to orthodox theology but argues for changes in worship style and lifestlye, while the "emergent church" authors advocate a less orthodox theology.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Missions-Minded Students and Christian Colleges

Last week, I interviewed the couple who leads Kaleo, a ministry that hosts short-term missions groups in Dallas and New Orleans. Their first group of students came from non-Christian universities, and some were new Christians. Later in the week, I talked with the director of communication in the Home Office of American Missionary Fellowship (the umbrella organization for Kaleo and my main client as a freelance writer/editor). During our discussion, she mentioned that many of the college students who are interested in missions work do not attend Christian schools.

This mission-mindedness on campuses with no Christian affiliation (or whose Christian affiliation is little more than a nod to the college’s founders) does not surprise me. After all, students at these universities are living on a mission field, while Christian college students are immersed in the Christian subculture. At Christian colleges, students who have not chosen to follow Christ are already exposed to the teaching of the Bible and tend to keep their doubts to themselves. When surrounded by like-minded professors and peers, evangelical students in Christian colleges may have difficulty finding someone to evangelize.

I greatly value the biblical instruction I received at a Christian college, and I do see the need for missionaries to have theological training. But I wonder whether Christian colleges have a tendency to shelter their students from the world a bit too much. I remember feeling disappointed to discover that my graduate school, which I chose partly because of its motto, “Christian leadership to change the world,” was full of students who seemed to be hiding from the world. (A telling incident was when a stranger at the student-housing shuttle stop told my roommate, who was working out her own beliefs, “As a Christian, you should not be wearing that Calvin Klein t-shirt.”)

When surrounded by others who share their beliefs, Christian-college students can easily miss the needs and issues faced by people outside the Christian community. In the words of an old Petra song, they begin “looking through rose-colored stained-glass windows, never allowing the world to come in – seeing no evil and feeling no pain, making the light as it comes from within so dim.”

What’s the solution? Maybe Christian colleges should encourage all students to take a short-term missions trip during their time of study by offering credit for it. At the same time, Christian colleges and churches could work together to offer students from non-Christian colleges theological training to prepare them for missions work without forcing them to prolong their education.

Future missionaries need solid theological training and a deep love for people who are not following Christ. As the church, we should use every opportunity to develop both of these characteristics in our people.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shades of Grey -- Great Book, Not So Great Ending

I just finished reading Shades of Grey, the newest book by one of my favorite authors, Jasper Fforde. When I originally heard it would not be a new Thursday Next novel, I was a bit disappointed, but I was soon thoroughly absorbed in its dystopic tale of a future society that forbids most technology and yet retains eBay’s feedback system and Facebook’s friending process.

While I am looking forward to reading the sequels, I am reluctant to recommend Shades of Grey to others because of its disturbing ending. Eddie’s (the hero’s) ultimate choice flows naturally from the plot line and seems noble at first, but it also makes him a far lesser hero.

(Spoiler alert!) Reasoning that maintaining his position in society will allow him to save the lives of many and bring freedom to everyone, Eddie chooses to feign ignorance of the horrors that sustain his society and allows innocent people to be sent to their deaths. In making this choice, he becomes guilty of the same sin as those he is trying to overthrow – placing a higher value on “the greater good” than on an individual life. He is not much better than a coward who allows Jews to be sent to a concentration camp so that he may someday overthrow Hitler.

An act of self-sacrifice on Eddie’s part may have made Shades of Grey sequels difficult, but it would have provided a much more satisfying ending.

Friday, February 12, 2010

How To Reach Your Potential for God Doesn't Reach Its Author's Potential

In How to Reach Your Full Potential for God: Never Settle for Less Than His Best, Charles Stanley offers seven “essentials” for doing just that: “A Clean Heart,” “A Clear Mind,” “Using Your Gifts,” “A Healthy Body,” “Right Relationships,” “A Balanced Schedule,” and “Taking God-Approved Risks.” You’ll find some good advice in this book, but not as much theology or Scripture study as in some of Stanley’s other books. How To Reach Your Full Potential for God reads more like a self-help book (including a few paragraphs on the benefits of reading self-help books) than a Scriptural study, and though its advice is not unscriptural, it is largely nonscriptural – rooted more in common sense than in the Bible.

Aside from a few interesting profiles of people pursuing their full potential at the end of each “Essentials” chapter, How to Reach Your Full Potential for God didn’t inspire or interest me much. It wasn’t awful, but it contained very little fresh insight. Having recently read The Wonderful Spirit Filled Life, an earlier (and much better) book by Stanley, I was disappointed in this one.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Scripture We Like to Ignore: I Corinthians 14:26-28, 39-40

“Are you a full-gospel Christian?” asked a potential roommate when I was trying to find a place to live for graduate school. I knew the Christian university I had chosen had a lot of Charismatic Christians, but until that moment, I had never heard anyone suggest that the gospel I believe is incomplete.

“If you want to know whether I speak in tongues, the answer is ‘no,’” was my reply (though I think I said it much less eloquently and with some stammering). The interview ended quickly, and I never heard back from her.

The spiritual gift of speaking in tongues is remarkably divisive for the Christian community. Some say that God gave the gift of tongues only in New Testament times; others believe that everyone who truly has faith will eventually speak in tongues. People who hold these beliefs will quote examples from Scripture, but none of the examples fully support either view.

One passage on tongues that both sides usually ignore is this one: “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. . . . Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (I Corinthians 14;26-28, 39-40, NIV).

Christians who do not speak in tongues like to ignore this passage because hearing others speak in tongues makes us uncomfortable. Christians who do speak in tongues also tend to ignore this passage: I have been a part of several services where people spoke in tongues, but I have never heard a translation. Why not?

God may choose to gift you with the ability to speak in tongues, but if He has not provided a translator, it may be that He wants you to use your gift in private worship. It’s a bit like a child who wants to take his favorite Christmas gift to school. His parents are likely to tell him, “You can’t share it with everyone, so you better keep it at home.”

God gives spiritual gifts to strengthen the church, not to cause division.