The Challenge of Jesus: N.T. Wright Book Review

I think I know own every book N.T. Wright has ever written (at least the ones you can buy at Borders or Barnes and Nobles. The long and short is that really enjoy pretty much whatever the man has written. From his “new perspective of Paul” writings to his views on hell, Wright has proven himself to be a thought-out writer, a compelling author, and a scholar in his own right regarding the New Testament respectively. This book, “The Challenge of Jesus” is one of those books that give us an understanding of the historical Jesus. Wright invites us to read the evidence of Jesus afresh and to know the Son of God in a manner that is both theologically and actively engaging. Seeing Jesus through the lens of this book has opened my mind to receive the words of Christ in a greater way. It is here that I hope to translate that into a thoughtful examination of Wright’s writing.

Jesus was almost bound to appear as the teacher of either liberal timeless truths or conservative timeless truths. The thought that he might have been the turning point of history was, to many on both sides the divide, almost literally unthinkable…the world in which Jesus lived, and which He addressed with His message about the kingdom, was a world in which the Jewish expectation of God’s climactic and decisive action in history was uppermost. It is this, I believe, that has given fresh impetus to the study of Jesus and makes it imperative that we engage in this study (p 23).

This is the first quote in the book that really stuck out to me the most. Who really would have thought that Jesus would have been the turning point of history? Who would have thought that His words would have challenged the world’s leaders and scholars of His day? Who would have thought that He would be seen as one of the most provocative individuals? Here was a man born in a manger (most likely a barn of some form or even a religious booth), seen as a bastard child, and from Nazareth, with a name like Jesus (we could consider this to be like Joshua), and yet His life and ministry has impacted the world through and through. The cryptic language of Jesus, hidden behind His Jewish tradition challenges us to know Him more. We are challenged to understand how He is the Light of the World and the way, the truth, and the life. This is the historical Jesus in which Wright challenges us to know afresh. I can honestly say that I was not prepared to engage with this Jesus when I first began this book. I am truly glad it has made me uncomfortable.

There are six subsections devoted to unearthing the historical Jesus, each having its own chapter. The first chapter sets the tone for the remainder of the book and is vital to understanding the work as a whole. In it, Wright exposes the difficulties and scruples of studying Jesus out of his historical context, namely through Enlightenment or Reformation lenses. After establishing his methodology for studying Jesus, Wright then deals with issues and questions that surround the ministry of Jesus. He then offers his opinion on how first-century Jews and Gentiles would have understood Jesus’ message. Wright focuses on the following issues: Jesus’ proclamation concerning the Kingdom of God, the challenge Jesus presented in relation to Jewish symbols, the realization of the Jewish sacrificial system in Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus’ deity, and the Resurrection. It is within these middle chapters that Wright adds details to aid the reader in understanding the first-century perception of Jesus. For instance, the reader is encouraged to view Jesus’ mission as extensively political (eschatological) in nature. Wright also draws the parallel of Jesus’ redeeming action to that of Jewish history, particularly the events of the Exile and Restoration. This view, Wright explains, is most certainly how a first-century Jew would have understood Jesus’ vocation. These, among others, are Wright’s attempts to bring the reader as near to first-century Palestine as pen-and-ink can draw.

One of the reasons I believe Wright tackled this issue of Jesus has a lot more to do with where he is from rather than the majority of his audience. Wright is from the UK. For a lot of reasons, which we will not assert in this paper, the issues regarding the church and faith in the UK are less than adequate. The Challenge of Jesus is a challenge not only to you and I as readers and scholars of the Bible, but also to the Church of England, that has pushed Jesus aside. Wright’s book brings the people of the UK face-to-face with Christ. I am not suggesting that is the main purpose of the historical Jesus studies. We owe much to the Enlightenment’s questions and studies of those areas. Maybe it is just my limited knowledge of the Church of England, but in some respects, I see a lot of similarities between the two. Wright asserts,

The Enlightenment notoriously insisted on splitting apart history and faith, facts, and values, religion and politics, nature and supernature…each of these categories now carries with it the minds of million of people around the world an implicit opposition to its twin, so that we are left the great difficulty of even conceiving of a world in which they belong to one another as part of a single indivisible whole (p 21).

Could it be that Wright sees a correlation between the period of the Enlightenment and the Church of England respectively? I am not 100 percent sure. For whatever reason, we must realize the condition in which Wright writes. He is not an American who is looking to spread the latest new book in order to make money. He is a UK native who sees the oppression of Jesus in the Church and has been personally challenged to do something about it. I think that deserves a good paragraph in this paper. Especially since Carson and Moo write from our American perspective of Christ and the Church.

There are some who would say that Wright has no business writing about the Enlightenment period of history. If we were to evaluate Wright’s knowledge of this period, to the importance of this book, it might stand to reason that a lot of effort was placed on this issue when it simply was not needed. This is not one area in which Wright shines in this book. This is probably where I am the most frustrated with regards to his writing. He even states that he is not a “eighteenth-century specialist” and that his premise, regarding such issues of the Enlightenment are assertions from what little he knows about the last five hundred years (pg 18-19). I guess I would have wanted a better response to the issue of the Enlightenment and why he needed to belabor the issue of it if he really was not actively engaged and knowledgeable in this area. The only explanation I can surmise is that since Wright is more engaged with the postmodern era, and that the church is making its way back to that period of time, he attempts to show us where we are going in light of our new ways of faith and church. I guess I shouldn’t be too critical regarding this issue though. It is just a thought that I found to be difficult to shake.

One of the first aims Wright asserts involves maintaining historical accuracy concerning the study of Jesus, and this goal has, for the most part, has been met. Wright makes use of recent discoveries- such as the Dead Sea Scrolls – to support his arguments, and when confronted with the evidence he presents, it is difficult for one to deny his stance. That is not to say that he overlooks other scholarly opinions, though. Perhaps one of the strongest parts of his work is Wright’s willingness to confront tough issues head-on. In fact, he acknowledges that the questions raised by other scholars in this field (Schweitzer, Reimarus, and Crossan, among many others) are even necessary and denies, therefore, the inflexible dogmatism that characterizes many Christians. Wright’s evenhanded position on most issues found in the book lends the reader to believing that he is getting an unbiased opinion toward an authentic historical description. This is indeed a rare thing. His efforts intended to cut through Reformation and Enlightenment theology do not go unnoticed and, at least for this reviewer, are much appreciated even though, as we have already examined, is not the most important and/or well-thought out section of this book.

Sometimes it takes the words of someone else to actively aid in one’s consideration of the text. Wright, throughout several points of this book does that for me. Wright states, “He would not rebuild the Temple in a physical sense. He would become the place and the means whereby that for which the Temple stood would become a reality. He would be the reality to which the sacrificial system had pointed” (90). To think that we should be engaged with Jesus as the Jewish people were engaged with the temple presents a new challenge for me. I have learned over the years that there weren’t any chairs in the Temple because there was always work to do. In fact, we need to hear that more often than we do. Wright paints a picture of people bypassing the material Temple and coming to The Temple and offering a sacrifice of praise and atoning for the their sins. And, though it does not require of us to bring a goat or a lamb to be sacrificed, we must not come in an attitude of pride or arrogance. The price is far too great to come to The Temple in that manner. We must actively engage with who this Temple was and is today. With that in mind, we must also struggle with some other issues in which Wright asserts.

Jesus knew – he must have known – that these actions, and the words which accompanied and explained tem, were very likely to get him put on trial as a false prophet leading Israel astray, and as a would-be Messiah; and that such a trial, unless he is convinced the court otherwise, would inevitably result in his being handed over to the Romans and executed as a (failed) revolutionary king (91).

I am not sure Jesus had to have known what He shared would have put Him on trial or not. Though, I know Jesus knew He was going to die for the sins of the world, I am not sure I would ran as hard as N.T. Wright does in this manner. I can only state that Jesus knew who He was and knew that His profound words would impact the world and upset a lot of people (not because He was trying to but because the words He spoke were not easy to hear). This would enviably land Him in a trial in which He would be crucified. That is something I have been thinking about a lot lately.

The final aspect of Wright’s writing I would like to explore is his section on The Road to Emmaus and his look at two very unique Psalms and this story found in Luke. These two poems found in the book of Psalms. The psalmist is far from God geographically (away from the Temple). The psalmist longs for God. People who oppose God also surround the psalmist. The disciples are distressed by the events that just occurred in Jerusalem concerning Jesus. It is a time of shock, and disequilibrium. They are living out the distress of Psalms 42 and 43. They are longing for answers that they cannot find the answers to and long for God’s redemption to be near. Then Jesus appears to disciples. They recount the story of the last few days. Jesus then shares with them His story, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets. As evening approaches, Jesus is invited to stay with these two disciples. Jesus graciously assumes the role of host and breaks bread with them—we cannot help but notice the Lord’s Supper, and then the disciples see that it is Jesus. In good pietistic form, the disciples then recount, “didn’t our hearts burn within us as Jesus opened the Scriptures?” The longing has been satisfied. The despair has been lifted. “As the deer pants for water, so the soul longs” after the one who made heaven and earth. The experience the disciples have is by far one of the more unique experiences. This brings us, in a very short sense, to the issue of Easter, or as I would rather call it, the day of Resurrection. Easter is not just dry ancient history. Easter is an event that continues to move into the future, into our lives, into our world. We proclaim Christ is raised. The despair of Psalms 42 and 43 break into shouts of hope and joy. This is the beauty of the resurrected Christ today. We must passionately embrace the story of Jesus in His resurrected presence.

The final aspect of this book deals with how we can take this information to the world. This is by far the most important chapter of the book. What good is information if we cannot engage with it and do something with it that is encouraging and edifying to the body of Christ? Wright challenges you and I to take this information and go to the world with it. We are encouraged to continue our pursuits of knowing Christ and knowing God. Though there were always be opposition to the body of Christ and the work of God in this world, we must not allow those things to dictate our active pursuits of know Christ. This is what makes this book so unique from any other book I have been asked to read for this class or others. In closing, I will quote Wright. “The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulation in story and music and art and even, heaven help us, biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and postmodernity, leading the way into the post-postmodern world with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and truth wisdom” (196). It is to this end that we are called to the challenge of Jesus. It is my hope that we will meet the challenge head on with boldness and certainty. For the sake of the Church and our faith, we must successfully accomplish this goal. The challenge has begun.

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The Shack: Book Review

The Shack

A friend gave me a book called The Shack a while ago. I was told that it was an interesting book that shares a unique perspective on the trinity of God and that many Christians were buying it. In fact, as I sit here writing this post, it is the number 7 book in Amazon sales, is number one in mystery and Thrillers, number one in Religion and Spirituality, and has produced almost 600 reviews – of that, 508 give the book at least four stars. For such a small book, you would think that the phenomena wouldn’t be as big as it is, but it is continually growing. So – what’s the big deal? What is it about? How do we review it fairly and can we recommend it to others? That is the purpose of this post.

The basic story centers around this guy named Mack, who gets a letter from God and God wants to meet Mack at the Shack (The Mack Shack – I never realized how ridiculous that sounds). This is the basis of the book. This guy Mack goes to the Shack and meets with God – The Trinity and has a conversation with them. From a unique standpoint, I found that part of the story interesting. What would it be like to sit down with God while you are alive and be in communication with Him? What kind of questions would you ask if you were given that opportunity? If I were to start writing them down now, I probably would have at lest 20 pages of questions I would love to ask about life, sin, death, creation, heaven, etc… I don’t think I would ever feel like I had enough time to ask all the questions I would have. So, from the very beginning, the book caught my attention.

It is from this point on in the story though, where my concern began to arise and continued to grow. God the Father is portrayed as an African-American woman named “Papa.” Jesus is a “typical Eastern man” who might look like He works on a farm or in the fields The Holy Spirit is portrayed as an Asian woman with a very strange name. There is no reason given why the name of the Holy Spirit is what it is but it is very mystical in nature. As I sit back and think about how the Trinity is viewed, I can only say that this book is heretical. How can anyone say that this makes sense? The more I consider how this man has made the Trinity to look, the more I wonder if he realized what he was doing when he wrote it. I hope he will plead ignorance. God has decided to show Himself to creation as a male. It is not a sexist thing. It is not a power trip issue. The image of God given is very pagan in nature. Those who endorse this book have accepted a lie for the possibility of the truth. For all the respect I have for Michael W. Smith, I can only shake my head. I can’t understand how he could endorse these things. The book does not stop there though. This is only the first issue I have regarding the book.

The second problem I have come up with regards how God the Father is viewed in light of this book. In a real sense, we are providing goddess worship if we are to take God the Father and make Him god the mother. The thought of actually saying that is absurd yet those who endorse this book and say that it is a great book, and that they understand the trinity, are actually saying that they want to worship God the Father as a woman and not in Spirit, as John 4 tells us. This also includes the Holy Spirit, seen as a woman in this book. The Holy Spirit never took on the form of flesh – only Jesus did. And, for a span of 33 (plus or minus) years, came in the form of flesh as a man and then returned to the Father in a glorified body. Let us think critically about what this book is saying if we are going to endorse it (remember 508 people gave it at least 4 stars). Can I just say, that this is wrong?

The third and final problem that exists for me regarding this book is the heretical view of modalism that is displayed through out the conversations Mack has with God the Father. In one point of the book, “Papa” says, “I am truly human in Jesus.” This is a heretical view of modalism; God the Father was not born to a virgin named Mary. The Father did not die on the cross. Modalism basically means that the Father became Jesus and the Father became Spirit. We believe though that the Father sent the Son to die for humanity and after the resurrection, the Holy Spirit was sent by the Son to be a comforter for us.

My final thoughts about this book revolve around an implicit statement that is made. The trinity says that there is no hierarchy among the trinity because that doesn’t make sense unless there is sin. That is basically saying that the trinity is sinful – which we must believe is not true. There is no sin within the trinity and that there is hierarchy among the trinity. God sent the Son and the Son sent the Holy Spirit. Though they are equal in respects to their nature, they ultimately choose to be subservient to one another. Jesus makes statements like, “I only do what the Father tells me to do” and other statements in that respect.

Here’s my point. Several hundred Christians from all walks of life are endorsing this book. Pastors, teachers, school friends, and even famous musicians all state that it is a great book for people who are struggling to understand the trinity. The problem is that God cannot be understood like these people want to understand God. You and I must come to grips with the mystery of God. We must embrace a God who is approachable and yet not understandable in many respects. We must embrace what we know about God as well. We must embrace what the Bible teaches and not allow “popular Christian books” to dictate our thoughts and beliefs concerning our faith or serious doctrinal issues. Lastly, we must embrace the truth of the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word. When we do that, we grow into maturity with Christ and with God the Father.

So. Would I recommend this book to anyone? I probably would not. Why would I want to give a skewed view of God to others when they could embrace the God of the Bible? I can only hope that we would spend more time knowing the Bible rather than reading the latest book on the Christian bookshelf. These are my thoughts anyway.

Books, Books, and More Books

These are 10 books I have read that I thought you might want to take a look at.  Some of them are for the theologically inclined and others are for personal devotion.  Each one of these books has added to my personal growth in the Lord and thus, I share them with you in no particular order hopes that they will do the same.

Life Together  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Everybody Wants to Go to heaven, but Nobody Wants to Die (David Crowder)
God’s Politics:  Why the Right Gets it Wrong And the Left Doesn’t Get It (Jim Wallis)
Orthodoxy (G.K. Chesterton)
Intuitive Leadership Embracing a Paradigm of Narrative, Metaphor, and Chaos (Tim Keel)
Paul for Everyone Romans (N.T. Wright)
Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger (Ronald J Sider)
A Community Called Atonement (Scot McKnight)
Fear and Trembling (Soren A. Kierkegaard)
Bondage of the Will (Martin Luther)

I am excited to start a few new books, which I have recently bought.  Here are a couple of books I am looking forward to beginning:

Surprised by Hope (N.T. Wright)
The Shaping of Things to Come (Alan Hirsch/Michael Frost)
Exiles (Michael Frost)
What Would Jesus Deconstruct?  The Good News of Postmdernism for the Church (John Caputo)

Do you have any books you would like to recommend or share?  Please let me know

Missional Church: Book Review

For the past seven years, I have been challenged in my understanding of how we are to interact with the Church both locally and universally. My journey to find the answers to some of my most challenging questions were both formed and shaped while I was an undergraduate student at Lancaster Bible College. Something within me thought there really had to be more to the body of Christ than what I was reading and learning. Reading several books by some well-known authors prompted my thought process and has significantly, through the leading of God’s spirit, to Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA. As I look back over these past seven years, I can honestly say that each answer I have received has brought about newer and deeper questions that I now wrestle with and am challenged with, even at this very moment. If there was one book I wish I would have had while going through some of these questions, Missional Church by Darrell Gruder would have been such a book I would have wanted on my shelf. This post wrestles with Guder’s understanding of what it means to be a “missional church” within a culture that is very new and is continually being shaped by a very different a shift both nation and church wide we have not seen in the United States within the past two-hundred years.

As I looked through Table of Contents, I noticed a theme had emerged. The term missional simply means that they body of Christ has been given a responsibility to be “missionaries” in the context of where they work and live. We have all been given this challenged and responsibility as believers and followers of Jesus Christ (John 20:21). This calling – to be Jesus-ish – is valuable to the work of God within our own culture. So it is, within the Table of Contents, the term missional begins every new chapter. All the other words used after missional are familiar words we have used within the church, indicating that perhaps we, as the body of Christ, are in need of seeing these terms through the lenses of being a missional people. This is the premise I had while I read. One of the other things I had noticed before reading the book was the authorship of not just one person but of several people who had contributed their thoughts to this project. Receiving several people’s perspectives on this issue of being missional is valuable as well. It indicated to me that no one person was able to fully answer this subject but each relied on one another to fill in the gaps. My final pre-reading thoughts stem from the authors who contributed to this writing project. As I read through the names of those who wrote the articles printed in this book, I noticed an amazing diversity of people from different denominational backgrounds and areas of study. Some are pastors and others are teachers, receiving their degrees from different seminaries and fields of study. It is problem something that is most overlooked but I read and appreciated reading.

“On the one hand, the churches of North American have been dislocated from their prior social role of chaplain to the culture and social and have lost their once privileged positions of influence” (78). George Hunsburger continues asserting, “At the same time, the churches have become so accommodated to the American way of life that they are now domesticated, and it is no longer obvious what justifies their existence as particular communities” (78). The question then presupposes itself to be, “How do we deal with these issues within the context of the Church and the reign of Christ? The answer seems almost redundant to the title – be missional. The Missio Dei of God has been given to us, as God’s people in order to be about God’s business. We have been invited to join God’s mission. Our involvement happens through tangible means of our witness, our ability to cultivate meaningful relationships in the context of our communities, taking part in leadership roles, rethinking the way in which we do church in a postmodern context, and connecting with those within our cultural context. Each one of these points has been given a particular significance within the chapters of this book through its contributing authors.

Our example of being a witness comes from the Apostles, literally a calling to “go out and be” rather than calling people to enter our churches to “come and see.” We must imitate the leading of the Apostles and be “in the world and not of it.” The author of this chapter writes, “The missional church differs from the world because it looks for its cues from the One who has sent it out, rather than from the powers that appear to run the world” (110). The church therefore, must be an Alternative Culture that lives and breathes differently from the rest of the world’s ideologies of living and breathing. This is not only subject to the goings on of the church but within the individual lives of those who make up the body of Christ in their respected communities. The way in which one spends money, treats the poor, participates in politics, cares about socio-economic issues, and stands up for issues of justice must also follow this alternative cultural way of life. Though we are different in how we live, we must not separate our witness from the world. We must continually be a people who represent the salt and light of God. We must offer ourselves as a city on a hill for those who are in need of refuge and aide from the world’s greatest downfalls and disappointments. Our witness must remain strong and tangible while the work of Christ continues “behind the scenes,” intangible to the naked eye through His Spirit.

One of the most significant statements made in the chapter that focuses on a missional community states, “A missional people walking in the Spirit, led by the Spirit, and sowing the Spirit manifests the fruit of the Holy Spirit manifests the fruit of the Spirit” (147). It is the fruit of the Spirit that provides us with a model of how we are able to live with one another in a missional community. Once again, this is a tangible aspect of being missional. The Gospels write about several instances in which, Jesus and the disciples are sitting around the table, eating. The most significant meal in which Jesus and the disciples shared was what we call, “The Last Supper.” The Church can imitate communal living though community dinners, breaking bread with one another, through community prayer, and the sacrament of baptism. Community takes work and effort in order to cultivate it effectively. This is no different than attempting to grow a plant from a seed. Though much of the work seems to happen below the surface, the work of cultivation must continue throughout the whole process of the plant’s life. In many respects, this is the job of the church as it seeks to cultivate a community in the church that is visible to the world.

In order to do this effectively, we must rethink our leadership and ministry models. Those who are well educated do not primarily build leadership in a missional Church. Those who are deeply concerned with the Missio Dei and the proclamation of God’s Word, who have received forgiveness and restoration, should also be considered as prime candidates for church leadership. It is not enough that a person has several degrees on their walls. They must be willing to engage with what God is doing within the context of the community in which the person lives. They must possess a passion to see the will of God made manifest and come full circle. The writer of this chapter states, “For such communities to emerge, leaders will need to become like novices, learning to recover practices that have become alien to current church experience. Becoming a novice is a difficult transition. It requires waiting and listening to the Spirit’s directions, listening to the Lord’s song in a strange land” (199). This will look different to each community, as the context of their community is significantly different. The main concern though must be to rise up leaders who are not just well educated but have zeal to see God’s mission fulfilled on the earth.

If we look a missional church to build effective leaders in this fashion, there will need to be a rethinking of how we structure our churches in order that these missional leaders can function and lead effectively. The author of this chapter writes, “A missional ecclesiology for North America will address the situations of already existing congregations prophetically and critically. It will lead Christian communities to ask: What is our particular expression of the mission to be Christ’s witnesses” (241)? The author continues stating, “This missional ecclesiology will significantly shape the leadership of the missional pastor, whose identity we may best describe as missionary to the congregation, so that the particular community maybe become a mission community” (241). The goal of building a missional church must not be forgotten. It is to build a connected community between the body of Christ and the world. It is to this end that we must instinctively work to build this kind of church. This is where the book itself ends and the challenge to model this kind of church is left up to us.

After reading Missional Church, I found myself challenged to take from what I have learned and apply it to the church I currently attend. I have also gleaned several principles I will be able to use in future ministry roles God opens. We should always be willing to be challenged by new ways of doing things (as long as the function of the church does not change, the form can, and in most cases, probably should). As we enter into a postmodern way of doing church and living as a people set apart for the work of God, it is imperative to continually ask the questions that drive us to a greater and deeper knowledge of Jesus. This is not an option for a serious follower of Jesus.

One of the more challenging chapters for that I read was the chapter that dealt specifically with the missional community. The reason it was a chapter I had to work through the most is because, in many respects, I have never seen this type of community lived out. I have never seen a community where people view the body of Christ like a family. When I read this chapter, I was also working through the book of Acts and came across Acts 2:42-47. I saw a community of people who had everything in common and helped to meets the needs of others because they were a family. I had never seen that before. They devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. These three things helped shape a community in which the world saw and respected with awe and wonder. For me, I thought something like this, as tangible as it should be, would certainly be impossible. When I finished this book however, I slowly began to realize the potential of building a missional community. I began to believe that perhaps there was hope for this missional mystery of community I have desired for so long. For now, I am personally in prayer about how to bring this ideal concept of missional community into existence where God has placed me for this season of my life. I am talking to my pastors and searching the Scriptures to find principles and examples that we are able to build from in order to make a missional community possible for not just us as a local body of believers but for others as well.

There was a term used in the last chapter of this book that I had not heard before. The term is “Catholicity.” It apparently comes from two great words kata holon, which means, “appropriate to the whole, or appropriate to the whole” (257). When we say the Apostle’s Creed (if we say it), one of the statements of faith is, “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church and the communion of the saints.” I have to admit that until I had read this chapter, I had absolutely no idea what the “holy Catholic Church” referred to. Anytime we would say this prayer in church, I would not speak these words because I thought perhaps, for some unknown reason to me, the church I used to attend, though Protestant, had some “Catholic beliefs” I didn’t know about. When I would look around the room, everyone looked like zombies while they recited this prayer. I thought perhaps they were disillusioned by the words on the screen. I had no idea what to think of these words and how they should significantly affect the church I attended and the body of Christ as a whole. Though this might seem like a small issue, it has helped me in my ability to worship God fuller, especially when we recite The Apostle’s Creed.

In closing, I am not so sure I would have wanted this book as a tool of reference in my early stages of questioning my church and my faith. Wrestling with the Scriptures with other people and with God has shaped me into the type of person who desires to go deeper than the surface when it comes to a personal knowledge of Jesus, His Word, or the Christian faith as a whole. For those who have struggled for a time with the Word of God, I would submit this book as a valuable resource to read and inspire one to press forward in doing the work of the Gospel in the local Church and within the context of one’s personal community. Each chapter is filled with ideas that are valuable and noteworthy to consider. Each chapter speaks to a different aspect of the missional church but is ultimately tied together by the bonds of the Church respectively. The authors of this book have challenged me and I know they will challenge any reader who is willing to wrestle with a new way of thinking about how we live and breathe as the Church. Therefore, I would recommend this book to those who have spent some time working through the questions they have come across themselves and have sought God in His Word of authentic answers that will spur on a mindset of a missional church.

What Saint Paul Really Said: Book Review

Paul is arguably the most debated and controversial writer in the New Testament.  His defiance against the Jewish traditions of old, exhorting not the covenant of law but of faith, made his fellowship among the Pharisees and other religious leaders apologetic.  Being a scholar in many aspects, Paul used his intelligence of the Pentateuch and other prophetic and apocalyptic writings to defend the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the new covenant which was spoken of in Jeremiah 31:31-34.  People for years have attempted to study the life and theology of Paul’s messages in order one might be able to recapitulate the demeanor of Paul’s sometimes harsh but provocative letters to the Gentiles.  N.T. Wright, who is arguably the greatest New Testament scholar of the 20th and 21st century has set out to unmask the secrets of Paul’s understanding, probing into the utter most depths of who he was and how his calling from God and his conversion in Damascus.  His book, What Saint Paul Really Said-Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Rounder of Christianity seek to answer the many questions Christians have often wondered about the man of Paul and his relationship to the Jew and to the Gentile.

In Chapter 1, Wright lays common ground, a foundation for his arguments, which he builds upon in the latter parts of his book.  Theologically, this is important to build a common ground of which to construct a basis of biblical thoughts.  Wright outlays the history of study, which is commonly, labeled “Pauline Theology” naming such people as Schweitzer whose work Wright calls “monumental” (12).  Schweitzer debates two questions, which play as an important role in Pauline theology. “First, is Paul really a Jewish thinker or a Greek thinker?  Second, what is the centre of Paul’s theology?  Is it “justification by faith” or “being in Christ?” (13) Rudolf Bultmann views Paul “in his Hellenistic context” (15).  He hypothesizes because Paul’s ministry to the gentiles and his “willingness” to depart from his “former life” as a Jew depicts him in this manner “standing over against the Jewish world” condemning his fellow people for following the law of the old covenant and not accepting a new covenant found in the life of Jesus Christ.  Davis, who Wright writes of next, holds to Paul being “at bottom, a Jewish rabbi who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish Messiah” (16).  Wright then speaks of Ernst Käsemann who “attempted to retain the strong points of both Schweitzer and Bultmann (17).  The last 20th century scholar Wright briefly speaks of is Ed P. Sanders who believes the only critique of Judaism Paul focuses was that is was “not Christianity” (19).  Wright uses these four scholars study of Paul and their theological positions to put into perspective the views of scholars today.  He then poses questions regarding the history, theology, exegesis, and application of Paul’s ministry.  This is the basis of N.T. Wright, which he then uses to build upon, using his personal views of Pauline theology and what he believes to be the purpose of Paul’s exhortation to the gentile people.  This is very important to outline the different scholars and their views so one who would not know these things would have a better understanding of how the study of Paul and the many different controversial views one man of God would hold.  I am glad Wright took time to go through the many different people who have studied Paul and his life.  This is, I believe very important to lay a foundation for the views in which he holds as a respected scholar himself.

Wright then writes of Paul’s biography dictating his life as a Jew who studied under Gamaliel and persecutor of the Church stating Paul was zealous for God which Wright interprets as being “zealous for the traditions of the fathers’ in first-century Judaism”(27).  Wright then speaks of Saul’s Conversion on the Damascus road; the call God had given him to share the “Good News” to the gentile nation.  “Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus thus equipped him with an entirely new perspective, though one which kept its roots firm and deep within his previous covenantal theology.  Israel’s destiny had been summed up and achieved in Jesus the Messiah.  The Age to come had been inaugurated.  Saul himself was summoned to be its agent” (37).  From that moment on, Paul had a new zeal, to be displayed to the Gentile nation.

Paul’s use of his zeal meant spreading the “gospel.”  Wright believes Paul’s usage the term gospel refers to the “gospel truth” of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was the forefront of Paul’s testimony to the gentiles.  It is not, says Wright, “a system of how people get saved” (45).  It is the response to the “gospel” which salvation is found.  I believe with Wright’s understanding of the gospel.  It now makes sense to me.  This view has now forever changed my outlook of sharing the gospel with non-believers.  Knowing I cannot bring anyone into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, it is only Him who can bring one into the saving knowledge of Himself.  I was never able to make parallels of sharing the gospel with someone and God bringing them into the saving knowledge of Himself.  I have been struggling with why Christ used us to bring people to Him if He was going to do it.  Knowing this has now cleared up many different questions I have had concerning this issue.  Wright says, “Christ is not a name.  It is a title.  It becomes a name (denoting somebody, but without extra connotation), at some point in early Christianity, as its Jewish meaning is forgotten by Gentile converts” (51).  I agree with this as well.  The title Christ means Messiah.  This is an important thing to bring up though.  Wright states four important points.  1.  In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.  2.  In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the one creator of God would address the whole.  3.  The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.  4.  Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow (60).  These points are the foundation of Christianity and the doctrine of salvation.  Wright does a great job in putting into words, the truth of Jesus Christ.  This is unshakable reality.  Wright concludes saying, “It should be clear by now that when Paul went out into the Gentile world with his ‘gospel’, he went as a Jew to Gentiles, to tell the Gentile world what Jews had always believed: that ‘the gods of the nations are idols, but our God made the heavens (Psalm 96:5 (75)).  This is a profound statement Wright makes.  He has left little room for argument of who Paul was to the Gentiles and the message Paul was sent to speak concerning the gospel of Christ.

“The direction of Paul’s message was confrontation with paganism; he had good news for them, but it was good news which undermined their worldview and replaced it with an essentially Jewish one, reworked around Jesus” (79).  This is an important point to bring up.  99.9 percent of Paul’s writings were written to churches he had planted concerning people who have crept in unaware trying to preach a new gospel.  A gospel neither Paul nor Paul’s associates were preaching and it was not a good thing.  Paul saw himself as an Apostle to the pagan Gentile people by building churches and baptizing people into the truth.  Paul spoke boldly and bluntly to the Gentile people concerning different beliefs and practices that were not in line with the gospel he was preaching.  Paul’s ability to articulate to the Gentile people and the approach he used shows the power of God he had been given to exercise in his ministry.

Israel is seen in Paul’s ministry.  As Wright says, “But the whole point of this vocation was that what the pagans needed to hear was the good news of the God of Israel, the creator of the world.  The Gentiles would be blessed, according to the particular Jewish hope that Paul seems to have cherished, when and only when Israel’s God fulfilled his promises to, and purposes for, Israel” (95).  This is a profound avowal Paul makes to the pagan Gentile community.  To take the One and only God of Israel and tell the Gentiles this was their God too most likely got Paul into a lot of trouble with religious leaders who considered them “pure” for following the law in everyway possible?  This was almost blasphemous to any Jewish person at this time.  Wright is of course right in statement.  We know the God of Israel has come to save the Gentile people.  By God’s grace, the Gentile people have been graphed into the “olive tree.”  Wright then discusses the word “dikaios” which refers to ‘righteous’, also refers to ‘justice’ (96).   Looking at the Hebrew law court chart on page 97 explains dikaios.  Jesus Christ is our Dikaios and we are the defendants.  We must recognize we all will have to make an account of our lives and how we used our gifts to glorify God.  If it were not for Jesus Christ being our dikaios, we would not have the ability to enter into his presence.  Wright says Paul uses the term ‘diaiosune ek theou’, which refers to righteousness from God.  This term is used in Paul’s letters.  Wrights backs up his argument by quoting Romans 1:17 and Romans 3.  He concludes saying, “We have seen continually that Paul’s redefinition, his fresh understanding, of the one true God came especially through his grasp of the fact that this God was revealed supremely in Jesus, and there supremely in the cross… But if we understand ‘God’s righteousness’, as I have tried to do, in terms of the covenant faithfulness of God, then there is of course one word, which sums up that whole train of thought, and which for Paul perfectly describes the God he knows in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit”(110).  It is interesting that Wright says this.  Paul does indeed; seem to redefine what the Jewish leaders have known throughout their study of the Torah.  Paul, by doing this, makes it possible for the Gentile people to come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  As stated before, this no doubt, raises a few heads among the Jewish leaders but it doesn’t seem to bother Paul who takes the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people God had predestined him to share it with.

Wright then focuses on Justification and what justification means, including Paul’s understanding of justification as a Jew and what it means to the Gentile people he is called to.  Wright lays down the popular belief of justification of faith.  This belief, in laymen’s terms refers to our ability to receive salvation through Jesus Christ.  We are not able to receive this through works but through faith and faith alone.  I find this not to be the center of the bible but it is a very valid point.  It is important to realize we are unable to receive anything from God due to our own works but it is a gift that only the Lord Jesus Christ can give through the working of the Holy Spirit.  Wright says, “…When we understand exactly what Paul did mean by ‘justification’, we will come to see that is it organically and integrally linked to what he meant by ‘the gospel’.  It cannot be detached without pulling part of the very heart of Paul away with it” (115).  I believe Wright makes a very important statement about Paul here.  Paul puts to mind justification of faith and the importance of justification of faith among the Jews and the Gentile people.  He concludes this section by summing up Paul’s doctrine of justification.  He states, “1.  Covenant – Justification is the covenant declaration, which will be issued on the last day, in which the true people of God will be vindicated and those who insist on worshipping false gods will be shown to be in the wrong. 2.  Law Court – Justification functions like the verdict in the law court:  by acquitting someone, it confers on that person the status ‘righteous’.  This is the forensic dimension of the future covenantal vindication.  3. Eschatology – This declaration, this verdict, is ultimately to be made at the end of history.  Through Jesus, however, God has done in the middle of history what he had been expected to do – and, indeed, will still do – at the end; so that the declaration, the verdict, can be issued already in the present, in anticipation.  The events of the last days were anticipated when Jesus died on the cross, as the representative Messiah of Israel, and rose again.  (This was Paul’s own theological starting point.)  The verdict of the last day is therefore now also anticipated in the present, whenever someone believes in the gospel message about Jesus.  4. Therefore – and this is the vital thrust of the argument of Galatians in particular, but it plays a central in Philippians and Romans as well – all who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ are already demarcated as members of the true family of Abraham, with their sins being forgiven 131-132).  Here Wright briefly outlines the major points he brings out in his arguments concerning justification of faith.  As stated before, justification of faith is essential to understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I think Wright does a very good job outlining the ideas and thoughts behind the doctrine of justification.

Wright then speaks of God’s renewed humanity.  He states the centre of renewed humanity is worship to God.  This is I believe a response to the justification of faith in which Wright is speaking of.  It is our response, after realizing what God has done for us, to give back to God a portion of what He is due.  He speaks of Romans 4:19-21 where he talks about Abraham and how Abraham grew strong in the faith, giving glory to God.  The goal of renewed humanity, Wright says, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.  Wright argues Holiness, love, and zeal of missions are important aspects Paul encourages in his letters as a response to the goodness of God’s grace.

The book ends with an interesting question, which also, happens to be part of the title.  Is Paul the founder of Christianity?  Wright deals with this question by reviewing Paul’s life starting with his background in Judaism and his Hellenistic roots.  From my reading of the chapter, Wright does not come out and say Paul is the founder of Christianity.  He does say though, “When all is said and done, it should be comparatively easy to work through the actions and message of Jesus, and the agenda and letter of Paul, and to show that there is between them, not (of course) a one-for-one correspondence, but a coherence, an appropriate correlation, an integration that allows fully for the radically different perspective of each.  Jesus was bringing Israel’s history to its climax; Paul was living in the light of that climax.  Jesus was narrowly focused on the sharp-edged, single task; Paul was celebration the success of that task, and discovering its fruits in a thousand different ways and settings” (182).  This is the last of Wright’s major points concerning Paul and his ministry.  Paul’s ministry was given by Jesus to glorify the Father in heaven.  Paul might not be the founder of Christianity but he will forever be seen as a man whose faith was a testimony to Jesus Christ and His resurrection.

Revelation: Flannery O’Connor

My first experience with Flannery O’Connor came last night in our small group.  I have to say that everyone that was in this group seemed to know her decently well exempt me, which was kind of odd because I probably read more books in general than most of the people in that room.  As I wrote though, it was my first experience with her writing and found it to be quite interesting.

From what I have learned, Flannery O’Connor was a white woman from Georgia.  Her father had died of lupus when she was a young girl of just 15.  She entered Georgia State College for women and was later inducted into the Iowa Writers’ Worship.  After she had accepted that position, she herself was diagnosed with lupus, only allowing her to live another 15 years.  During her lifetime, she wrote several short stories and two novels.  Though she was only 39 when she died, she left behind stories that have been read and studied.  Even today, there are those who attempt a degree in literary writing and read her stories for inspiration and contemplation.

Last night, I read one of her short stories, “Revelation.”  I felt as though there was not one word that was over used or a thought that was under developed.  It challenged me to remain engrossed with her stylistic pros and helped me to reach outside of my rational box I seem to be comfortable resting in myself.  Let me share why.

In this story, there is a woman named Mrs. Turpin who is talking with several strangers in a doctor’s office.  A little girl named Mary Grace is engrossed in a book she had been reading called, “Human Development,” which Mrs. Turpin notices from afar.   It is while Mrs. Turpin sits, she begins to realize how very lucky she is to be who she is.  She sees herself superior to each individual within the doctor’s office and finds the words to express her gratitude to God.  In essence, even though there are people who have money and are as common as she is, Mrs. Turpin cannot understand how these people exist; how these people are of a higher status than she is.

Eventually, Mary Grace cannot listen to Mrs. Turpin’s continued gabbing and chucks her book, “Human Development” at Mrs. Turpin.  All the sudden, the little girl wraps her hands around Mrs. Turpin’s neck and begins to choke her.  In a few moments, the little girl is given a needle to calm her down.  Mrs. Turpin tries to regain herself emotionally.  Mary Grace looks at Mrs. Turpin and says, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!”  Mary Grace’s words hit her hard.  How could anyone call her that?

From O’Connor’s viewpoint though, she had painted Mrs. Turpin as the hogs in which she raised.  Mrs. Turpin is saved because she is entitled to be so.  Everyone can receive the grace of God.  O’Connor smashes the woman’s understanding of grace.  In essence, Mrs. Turpin is saved because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ.  Not because she is kind to her black workers or because she helps out at the local church.  No matter who you are, it is the blood of Jesus who has saved the black folk who worked on her farm, the “trashy people” who went to the doctor’s office and even herself.

One aspect that had gone under the radar was the character, Mary Grace.  To me, she was a snotty little kid who was so individualistic and selfish, she just read her book.  Realizing now that O’Connor was Catholic, I began to realize that perhaps “Mary Grace” was a picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in whom the Catholic Church called, “the mother of grace.”  That gives an interesting spin on how we are to look at this character in the story.

The revelation Mrs. Turpin receives in the last scene of the book is one that has challenged me.  In the end, everyone’s “good deeds” are burned away because they were done with human intentions.  As she watches a vision of a parade going by, the last group of people who were bringing up the rear was people who she noticed were like her. She realized that everyone was entitled to the saving grace of God. Not just the people who did great “human” things with their time here on earth.  She and her husband Claud were not any greater than the “white trash people” or the “black people” or anyone else.  Salvation was an equal matter issue to God.

O’Connor’s story gives us a lot to think about concerning how we perceive people, our virtues, and the saving grace of God.  I have found it to be a challenge to read not only because it was written so well but also because it was written during the time when certain words that described black people were used that is offensive to me.  I struggled to read those words even though I understood why they were used.

I am not sure if our perception of how we view grace is truly the way God intended us to see it.  What I do know is that O’Connor paints a picture of grace through a woman named Mrs. Turpin that is valuable and meaningful today.  We are all in this grace thing together.  I hope if you have not read any of her writings, you also will challenge yourself to read something that will bring you out of your own box and push you in all directions as her writings have for me.  God bless.

Same-Sex Marriage (Chapter 4)

Well we are continuing our book study by Erwin Lutzer. Continuing with chapter four, Lutzer calls us to resist the peer pressure. For those who have not read the previous chapters of this book review, you should. Please remember this is Erwin Lutzer’s thoughts and not my own. It does not matter what my thoughts are in the first place. I hope you will consider his thoughts though. He makes some interesting points. With that, I hope you will read along and be challenged by Erwin Lutzer’s words.

It seems as though the pressure to accept same-sex marriages is everywhere. What is really wrong with two women showing affection towards one another if it “feels right?” No matter where we look, the pressure to accept same-sex couples is in the media, and in the news. If we do not know how to properly respond to these issues, it will wear us down.

One of the often-used excuses for same-sex marriages is, “We were born this way.” In fact, many truly believe they were born with a same-sex gene or something. Science has made several attempts to find this gene so that they can affirm the same-sex sensation. Lutzer writes, “First, we must better understand the nature of genetics itself. There is a difference between those genes that make up the body and those genes that influence our desires and predispositions.” He goes on to say,

We are responsible for our behavior even if it is genetically motivated. Surely homosexuals don’t want to say that their genes have rendered them helpless robots, incapable of human choice about their behavior. They would want to affirm, I think, that they are moral agents who should be held accountable for their lifestyle. In other words, no matter what influence our genetic makeup has on us, we cannot use this as an excuse for a lack of accountability and responsibility.

Another statement that same-sex couples use is “We cannot be changed.” Is it true? It is impossible for homosexuals to change their lifestyle? Lutzer has a different question we should be asking. He asks, “Even if someone finds that he or she cannot change to heterosexual desires, does this justify living the homosexual lifestyle?” Lutzer seems to believe that it is possible to maintain a single lifestyle while one struggle with a homosexual lifestyle. The church must take a stand and welcome those who struggle with homosexuality and not turn them away. We need to embrace those who are in need within the larger community of faith.

Another statement that is become more popular is that homosexual marriage is a matter of civil rights. Lutzer writes, “There is no question that our identity is to a great extent bound up with our gender: Male and female He created them.” Lutzer continues saying, “Many who have come out of the gay lifestyle say that their journey began when they no longer thought of gayness as the essence of their personhood.” When we find our personhood in Christ, it is possible, says Lutzer, that those who struggle with homosexuality can leave the homosexual lifestyle.

There are other reasons people give for their homosexual lifestyle. We will not look at the rest of them. I will simply say that Lutzer seems to provoke some questions we can ask and consider concerning this issue of homosexuality. It is my encouragement that you buy the book, read it with an open mind, and respond appropriately. Thanks for reading. God bless.