Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Books (Page 1 of 5)

Book review: How Jesus Saves the World from Us by Morgan Guyton

Guyton bookToday I have the privilege of reviewing the first book by Morgan Guyton, titled How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity.

I’ve been following Morgan’s writings for a few years now, first on his personal blog and more recently at his Patheos blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice. I’ve always found him a stimulating and thought-provoking writer, so as soon as I heard he had a book coming out, I got in touch and asked for a review copy, and he was kind enough to oblige.

In terms of context, Morgan and his wife Cheryl are directors of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Perhaps as a result of his background and vocation, I find that Morgan’s worldview and theology are informed by a broad range of church traditions, in addition to which he is an astute cultural commentator.

There are a few reasons I’ve always been drawn to Morgan’s writing, and I find these characteristics just as present in his book as they are in his blog posts. First, he writes with clarity, freshness and incisiveness; many of his sentences and paragraphs pack a powerful punch; they “zing” off the page with a real edge that makes his work compelling to read. You may agree with the things he says, or you may not; either way, you are unlikely to be indifferent. Second, he somehow pulls off the difficult task of combining this high-octane style with an attitude of great humility and authenticity. The result is that he can say piercingly critical things about beliefs and/or behaviours without leaving you, the reader, feeling offended or defensive – because you know the person at whom he directs his fiercest criticism is himself. He is disarmingly honest about his own struggles, shortcomings and failures, and this lends great credibility to the insights he proffers. And third, his writing is peppered with colourful imagery, cultural references and playful allusions, making it genuinely fun to read, even when he is addressing matters of great import.

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Book review: The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns

Sin of CertaintyToday I’m delighted to review the latest offering from Peter Enns, titled The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs.

With previous books including Inspiration and Incarnation, The Evolution of Adam and, more recently, The Bible Tells Me So, Enns is an increasingly familiar voice among those seeking to remain committed to a biblically rooted faith without having to deny either scientific facts or the complexities of lived reality. As a biblical scholar, Enns is, of course, well versed in scripture and its historical and cultural context; his particular gift is bringing his knowledge to bear on the modern world in a way that is accessible and relevant to a broad and mostly non-academic audience – something he does here both with his trademark self-deprecating wit and with disarming candour.

Perhaps the easiest way to give you a glimpse of what this book is all about is to quote a few words from an early chapter titled “What’s so sinful about certainty?”:

Preoccupation with correct thinking […] reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others, too engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet. A faith like that is stressful and tedious to maintain. Moving toward different ways of thinking, even just trying it on for a while to see how it fits, is perceived as a compromise to faith, or as giving up on faith altogether. But nothing could be further from the truth.

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Book review: Stars Beneath Us by Paul Wallace

StarsToday I have the privilege of reviewing Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos by Paul Wallace.

Stars Beneath Us is a book about science and faith. Its author, Paul Wallace, is uniquely positioned to write such a book: as well as being a lecturer in physics and astronomy and the holder of a PhD in experimental nuclear physics, he has an MDiv and is an ordained Baptist minister. (For me, the opportunity to read a book about faith by an astrophysicist was just too good to pass up!)

Depending on what else you’ve read about science and faith, you might jump to the conclusion that Stars Beneath Us will, at the very least, seek to squeeze faith into a science-shaped mould or vice versa. Such a conclusion could not be more mistaken. At a time when battle lines are still being drawn by those at either end of the debate, the need for wise, balanced voices is greater than ever. Wallace is one such voice.

Drawing on his own experience of falling away from a form a form of religion that held too rigidly to essentially mediaeval theological categories, only to later return to a more mature and nuanced faith, Wallace does not attempt to explain either science or faith or to reconcile their apparent differences. Rather, he endeavours to create a space in which science and faith can coexist and be held in tension without either one having to be compromised or sacrificed for the sake of the other.

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Book review: Coming Clean by Seth Haines

Coming CleanThe best way I can introduce Coming Clean: A Story of Faith to you is to share the opening paragraph from its foreword:

This is a book about alcohol; you can practically smell the gin coming off the pages, the lime, hear the ice clinking, the crack of the new bottle opening. But it’s not a book about alcohol. It’s about whatever thing you use to cover over the pain—sex, food, shopping, perfectionism, cleaning, drugs—whatever you hold out like an armor to protect yourself instead of allowing yourself and your broken heart to be fully seen and fully tended to by God.

If you don’t consider yourself an addict, you might find these opening lines something of a turn-off. Given the cultural baggage that tends to be associated with the idea of addiction, most of us work hard to keep such labels at a safe distance. But the truth is that we’re all addicts at some level. As psychologist and spiritual counsellor Gerald May put it, “To be alive is to be addicted, and to be alive and addicted is to stand in need of grace.” (in Addiction and Grace, New York: HarperOne, 1988). Seth Haines, the author of Coming Clean, goes on to explain:

Read this less as a book about alcoholism and more as one about the pains and salves common to every life. My alcoholism is not the thing, see. Neither is your eating disorder, your greed disorder, or your sex addiction. Your sin is not the thing. The thing is under the sin. The thing is the pain. Sin management without redemption of life’s pain is a losing proposition.

Coming Clean is essentially the very personal story of Haines’s journey from denial and self-medication towards healing and wholeness. It is a story of childhood faith and grown-up questions; it is a story of doubt and faith, of darkness and light, of fear and hope. It is not, at bottom, a book about alcohol or substance abuse; rather, it is about how we deal with (or fail to deal with) the trials and struggles life often sends our way. And it is, above all, about how freedom and healing is found in forgiveness – of ourselves, of others, and maybe even of God.

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Book review – Water to Wine: Some of My Story by Brian Zahnd

51YtM9q6qqL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I don’t mind saying that Brian Zahnd has been an important voice in my journey over the past few years. I listened to pretty much every one of his sermons over a period of around two years, as well as reading his previous books A Farewell To Mars (review here) and Beauty Will Save The World, both of which are highly recommended.

As well as the fact that he is simply a great communicator, able to present eternal truths in a most accessible manner, what makes Brian such an important voice – and a voice with which so many resonate – is his journey. A pastor and church founder since his early twenties and at one time the leader of one of America’s twenty fastest growing churches, in the early 2000s he experienced a crisis when it became clear to him that so much of the culturally conditioned Word of Faith stream of Christianity in which he had previously swum was, in his words, “a paper-thin Christianity propped up by cheap certitude”. He embarked on an audacious journey of rediscovering the deep and ancient roots of his faith – a journey that would bring him much heartache as many longstanding members abandoned the church, but one that would ultimately lead him into deep and satisfying waters and utterly reinvigorate his faith. Water to Wine is the story of that journey.

At just over a hundred pages, Water to Wine is not a difficult read, and Brian’s easy and engaging style ensures that no one should find it hard going. The structure is simple: starting from the spiritual crisis he experienced in 2003, Brian walks us through the key steps that led him to a broader, deeper and richer faith. Being a personal story, this is a book in which the author makes himself vulnerable, exposing the various doubts and fears encountered along the way. But the great strength of Water to Wine is that Brian uses various points along his journey as teaching opportunities. These are presented not as dry and dogmatic pieces of dogma, but rather as oases where we can stop, breathe, reflect and drink deeply as Brian shares the unfolding understanding into which his journey led him.

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Book review: Eve by Wm. Paul Young

EveToday I’m delighted to be reviewing the latest offering from Wm. Paul Young, titled Eve.

Young shot to fame in 2007 after a book he wrote for his children was picked up by a publisher and became a multi-million-dollar bestseller. That book, of course, was The Shack, now in production as a motion picture. He also published a second book, Crossroads, in 2013, which I have not read.

The Shack is a book that has both enjoyed success and stoked controversy. Many have hailed it a transformative masterpiece for its creative reworking of common misconceptions about the nature and character of God, while others have condemned it as at the very least playing fast and loose with scripture, and at worst embracing outright heresy. (For myself, I found it very helpful in my own journey towards a deeper, richer understanding of God and my faith.) I suspect Eve may meet a similar response.

Eve is a novel, but beyond that it is difficult to categorise. In it, fiction meets both science fantasy and biblical (re-)interpretation. The surface-level story begins with main character Lilly Fields washed up in a shipping container on the shores of a mysterious island somewhere between our world and the next. There are strong hints at a background as a victim of abuse and trafficking – a highly topical subject that is guaranteed to resonate with many readers. While on the island, as well as encountering a number of strange and quirky characters, Lilly will undergo a physical and emotional healing process that will see her witness the Bible’s creation narratives brought to life before her very eyes. Indeed, her own eventual psychological and emotional healing is rooted in the fresh understanding of God and his relationship to his children that she gains from these experiences.

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Book review: Questions Are The Answer by David Hayward

Hayward questionsToday I’m delighted to be reviewing the brand new offering by David Hayward, Questions Are The Answer: Nakedpastor and the Search for Understanding.

[Apologies for the lack of recent posts: I’ve been on holiday. (North Americans, that means vacation.)]

Anyone who’s been around the “Christian internet” for any length of time will know David Hayward as the (in)famous Naked Pastor, who styles himself a “graffiti artist on the walls of religion” and has been posting irreverent but piercingly insightful cartoons on a near-daily basis since 2006. While Questions Are The Answer is not his first book, it is surely his most personal and widely accessible writing to date.

In short, the book recounts Hayward’s story from childhood dreams of pastoral ministry through to his current status as unofficial agent provocateur and commentator on all things related to western religion and its shortcomings.

At the core of this book, as its title indicates, is the idea of paradox: Hayward sets out to show that, while much of the Western evangelical church is unrelentingly engaged in hot pursuit of dogmatic certainty, the real satisfaction is, in fact, to be found in the very questions that stimulate uncertainty and prevent crystallised certainty. The genius of the book is that Hayward accomplishes his task not by setting out an apologetic or series of arguments, but by simply and honestly telling his own story. As we read about his childhood and teenage passions, his on-off love affair with more than one church community, his theological studies, and his processing of all this with wife and close friends, we feel not threatened but rather privileged to have a disarmingly real and vulnerable insight into one person’s spiritual development.

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