Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review: Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Adam J. Johnson

From my Amazon and goodreads review of Adam Johnson's Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, published by Bloomsbury.

You don't have to be perplexed to benefit from this very good discussion of the atonement.  In a nut shell, Adam Johnson advocates for a comprehensive view of the atonement which focuses on how each of the attributes of the Triune God are displayed and/or satisfied in the atonement. Johnson focuses not only on the traditionally anthropocentric aspects of the atonement (aspects directly affecting humanity's sinful and lost condition) but also draws the reader to look at the creation-wide purposes and effects of Christ's atoning work. He points not only to what God is saving humanity and the whole created realm from but also what he is saving it for, both the negative and positive aspects of God's atoning work in Christ (redeeming/rescuing as well as restoring). Johnson purposefully avoids favouring one theory of the atonement over another, seeing that as a tacit favouring of one (or some) of God's attributes over others, as if certain aspects of who God is could be more important than other aspects of who he is.

Those who view penal substitutionary atonement as the one true understanding of the atonement over against all others will certainly dismay over this work. Those who view penal substitution as the commanding or central theory among many legitimate and biblical but lesser facets of the atoning work of Christ will have good reason to rethink the balance. [For example, Johnson argues that God's wrath is not an essential characteristic of God.  After all, there was a time, pre-creation and pre-sin, when this was not part of God's attributes and, as all things will one day be restored to perfection and peace, that time will come again. Wrath is a reaction of God's holiness to sin, not an actual attribute of God.]  Those who would like the church to abandon all thought of substitutionary atonement (with or without "penal") will also be dissatisfied with Johnson's treatment. He fully recognizes that Scripture speaks of Christ taking the place of sinners - substitution - and suffering the just penalty for sin. However, Johnson (if I recall correctly) prefers to steer clear of language of the Father pouring out his wrath upon or punishing Christ, favouring instead that the Father judged and punished sin in Christ while simultaneously magnifying the obedience and self-giving service of Christ.

Johnson argues ultimately that only a holistic view of the nature, character, purposes and works of God will give us a full view of what God has done in/is doing through the atonement. Toward this end, Johnson sees Christ's atoning work as not merely what he did on the cross, or even in the cross and resurrection, but what he did from incarnation to ascension and outpouring of the Spirit. This work is not that full-orbed view of the atonement that the author advocates for (its less than 200 pages of text). Indeed, such an expansive view of the atonement will continually grow as theologians expand their exploration of the eternal and inexhaustible glories of the person and works of the triune God. However, this work is a call to and a brief pattern of what the ever-expanding theological exploration into the atonement could look like.

I highly recommend this work. I hope to see more studies like this, exercises in theological maximalism, which seek not to prove one view or aspect of theology by arguing against all competitors but rather which examine the many aspects of a given point of theology from the various perspectives afforded when one considers the multifaceted nature, character, purposes and interactions of God with himself, with humanity, and with all creation.

Monday, 25 April 2016

N.D. Wilson on the virtues of scary stories for children

Monsters can give children nightmares.  Some parents will go out of their way to shield children from stories about scary things.  But children will have nightmares about monsters and goblins anyway.  Kids know, both inherently and from their (limited) experience, that there are nasty things in the world.  But the right kind of monster stories will set kids up with the tools to deal with those frightening things in the right way, and I'm not only talking about imaginary monsters, but the kind in the real world as well.  Good monster stories can give children courage and peace of mind; such stories can nurture their faith. 

Thanks to Justin Taylor for pointing out a very good article by N.D. Wilson on why the right kind of scary stories are good for children.

Here is Wilson's article in the Atlantic.

Some of our family's favourite "scary" Wilson stories are Leepike Ridge, Boys of Blur, the 100 Cupboards series, the Ashtown Burials series (still waiting for the rest to be published!), and his latest, Outlaws of Time: the Legend of Sam Miracle, is bound to be good too.

Wilson mentions some of the books that shaped him in his childhood reading, like C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  These stories have evil characters in them and frightening confrontations with darkness.  However, I agree whole-heartedly with kids reading these stories.  There are many other "dark" stories that some parents shy away from but which I think are good at imparting the very things Wilson speaks about in his article.  Some of our family's favourites are by Neil Gaiman: Coraline, and The Graveyard Book.  Certainly every parent should find out if their kids are ready for some of these darker-leaning books and I would suggest that parents should either read these tales to their children, or else read them along with their children, in order to be able to discuss the very themes Wilson talks about in his article (at least the first time the child experiences these stories).  But I most ardently advocate that these types of stories should be a regular part of a child's, and family's, reading diet. 

If you are unconvinced by Wilson's reasoning about why children should read scary or dark stories which teach them about virtue and courage and good ultimately triumphing over evil in the end, be sure to check out the blog post by Taylor mentioned above, which includes some quotes by authors arguing for the same thing.  Quotes like this one by G.K. Chesterton: 
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
                                                                                                 - The Red Angel

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Good place to start for biblical leadership wisdom

The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters, is very, very good. Most books on leadership are all about methods and management, and while the author admits those things are important and he speaks to them in this volume, Al Mohler very correctly explains that solid and effective leadership begins and ends with the leaders convictions. For leadership to truly seek and result in the success of the cause or organization being lead, that leadership must be based upon, nurtured through, and be measured against the truth-based convictions of the leader(s). If leading your organization or movement doesn't start with, persevere in and point toward firmly held convictions which are themselves based solidly in reality and in transcendental or "timeless" truths, no amount of pragmatic methods or strategic management will matter. While this book would benefit any leader at any level, it is particularly beneficial to those at the very top of their organizations and also those in some form of Christian ministry or endeavor as Mohler's biblical Christian worldview is the basis for his own firmly held convictions and comes out in all he writes. The reader benefits from Mohler's own experience as a successful leader in a few different contexts as well as from the wisdom he has gleaned from his own prodigious and varied reading. This book is (thankfully) devoid of corporate-speak, pop-culture and self-improvement jargon and is written clearly and argued plainly, making it accessible for anyone, including those for whom this is their first entry into leadership literature. This book will remain as relevant and timeless as the truths it is based upon. Very highly recommended.

(Originally reviewed on, May 20, 2014)

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Easter has come and (not) gone

The Easter season of the year of our Lord 2016 has come and gone, but the reality of Easter has not gone anywhere.  The reality of Easter has come and remained. 

What happened at the first Easter, the atoning death and triumphal resurrection of Jesus Christ, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), is a reality that we continually live within.  For those whose trust is placed in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, all of life is now lived in the transforming light of his redeeming death and restoring resurrection. 

More than this, the reality of Easter has come, has remained and is still extending.  Whenever the gospel is preached from a pulpit or from a kindness done in Christ's name, whenever a dad patiently loves his (noisy) kids at the end of an exhausting day at work in imitation of our loving and long-suffering heavenly Father, whenever a person sacrifices their own preferences and interests to put another ahead of self in imitation of Christ, whenever a mom shepherds her little (perpetually dirty) children around the home with a melody of praise to the Lord Jesus in her heart, whenever a husband, in imitation of Jesus, gives himself and his desire to be first up for his bride (and does the dishes for her when he'd rather be watching the game), whenever a wife submits to and respects her husband and models the love of church for Jesus, whenever we speak of what Christ has done for us to a neighbour or co-worker or soccer mom, whenever a child obeys their parents in the Lord, whenever an artist or a craftsman or a cook or a tradesman creates something with their God-given abilities and magnifies God's nature through their sweat and blisters and imagination, whenever a teenager refuses to cave to the pressure to live like a fool as part of the crowd and stands firm in the wisdom of God's Word, whenever someone in obedience to Jesus does not return evil for evil but loves those who persecute them, whenever someone prays for their enemy, whenever the church gathers before the elect and fallen angels and puts the unity of the body of Christ on cosmic display in our worship and our participation in the Lord's Supper......whenever any of these things happen, and much more besides, the reality of Easter is extending. 

Each act of obedience to Jesus Christ and his Word is a tiny ripple in the water of eternity, a small wave on the surface of history.  Each act of Christian love and obedience is a small death to sin and self and a choice to instead live and walk in the resurrection life of the indwelling and empowering Spirit of Christ.  The ripples began when Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.  The waves on the still surface began when Jesus rolled away the stone that sealed his tomb and cast that stone into the waters of time.  And from that moment, the waves have gone out, the concentric circles have widened, and the ripples continue to broaden, spreading the triumph of Easter to every corner of the earth and every area of human experience.  The ripples will spread by the working of the Holy Spirit, until all things are brought under the dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ, all to the glory of God the Father.  Easter will continue to send out waves until every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Physician Assisted Death and the conscience of a nation

Thanks to Tim Challies for pointing out this thoughtful response to the recent legislative moves in Canada to make Physician Assisted Dying (PAD) legal and available to suffering patients. 

There is much more to say on this issue, some of which I've said here.  The church is going to have to be aware and engaged on this issue, prepared to give an answer for why we stand against human beings dictating the time and circumstances of how to end their lives. 

Who should have the final word about when and under what conditions an individual's life ends? 

If we say, as secular humanism does, that humans are the ultimate and highest beings in the universe, then I suppose the circumstances of death is our call to make.  Of course this is the argument of those who say that it is up to the individual to decide when their life ceases to be worth living.  Unfortunately, many calling themselves Christians (especially from the liberal mainline denominations) are lending support to this perspective. 

However, a thoroughly (socially) Darwinian perspective within secular humanism would not give that decision to the sufferer themselves.  A consistent secular humanist Darwinian would likely assign the decision to the strongest members of society, those in positions of power, rather than those who, by definition, are the weakest and most vulnerable: the suffering and sick.  For now, it is the sufferer that the Canadian government says should make the decision about when to end their life.  But in a secular worldview, there is really nothing other than the inertia of current cultural acceptance and moral opinion (as well as the remnants of a lingering Christian moral ethos) holding us back from having people other than the suffering individual themselves make this decision.  Recall Nazi Germany, where the decision to end the lives of the sick, weak and handicapped was left to a state funded and supervised medical system.  It was seen and justified not only as a benefit to society as a whole (not having to expend precious resources on such sub-par, and therefore subhuman, lives) but defended as an act of mercy toward the "patient" as well. 

If, however, we are created by a sovereign God and all people are made in his image, than all people, even those who are suffering or handicapped, have value.  And if God is always working out his redemptive purposes in human history, which includes his working in the lives of every particular individual, this puts the this question in a very different light.  This means that human suffering is not arbitrary and meaningless or that those who suffer are less important or less fully human or less capable of contributing to human flourishing and interrelationship. 

In light of these (and more) considerations, we best leave matters of when a person dies in God's hands.  We better focus on relieving the suffering of the hurting, caring for the sick and dying, and ministering to the aged and infirm, and we should strive toward curing and treating disease and illness.  These are things we have specific Scriptural warrant for.  We do not have any warrant to end the lives of those who are suffering, even if it is their desire to do so, and not even if we are the ones suffering and it is our own lives we are talking about.  For we are not merely our own and we are answerable to a higher authority than ourselves.   

Friday, 8 April 2016

When connecting with people online means disconnecting from actual know, like the one who just asked you for a snack

Tony Reinke interviews Kevin Vanhoozer over at Desiring God on what it means to be a disciple of Christ in a culture of short attention spans, media spectacle, constant and global cyber-connectedness, virtual reality, gaming, and the fear of being disconnected from our virtual communities or missing out on the next big news. 

Always Connecting but Disconnected 

There are some very important observations here on  technology-related habits and patterns that all too often get an automatic pass and go completely unexamined by large numbers of Christians.  If, for example, you find yourself spending significant amounts of time reading Christian blogs, or texting, tweeting, facebooking, emailing or chat-rooming about Christian subjects online (like how to be a better, more effective Christian) instead of fellowshipping or interacting with people in the same room as you, you may be hurting yourself and your local church body far more than you are benefitting anyone you may "connect" with online.  In other words, while there is a healthy place for online Christian ministry and resources (this is a blog post linking to an online interview, after all), if it comes at a cost to our own marriages, families, neighbours or brothers and sisters in Christ in the local church - actual real life, face-to-face relationships and interaction - we may be bowing to a cultural idol rather than following a living Savior. 

Multiplayer Interactive Gaming as Anti-Social Behavior

There are also some critical cautions to parents here regarding "screen time" and in particular, gaming.  And I'm not talking about the content of what our children watch or play, but rather the formative power over time of the media and technologies they use regardless of the moral content of the applications.  Don't hear me wrong: content is important as well.  (A brief reflection on content can be found here.)  However, I would argue in the long run content is of lesser lasting importance to the formation of children's patterns of thought and life than the technologies themselves that children spend large amounts of time exposed to, even if the moral content of what they are playing or watching is "G" rated.  I would say this for the same reason I would say that children who grow up in a home where the parents are always arguing and at odds with other will be harmed and maladjusted even if the parents always use proper English and never use four-letter words when they argue.  The real (de)formative part for the children is the consistently broken relationship, the constant conflict in the parents' interaction, more than the cutting remarks themselves that the children overhear their parents yelling at each other.  We are formed by what we do, especially by what we do often because we desire doing it.  We are formed far more by the patterns and habits and time-uses of life than by what we claim to think or say we believe or by what we give mental ascent to.  Gaming, especially frequent and prolonged, can be training your child to disconnect from real life relationships in their preference for virtual characters.  And gaming can be forming them to dislike real world activities in favour of virtual accomplishments - completing the quest, getting to the next level, achieving the high score.  These are things that have no significance in this life or in the world to come and they can keep you from things that have eternal significance.  Are your kid's screen-time habits feeding or starving their eternal souls?  For that matter, what about yours and my screen-time habits?

I would encourage setting aside about 25 minutes or so to thoughtfully read and ponder this insightful piece of theological cultural engagement and critique.  Pouring yourself a good strong coffee might not be a bad idea either. 

I also humbly propose that as you read the interview with Vanhoozer, if you find yourself tempted to tweet catchy phrases or to check your email or texts part way through, or to put on a movie or video game for your kids so you can get some quiet time to read this without interruptions (from real people), you may be self-authenticating some of the key observations in this interview.  And that's not really a good thing.  If you really want to be counter cultural, read this and then get together with someone, you know, like, face-to-face, and discuss it.  Perhaps then a second cup of coffee is in order.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Review: The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, by Alan Jacobs

"Speak now or forever hold your peace," "till death do us part," "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," "the world, the flesh, and the devil." If you aren't Anglican and yet any of these phrases sound familiar, you will begin to realize how influential the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has been. A quick trip to Google will show these and more phrases which long ago became stock phrases in English conversation and which originated with the BCP.

Anything I've ever read by Alan Jacobs has been enjoyable and reading his biography of the Book of Common Prayer  was no exception. In his usual clear, informed, wise and witty prose, Jacobs takes us through the development and evolution of the BCP as well as the history of the Church of England which first birthed it and then in turn was formed by it. We meet all of the major actors and many of the colourful bit-players in this centuries-long drama. There is much solid scholarship that stands behind this work: Jacobs is familiar with each iteration of the Prayer Book as well as the authoritative studies of the subject. Something I found particularly enjoyable was Jacobs' inclusion of bits of personal conversations he had while conducting his research, conversations with people such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I confess I found my mind wandering, curious if Jacobs and Williams perhaps talked a bit about C.S. Lewis on the side, seeing as they have both written fine books about Lewis and Narnia (Jacobs here and Williams here).

Having been in the Anglican Church of Canada in the past, our family is familiar with both the Prayer Book services and those of the Alternative Book of Services. It was therefore of personal interest to learn more about how the "high" and "low" services came to be. But even for those with no previous personal connection, this entry in Princeton University Press's Lives of Great Religious Books series richly repays the read.

If you ever find yourself in the market for a home, it is an eye opening experience to be taken through the same home first by a realtor and then by the people that have lived in the home for the last 40 years. The realtor can point to a small gouge in the hardwood or a hole in the wall (or perhaps hang a picture in front of it so you don't see it) but the longtime owner might half apologetically, half affectionately point to that same blemish and tell you a story about how it first happened and why it's never been repaired. Jacobs certainly knows the BCP, but he is no mere professional guide. He also knows the ins-and-outs of the BCP from his own experience in the Anglican Church, both through corporate worship and personal devotion. He spends only a little time in scattered places telling us directly of his personal experience with the BCP, but the tone of the whole book is made richer by his relationship with it. For sympathetic and open readers, this tone projects (not overbearingly) a sense that Jacobs is introducing us to one of his closest friends, one who is somewhat quirky but whom Jacobs knows will enrich our lives if we will only make the effort to spend time with them. This doesn't mean Jacobs closes a blind eye to the oddities of his friend. He introduces us to these as well. However, this personal factor, as well as Jacobs' eminently readable and always enjoyable style, ensures that this is not a dry or difficult read - quite the contrary - so don't be sacred away by the fact that it is published by a university press. Also, this beautifully crafted book is a relatively quick read and has wide margins for those who like to annotate. For those who normally skip reading the end notes, let me encourage you not to in this case. Here they are more than mere reference citations, frequently giving little trips down side alleys of history or narrative, maintaining the same care for readability as the main text.

I highly recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in the history of the CoE, or in English politics from Henry VIII on, in liturgics or the reformation and subsequent broader church history, or even those who may be interested in the development of the English language in the modern era. Unlike the limited appeal of most historical works, I would also recommend this book to people who have no previous interest in any of the aforementioned areas. Jacobs is just that good at telling a story. You may have no current interest in the BCP or the CoE but you will find this an interesting story anyway largely because you will find Jacobs a great story-teller.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Conversion in Malaysia

Christianity Today reports on a landmark court case which upholds the rights of people to convert from Islam to Christianity in Malaysia.  Malaysia has two parallel governing systems:  a democratic government with constitution, administrated by secular civil and criminal courts, and the Shari'ah law of Islam, administrated by Shari'ah tribunals.  In a nation which constitutionally recognizes freedom of religion, the Shari'ah tribunals in practice often make it very difficult or nearly impossible for people to legally convert.