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A Young Theologian Reflects on an Incurable Cancer Diagnosis

Mar 02, 2015 | Trevin Wax

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J. Todd Billings is no stranger to long-time readers of Kingdom People. I endorsed his book Union with Christinterviewed him about that crucial doctrine. and I’ve linked to his articles over the years.

In September 2012, Todd was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer diagnosis. His book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ comes to us from the furnace of affliction, written during months of treatment, operations, hospitalization, and even quarantine. Todd describes the origin of the book:

After my diagnosis, I prayerfully immersed myself in Scripture, especially the Psalms. New biblical and theological questions were becoming urgent… I decided to honestly take on the tough theological and existential questions rather than dodge them. They are the questions that I live with. And frequently, they are the questions that other Christians who have experienced loss live with as well.

I am reading Rejoicing in Lament slowly. This is not a book to rush through and complete. It’s a book that evokes empathy and awe, praise and lamentation. To give you a taste of the book, allow me to offer a few quotes from the first chapter.

Bigger than Cancer

Rejoicing in Lament begins with a fifteen-year-old girl with Down syndrome telling Todd, “God is bigger than cancer!”

“She did not say, ‘God will cure you of this cancer,’ or ‘God will suffer with you.’ God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama – like a story that closes in the sky, envelops my whole world so that nothing else could creep in. But God’s story, the drama of God’s action in the world, was bigger.

Understanding that God’s story is bigger does not mean that the cancer diagnosis becomes any less painful or traumatic. Recognizing that God is not a debtor to anyone and that every day is a gift, not something we earn, Todd says:

Scripture does not say God owes us a long life. But paradoxically, this does not mean that we accept suffering and death with a stoic fatalism. Instead, God’s people lament.

Death and Love

Death is an enemy whose force is more powerfully perceived when it strikes us down in our prime, in an accident, or in childhood. But even when death comes to the elderly person after years of struggle, or almost as a relief after years of suffering through cancer (as was the case for my father-in-law), it is still ugly.

Beautiful is the saint who dies with hope in Christ. Ugly is the death is that stops his breath. Majestic is the Savior who breathes new life into the dead.

God has not promised to spare us from earthly death. But he has conquered it in Christ – death does not have the power to separate us from his love. In the meantime, death’s power and its limited reign are cause for lament, for complaint, for protest to the God of life.

Turning to the Psalms

Where do we turn for biblically-informed, hope-filled lament? The psalms, of course. Todd writes:

The Psalms have been my daily companion for years, but since the diagnosis, they have taken on special power. They give moments of orientation – to the promises of our Great God, our rock and our fortress. And they also cry out to God in disorientation – in pain, in confusion, in distress – as well as in joy. The cancer journey so far has already had a lot of ups and downs. And the Psalms are meeting me in those different places – or rather, God is meeting me through the Psalms.

It’s not the psalms themselves that provide comfort and expression of lament, but reading them in light of Christ:

In and through and by Jesus Christ, with whom Christians have been united by the Holy Spirit, we can praise, lament, petition, and discover that the story of our loss is not the only, or most important, story that encloses our lives. We discover that this spacious place – of living in Christ – is wide and deep enough for us to petition, to rejoice, and also join our laments to those of Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf.

Where do the psalms take us? Into the throne room of our great God, speaking His inspired words of lament and praise back to the King:

As we come to sense our role in this drama, we find that it is a path of lament and rejoicing, protest and praise, rooted in trust in the Triune God, the central actor; we can walk on this path even while the fog is thick. For God is bigger than cancer. God is bigger than death.

Rejoicing in Lament is a robust, experiential and deeply theological book of reflections on suffering and death. J. Todd Billings is suffering “well,” and his authenticity, faith, and endurance point us back to the Triune God whose victory is love.

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Worth a Look 3.2.15

Mar 02, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth4Kindle Deal of the Day: For All God’s Worth by N. T. Wright. $3.99.

Many Christians do not fully understand what “worship” means. This insightful book by N. T. Wright explores both the meaning and the results of worship.

Garrett Kell recalls a seminary class with Dr. Howard Hendricks in which they discussed four common characteristics in the lives of pastors who fell into disqualifying sin:

Prof’s study was of 246 men in full-time ministry who experienced moral failure within a two-year period of time. As far as he could discern, these full-time clergy were men who were born again followers of Jesus. Though they shared a common salvation, these men also shared a common feat of devastation; they had all, within 24 months of each other, been involved in an extra marital affair.

After interviewing each man, Dr. Hendricks compiled 4 common characteristics of their lives.

An insightful article from Patrick Deneen on the progressive liberal tradition:

There is legitimate debate over whether “progressive liberalism” constitutes a radical departure from, and even betrayal of, the basic commitments of “classical liberalism,” or whether it represents the next logical step in liberalism’s development. Both positions have merit.

Your Facebook Gender Can Now Be Anything You Want. (In other words, we are all Gnostics now.)

Facebook added a fill-in-the-blank option for gender on Thursday that lets users describe their gender identity freely.

“Now, if you do not identify with the pre-populated list of gender identities, you are able to add your own,” Facebook said in a statement.

Nicholas McDonald offers four things to consider before criticizing Christian films:

I’ve appreciated these conversations, mainly because I always like Christians putting their minds to cultural creation and artistic excellence.

That being said, I’d like to offer four gentle rejoinders to the dialogue taking place. We’d do well to mind them before offering up yet another critique of Christian films…

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Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life

Mar 01, 2015 | Trevin Wax

St._Andrew's_Church,_Bemerton,_July_2012Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
And such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light,  my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.

George Herbert

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The Redemptive Power of Forgiveness in Communist China

Feb 28, 2015 | Trevin Wax

41ub1dbO8KL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An amazing story of grace and redemption from Communist China:

One night, as Mrs. Allen was saying her nightly prayers, she suddenly noticed a man’s foot sticking out from under her bed—one of her former students had snuck into their house to steal food. Before he had time to run away, Mrs. Allen walked in. He hid under her bed, hoping to escape after she fell asleep. Mrs. Allen jumped up and screamed with fear. Scared by the noise, the thief crawled in farther.

Reverend Allen rushed in from the living room. He bent down, trying to persuade the thief to come out by saying, “You don’t have to worry. We are not reporting you to the police. I know your family is poor. Just come out and take whatever you want. I don’t care.”

The thief started crying and promised to crawl out if Reverend Allen would step away from the bed. Meanwhile, Mrs. Allen said, “My dear, I will pray for you. I will ask the Lord to forgive your sins.”

The thief answered, “No thanks, I don’t need you to pray for me. I’m not a Christian.”

After he finally got out, the thief saw something shining in Reverend Allen’s hand. Thinking it was a weapon, the thief pulled out his knife and stabbed at Reverend Allen’s thigh. It turned out Reverend Allen was holding a glass of water for the thief.

The stabbing shocked Mrs. Allen, who ran out and screamed, “Help, Help.” The neighbors heard commotion and helped catch the thief.

The next day, Reverend Allen went to the police station and bailed the thief out. He knew the poor kid was driven to burglary because of poverty. He never pressed any charges. For a while, it was big news here and spread fast in the region. People were really moved by their generosity. When people saw Reverend Allen on the street, they addressed him as a “saint.” He would wave his hands and reply in his Dali dialect, “I don’t deserve that honor.

– from God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China

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Trevin’s Seven

Feb 27, 2015 | Trevin Wax

TrevinSeven1webKindle Deal: Called to Teach by William Yount. $2.99.

1. Andy Crouch – The Gospel in an Age of Public Shame

2. Russell Moore in Touchstone - Man, Woman, and the Mystery of Christ

3. Jackson Wu – I’d Rather Be a Chicken’s Head

4. Lori McDaniel – Welcoming Foreigners Into My Home

5. A Good Assistant Pastor – Easier Said than Done

6. Carl Trueman – Congratulating Wesleyan for taking the ever-expanding list of initials used to refer to sexual identities to new heights of absurdity or sensitivity.

7. How Churches Can Protect the Poor Against Predatory Lending

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Know Your Southern Baptists: Susie Hawkins

Feb 27, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Susie HawkinsName: Susie Hawkins

Why you’ve heard of her: Hawkins is a nationally recognized speaker and writer on women’s ministry and life as a minister’s wife.

Previous:  Hawkins served as the Director of Women’s Ministry at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, TX and taught a weekly Bible study for business women in downtown.

Education: Hawkins has earned both an M.A. in Christian Leadership and an M.A. in Theology from Criswell College.

Books: Hawkins is the author of From One Ministry Wife to Another and has contributed to various publications, such as “Voices Behind the Veil.”

Why she’s important: Hawkins frequently speaks at women’s Bible studies, conferences or retreats and has been actively involved in women’s ministry for decades as a teacher, pastor’s wife, and volunteer. In addition to her other writing, Hawkins is a contributor to the soon-to-be released Women’s Evangelical Library Commentary.

She is the coordinator of The Widow’s Might, a prayer ministry sponsored by GuideStone Financial Resources, that seeks to empower and encourage widows to pray for the ministry of Southern Baptists around the world. Hawkins is married to O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone (formerly the Annuity Board of the SBC) and is the mother of two married daughters and grandmother of six.

Notable Quotes:

“We are worth something in God’s kingdom work because of the value He has put on us.”

“In ourselves, we are not worth much, but through the eyes of our Owner, we are worth much.”

“Jesus was so visible and open in his conversations with women. He spent time with them and made them feel important.”

“It’s not the amount of money or possessions you have that makes you a generous person, it’s your spirit.”

“Jesus reiterates to us, especially those of us in God’s work, the danger of busyness and the value of being single-minded and quiet before God.”

Others in the “Know Your Southern Baptists” Series:

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Taking a Closer Look at “Christ and Culture”

Feb 26, 2015 | Trevin Wax

51rjuRiQVPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Yesterday, I offered a brief summary of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culturewidely regarded as one of the most significant books of the 20th century. Today, I want to press deeper into Niebuhr’s taxonomy and point out some of the strengths and weaknesses.

“Christ and Culture” – A Closer Look

What should we make of such a landmark work? First, Niebuhr is to be commended for laying out various historical postures Christians have adopted toward culture. These approaches are so memorable that, more than a half century later, scholars who consider the task of Christian ethics feel they must interact with them in some measure. Niebuhr’s breadth of knowledge is on display in his attempt to summarize and point out the strengths of each position, as well as his decision to illustrate his work with biblical or historical examples.

Cracks in the Foundation

The problematic elements of Niebuhr’s work are multilayered. Beginning with the foundation, there are two aspects that deserve comment.

First, Niebuhr gives too much leeway to the Christ of Culture position by including Gnostics and Protestant liberals as a contributing branch of Christianity. If the development of the creeds should teach us anything, it is that the ancient Christians saw Gnosticism, or the “Christ of culture” approach that Niebuhr lays out here, as heretical and therefore outside the realm of legitimate options for relating to culture. Niebuhr’s inclusion of the Gnostics is an indication that he adopts a minimalistic basis for Christian community that leads him to be so open he can include virtually anyone who claims the mantle of Jesus. His critique of the Christ of culture position is on target, of course, but it simply does not go far enough, since in the postscript, he seems to indicate that any of these five options can be a sign of faithfulness, depending on cultural context.

The other problematic element of the foundation is Niebuhr’s appeal to Scripture. It is striking to see him use John the Apostle as an example of Christ the Transformer of Culture (while he simultaneously chides Augustine and Calvin for their obsession with the personal destinies of individual human souls), when an exegete could make a strong case for seeing John’s Gospel as much particularist as it is universal, or as fitting better the Christ against Culture motif (especially if we include Revelation in the Johannine corpus). Likewise, it would not be difficult to move Paul from being the example of Christ and Culture in Paradox to being an advocate for Christ the Transformer of Culture, since a number of Pauline passages could be enlisted in appeal to the other position.

In summary, Niebuhr’s appeal to Scripture is weak. He includes Scriptural elements that make the biblical author representative of a certain posture, even while he freely admits (but conveniently ignores) countervailing evidence in the same passages.

Generalized History

A similar charge could be leveled at Niebuhr’s appeal to history. He shouldn’t be faulted for generalizing, since generalizations are necessary in creating a memorable taxonomy. But the fact that Luther, Augustine, Calvin and Tertullian each, in their own way, resist their imprisonment in these categories is a sign that, instead of choosing between these options, perhaps we should take a cue from these great Christian thinkers, who, while leaning one way or another, cannot be pigeonholed into any one category because Scripture itself does not allow for one view to triumph over the others.

Tipping the Hand

This leads to the last critique. Though Niebuhr claims there is no “Christian answer” to this question, his treatment of Christ the Transformer of Culture is such that the reader is hard pressed to come to any other conclusion than that this is the most faithful approach. Out of the five positions, this is the only one he explains without mention of any weakness. So, even though Niebuhr explicitly claims there isn’t one right answer, he implicitly drives readers to the fifth option as the most faithful and balanced.

Conclusion

Christ and Culture is a classic, and rightly so. My review, which focuses on summarizing and critiquing Niebuhr’s popular book, should not be interpreted as minimizing its contribution to Christianity. H. Richard Niebuhr’s memorable taxonomy of various postures of the church toward the world is an achievement that continues to provoke conversation and controversy more than fifty years later.

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Worth a Look 2.26.15

Feb 26, 2015 | Trevin Wax

WorthALook1Kindle Deal of the Day: Rich Mullins: A Devotional Biography: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven by James Bryan Smith. $1.99.

During his life, Rich Mullins challenged the sensibilities of what it means to follow Jesus in today’s world, and now in his death, he challenges all to build upon his legacy of joy, compassion, brokenness, unblinking honesty, and wonder of an Awesome God.

New research shows that one-third of the audience for Christian books, radio, TV, and movies is unchurched:

Christian broadcasters have a devoted following, with about two-thirds of weekly churchgoers and evangelicals saying they tune in to Christian radio and television on a regular basis.

Christian books have a similar use by churchgoers and evangelicals and Christian movies remain popular, with about 4 in 10 Americans having seen one in the last year.

Seth Godin writes about the difference between “connecting to” and “connecting.” I think there’s some relevance here for how church leaders conceive of their role:

An organization might seek to ‘connect to’ its customers or constituents. Connection is a form of permission, the ability to deliver value to the people who request it.

Bruce Ashford on the legacy and ongoing relevance of Lesslie Newbigin:

I am grateful for Lesslie Newbigin’s life and writings. He argued clearly, consistently, and compellingly that we need to recover the recognition that the gospel is public truth.

The One Child policy has been terrible for China, but even the “two-children” norm in other nations has negative ramifications for future generations:

A family tree with many branches functions as a broad social safety net: when average family size falls from three to two, there are only half as many aunts and uncles to lean on, visit, identify with, and support you when things go wrong and rejoice with you when things go right. When the average family size is one, there is little family left to protect you and to belong to. The modern fantasy—society as disconnected individuals under a tutelary state—becomes grimly plausible.

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“Christ and Culture” – An Overview of a Christian Classic

Feb 25, 2015 | Trevin Wax

51rjuRiQVPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is one of the most significant theological and missiological works of the 20th century, offering a memorable categorization of the ways Christians have related to culture throughout history.

When contemporary authors address the question of how a Christian relates to society, they either rename and refine Niebuhr’s categories (Tim Keller in Center Church), incorporate Niebuhr’s framework into a simpler one (James Davison Hunter in To Change the World), or provide strengths and weaknesses of Niebuhr’s proposal while reflecting on various applications (D. A. Carson in Christ and Culture Revisited). Occasionally, authors will reject the Niebuhrian project altogether for being too heavily influenced by a Christendom mentality (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon in Resident Aliens), but even then, the passionate counterpoint to Christ and Culture serves as a backhanded compliment, since it recognizes and reinforces the widespread influence this work has had.

Summary

Niebuhr’s work begins with definitions. Who is Christ? He is the New Testament figure, crucified and raised from the dead, the One whom Christians accept as their authority (11-13).

“Belief in him and loyalty to his cause involves men in the double movement from world to God and from God to world” (29).

What is culture? It is the social life of humanity, the environment created by human beings in the areas of “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values” (32).

Niebuhr turns next to various ways in which Christians have sought to live faithfully under the authority of Christ as they relate to the culture surrounding them. There are three major choices:

  • opposition to culture (Christ against culture),
  • agreement between Christ and culture (Christ of culture),
  • and a combination that incorporates insights from both of these two views (Christ above culture).

Within the third framework are three variations:

  • a synthetic type that sees Christ as the fulfillment of culture,
  • a dualistic type that sees an ongoing tension between Christ and culture,
  • and a conversionist type that portrays Jesus as the converter of culture and society.

The rest of the book lays out these five options.

Christ Against Culture

To exemplify the Christ against Culture position, Niebuhr claims Tertullian, Leo Tolstoy, the Mennonites, and various voices from the monastic tradition that are united by a common theme: loyalty to Christ and the church entails a rejection of culture and society. The lines between the church and the world are sharp because the church is a community whose existence judges the world. Niebuhr credits the impressive sincerity of adherents to this position, but he rejects it as inadequate for its inability to extricate itself from the culture it condemns.

Christ Of Culture

For the Christ of Culture position, Niebuhr points back to the ancient Gnostics, Abelard, Albrecht Ritschl, and a large swath of Protestant liberalism. The commonality here is a lack of tension between the church and the world, since Jesus is the fulfiller of society’s hopes and aspirations. He is “the great enlightener, the great teacher, the one who directs all men in culture to the attainment of wisdom, moral perfection, and peace” (92). Despite the appeal of this position the elite and powerful groups within a civilization, Niebuhr sees it as inadequate for allowing loyalty to culture trump loyalty to Christ, to the point the New Testament Jesus gets replaced with an idol that shares his name (110).

Christ Above Culture

The Christ above Culture position, according to Niebuhr, is the dominant voice of church history. The fundamental issue is between God and humanity, not God and the world.

In the synthesis version, advocates do not choose between Christ and culture, but rely on “both Christ and culture” as God uses the best elements of culture to give people what they cannot achieve on their own. Church fathers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria are early examples. Thomas Aquinas is the supreme defender of this position, seen clearly in his effort to combine into one system the relationship between reason and revelation, creation and redemption, nature and grace. The downside to this view is the institutionalization of Christ and the gospel, as well as the tendency to absolutize what is relative, reduce the infinite to finite form, and materialize what is dynamic (145).

The Christ and Culture in Paradox position is the dualistic version of “Christ above Culture:” the conflict between God and humanity is ever present and this conflict represents Christ and culture as well. “Grace is in God, and sin is in man,” Niebuhr writes (151), the basis for seeing human depravity that pervades and corrupts all human work and culture creation. Upholding the paradox of law and grace, divine wrath and mercy, the Christian lives between two magnetic poles. Niebuhr claims the apostle Paul as an early advocate of this approach, later represented by Martin Luther and Sören Kierkegaard. Though Niebuhr recognizes the power of this view because of the way it corresponds to our experience, he finds it inadequate for its tendency toward antinomianism or cultural conservatism (187).

The Christ as Transformer of Culture position is the conversionist version of “Christ above Culture,” and it is most clearly presented in the work of Augustine, John Calvin, and F. D. Maurice. According to this view, all of culture is under the judgment of God, and yet culture is also under God’s sovereign rule. Therefore, “the Christian must carry on cultural work in obedience to the Lord” (191). Emphasizing the goodness of creation, the conversionist affirms what can be affirmed and seeks to transform what is corrupted by sin and selfishness. Eternal life begins in the present, Niebuhr writes, claiming the apostle John as a biblical advocate for this perspective.

Christ and Culture ends with a postscript encouraging readers to not settle on one of these views to the exclusion of the others. No “Christian answer” exists that applies definitively for all time, since faith is “fragmentary,” and we do not have “the same fragments of faith” (236).

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of Niebuhr’s taxonomy. For today, if you had to pick one of these five options, which one would you go with?

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Worth a Look 2.25.15

Feb 25, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth5Kindle Deal of the Day: Imagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind by Gene Veith & Matthew Ristuccia. $2.99.

In Imagination Redeemed, Gene Veith and Matthew Ristuccia uncover the imagination’s importance for Christians, helping us understand who God is, what his Word teaches, and how we should live in the world today. Here is a call to embrace this forgotten part of the mind as a gift from God designed to bolster faith, hope, and love in his people.

William Carroll explains the allure of ISIS in a secular society:

Although having a greater stake in one’s own community may help to deter some from experiencing the kind of alienation that can lead to the embrace of radical ideologies, the fertile ground for religious terrorists coming from the West is far more likely to be the secular character of Western culture itself.

Are you wondering whether or not you should pursue a Masters or PhD? Daniel Im offers some good questions to help you make a wise decision:

Education and degrees tend to open new doors and opportunities. They’re most effective at qualifying you for a particular line of work, but once you’re in and have experience in that industry, you better think twice before going back to school. In fact, you should ask these 5 questions before sending in your tuition deposit.

Everett Ferguson’s masterful Baptism in the Early Church (975 pages!) provides a theological and historical overview of baptism’s development. Justin Taylor summarizes some of the book’s conclusions:

Is there evidence for infant baptism exist before the second part of the second century?

“There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century.” (p. 856)

Micah Fries makes the case that Christianity is inherently optimistic, “A Happy Faith:”

How does a premillennial Christian, with a strong view of the depravity of humanity become strongly convinced that optimism is intimately connected with genuine faith, and that we are, in fact, holding to a sub-Christian view of the world when we walk around with pessimism as our default posture?

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