Monday, March 4, 2013

Jesus's Online Presence

This past week I was involved in two rather heated discussions with strangers on Facebook. In the first instance, several people were putting down conservative Christians, and I became defensive. At the end of the discussion, one of the people who had been slamming Christians messaged me with a heartfelt apology.
A few days later, I responded to what I considered a libelous remark about someone else, made by a man who later identified himself as a Christian. That discussion ended with the man who had made the remark calling me an idiot and making a declaration of war.
Does anyone else see that something is wrong with this picture?

We as Christians are Christ’s representatives on earth (2 Corinthians 2:15, 5:20). Others’ beliefs about Jesus are based largely on their opinions of us. We are not to be ashamed to identify ourselves as believers (Mark 8:38), but we should be ashamed for representing Him so poorly.
Based on my social media interactions this week, which man seems to know how life should be lived – the self-identified Christian, who became hostile and insulting when called on his wrongdoing, or the presumed non-Christian, who humbly admitted when he was wrong and initiated peacemaking efforts? I’m sorry to say, it’s not one who claims to share my beliefs.

Fellow Christians, please remember when you are online (and when you are not) that your words and actions reflect not only on you but on our Lord, as well. We are Christ’s online presence as much as we are His hands and feet in our communities. What we say online matters, but often, how we say it matters even more.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Brief Review of Love Does by Bob Goff

Bob Goff’s story in Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Yearsfascinated me, so I eagerly ordered a free copy of his book Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World from Thomas Nelson’s BookSneeze program. Love Does was a lighter read than I’d hoped, but it does relate quite a few interesting anecdotes from Goff’s ordinary-yet-extraordinary life. Many of the chapters also draw parallels between the events of an anecdote and the things Goff has learned about God. At times the parallels work well, but at other times they seem to be stretched to fit.

I doubt that Love Does will make my list of favorite books I’ve read this year, but I did enjoy it overall. It would make a good graduation gift for a young person who wants to live for God in a somewhat unconventional way.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Thoughts on The Progress Paradox

One of my goals for the year is to read several books that have been on my to-read list for at least five years. One of these books was Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, published in 2003.

Easterbrook makes many interesting observations in this book and offers some good explanations for them, but he covers so much ground (politics, poverty, health care, the environment, the history of the Islamic world, and more) that not all of his ideas are fully developed. His optimism is refreshing, but at times, it is too extreme. For example, I would love to believe his assertion that global poverty can be solved in a generation or two, but his suggested solutions are impractical. He argues that Americans should “tax themselves,” demanding to pay more for goods and services so that minimum wage can become a living wage. But if that happened, wouldn’t the people receiving minimum wage also have to pay more for goods and services, thereby making their new wage worth less anyway? He also says that Western governments could simply give people the money they need to survive through foreign aid, but he makes no suggestions about how we could ensure our money would make its way through red tape and corrupt officials and get to the people who really need it.
The book does seem well researched, and most ideas are supported by statistics. However, the only citation I checked was inaccurate – he quoted an article that contrasted York, PA (in the county where I live) with an upscale suburb, but when I looked up the article, I found it didn’t mention York at all – it was describing Franklin County, PA. Even if the other statistics are accurate, they are already outdated. I wonder which of Easterbrook’s conclusions – if any – would be different if he were writing the book now, several years after the national economy went south.
I would also have liked to see Easterbrook better define his terminology. For example, he talks about people who own speedboats and private planes as “not rich.” He also describes capitalism and market democracy as two completely different and somewhat incompatible political systems, but he doesn’t explain what the distinction is or why it’s important. (Trying but failing to remember whether my high school government classes had covered this topic, I did an Internet search to find the difference. I didn’t come up with any answers; in fact, some sources explained capitalism as “the market system” or saw capitalism as the system that makes democracy possible.)
When Easterbrook described himself near the end as a “churchgoing Christian,” I was astonished, as many of his presuppositions obviously came from a secular worldview. (He seems to have more faith in evolution and economic progress than in Jesus.) He does show respect for people of faith and talks about the need for everyone to value forgiveness and gratitude, but he says we should do so for selfish reasons. (The chapter that gets closest to addressing spiritual matters is titled “Selfish Reasons To Become a Better Person.”)
Frankly, I’m amazed that someone could write an entire book on our lack of happiness despite our wealth and give so little space to the spiritual aspect of the issue. As a “churchgoing Christian” myself, I would love to see more Christians talking about this topic from a biblical perspective. Simultaneous material blessings and lack of contentment is a defining characteristic of our culture that the American church has failed to address adequately.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thoughts on Erasing Hell

I realize this blog has become a book blog and a very occasional one at that. For those of you who are not fond of books, I apologize. It seems that they are the main intellectual stimuli I have been receiving lately. Someday I may get back to writing about other topics. In the meantime, let me tell you about the most recent book that provoked my thinking:

Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle was a difficult book to read. I would like to think that God gives an infinite number of chances to turn to Him, but the Bible is clear that opportunity ends when we die, after which we will face judgment. For many, judgment leads to hell. Erasing Hell reminded me of this bitter truth. Its teaching was not new to me – I’d learned it all along as I grew up – but it reminded me that I am not God and my human mind will never fully comprehend Him.

Reading about hell brought many questions to my mind. For instance, how can there be no mourning in heaven (Revelation 21:4) when people we love are being tortured in hell? And why does effective evangelism seem to be the opposite of what it should be? The reality of hell creates an urgency that would inspire a type of evangelism that is more suited to alarming announcements to crowds on street corners (“Get out of that burning building now!”) than to quiet chats in homes, but the “turn or burn” style of evangelism is usually much less effective than the slower, personal method of one-on-one friendship evangelism. Why does God change hearts so slowly?

I will never completely understand God, but I know Him well enough that I know I can trust Him and take Him at His word. As Chan & Sprinkle say in Erasing Hell, “The One who invented justice . . . knows perfectly what the unbeliever deserves.” And “. . . the New Testament writers don’t have the same allergic reaction to hell that I do. Perhaps they had a view of God that is much bigger than mine. A view of God that takes Him at His word and doesn’t try to make Him fit our own moral standards and human sentimentality.”

I am glad I am not God. I don’t want that kind of responsibility. But I also cannot bear to think too deeply about many of the people I love spending eternity in hell. All I can do is pray for them and follow God’s direction as faithfully as I can.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: A Review

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne appealed to my longing for two things that I have missed in most of my church experiences: a deep sense of fellowship with other believers and a commitment to living out our faith in a way that matters, so that we may be truly by known by our love.

Claiborne addresses a lot of issues that have made me feel out of step with most American Christians: the emphasis on big congregations; the insistence that tithes go to the local church, even when churches spend more on buildings and internal ministries than they do on helping those in need; and the belief that offering fun activities (as opposed to genuine love) will bring more people into the church.

While The Irresistible Revolution offers an appealing alternative to a dying form of Christianity, Claiborne occasionally seems to forget the reason for reviving the faith. Though his social action is clearly motivated by his love for Jesus, the book’s middle chapters left me feeling that his ultimate goal was alleviation of suffering on earth, rather than spiritual transformation. Committed Christians will be motivated to alleviate others’ suffering, but this work should be a means to the end of bringing others to Christ, rather than an end in itself.

Claiborne also seems to believe we can create heaven on earth. He has witnessed many forms of oppression and has been jailed for opposing it, but certain sections of the book suggest that people mistreat others only because “they know not what they do.” (I can’t find the exact quote, but at one point he says something like, “We don’t mean to hurt each other.”) As he dreams utopian dreams, he seems to have forgotten original sin and Jesus’s statements that we will always have poverty (Matthew 26:11) and war (Matthew 24:6) on this side of heaven. Christians are called to stand against the evil of this world, but we will not overcome it until the next world comes.

The Irresistible Revolution encouraged me to think a little bit harder about how I can live out my faith more radically in a place where the needs are less obvious. (I haven’t yet figured out the solution.) I admire Claiborne’s lifestyle and the impact members of his community make on the world around them, but I don’t believe I am personally called to live in the “abandoned places of empire.” We need Christians to be salt and light in every neighborhood, including the suburbs (which Claiborne describes as spiritually dangerous places, and I agree) and upper-class communities (though I often wonder how we can best reach the wealthy without falling in love with wealth ourselves).

After reading this book, I’m not ready to join a new monastic community, but I am thankful for those who are called to that lifestyle. Together, we can be the church and bring light to the darkness of this world.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Nick of Time: A Book Review

Nick of Time by Tim Downs, a book I got free through Book Sneeze, is a light mystery focusing on Nick Polchak, a forensic entomologist who heads to Philadelphia to help a friend with a case, only to find evidence that his friend has been killed. He follows the case to the Poconos, leaving his fiancée in Virginia without word of his whereabouts less than a week before their wedding.

The mystery was entertaining enough to keep me reading, even though I figured out most of the solution before I got to the end. The characters had a little more personality than most who appear in Christian fiction, but I also wouldn’t have categorized this book as Christian fiction. The only thing “Christian” about it is the presence of a pastor as a secondary character the main characters respect. Not having read any of the previous books in the series, I have no idea whether Nick and his fiancée were presented as Christians, but if they were, there’s no evidence of it here. Their faith, if it exists, does not affect their words or actions at all.

If you’re looking for a book to read on the beach, Nick of Time may do the trick. But if you’re looking for a complicated mystery or a book to encourage you in your walk with Christ, try something else.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Mountains Bow Down: A Decent Mystery in the Christian Fiction Genre

One beef I have with Christian fiction is that it rarely offers good mystery novels, so when Book Sneeze offered free copies of The Mountains Bow Down by Sibella Giorello to bloggers, I ordered one. I was pleasantly surprised. As a mystery, it’s not bad: Raleigh Harmon, a geologist with the FBI, is on an Alaskan cruise when she is the first to recognize that the suicide of an on-board movie star’s wife is not actually suicide. The book took a bit too long to hook me, and a few plot details didn’t seem to fit quite right, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading and to add the previous novels in the series to my to-read list.

As far as its Christian label goes, I have mixed opinions. Not having read the previous books, I spent the first two-thirds of the story trying to guess which characters were Christians. None of them seemed to demonstrate their faith beyond general Bible knowledge that even an atheist might possess. When God is first mentioned somewhere around page 100, Raleigh is offering Him a halfhearted prayer for forgiveness for lying to her mother about her chosen career, but she doesn’t change her actions or tell the truth. On the other hand, when Raleigh’s thoughts about her faith in Christ finally do go farther in depth, Giorello handles the ideas well. She includes them naturally within the storyline and doesn’t tack on awkward sermonettes the way many Christian authors do. Still, I would have liked to have seen God making more of a difference in the characters’ lives throughout the book.

The Mountains Bow Down isn’t a great book, and Giorello isn’t likely to be mentioned with G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers on a list of great Christian mystery writers, but the novel was good for a few hours of entertainment, and I’m happy to have found a decent mystery in the Christian fiction genre.