Monday, December 30, 2013

Theologian Trading Cards

My Amazon review of Theologian Trading Cards:

I really wanted to like this, if only for the novel idea of theologians in a fun card format, but there are just too many negative disappointments that I had to give this a one-star (which more than likely means not many helpful marks. Whatever.)

I could initially go into this with the approach of "well, it didn't have A, or B, or C" (and was my deck missing a Spurgeon card?) but the fact is the problem seems to go a lot further than that in that certain categories just, well, aren't broad enough. You could have had all 300 cards based just on the puritans alone, but instead it seems like all we get is a skimpy selection of different eras of the church, and an unfortunately large serving of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholicism (selections it seemed aimed to be more focused on the favorable ones, with not as much attention on the torturing, killing and "comfy chair" variety of Roman Catholics from history - and how is it that Pope Benedict [the one who you'll recall granted plenary indulgences, you know, the unscriptural practice that would make most Reformers spin in their collective graves] manages to make the deck as a very modern figure, but we don't see any other equally important modern theologians of a protestant variety like R.C. Sproul or John Macarthur? What floored me even more was the inclusion of Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. In a box labeled "Theologian Trading Cards". Keyword being "theologian". What the heck?

To me it feels like this entire presentation and packaging was a misnomer, and a more accurate label should have been something like, "Some theologians cherry-picked from a broad ecumenical swath, some of debatable significance, some of questionable orthodoxy, and some notably of distinctly anti-Christian bent Trading Cards". I'm surprised with some of these wonky characters in the box that he didn't include an Aimee Semple McPherson card or Fred Phelps. Who knows.

Additionally frustrating was the frequency of finding cards with no image. Give me a break!!! How often does that happen with sports cards? "Oooh, trade me for your card with NO PICTURE on it." That was frustrating enough alone to merit the one star and to have me considering returning the set to Amazon. If you can't find a picture for these guys from a Google image search, you do the next best thing: commission someone to do up a quick drawing based on what they think the guy likely looked like! For crying out loud, it doesn't have to be a Rembrandt portrait, just give us a best-guess sketch of the person. Blank images were a huge, huge disappointment.

A final gripe was the packaging, as each 'team' in the box was tightly bound in hard to remove plastic that I had to dig at with a knife to get open, and all along I'm wondering, what exactly was the reason for sealing this entire set, and then within the set itself, sealing up each team? Did that really matter? I don't collect sports cards, but is that how they do it when you buy them in box sets? Do they do that with Pokemon cards or something?

Again, I wanted to like this, but even if there had been some sticks of bubble gum included in the set, the content was just a little too skewed, imbalanced and not enough.

Monday, December 23, 2013

“Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo - book review

My amazon review of “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo

I really found this hokey. First, as a confessional Baptist with a love of Christ and the Scriptures, I'm not doubting the existence of heaven (or even near-death experiences, for that matter, which I find frequently to fascinating and illuminating) but this particular work just came across as stale, contrived and somewhat goofy. I mean it's a sweet story, but page after page you have to bite your lip at the sheer maudlin corniness of the narrative and the cringe-worthy theology (pg. 100. Young Colton describing what he thinks he saw, “And do you know that Jesus sits right next to God?... Jesus' chair is right next to his Dad's”, followed by the remark from his father, “that blew me away. There's no way a four-year old knows that.”) Well, maybe if your a father who doesn't shepherd your children or read the Bible to them. But this type of narrative is what punctuates the book sadly. Odd and debatable descriptions of what little Burpo saw in heaven followed by the Dad's remarks of surprise or breaking into tears, etc, etc. This one could really be a painful chore to read. Again, I love a good NDE account, but this one didn't even qualify.

Plus here's the other thing. As a Reformed Baptist I hold strongly to the view of Scriptural inerrancy and the perfect, completion of God's word. But if you think about it, if the Burpo boy's accounts are true, then technically, everything about heaven that he saw and described should, technically, be just as binding as anything else that the Bible says about heaven, so in a goofy way it takes the same level as Scripture and Christians should respect this as a valid description of what to expect of the heavenly realms that we are bound for, and this just doesn't seem right to me (plus consider that the Apostle Paul never really talked about or saw fit to describe heaven himself, as he himself was caught up to third heaven – 2 Cor. 12:2. Maybe there was a reason for that?) Or, maybe, just maybe, Burbo's father was just using a little bit of creative license here in describing some of the things his son dreamed about during surgery. I find that a little more likely, and that works for creative fiction, but there is a caution as well involved in that Burpo should heed the caution of Scripture in what appears to be largely a creative outlet in adding to God's Word (Rev. 22:18-19)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

'Practice of the Presence of God' by Brother Lawrence

'Practice of the Presence of God' is a short and insightful work about walking closer with God written in a series of conversations and collected letters from Brother Lawrence, it serves to be both convicting and, at times, questionable. Lawrence's convictions are powerful and frequently humbling, and there is much to admire and emulate in seeking the constant, abiding communication with God (“a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him, or for His sake, and to love Him only.”) Lawrences passion of that communion is noble and something to strive to emulate. What I did find lacking, however, was a Christocentric approach to his description of communion with God, to the degree that at times reading this the communication described felt almost like a modalistic/unitarian exercise, and I found myself longing to hear Christ referenced just a little bit more anywhere (for instance, at one point Lawrence says “we know also that we can do all things...” and I was hoping he was going to lead into “...through Christ who strengthens us”, but instead he capped the thought as “...with the grace of GOD”, which is true, but the trinitiaran aspect of Lawrence's theology just seemed lacking in this work. I wanted more of the work and inter-mediation of Christ, and I wanted more of the powerful work of Holy Spirit's sanctification. As it stands, I believe Christ was mentioned twice and the Holy Spirit once. In any case, this is a short and lively read and what I'd describe as take what you can from it but tread carefully.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

'Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns' is a short, clever and timely work addressing how contemporary influences have modified the standard regarding music used churches today as the church moves to embrace a spirit of modernity. I've been bothered by the contemporary movement's sway in the church
today and the utter mindless emotionalism most church music seems to have these days so I appreciated reading Dr. Gordon's thoughts and analysis. I believe he nails the issue on the head early on describing how previously hymns would be selected by a criteria of theologically orthodox and significant lyrics, thoughtful lyrics, and songs well-written in regards to melody, harmony and form (p.47). Unfortunately today, so many churches of the seeker-sensitive model, or church intended more for those who are "not taking it(religion) seriously" (p.155) and the "music-lite" invariably reflects a church that also practices "worship lite."

On p.130 Gordon sets out a thoughtful consideration of if a hymn would it still exist as Christian verse if it were not set to music. Personally, I can think of a number of theologically rich hymns such as "A Mighty Fortress" with powerful words that, isolated from their music would still have a very significant message of the glory and magnitude of God. Yet when I think of a Houston-area mega-church I visited recently I recall the lyrics to one song that repeated over and over and over again... "greater things have yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this city" that, if repeated as verse without music repeatedly would be just inane (and maddening).

Gordon digs in with an analysis of contemporary music and the dangers of mindless sentimentality, or emotion in music for emotion sake, which as he puts it, "reflects and endorses a trivial culture." From contemporaneity the after-effect is that anything not contemporary is rendered odd, quaint, antiquated or outdated, and we're left with trivialized, simplistic, sappy music reflecting the romanticism and primitivism of era's like the 60's, with guitar music led by "middle-aged former hippies unwilling to leave Woodstock." This later point might be something of a generalization (Gordon does do that through the book, and to be fair he sometimes does veer into odd tangents, such as the one on Gillette shavers and landfills(???) on p.107-108) but I do see his point about music trivialization (and I think I have listened to the music of a few of those same 'hippies' in a couple churches that I've been to in recent years.)

The biggest negative of this work, though, is I got to the end of the book, agreeing with most of T. Gordon's points, but I was left wanting a little more of a take-away, namely: if the church needs hymns, then what hymnals does the writer suggest? More specifically, say someone is in a contemporary church, and they're getting fed up with the maudlin sentimentalism of the music, and they want to be in a church with more richer, deeper music, but this is the only church that they have ever knows. Then what churches actually use hymnals, and how would this person find them other than just endlessly church-hopping? Any practical suggestions of where to go to even find that music if a church with contemporary music is all that you've ever known? Maybe even a hint or two could have helped, such as some direction to seek out something like a more reformed, confessionally-centered church congregation, etc. I think a little direction would have helped, even if in the form of some suggested denominations or churches in an appendix) Additionally, there was no real mention of WHAT hymnals would be considered better or worse than others. I think there was a passing reference to the Trinity hymnal, but what other hymnals are there, and how does a layman discern one from another? Again, some practical suggestions of hymnals, and pros and cons, would have been of great value. As it stands, there was only one appendix with a debatable "pop versus classical culture" chart that didn't help much. I would have liked to see a few more resources to help direct people in the right direction with music.

All the same this was an insightful read and worth checking out if you're hungry for something more substantial and edifying in church music. Hopefully in a future edition Dr. Gordon could include a few helpful appendixes.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens: In Which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, Are Considered by William Carey

This short work (although the title is insanely long... why didn't he just call it "Some Thoughts on Missions"?) was an insightful work about the need and importance of global evangelism in the Christian church. Carey emphasizes that the need to preach the gospel to all nations is a command a Christ and that believers are bound to this responsibility to take the gospel into the world. Cary uses Scriptural examples from the apostolic ministry passages in Acts and leads through an overview of early church history and mission work, up to post-Constantine times when "popery"(Roman Catholicism) introduced propagation taking place by force of arms, a strictly non-Scriptural practice, where, as Carey observes, “the confessors of Christianity needed conversion as much as the people they ministered to”. Carey then gives an overview of the reformation of the church, starting in 1369 with Wycliffe teaching Biblical Christianity, and how his teachings eventually spread through reformers like Huss, Jerome and eventually through Luther, Calvin, etc, in which the church returned to the authority of Scripture and Biblical orthodoxy. In the following centuries persecution Roman persecution followed, and many sought religious freedom in the new colonies, which eventually leads the overview of history up to Carey's own time frame (late 18th century).

Carey also addresses some of the objections and complaints to global missions, including the barriers such as distance, language difficulties, concerns of safety within other nations, etc. He remarks on all of these with sound responses, and while admitting that missions can mean a sacrifice of affluence and splendor for that of hard work miserable accommodations, potential punishment and imprisonment, etc. he identifies that for many it is primarily a love of ease that stands as an inconvenience to ministry work, and although difficult conditions may be a part of missions, the obligation of believers is to share the gospel message with the world. Rightly referred to as the "father of modern missions", Carey's biography is a fascinating one, and there are few better to address the topic of missions.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Two Views of Hell

My recent Amazon review of "Two Views of Hell::

"Two Views of Hell" is a fascinating dialog of two theologians arguing from two different perspectives of the nature and duration of hell punishment. Robert Peterson argues from the "traditionalist" view, that hell as taught in Scripture is that of a conscience, eternal punishment, whereas Edward Fudge argues for what is called the "annihilation" view, which is the view that the sinner in hell encounters a final destruction. I was curious to read this title as, until now all I've really known about annihilation is from certain fringe voices like theologian John Stott (as well as certain cults), but never really in mainstream evangelical Christianity. Fudge does a considerably good job of arguing for annihilation from the strength of Scripture, and Peterson offers equally good counter-arguments to Fudge's position. Both men make strong appeals to Scripture, and church tradition when relevant, and I found both sides of the argument to be compelling. Historically I've enjoyed a number of "different viewpoints"-type of theology books in the arguments/counter-arguments format, and this particular work on the topic of hell does a fascinating job of exploring the different views while being ground in Scripture and not sentimentalism or anything like that. Both men agree that there is a specific doctrine of hell as taught in Scripture, but the eternal nature of it can be open to debate. This is worth checking out.

Monday, July 1, 2013

How many times have you read the Bible?

An article I wrote for the local paper:

As a Christian, we believe that the Bible teaches justification by faith alone through the perfect, complete work of Christ Jesus, through his death, burial and resurrection. Through faith in Christ alone the Christian knows and experiences the forgiveness of sin and the hope of eternal life with Christ. Being brought into newness of life, it is important for the believer to grow in their walk with God by constantly being in the Word. But how many Christians make time for daily Bible reading? And if asked by an outsider to the faith, "So, if the Bible is the central book of your faith, how many times have you read it, cover to cover?", could you give an answer other than just a shrug and a response of, "Well, I've read a lot of it..."

The Bible is the perfect, inspired word of God, and as 2 Tim. 3:16 teaches, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness". The love and study of the Scriptures should be essential for the believer, and Christians should strive to read the Bible in its entirety if they haven't.

"But I never have time. I've got work, and this, and that, etc." Well, what I'd like to offer here is a suggestion of how busy people can include daily Bible reading, that the believer "may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:17)

Since so many people are always on the go, “listening” can be a good option for working through the Bible. A good step is to invest in a cheap MP3 player (and NOT a phone, since anything that will ring, beep, chirp, or otherwise distract you isn't going to help...)
A cheap, simple MP3 player I've been happy with is the Philips GoGear Vibe 4 MP3 player. No bells and whistles, but works fine, and can hold most all of the spoken Bible. I've seen it around $15-20 online. It comes with ear buds, but if you don't like those you can pick up a cheap headset at Walmart for $5.

Next step, get a FREE download of the audio Bible. There are a number of translations available online free. I'm partial to the ESV translation as I believe it's a sound translation of the Greek and straight-forward English. You can download it free from here: For those who like the KJV translation, here's a site to download the MP3's:
There are many other resources, and if you prefer to skip the download, you could go to a place like LifeWay and buy the MP3s of the Bible and transfer them to the MP3 player from your computer that way too.

Finally, download a Bible reading checklist and print this up, to mark off what you've listened to. There are plenty of these online, but here's a simple example:

Now, when you're working around the house, cooking, gardening, riding your bike, etc, just put on the MP3 player and you're ready to go. If you prefer to listen to the player while driving, you can get a mini-jack port at the Walmart electronics department and hook this to your car stereo aux port.

Also, as you study the Bible, if you find passages that you want to understand better or that could use elaboration, there are many good commentaries. I would recommend Matthew Henry's Commentary. He was a puritan who wrote a concise commentary overview of the entire Bible. You can use the commentary for free here to look up passages:

Keep yourself in the Word, and be blessed with growing in an understanding of God's inspired word.