Monday, January 12, 2015

Paris, Charlie, and the Lost Science of Theology

I like school. I know I am weird. If I were to win the lottery and could spend time any way I want, I would be a professional student and study all of my life. I like education and being able to talk about deep topics.

Living in Paris, sometimes this frustrates me. On one hand, Paris is a student city where most people are educated. Some of the best schools in the world in a variety of different disciplines find their home in the city of lights. I enjoy discussions with students about their studies: literature, philosophy, and history are among my favorites. Yet for me it can be difficult to talk to the average Parisian about my education.

My area of specialization is theology. I had a Religion degree from college and a Masters of Divinity from seminary. I spent my time thinking about God. Yet when I bring that up, the conversation often stops there- not because, as would be the case in America, of an awkward avoidance of religion, but because it is a subject that is not thought about any more. One person even asked me if I believed in science at all after learning I studied theology! There is almost a total ignorance of theological issues here. More often than not, the thoughts of the people I meet have not moved past the question of whether God exists or not. As one who believes the existence of God is self-evident, it is frustrating that not many have contemplated what I consider to be a foundational question for all people - What is God like?

Since this question has not been pondered, it is quite normal to conclude that all religions are the same. If the only theological question concerns whether God exists or not, any worldview that responds with a “Oui” is seen as believing the same thing. Judgments are made based on this erroneous thinking; judgments about “religious” people and judgments about this abstract “God” that they worship.

Enter Muslim terrorists with guns. Let them collide with Charlie, a publication that has no filter and seems to think that the things it says have no consequences. One side will not tolerate slander to their prophet; the other side will not tolerate their right to slander being threatened. Death. Outrage. Anger. Blame.

And then I find myself in the middle of it. I am a Christian who finds the things Charlie says highly offensive, yet whose Christianity teaches him that Charlie has a human right to say those things. I relate to the Muslim anger at slander, yet my Christianity demands strong condemnation of the violent action taken on behalf of their (or any) prophet. As a Western Evangelical Christian, either side would judge me as being part of the other. I am either a blind secularist or an intolerant radical.

There is a way to clear these matters up, but most won’t like it. It is our old, ancient friend theology that will help us here. Forgive me if I try to tear down the wall of comfort you have built to keep God out.

If you are like me and believe that atheism is incapable of giving an accurate picture of reality (it doesn’t even allow you to say what the terrorists did is wrong), then it is time for us to grow out of our crèche and ask big boy questions. What is God like? What did He think about the terrorist raid in Paris? Why did He create me? Do I have a responsibility to Him?

Reflection on these questions is long overdue in Paris. We can no longer hide behind an affront of being a “Catholique non-practiquant.” We must consider God again. And, in doing that, we must consider this man named Jesus.

Now, if you don’t mind, I will add a little Jesus theology to conclude. Jesus claimed to be God. He was called Emmanuel by the angel, which means “God with us,” and this is particularly important as we leave the Christmas season. What Jesus teaches about God is very different than what the proud prophet Muhammed teaches. Jesus chose and endured shame and taught Christians to take that same attitude. And, not only did he endure shame, He endured much, much more.

God took on human flesh in Jesus. He was not one “…who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. “ (Hebrews 4:15) This means that the God who exists did not simply spin the world He created and laugh at its suffering. He is Emmanuel, the God who suffered with us.

God, who knew no hunger, became one who was hungry (Matthew 4:1-4), that we might have the bread of life (John 6:35). God, who knew no thirst, became one who was thirsty (John 19:28), that we might have Living Water (John 4:10). God, who knew no loneliness, became one who was alone (Matthew 26:31), that we might have community (Matthew 16:18). God, who knew no sin, was made “…to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus did not present a God who needed his followers to kill in order to defend His honor. Jesus presents a God who humbly took dishonor for the love of God and humanity. For me. For you.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, reject Jesus. But make no mistake: He will one day defend his name with justice and wrath, and He is mercifully delaying this desiring all to come to repentance; desiring you to come to repentance. If Jesus is right, both Charlie and the terrorists are both very, very wrong.

Regardless of what you think about Jesus, Charlie, or the terrorists, one thing should be very clear- these questions are important, as is Jesus’ answers to them. What you believe about God (ie. Theology) is the most important thing about you. It is time to grow up. It is time to ask mature questions. The world is at a boiling point, and God demands decision.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2nd Annual "Books I Read" Awards, 2014 Edition

It is again time for my book awards, and I am happy to say I have been able to keep up with my book-a-week pace. I read 54 books this year; that is, if you count the Bible. For the sake of my awards, the Bible will be left out, as it is in a different category than all other books.

Once again, I want to reiterate my desire to read in a balanced way. I try not to read too many books by one author or about one subject. I try to mix old and new, fiction and non-fiction, Christian and non-Christian. Amongst my Christian books, I try to read books from people with differing points of view, though as I look at my list, I probably didn’t do enough of that. One explanation for that, however, is the fact that I am in school and doing research, so that affects some of the books I read. I must say that I have had to make tough decisions regarding my favorite fiction books, as I have read some really good ones this year. The most read author on this list is Veronica Roth, but that is only because I had to read all three books to finish the story in the Divergent series. Other than that, there were two books by D.A. Carson, C.S. Lewis, and George Macdonald, and the rest were all different authors. One interesting thing I noticed is that there was no Tim Keller book this year. I am a big fan of his, and I read three of his books last year, including the book of the year. That is the sort of thing that I try to do, although it was something I just noticed. You'll find a list of all the books I read this year at the bottom, should you want to comment.

 So, without further ado, here are the 2nd Annual “Books I Read” Awards.

Best Scholarly

The Jews and the World in the Fourth Gospel, Lars Kierspel

Here is a book that you will probably never read, nor would I recommend it unless you are interested in the very narrow topic that this book addresses. I had to read it for a class I was doing research for concerning the problem of supposed anti-Semitism in the Gospel of John. I wasn’t very excited about the topic myself until I began to dig into it a bit. I was assigned this book and I devoured it. Lars Kierspel does an absolutely brilliant job of answering this challenge, and I must say that I learned an awful lot about the Gospel of John while breaking down this work. I know probably not many people will ever read this book (maybe that is why it costs 80 dollars), but as one of the few who did I want to give credit where it is due. Mr. Kierspel, Bravo.

2nd place: Fallen: A Theology of Sin, Various Authors
Honorable Mention: Sex, Marriage, and Family Life in John Calvin's Geneva, John Witte

Best Re-Read

The Problem of Pain, A Greif Observed, C.S. Lewis
I put these two books as winners because, in my opinion, they should be read together (and in that order). The Problem of Pain is C.S. Lewis using his brilliant intellect and cool logic to tackle perhaps the greatest philosophical challenge to Christianity, namely, the problem of evil. How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil? He does a great job of speaking to that issue, and he does so compassionately. In A Grief Observed, however, we see Lewis addressing the same theme from the perspective of someone going through suffering-the death of his wife. The book is brutally and refreshingly honest, and is the type of book that not many people could write. I enjoyed reading it in light of his philosophical perspectives. If you are confused about the problem of evil, read The Problem of Pain. If you find yourself going through hard times, A Grief Observed is the book for you. If you want to be blessed, read them both consecutively.

2nd place: The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald
Honorable Mention: Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Best New Christian Non-Fiction

One Way Love, Tullian Tchividjian

This was my first encounter with Tullian and I must say I was very impressed. This is a book about Grace with a capital G. Human beings have a tendency to believe and consequently live like their self-worth is bound to their performance. We perform according to the rules and to the law. Then, when we fail (and we do), we base our worth and our thoughts about how we relate to God on that basis. But, as Tullian says, “Law apart from the Gospel can only crush; it cannot cure.” He is not bashful, however, about preaching the cure found in the Gospel. “Grace inspires what the Law demands. The Law prescribes good works, but only grace can produce them.” Amen, Tullian.

2nd place: Creature of the Word, Matt Chandler
Honorable Mention: Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, J.D. Greear

Best Old Christian Non-Fiction

The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes

For someone who is somewhat Reformed, I have been slow in getting into the Puritans. That said, I found this work by Richard Sibbes to be a timeless encouragement for Christians of every era. This book is based on a verse from Isaiah 42, "A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth." I read this at a point in the year when I was a little down, and this little book was just what I needed. “Let us not be cruel to ourselves when Christ is thus gracious,” he said, and he was right. This book was just what I needed, and if you find yourself struggling accepting God’s grace, read.

2nd place: Sermons on 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, John Calvin
Honorable Mention: Small and Large Catechism, Martin Luther

Best Fiction Book

Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen

This was a very difficult decision, and it came down to three books. I very nearly made a three-way tie, with The Book Thief and The Beautiful and the Damned being the other two in the discussion. The Book Thief was great writing, clever in execution, and heartbreakingly tragic. The narrator in the book is Death, and Zusak causes you to fall in love with all of the characters that try to stay alive during the reign of the Third Reich. I can’t make a movie comparison for you, as I haven’t seen it yet. I can say it has a tall order to live up to the book. The Beautiful and the Damned was also brilliant, as I’m not sure that Fitzgerald is not the best pure writer the English language has ever produced not named Shakespeare. I loved getting into the life of the 1920’s New England Jazz-Age culture, which is fascinating in and of itself. The book is also a tragic portrayal of how money and debauchery can destroy people, a message a Christian should be able to get behind.

Saying that, I went with Water for Elephants for fiction book of the year. Sarah Gruen did a lot of research into the travelling circus culture of the Great Depression era, and I jumped right into it. I loved feeling part of the Benzini Brothers circus and riding the train with the characters to then new cities. It is a good love story that is told from a touching perspective. Most of all, though, I loved being a part of the world she created. That is the main reason this one gets the nod over the other two great books.

I did not give an overall book of the year, and I think the main reason is that none stood out like Center Church did last year. I read lots of good books but I couldn’t give one overarching award for this group. Perhaps next year. Happy New Year everyone, and may 2015 be filled with many good books.

Books Read:

Small and Large Catechism, Martin Luther
Hemingway's Paris: Our Paris?, H.R. Stoneback
Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food, Rachel Marie Stone
Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck
How to Reach Secular People, George Hunter
The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, D.A. Carson
Katharina Von Bora: A Reformation Life, Rudolf Markwald and Marlynn Markwarld
More Than Rubies, George MacDonald
The Jews and the World in the Fourth Gospel, Lars Kierspel
Fallen: A Theology of Sin, Various Authors
Demons, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Divergent, Veronica Roth
Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, J.D. Greear
Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
Sermons on 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, John Calvin
The Trial, Franz Kafka
Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper
Unfinished Agenda: An Autobiography, Lesslie Newbigin
The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Role, and Relevance, By Bruce Ware
The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A Glimpse of King Richard III, Matthew Lewis
Sex, Marriage, and Family Life in John Calvin's Geneva, John Witte
Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation, Ed Stetzer
Creature of the Word, Matt Chandler
Insurgent, Veronica Roth
A Season to Remember, Carson Tinker
The Ball and the Cross, G.K. Chesterton
The Majesty of God in the Old Testament, Walter Kaiser Jr.
Allegiant, Veronica Roth
The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes
The Humanness of John Calvin, Richard Stauffer
One Way Love, Tullian Tchividjian
The Prince and Betty, P.G. Wodehouse
Why Cities Matter, Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard
The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis (RR)
A Greif Observed, C.S. Lewis (RR)
La Chute, Albert Camus
Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen
The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald (RR)
The Church: The Gospel Made Visible, Mark Dever
Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson
Does God Exist, by William Lane Craig
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables, Jared Wilson
John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, Robert Godfrey
Barth, Eberhard Busch
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (RR)
All Things for Good, Thomas Watson
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Melt the Icebergs, James Handyside
The Attributes of God, A.W. Pink

    NIV Application Commentary, Philippians, Frank Thielman
   The Bible, ESV