Book Review: Surprised by Paradox

paradox

Human beings long for a system of thought that can give clear-cut answers to our painful existential problems. Sometimes, we make our worldviews to be like a tight mathematical syntax which given a particular input, provides a particular output such as 1+1=2.

But we know in our human experience that life is much more complex and beautiful than simplistic mathematical equations. And If this is the case with human life, how much more is this true of our faith in the Godhead who not only created us mysterious beings but also this beautiful world which is full of beauty.

In Surprised by Paradox, Jen Pollock Michel wants to help us see that our faith has some room for mystery. This might make some Christians uneasy. But its worth mentioning that Michel doesn’t say that we don’t have any certainties in Christian faith but rather that while there are certainties in our faith, at the heart of the Christian story is also paradox.

She labours to help the readers understand that Christ Jesus bids us to embrace ‘and’ rather than ‘either and or’ paradigm. For her, the Son of God encourages us to abandon the polarities that we often tightly hold on to. For instance, she underscores that the reality of the incarnation (the beautiful paradox of God and human), body and spirit, heaven and earth, grace and law, life and death, suffering and joy compell us to hold onto tensions rather than easily resolving them by embracing simplistic synthesis.

The hope is that by clinging to paradoxes, our worship will deepen and we will come to see God not as an object that needs to be dissected but as the one who is complex, beautiful, and inexpressibly indescribable and worthy of our worship

In essence, Michel wants to help us enlarge our categories to include some room for mystery.

I thank IVP for providing me with a complementary copy of this book.

The God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World

god-comfort

Imagine a book that’s part analytic theology, part trauma theory, part deep pastoral engagement, part Trinitarian theology, part gothic novel, and you might begin to skim the surface of the essence of Scott Harrower’s excellent book, The God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World. In a world filled with horrors and the traumas that they engender, Harrower seeks to understand how the Trinitarian God is at work healing shattered image-bears through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the Church.  

However, before addressing head-on the aching reality of horrors, this book begins by seeking to understand them first against the background of Shalom – the wholesome state that God created and intended for his image bearers in the very beginning, centered on and in perfect, personal relationship with the Triune God. This Edenic state was broken when humanity committed ‘ontological transgression – transgressing into being like God’ (p. 20).

Such transgression opened the door for the harrowing of horrors – a reality that Harrower provides an incredibly clear taxonomy for understanding, centering on the concept of horror being a movement from life towards death. This reality of the transgression of death into the realm of life leads to the experience of trauma, breaking image-bears in their creative, relational, and moral functions. A state from which there may be no recovery. This leaves trauma-survivors with theological, existential, and anthropological problems – blocking their ability to truly live into their identity as image-bearers.

How does the Triune God speak into this reality? He does through his ‘consciousness as he relates to and interacts with individual and corporate human minds/souls for the sake of forming beliefs and concepts that are true and helpful to them’ (62).

God reveals himself in this way largely through narrative – as the narrative of Scripture meets and works its way into our own narratives of trauma and redemption, and as we experience ‘shared attention’ with God – looking through his perspective together with him: ‘For readers of the Bible who want to know God, shared attention involves the reader and God being strongly aware of one another as they cooperate in reading a text together’ (63).

This meets a focus of trauma recovery methods, namely, a focus upon narrative, and in particular the practice of undertaking ‘trauma readings’ of texts. Harrower employs this method to masterful extent in his gothic-horror reading of Matthew’s gospel, both as an exercise in empathy for those who have suffered trauma, but also in order to push a trauma reading to its final (hopeless) end, thus revealing its limitations for trauma recovery. What other choices, then, do we have that both take the horror of trauma seriously in all its aching reality and pursue hope? Enter the blessed reading.

The Triune God seeks mind-to-mind communion with his image bearers and is through this capable of restoring their perspective – taking it from trauma to blessed. Harrower demonstrates this through a ‘blessed’ reading of the Gospel of Matthew, particularly noting how Matthew’s gospel, from the blessed perspective given by the Triune God, provides paths that may enable a survivor to regain safety, story, and community.  This continual use of the modal may throughout the book in regard to recovery stands out as wise and helpful in its ability to both hold fast to the real grounds for hope that survivors have for recovery through the work of the Triune God, but also remain realistic about the gutting extent to which trauma maims God’s beloved image bearers, and thus not be too quick to rush to triumphal solutions.

This book is one of the most stretching books I’ve read in the last year – academically, emotionally, pastorally, and creatively. I found myself having to think till my head ached about issues related to the problem of evil. At times I laughed with geeky delight at the working in of literary gothic-horror themes, even while being impressed at just how ‘fitting’ they were for the discussion. At least once I needed to put the book down to cry and pray through horrors that have touched my life and lives of those I love. So I warn you, this book may not be an easy read, but (my goodness!) it’s a good one. Highly recommended for pastors, theologians, practitioners working with trauma survivors, and anyone seeking to understand and live into the story of the triune God’s work of restoring Shalom to his shattered image-bearers.


I thank Lexham press for sending me an advance copy of this book

Book Review: Embracing Contemplation

contemplation

Evangelicals are very suspicious of contemplation. Many view it as an infiltration of Buddhism or New Age fuzzy spirituality into the church. So, they have remained uncomfortable and awkward about ancient contemplative practices. On account of this dismissal, many evangelical circles have found themselves experiencing spiritual poverty and incompleteness.

Embracing Contemplation seeks to address this issue. This book convincingly argues that evangelicals need to recover the lost treasures of their own tradition. John Calvin, Richard Baxter, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley had much to contribute on contemplation. Not only did they write extensively about this topic but also their lives were full of contemplative practices.

For these evangelical fathers, one of the crucial applications of Galatians 5:25 was to lead a life that promotes contemplation and spiritual formation. This work encourages, challenges, and spurs evangelicals to mine the spiritual gold from the scriptures and glance through the pages of Christian history to explore what it means to live ‘by the Spirit’.

Grounded in the word of God and the Church Fathers, this book attempts to keep the conversation going in order to recover the long forgotten practice of contemplation.

The editors, John H. Coe and Kyle C. Strobel, gather 13 different essays from 13 different spiritual formation scholars. This is a great strength because the various voices bring diverse perspectives that give specificity and richness to the conversation. Each contribution is unique and invaluable.

The essays are written in everyday non-lofty and non-academic language. Philosophical and theological jargon is kept to minimum, which is a great strength. All sorts of people can make use of this book. You don’t have to be a theologian or a philosopher to understand this work. It is simply accessible, readable, and timely for the evangelical world.


I thank IVP publishers for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Leadership in Christian Perspective

leadership

Much needed book!

This book marries and intermingles the best of leadership theory with the best of biblical exegesis. Often leadership books are written from exclusively pragmatic notions that lead some Christians to be suspicious of the leadership theory project as a whole. In contrast, this book clearly steers away from any pragmatic notions. Instead, two sound scholars, one leadership theorist and another biblical exegete have joined forces to guide us and help us understand the leadership theory in light of the Biblical imperatives.

Justin Irving and Mark Strauss bring these two disciplines in conversation to each other. In the light of the scriptures, they explore different models of leadership such as transformational leadership, authentic leadership and servant leadership and helpfully evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each theory.

The book is simply divided in ‘nine empowering practices’ that is exceptionally helpful for all kinds of audiences. Both students and teachers can glean wisdom from this work.

Leadership in Christian Perspective is for anyone who is interested in understanding leadership and leadership theories from Christian perspective.


I thank Baker Academic for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Pastor in a Secular Age

Andrew Root

What does it mean to be a pastor? When ‘secular’ people ask me about my vocation, I often feel lost as to how can I explain and justify the existence of my pastoral work. In our secular age, it seems that we have lost vocabulary, importance and essence of the pastoral ministry.

The Pastor in a Secular Age is written to help us understand and navigate the perplexity murky waters of the pastoral ministry in our secular age. Andrew Root, using the paradigm of Charles Taylor, masterfully explores the question of what does it mean to be a pastor in our secular age? Root attempts to dig the roots of secularism and its impact on the pastoral ministry. He does this by showing us the portraits of pastors throughout the history such as Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, and Martin Luther King Jr. etc.

After outlining the problems that secularism presses on the pastoral identity, Root offers an alternative vision for ministry which is less pragmatic and more biblical. He explores the Old testament and draws out helpful principles that can be life-saving in wading in the strong currents of secularism.

This book is for anyone who would like to understand and appreciate the complexity of the pastoral ministry in our secular world. At times, this book can be dense but mostly it is written in such a way that all kinds of audiences can benefit from this work.


I thank Baker Academic for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

‘The Maker of Man Was Made Man’

Augustine

Christmas, What art thou?

Christmas is a festive season of celebration. Both Christians and non-Christians celebrate this feast with much joy. For some it’s the beginning of the holiday season that often brings family and friends together along with gifts. For others, it’s the season when we uncontrollably indulge in extravagant lunches and dinners (me…).

I think it’s true to say that in our theologically thin times, we find ourselves surrounded by ever-evolving meanings of Christmas. Some defensive Christians have made Christmas all about ‘keeping Christ in Christmas’ while others have ‘de-sacralized’ this feast by making it an annual pilgrimage to the temple of capitalism.

I often turn to the Church fathers in these hazy and confused times when having clarity has become a sin. They are my friends from whom I glean mature wisdom.

Augustine’s response

Here’s what one of my best friends, Augustine, wrote about Christmas and it’s beauty.

christ the incarnate word taking flesh

Firstly, Augustine introduces us to the baby in the manger. Unlike modern portraits, the helpless baby is never severed from his divinity.

Augustine writes, “The Word of the Father, through which time was made, became flesh and made his birthday in time, and willed a single day for his human birth, he without whose divine permission no day rolls round. With the Father he precedes all the spaces of ages; born this day of a mother, he inserted himself into the courses of the years. The maker of man was made man so that the ruler of the stars might suck at breasts, bread might hunger, the fountain might thirst, light might sleep, the way might be wearied by a journey, truth might be accused by false witnesses, the judge of the living and the dead might be judged by a mortal judge, justice might be condemned by the unjust, discipline might be beaten with whips, the cluster of grapes might be crowned with thorns, the foundation might be hung from a tree, strength might be weakened, health might be wounded, life might die”.

How beautiful is the paradox of Christmas! To think that the very Creator through whom all flesh was made would take on flesh. The child in the manger is no ordinary child. He is fully God and fully man.

christ as our crucified saviour

Secondly, Augustine never separates Christmas from Good Friday. The doctor of the church says, ‘He suffered these and like indignities for us so that he might free the unworthy. He who did no evil suffered such great evils for our sakes, while we who deserved nothing good through him have received such great goods. For the sake of all this, he who was the Son of God before all the ages, without a beginning of days, deigned to be a son of man in the last days, and the One who was born, not made, of the Father was made in the mother whom he had made, so that he might exist here and now, made from the mother, from the woman who except for him would never ever herself have been able to exist.”

The bread of life became hungry to feed us starving-hungry people with life. The second member of the Holy trinity became man to redeem and save people. He was not merely a helpless baby but a conquering Lord who came with a mission and he fearlessly accomplished it.

We are just scratching the surface of the Church Father’s rich theology.

Nonetheless, Augustine gives us the true meaning of Christmas. Unlike many modern carols that only ever see Christ as a baby in a manger, Augustine tells us that the very God left his throne in glory to become man so that he could save us in this time of Christmas.


All quotes are from Sermon 191, 1; PL 38, 1010

Salvation For the Humble

humble

The image of a diamond comes to mind when I think about the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). There are so many angles, so many ways in which one can mine wisdom out of this passage. For the diggers of God’s word, this passage is indeed a diggers rest.

But today I am thinking about just three verses (51, 52, 53) because these verses paint a profound picture of gods kingdom. These verses address the deepest longings of Christians. They are packed with hope. The hope that God will lift up his downtrodden people. He will fill his hungry sheep. He will satisfy us with himself

“51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

The first thing to note about these verses is that Mary is so sure of these promises that she sings them in the past tense. Its as if they are already fulfilled.

The Magnificat promises that one day God will lift up the humble and fill the hungry. One day, he will scatter the proud, bring down rulers and make rich poor.

But one should ask, who are these ‘poor’? Who are these ‘humble? Who are these ‘rich’? To answer who these people are, Jesus tells a parable.

10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

Jesus tells us that the humble are those who, like the tax collector, forsake all their self-righteousness and cling only to God through Jesus. They are those who consider themselves unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness. Who beat their chest and mourn and grieve over their sin. Who don’t think that by their good works they can somehow put God in debt. Who don’t think they deserve eternal life, but they flee to Jesus to be saved.

The proud on the other hand are like that Pharisee who boast in their own righteousness, who boast in their good deeds, charity, morality, manners, religiosity. The proud think that they deserve eternal life because of their good deeds. They say to themselves, didn’t I give thousands of dollars to charity, Didn’t I volunteer endlessly surely God will give me eternal life. I am a good person anyways. But we know from the parable: the Pharisee didn’t get justified, but instead, the humble man who beats his chest and clings only to God is justified.

So we who have put our hope in God through Christ and not in our own righteousness. We are the poor, the hungry that the Magnificat talks about.

If we are the poor that Mary sings about then what is promised for us? What hope do we have in God? What’s in store for us who cling to God and shun our self-righteousness. The text says that God will lift us up, satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst. Later in the Gospel Jesus expounds on this when he says, ‘Happy are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Happy are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Happy are you who weep now for you will laugh (Luke 6:20-21)

But what does it mean? How will we be filled and satisfied? The book of Revelation describes our future in these glorious words, “he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, ‘nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7: 16-17)

We will live under God’s presence, where there is fullness of joy. All the suffering will pass away. He will wipe away every tear of sadness from our eyes and put his joy in you. This is how we will be filled. This is the great hope that Mary sings about. This is the great hope that we long for in this time of advent. This hope is for the humble who forsake their own self-righteousness and cling only to Jesus. Who put their trust not in their charity, their good works, their religiosity, their tithes, their status or anything else. Instead they cling only to Jesus.

Come Lord Jesus.

Book Review: The Unsaved Christian

unsaved-christian

“If good people go to heaven, why did Jesus die? Is anything more confusing than a savior dying for people who really didn’t need saving?” 

The Unsaved Christian, Dean Inserra

Two weeks ago, our Church organised a public Christmas carol singing event. I was pleasantly flabbergasted to see the large crowd that turned up to sing carols. It made me ponder and ask questions. Were they all Christians? Probably not. Did they come back to Church next week? No. If that’s the case then how can I reach these ‘ carols only’ Christians?

This compelled me to pick up a copy of The Unsaved Christian by Dean Inserra. This book clearly explains, expounds and deciphers the complex phenomenon of ‘cultural Christianity’. That is to say, it humbly and carefully diagnoses the disease of nominal Christianity and attentively prescribes habits/actions that can help cure this deadly epidemic. It simply is a useful pilgrim’s guide for the intricate world of nominal Christianity.

So, like me, if you are puzzled about the phenomenon of ‘cultural Christianity’, if you want to help share the gospel with ‘good people‘, if you want to trespass the common barriers of nominal Christianity,  this book is definitely for you.  

One of the strengths of this book is that it skips theological and philosophical jargon. In other words, often, cultural exegesis books are filled with terms that are not helpful for a general audience. This book, however, is accessible for those in both the pew and pulpit. Highly recommended!


I thank Moody Publishers for providing me with an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Reformed Preaching

reformed-preaching

The Centrality Of Preaching

Preaching the Word of God is the central task of every Christian minister.  Christ himself commissioned his ministers to feed Christ’s flock with the delicious life-giving food of God’s Word. Faith comes through hearing the Word of God. People are convicted, encouraged, rebuked, comforted, built up and matured by the means of the Scriptures. One cannot overstate the importance of preaching. Without faithful preaching, the Church ceases to exist. On account of these realites, teaching people to preach is an indispensable task.

What is ‘Reformed Preaching’ about?

This is the clear aim of Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke. The author’s burden is to train his readers in ‘proclaiming God’s word from the heart of the preacher to the heart of his people’. However, this is not your ordinary ‘How-to’ book. Unlike many contemporary approaches, pragmatism, new psychological or rhetorical tricks are not the motivators of this book. Instead, Beeke grounds this book in the rich heritage of Reformed preaching. Like a skilful archaeologist,  he carefully digs into the past to recover fundamental truths about the forgotten art of preaching. He invites us to journey with him, to see for ourselves what true reformed preaching ought to be.  

Reformed Preaching  is chunked into three sections. The first part lays the foundation by attentively clarifying the aims of this book. It skilfully paints a portrait of ‘The Experiential Preacher’. The second part is the meatiest and largest section of the book. It shows us what ‘experiential preaching’ looks like. Here, Beeke acts as a Museum guide by slowly taking us through the lives and pulpits of Reformed Giants like Calvin, Goodwin, Bunyan, Edwards, and Lloyd-Jones. He aptly tells us about their preaching styles, habits and processes in such a way that readers feel like close acquaintances of these great men. The final part of the book steers to ‘preaching experientially today’. After carefully taking us through the lives of experiential preachers, Beeke methodologically deduces principles which can be effective in our world. In essence, he tells us what it means to be an experiential preacher today.  

Possible Audiences?

While the assumed audience for this book is ministers who preach regularly, Beeke encourages and welcomes lay readers to use this book. He writes in such a way that both a lay and ordained audience can easily understand and benefit. In other words, readability is certainly a great strength of this book. 

My View?

This book has challenged and encouraged me in many ways. It has made me confess many times that I am not a good experiential preacher and I have a long way to go. But it didn’t leave me in that discouraging and dark place, but like a good friend, it spurred me on to continue to pursue godliness and faithfulness in ministry. I am challenged to preach more earnestly, with gravity,  zeal and passion that communicates God’s glory to his people, for their joy.   

In my view, Reformed Preaching is a necessary and important book that every pastor should read carefully. Strongly recommended.


I thank Crossway Publishers for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pastors, Read Poetry

poetry

Eugene Peterson, In his book The Contemplative Pastor makes a fascinating observation. He says, “Isn’t it interesting that all of the biblical prophets and psalmists were poets?” [1] Indeed, this is interesting. 

If all the biblical prophets and psalmists were in some sense poets, why is it that only a few handfuls of pastors today are interested in poetry? Have we lost this gift of the Spirit (Eph 5:19)? Why aren’t we interested in poetry?

We Have a Great Poetic Heritage

The God of the Bible is the source of all excellent poetry. An observant eye can see this just by glancing at His inspired book,  the Bible. Surprisingly, one-third of Scriptures is poetic in nature. This includes books like Job, Psalms, Lamentations, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon that strictly follow the genre of poetry. However, it also includes both the Old Testament prophetic books, as well as many New Testament narratives, that are filled with psalms, hymns, songs, and imaginative and evocative language. In other words, the Lord, who reveals himself in His inspired word, is a poet. 

Church history is full of pastors who were poets. We can see poetic craft in the early church liturgies. St John Chrysostom’s divine liturgy knows no competition in its beauty, theology and creativity. Or consider Dante and his Divine Comedy, Charles Wesley and his marvellous hymns, George Herbert and his heart-warming, Christ-centred poetry, or John Milton or C. S. Lewis. The list goes on and on. The point is this: we have a great heritage of God-exulting poetry. So why have we abandoned it?

Poetry Is Good For Your Ministry

We Reformed believers firmly hold that the essence of Christian ministry is preaching of the word of God. This is at the heart of our calling as ministers.  But what does poetry have to do with preaching? Much in every way! 

1. Poetry is an essential tool for language 

Firstly, as preachers we use language. Preaching without language is simply not possible. Since language is a prerequisite for preaching, language must be learnt well in order to preach well. Poetry is that schoolmaster which teaches us language. It teaches us the way to express and expound the deep truths from the wells of scriptures that mere propositional declarations aren’t able to.

2. Poetry is a key ingredient in evoking passions

Secondly, preaching to the heart requires us to use language which evokes the passions. For example, in 1 Peter 5:8, the apostle could have said, ‘Your enemy is after you, so be alert.’ But he says, ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’. Why does he use poetic language? Answer: To grip the hearts of his readers, to inflame their hearts.  Preachers of God’s word are called to preach to the heart (passions and affections), and not just the mind. Poetry can serve as a faithful handmaiden in achieving this purpose.

3. Poetry speaks to the imagination 

Thirdly, preachers are appointed by God to speak to the congregation from his word. This happens through exegesis and application, that is, opening God’s word with people, helping them to understand it, and applying it to their lives. This application takes a lot of imagination. It requires that we preachers enter into the lives of our hearers and survey the landscape to see where the flowers of righteousness have been planted and where thorns of evil still exist. Without imagination, the application of any sermon would be bland and tasteless.  

Given that we have a great poetic heritage in both Scripture and Church history, and that poetry is helpful for preaching, let’s grab hold of this ancient treasure. It is a gift from the Holy Spirit for the good of our people, and the joy of our hearts. Let’s use it!  


[1]Quote is taken from Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1993), 155.