Pursuing Justice: A Book Review

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Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Pursuing Justice: the call to live and die for bigger things by Ken Wytsma with D.R. Jacobsen agitates the consumeristic American status quo, showing us how to move toward tangible expressions of dying to self to benefit others for God’s glory. It’s not for readers who prefer to compartmentalize their lives so that their involvement in justice does not conflict with their desire for comfort. Or, maybe it is… Maybe this book is the right prescription to break comfortable hearts and captivate imaginations so that we will get a glimpse–albeit veiled–of what God hears, what God sees, what God is about around the globe and close to home.

Reader beware: this volume is not the typical social justice fare. There is not a comprehensive list of social injustices around the world. Nor are there definitive solutions for the problems the author does address, some of which are not well known. Instead, he seeks to inspire and challenge readers to become more aware of social justice issues which may be glaring at them in their sociological blind spots, something which most of us have.

The author has done his research. From first hand experiences and interviews to extensively documented narratives, both domestic and international, Wytsma weaves a simultaneously heart-breaking and joyful web of stories.

But he doesn’t stop there. He infuses into the narrative theological, sociological, historical, philosophical, and ecclesial depth. Pursuing Justice is a serious, weighty book on one hand, and a heart-compelling work of compassion and inspiration on the other. Truly, it is an enjoyable read with potentially dissonant consequences for future prospects of comfortable living inoculated from the messiness of human suffering. Although it is not a comprehensive text book, colleges would be served well by adding it to their reading lists in relevant courses.

It would have been easier for me if I had not read Pursuing Justice. Now I feel convicted to examine the motives and content of some of my prayers. On page 188 he reflects on the contrast between the prayer lives of two teen girls, the first in a wealthy American home, praying for a new car; the second crying alone in a brothel, enslaved in the sex trade, praying to God for help. He then writes

“I was shocked to realize that my prayers, that I’d always thought of as spiritual, might in fact be discordant noise in the mind of God, who is attuned to the urgent pleas of the vulnerable– my requests in one ear, their cries in the other.”

Rather than picking a ideological slant and demonizing the political, religious, and philosophical enemy, Wytsma helps us navigate the consequences of ideas, acknowledging strengths and weaknesses within conservatism and liberal progressivism. Conservatives will be happy to know that he writes from a strong theologically and biblically evangelical perspective. Liberals will be happy to know that he breaks new ground in the social justice conversation, not least by offering a robust, cutting edge treatment of the topic which honors social justice pioneers, but also captures the imagination of the growing numbers of conservatives who are gaining a fresh perspective on what it means to take up our cross to follow Jesus. Wytsma writes, “That’s one of the lessons about living and dying for bigger things: the call to give your life away is more about the small and faithful over many years than the grand and exciting” (p.144).

Lest any evangelical reader have any lingering doubts about purchasing a book devoted to justice, let me assure you that he does treat the connection between the gospel and justice. It is a thorough, constructive, and redemptive study which embeds the entire volume within the rubric of the nativity, the cross, and the empty tomb, reminding us that God intervened on our behalf as an act of justice. He now calls us to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed all around the world, and right where we live daily.

Question is: will you?

Will I?

Come, let’s take up our cross and follow Jesus, learning to live and die for bigger things. But be advised, this isn’t some pie-in-the-sky guilt trip to motivate people to tackle projects exceeding the scope of realism or God’s call on their lives. It is, on the other hand, a prompt to become alert to how our daily choices affect others, and to engage in helping others where God leads us, whether close to home or on another continent.

I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Opinions here are my own.

Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation

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Ed Stetzer makes an important contribution to the conversation on missional living and spirituality with his book, Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation. While numerous books on the market point to the problems of the church (especially the conservative evangelical stream) and its leaders in ways that are hurtful, Stetzer navigates a balance of confessing problem areas while offering a redemptive–indeed, subversive–way forward.

The book is divided into three parts: 1. A subversive way of thinking, which makes an eloquent case for rebelling against rebellion; 2. A subversive way of life, a section particularly helpful with its focus on eliminating personal idols and learning to seek reconciliation with others; and 3. A subversive plan of action wherein the church is called to join God on his mission, which is to bring glory to himself by creating a kingdom and saving people through the gospel for his glory.

On page 21, Stetzer summarizes his call to subversive action as follows: it “is sharing and showing the good news of Jesus. That’s really subversive!” I whole-heartedly concur. My only quibble is that in reference to people possibly taking this language out of context and objecting to it, he frets the hypothetical headline on “some blog site run by a guy who lives in his mother’s basement: ‘Stetzer calls for subversive agents of world conquest'” (p.21). While I understand his preemptive comment, I think he would have been better served using more charitable terminology, rather than the oft-used mother’s basement phrasing.

Writing from a deep background of missiology, church planting, missionary endeavor, and growing self-aware humanity, Stetzer leverages theological and social scientific rigor against the counterweight of pastoral concern and candid observations on his own personal struggles to produce a work worthy of broad attention. An anecdote relating to personal conflict between him and Thom Rainer is likely the most potent example. It led seemingly to irreparable damage in the relationship, but by God’s grace, was later healed. Indeed, they are once again work colleagues at Lifeway Resources.

Subversive Kingdom, therefore, speaks of heart matters of a personal nature as well as broad-sweeping themes of culture, mission, and the church. Stetzer rightly encourages social engagement, but not at the expense of gospel proclamation. For indeed, the gospel must be heard to be believed, and believers ought to be engaged redemptively with their communities, both in word and acts of compassion.

Church leaders from all points on the theological dial will do well to read Subversive Kingdom. Stetzer’s tone is characteristically respectful and his content is constructive. The continuing missional conversation cannot continue with honest self-reflection without seriously engaging the ideas of this book.

In the interest of candid self-disclosure, I received a complimentary soft-cover copy of this book from the author. This in no way influenced my opinion of the work. The opinions contained here are my own.

free range adult learning

You can graduate a student out of academia, but it is far harder to remove that person from a habit of life-long learning. And so it is with me. I am no longer bound by the institutional expectations of the professors who brew syllabi concoctions in their smoldering laboratories while cackling maniacally. It’s true. I am now a free range adult learner, running and jumping and letting the wind whip through my receding hairline as I forage familiar and foreign jungles of knowledge. To wit, I delight in returning to familiar favorites such as linguistics, various dead languages, philosophy, and textual criticism. Yet, I also enjoy exploring new fields where I am gaining opportunities to encourage others, such as copy editing, coaching, and crafting a good story.

Much of my time in recent months has been spent reading about the writing craft and continuing to read the best authors in the spy thriller, science fiction, and fantasy genres. But I now have on my desk four very different non-fiction books which will occupy my attention for the remainder of the summer.

The first is the English translation of Cours de Linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics). Reconstructed from the notes of Ferdinand de Saussure’s students after his death in 1913, the resulting book was then translated into English in 1983 and reprinted numerous times, most recently in 2009, by Open Court Classics. Saussure is important because he was the father of Structuralism, which of course, has since been applied to many disciplines, not least art, economics, literary criticism, and philosophy. Given that ideas have consequences, it is instructive to study primary sources which are seminal influences upon later streams of thought currently impacting our culture.

The second book is Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures (1988) by Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT. Occasionally it is instructive to read the work of thinkers with whom I strongly disagree. Chomsky is a good example of this principle. Here he shares his thoughts on linguistics and epistemology with an emphasis on his ardent political disposition.

The third book is Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Eerdmans 1964; rev Hendrickson 1995; reprint 2007) by J. Harold Greenlee. This is an informative basic introduction to NT text criticism. As someone with high level experience in the discipline under the tutelage of the late Rev. Dr. Anthony Casurella, it is a heart warming homecoming to dive again into the intricacies of this exciting and important field of research.

The fourth book is a guilty pleasure, The Classical Music Experience, 2nd ed, by Julius H. Jacobson II, M.D. By purchasing the book, I gained online access to more than forty hours of classical music from the world’s greatest composers, according to the author. Having listened to a few selections already, I am inclined to agree.

Interacting with MissionSHIFT Part 3: The Future of Evangelicals in Mission by Ralph Winter

Although the late Ralph Winter apparently does not adhere to the intended focus of his assignment, which was to predict the future of Evangelicals in Mission, he certainly lays down the gauntlet for his personal wishes concerning this critically important aspect of evangelicalism. By reaching selectively and provocatively into America’s brief history with a view toward highlighting the interaction of First and Second Inheritance Evangelicalism with the broader culture (particularly spiritual renewal, politics, and war), Winter lays a foundation for ongoing conversation and debate. Indeed, he stirs the pot, evoking passionate responses from his responders.  

In essence, he calls for a holistic mission that dispels the notion of having to choose between social relief efforts or gospel proclamation. Instead, he cites their mutual importance with gospel proclamation having primacy. On the face of it, I would expect that should not be offensive either to socially conscious Christian activists or their more conservative counterparts who emphasize personal decisions regarding faith and eternity.  But that is not the whole of it. Conservatives raise some grave concerns. Continue reading

The Gospel In Human Contexts: A Brief Conversation With Paul G. Hiebert & His Responders

In essay 2 of MissionSHIFT, the late Paul G. Hiebert wrote what would be his final published article entitled The Gospel in Human Contexts: Changing Perceptions of Contextualization. Five people responded to him: Michael Pocock, Darrell L. Whiteman, Avery Willis, Norman L. Geisler, and Ed Stetzer. I will say now that there is far too much material for me to attempt to review fully the essay and its responses in this single post. Therefore, I strongly urge interested readers to purchase the book to read the section for yourselves. In this post, I would like to interact briefly with Drs. Geisler and Stetzer in relation to how they perceive Hiebert, for they cut to the heart of the problem which contextualization presents to those who engage in mission cross-culturally.

At the start of his response, Geisler lists a number of points of agreement  with Hiebert. Yet, the list feels like a good news/bad news set up, with the bad news far outstripping any memory of the good. For starters, he takes Heibert to task concerning his views of Scripture, calling into question his orthodoxy as an evangelical. He writes that Heibert “fails to note that the Bible is an infallible and inerrant written revelation from God.” He further states, “In short, he does not affirm that the Bible is the written Word of God.” This simply isn’t true, as it was not Heibert’s task in the essay to write a systematic theology; his task was to deal with the gospel in human contexts, and the limits of space and the scope of this project did not allow for unlimited theological caveats which would satisfy western conservative apologists who hold to Aristotelian formulaic logic.

I am thankful for Stetzer’s gracious and intelligent response to Geisler.  He provides a probing analysis of the disconnect between Geisler and Heibert, highlighting for us that this is a prime example of worldview differences. In light of this interchange, it seems apparent to me that Geisler seems to lack self-awareness of his own reliance on his own worldview assumptions which he inhabits unselfconsciously. While I would identify with a great many of Geisler’s conservative views (although as a charismatic, I doubt I am conservative enough for his taste, based on comments he made in the footnotes), I take issue with his response to Heibert in this volume.

I will not try to reduplicate Stetzer’s effort here, although I do have a few questions for Geisler. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances from various spiritual backgrounds, many of them non-Christian. There are athiests, agnostics, Muslims, Bhuddists, and so on, plus a wide variety of people from various streams of Christianity. Many of them are deeply influenced by post-modern thought, particularly those who are from more liberal faith traditions. What am I supposed to do as I engage my friends in conversation who do not follow Jesus? Start a theological rumble with them using Aristotelian formulaic logic in order to prove their views wrong and my conservative truth claims correct? Is my role to convince them to subscribe to a pre-approved doctrinal statement before it can be said they believe in a way that satisfies an evangelical panel of experts?

Geisler criticizes Heibert, saying “he rejects the approach that ‘other theologies and religions are false and must be attacked (136).'” He then goes on to say,”But if Christianity is true and by the law of noncontradiction the opposite of true is false, then why should one not oppose what is false and is thereby opposed to the truth (136).” I quote below the full context of Hiebert’s statement as I believe it will speak for itself in response.

Theological positivism holds that our central concern is truth and that our theology corresponds one-to-one to Scripture. Other theologies and religions are false and must be attacked. We are concerned with truth and define it in rational terms. We divorce it from feelings and values because these undermine the objectivity of the truth. Our concern is that people believe the truth of the gospel because that determines whether they are saved. We define the truth in prepostional terms and seek to transmit it unchanged. We see ourselves as God’s lawyers, and we put our trust in experts who have studied Scripture deeply.

Finally, we (positivists) see the gospel as acultural and ahistorical. It is unchanging and universal and can be codified in abstract rational terms and communicated in all languages without loss of meaning. The sociocultural contexts of neither the listeners nor the messengers need to be taken into account (87). 

So, I am left to continue to wonder. How do I engage mission in my multi-cultural daily life? To attempt a positivistic attack  on the views of my friends using the Aristotelian laws of argument would destroy those relationships. It would be a bait and switch, indicating my desire to share a meal or enjoy their company was based solely on my secret motive to convert them to my belief system. They would feel betrayed, and rightly so.

My most conservative friends might get offended by this, but I choose another path. I am going to befriend folks who don’t know Jesus, but I will continue to do so without an agenda. Whether or not they ever choose to believe, I will be their friend. God has been faithful throughout my life to bring people to me who ask of the hope which he has deposited in me. And when they do ask, I share in my own way, using Scripture memorized and stories of what God has done in my life. I do not go so far as some of my missional friends as to avoid any presentation of the gospel. But I do allow such conversations to flow out of authentic relationships, rather than agenda-driven encounters and relationships. It is the stuff of disciple-making. It is probably also enough to brand me as theologically wanting in the eyes of some of my conservative colleagues. That’s okay. The conservatives in Jesus’ day did the same thing, and he had some choice words for them, too.

MISSIONSHIFT: The Conversation Begins on January 17

On January 17, a conversation will begin on a constellation of blogs–centered around Ed Stetzer’s blog, www.edstetzer.com— about the ideas presented in the book MissionSHIFT: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium. With essays “written by three of the foremost missiologists of our time” (Charles Van Engen, the late Paul Hiebert, and the late Ralph Winter), this volume promises to offer fertile soil for vigorous engagement. The volume also features responses to the articles by numerous other missiological practitioners and thinkers, not least Drs Ed Stetzer and David J. Hesselgrave, editors.

I just received my complimentary review copy about an hour ago. I am not being compensated for any opinions I share here or in forthcoming posts. Nor will the complimentary copy influence me to color my opinions favorably. I will commence reading the first section immediately and then, along with a number of other bloggers, we will post our initial responses on our respective blogs on Monday, January 17. We also will post links to our contributions on www.edstetzer.com at the appropriate post, along with key excerpts from our responses. The conversation will continue through February. I encourage you to buy the book at the retailer of your choice. If you have any interest in Christian missions, domestic or global, then you will want to check out this important contribution to missiology.

Church Unique: An Early Glimpse

Last night I began reading Will Mancini’s book Church Unique. I became familiar with Mr. Mancini through his twitter postings. In the early pages I quickly have become impressed with his awareness of the consulting world, not least his acknowledgement of the contributions of Lyle Schaller, author of over 40 books addressing church growth, church health, and consulting.

Two things have captured my imagination in the early going as I work my way through Church Unique. Continue reading