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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

book report: God's Battalions by Rodney Stark (2009)

The Crusades are complicated. Rodney Stark tries to simplify things too much. His book, God's Battalions, The Case for the Crusades, is polemical and, at times, strident. He chops with a dull ax, which is not to say that the book is worthless, it lacks nuance. He makes overreaching assertionsCover of Cover via Amazon that aren't always supported by the very facts he presents. If Saladin was such a slime ball, then why do so many historians find noble things to say him that he can't? Saladin, like any human being, is a complicated entity. If you want a black and white story on the Crusades that supports your simplistic beliefs about them, this is the book for you. If you, like me, are trying to understand the history of the Crusades, this is a first, shallow step into the deep pool of this history. But don't stop at this step, keep reading the works of other historians.
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Monday, May 30, 2011

book report: Two Wars by Nate Self (2008)

I downloaded this when it was free for the Kindle, and it was much more than I bargained for. It was like a peanut M&M, sweet chocolate on the outside and something healthy to chew on inside. I sat down for a good read about army life in Afghanistan, for which I was richly rewarded, but after the story of his involvement in the day long firefight in Afghanistan with ambushing Al Queda on Robert's Ridge, I bit into a the more intense story of his PTSD upon return to civilian life.

I really enjoyed reading about his training as an Army Officer at West Point. I really enjoyed learning about his Ranger training. I learned about military life in Bosnia and Afghanistan. His descriptions of the battle on the mountain top known as Takur Ghar brought me on the ground with him and his squad. He served in Iraq also, but that was when PTSD started it's depressing effects on him. He retired from military life but couldn't adjust to civilian life. He knew he was destroying his marriage and family but he couldn't stop himself. Recovery did not come quick or easy, but his wife didn't give up on him, the smoldering wick of faith he had slowly came back to flame. He is still adjusting and recovering, but now he is in a place where he wants to help his brothers and sisters in arms recover as well, and recover better than he did. It's an intense story of one man's life. It's worth a read this Memorial Day as well. Thank you to all those who are serving, or have served our country in harm's way. To those who have lost sons, brothers, daughters, sisters, mothers, and fathers for the protection of our country, thank you.



There is a National Geographic special on this at You Tube in 5 parts. This is part 1.


There is also a longer NBC news special that can be found on Hulu, Rescue on Robert's Ridge.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

book report: Aftershock by Kent Annan (2011)

I brought this book along with me on vacation, but I'm an abnormal person. This is not light beach reading. This book is about a wrestling match between the author and God. It's not a flashy, staged, professional wrestling match with a certain outcome, but more of an amateur match, at the high school level. This is not an insult of Kent Annan's writing, but, if you've ever been to some of those high school matches, an analogy to the long and drawn out contests between kids who are evenly matched and make slow progress. If I may reach for a Biblical metaphor, this is like Jacob's long night of wrestling with God, from which he emerged, crippled but with a stronger faith (see Genesis 32).

The earthquake in Haiti, which killed his friends, yet also enabled others to fly to the US for expert medical care, and destroyed his friends' homes and churches, and fractured families, fractured his faith and crippled his soul. He found solace in the blues catalog of the Bible, the Psalms, Psalm 13 in particular. In the Psalms he finds freedom to complain to God. Sometimes his sentences are clipped, coming in gasps of pain and anger and frustration. Sometimes he writes with hope. He learns from the Haitians, who worship more intensely after the quake. While he brings physical aid, they bring aid to his soul by their deep faith. What he learns about faith has helped me. He writes,
Faith like this is a kind of following, and following is, of course, trying to get closer to something or someone (or at least trying not to fall any farther behind). I can follow Jesus even if he sometimes seems elusive or disappears over a mound of rubble. Faith that doesn't keep seeking dies, and the distance between God and us seems to expand. If I still have a measure of hope and gratitude, I can follow, though I'm full of fear or doubt, though I'm angry or disappointed. p.96
This is a short book, but a not a shallow one. It's not for those who fear an honest wrestling with God, that sometimes loses perspective, because the view is so close, and all that can be known is the stink of sweat and the grunts of pain. This book is also for those who want to help Haitians, as he is donating all his proceeds to Haitian Partners.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

what i learned from this year's Lenten fast

Observing Lent is a new thing for this low-class, evangelical Protestant. It's a novelty to me. I didn't grow up with it. The most suffering I ever did before Easter was a sunrise service I was brought to as a child. However, a few years ago I started experimenting with Lent. One year I abstained from meat and I didn't resume it for a year and a half, instead of 6 1/2 weeks. Another year I abstained from alcohol for Lent. But this year, after reading McKnight's book on Fasting, see the book report, I started practicing the twice-weekly fasts. Wednesdays and Fridays, of the ancient church, referred to as early as the Didache, see that book report. McKnight wrote about the difference between abstention and fasting. Physically, I agree there's no pain like hunger. Abstaining from chocolate or beer is an abstention from pleasure, but fasting is a journey into pain.

I wanted to fast for Lent to remind myself, just a tiny bit, of the suffering of Jesus for my salvation. As he journeyed into pain, knowing his torture and execution awaited him, I sought a journey into a little bit of pain as well.

The twice weekly fasts I practice throughout the year are breakfast and lunch free, but dinner is included. I'm not beholden to any tradition, because I come from one without such traditions, so I'm learning by doing. I figured I could do a 40 day fast when I learned more about what was expected, and not eating for 40 days straight is not expected. I learned from the Roman Catholics that skipping two meals a day, 5 or 6 days a week, is expected. I ate 3 meals a day on the weekends, and dinner on the weekdays. I didn't drink any alcohol for all of Lent. That was an abstention from pleasure. There was no suffering involved in that aspect. Going meatless is expected as well, but I didn't do that. I did get hungry so in the evenings I ate too much GORP (with chocolate chips and craisins). I still maintained my bicycle commuting.

Physically, I was hungry and I did suffer a bit. Whenever I felt whingy I thought of the Haitians I worked with last year, who would work all day with only one meal in their stomachs from the night before. I did keep some sugar in my bloodstream: a cup of OJ in the morning, a packet of sugar in my tea at lunch, and a hot cocoa or gatorade before my bike ride home. The first week was hard and the last week was really hard. By the fifth week, I thought I had fully adapted. I wasn't suffering much. My body was adapting to the new normal, but in the last week, it was tired of adapting. At the end of it, I had lost 10 pounds, about a pound and a half a week. It's nice to eat breakfast again. It's nice to have some lunch. It's still not easy for those twice weekly fasts. Hunger is so primal. Skipping Facebook or Budweiser for Lent are certainly good things, but let me tell you, from one clueless guy to another, fasting from food is so different.

Spiritually, I don't know what happened. I don't think my prayers worked better. I don't think I read the Bible with new eyes. I do think I learned a little bit more about my Savior's suffering for me. Maybe I do understand Paul's metaphor of a soldier better. He tells Timothy, 3 Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 And as Christ's soldier, do not let yourself become tied up in the affairs of this life, for then you cannot satisfy the one who has enlisted you in his army. 2 Timothy 2. In his letter to the Corinthian church he uses the metaphor of an athlete, 25 All athletes practice strict self-control. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. 26 So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step. I am not like a boxer who misses his punches. 27 I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9. I will journey into suffering by running ever longer distances that I might participate in a race here on earth. Seeking out suffering by fasting is something Jesus expected. This Lent was a good way for me to embrace that.

I encourage every disciple of Jesus to begin the journey of fasting. Skip a meal once a week. Make it a habit. In a year, I'll see if I'm still in the habit of fasting twice a week. I'll see if I'm a better "athlete" or "soldier" than I am right now. I don't expect to receive a cape falling out of heaven for me to wear, nor do I expect a TV healing ministry, but I hope for less entanglement with the three weeds of all humanity, according to the Apostle John, lust, materialism and pride, which he speaks of more poetically in his first letter, For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. 1 John 2:16.
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Monday, May 09, 2011

book report: The Teaching of the Twelve by Tony Jones (2009)

Early on in Christendom, the Didache was esteemed as holy scripture by some churches and early leaders after the apostolic age, but was eventually kicked out of the canon. I appreciate the efforts of Tony Jones to bring to the Christian reading audience an old book to complement their efforts to worship God rightly, especially in their lifestyles with his book, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. I found out it was on sale in the Kindle store for under a dollar and grabbed it.

The text itself is uncomplicated. It is brief and speaks simply. There is not much nuance. I appreciated some of these verses.

1:6 Let your alms sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give them.

2:2 you shall not murder a child, whether it be born or unborn

2:7 Hate no one; correct some, pray for others, and some you should love more than your own life.

3:3 My child, don’t be lustful, for lust leads to illicit sex. Don’t be a filthy talker or allow your eyes a free reign, for these lead to adultery.

4:5 Do not be one who opens his hands to receive, or closes them when it is time to give.
4:6 If you have anything, by your hands you should give ransom for your sins.
4:7 Do not hesitate to give, and do not complain about it. You will know in time who is the good Rewarder.
4:8 Do not turn away from one who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!

With such direct statements, what is Jones to do with it? He finds a fellowship of believers who try to use the Didache as a way to live, and shares the perspective of one of their teachers, Trucker Frank.

Despite the apparent simplicity, Jones is very good at turning over stones and finding complexity. He reflects on the verse from 2:7 noted above,
Instead, correct them, pray for them, and some, love with a love that you didn’t even know you had. What the Didache doesn’t say is that the community should shun or excommunicate those who commit the forbidden sins. In fact, “correct some, pray for others, and some you should love more than your own life” makes plain that the worst sinners should be showered with the most love. The obvious parallel comes from Matthew 18, in which Jesus instructs his disciples that in their group, one who sins should first be confronted by an individual, then by the community leaders, and ultimately by the entire community. If the sinner refuses to abandon the unrighteous behavior, Jesus teaches, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” While that sentence has long been used to ostracize sinners from the church, if we take a minute to think about how Jesus treated tax-collectors and sinners, it becomes clear that Jesus was not advocating excommunication but rather hospitality toward the sinner. “Hate no one” is the guiding premise of the community; their tag line; their mission statement. That, says Trucker Frank, is the heart of God on paper.
I can agree with Frank and Jones but I feel more dimension is needed to understand this. Jones posits that this document was written without knowledge of Paul's works. But Trucker Frank and Jones know Paul's writing on excommunication, also, I've written before about whether Matthew 18 even has anything to do with excommunication. I'm perplexed at why Frank's community does not apply the rest of the New Testament and falls back to the Didache as the final authority. That seems backward. Perhaps they don't, but I don't learn from Jones either way. Which is one of the difficulties with this commentary by Jones. Is it a commentary on Trucker Frank's community or on the Didache?

Tracker Frank points out to Jones that the Didache community seem to have a focus on living instead of knowing. But as Jones's book points out, it's hard to live without knowing. Self-contradictory statement reduce the seriousness that I can give to Trucker Frank. Is he making it up as he goes along? It seems to me that the Didache is very much like James, a practical guide for Christian living. But if one elevates the Didache to canon, as it seems Trucker Frank's community almost does, but not any major branch of Christendom, then how do they reconcile with Paul's writings, themselves inspired by the Holy Spirit?

Jones does not answer these questions. Perhaps the answer is best left unknown for those who prefer to make it up as they go along, which is a very popular option among those in the church at large. Where is the locus of authority? The Bible? The extra-canonical writings of the Bible? The church's tradition? The church's hierarchy? Tracker Frank's community is a loose affiliation, with members who belong to a broad spectrum of the church. It's not a community of authority, because the ethic is that of doing their own thing. Hence, it's members still attach to those bodies that do claim authority. It's an interesting exercise, but, in the end, it's recreational, and not transformational over people's life times.

This book is interesting for it's sociological example, but not for it's theological input.

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

book report: Dangerous Church by John Bishop (2011)


I'm a northerner who never experienced barbecue in my youth. The closest I came to barbecue was hot dogs. Then I became a griller and tried out barbecue sauce as a young man. But I don't think I really started to appreciate real southern barbecue until a southerner opened a small restaurant a mile away. I don't really understand why the place was never successful. Perhaps because too many of my northern neighbors had no idea what they were missing. What has this to do with John Bishop's book, Dangerous Church? It's a book, that by the cover and title, seems to dry and overdone, like the first time a northener like myself would look at a meat done in a dry rub at 250 degrees for 5 hours, like the veal ribs I made this weekend. What looks like dry crust, is actually a flavorful jacket holding within tender chunks of meat that fall off the bone and almost melt in your mouth.

One of my other stereotypical faults as a Connecticut Yankee is my cynicism. The garish book cover and the opening high speed informational style of Bishop, pastor of Living Hope Church in Vancouver, WA, came across as dry and tough at first. I didn't hear his voice at first. It almost seemed like it was written by committee. So I put the book down and watched out a recent sermon online from his church. I picked the one on Heaven or Hell?, from April 24, 2011. It was given partly in response to the recent Time magazine article on Hell and Rob Bell's book. I was blown away. First of all the church band performed AC/DC's song, Highway to Hell, and performed it well. I admit I was worried. Was he too relevant to risk saying something actually risky, like Jesus did, and would he stay so contemporary that he'll inundate with platitudes and religiosity, or not. He didn't. He practically got all fire and brimstone up there. In Bishop's reading of the gospels, Jesus was telling the truth that without him, we are all on the highway to hell. I like that. I'm not saying I like that people are going to hell, but I like when an expositor does not interfere with what Jesus said. Bishop does not just offer an altar call, for those who are not saved to become born again, he offers a call to baptism, to anyone in their street clothes that morning who want to begin their new life in dramatic fashion, and people respond, in the service I watched and, according to the book, in every service, every week. They have a dunking pool in front of the stage, and clean towels for all those who did not plan, but are compelled by God to begin their new life with the all important rite for every Christian.

I came away from that viewing not only more comfortable with the ride Bishop wanted to bring me along in his book, but with his voice in my head as I read his words. I received his anecdotes, as I read them and "heard" them in his voice, without suspicion. Some illustrations were lame, but his experiences as a pastor, trying to fully follow God, were challenging and encouraging. One of my pastoral roles in our church is to baptize people. They tend to be very organized. So were Bishop's, until they lost their list of people, and just everyone who was supposed to be baptized that morning to come to the pool. They had planned for sixty, but ended up with God's plan for 300 that morning. Now the spontaneous baptisms are expected.

Towards the end of his book, I appreciated his stories of hiring staff, and his advice to hire from within the community. I can agree with that. But his Biblical examples of all the failures God used to bring his kingdom to earth were very encouraging. I also sympathized with his struggle of betrayal by a staff member and his own efforts to not defend himself, but let God prevail, which he did. The story still seems very raw. Bishop's voice came through very clearly at the end.

This is why, this book is like a good, dry-rub barbecue. It's crusty on the outside, but it's tender and nourishing on the inside, after you take a big bite. I recommend every church leader take a big bite of John Bishop's book, Dangerous Church. The chapters are short, the lessons are not complex, but the stories of Jesus's victories are heartening, even to this crusty Yankee.

I am thankful to Zondervan for a complimentary review copy.
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Thursday, May 05, 2011

why so many book reports?

When I first started blogging in 2005 my posts tended to be links to other people's posts or news. It was like Justin Taylor's blog back then, but I linked to him very much. I still do that some, usually when I come across some inexpensive or simple DIY home building website. With Google Reader, now I can share blogs that interest me, as I read them, on the top of this blog, and on Facebook.

When the political season really heated up, for the first time in this blog's life, the election cycle of 2008, I wrote repeatedly about abortion and received the most views and visitors I ever had. I find it very hard to come up with something new to say about abortion. Sometimes when I'm thrashing out a difficult position in my mind, like gay marriage, I'll throw out a bunch of posts on the topic, usually as a result of conversations I'm having with other people. I think I do a pretty good job sticking to the original theme of my blog, "My thoughts on the church, the world, and their interaction" (except when I'm talking about yurts, or underground houses, or rammed earth architecture). Lately, this blog is starting to resemble Challies, or what Challie's blog used to be, mostly book reviews. But I'm not a reformed guy like he is, so I don't have the Calvinist mafia supporting me.

But I'm not trying to be Challies. Reading is my preferred indulgence of free time. But I wanted to do more with what I read. I wanted to justify the time I spent reading, by communicating highlights from books, partly for myself, but also to help others in their research. I didn't take myself that seriously, so I didn't want to call them book "reviews." Little did I know how much traffic one could get if one titled posts, book "reports." Who knows how many kids in school have found my blog looking for a book report on Twilight. I'm sure they weren't happy with my report, though. But books also provide me with ideas to respond to. I like reacting to the authors' ideas. Sometimes, usually, I have positive things to say, and sometimes, I really disagree. It's been really neat when authors show up and leave a comment as well.

One commenter at a book report post of mine suggested I also share it on Amazon. Which I did, and kept on doing as I got books out of my local library. Then I found out about publishers giving books away to bloggers for reviews. I believe I could be a homeless guy and hold up a sign saying "will work for books." I review for Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, and Crossway now. I get to pick the books that interest me. I'd like to review for a few more, like IVP and secular publishing houses which print the historical stuff I really like. In between interesting books, I get other books, some from the library, some I buy, some I get for free or real cheap on my Kindle. My wife had to stop me from buying books years ago, because there was no room left, and the babies needed diapers. Now the babies are bookworms as well. One of my best date nights recently was a trip with my wife to Starbucks then to the local used book store, the Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut. We were on a mission to find some books for next year's home school curriculum, but I ended up with a few history books for myself on the Crusades. I love that my wife loves books enough to spend a date night looking for books. God is good to me.

I want to be a good communicator. That's why I've been in Toastmasters for 8 years. In fact, I'm an advanced communicator Gold now as well as an advanced leader Bronze (too bad that sounds like some weird $cientology thing), and this blog is to help me become a better writer in addition to being a better speaker. I have made progress over the years. I am much better at capitalizing.

If the book reports bore you, my dear reader, please check out the feeds on the top. They are usually well written and say things in a way that I can't. Otherwise, I hope some of these books sound interesting enough to pursue on your own. One of my ongoing weaknesses in public speaking and writing is my weak closings. I need to finish with some strong call to action. So, stop reading this and go read a book!
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Monday, May 02, 2011

i don't think i can join the celebration

I'm trying to follow Jesus as best as I understand him and as his Holy Spirit enables me. So when I read the Sermon on the Mount, I learn that I'm supposed to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me.
Matthew 5:38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is not an easy teaching. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't mourn when my enemy, who is God's enemy, is assassinated. I'm glad this criminal, Osama bin Laden, can't hurt anyone else anymore. He was a mass murderer. But he was killed like a pig, not as someone bearing the image of God, no matter how deformed.

It also saddens me that the means used to obtain the information necessary to find him, came from those incarcerated at Gitmo which implies torture, another insult against the image of God. But what saddens me more is that those who endorsed the torture now can see the end to prove the means.

Of course, I oppose the death penalty. But I'm not opposed to justice. Nor am I a pacifist. I will defend others with deadly force if such a situation arose. But he was surrounded by a bunch of soldiers in body armor and deadly weapons. I don't think there was much intention to extract him alive and bring him to trial.

It all saddens me.

Provebs 24:17 Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, 18 lest the LORD see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him. 19 Fret not yourself because of evildoers, and be not envious of the wicked, 20 for the evil man has no future; the lamp of the wicked will be put out.