Category Archives: Christian Life

Thin Places, by Tracy Balzer

Thin PlacesMany centuries ago, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, and the faith thrived on this isolated green island with little outside influence. As Europe fell to the barbarians and entered the Dark Ages, monks from Celtic lands preserved manuscripts and spread learning back across the continent. How did such a small population have such a great impact on history? What were the spiritual practices they followed that kept the flame of faith alive?

The subtitle of this slender volume is An Evangelical Journey into Celtic Christianity. Ms. Balzer is an evangelical American who researches and teaches at John Brown University about this early age of Christianity in a country just emerging from paganism. Balzer leads groups to the island of Iona, where Columba founded a monastery just out of sight of his beloved Ireland so that his heart would not long for returning. Iona is considered a “thin place,” where the veil is thin between the physical world that we see and the spiritual world that is just beyond our vision and perception. Spiritual experiences are more frequent in thin places than in our usual workaday world, and Balzer wanted to find out why. She has made the pilgrimage to Iona and similar Celtic sites many times and has kept a journal of her observations and conclusions.

The book is divided into chapters by the several spiritual practices Balzer considers essential to Celtic spirituality, with appropriate passages from her journal, followed by historical research and ways to fold these practices into our own lives in the twenty-first century. She ends each chapter with a Celtic prayer and questions for reflection. In one chapter, she discusses how Celtic monks had spiritual mentors or anamchara who were transformational in their lives. Balzer describes the way that the monks’ prayers differed from ours and the paramount importance of silence for hearing from God. Celts went on pilgrimages that were not as goal-oriented as those of continental Europeans, and, as we know from their educational institutions all over the world, they were not afraid to love the Lord their God with all of their minds. These are some of the issues she explores winsomely and intimately in these pages.

As American evangelicals, we sometimes feel the accretion of centuries of manmade traditions and practices weighing down our understanding of transcendent reality, and we look for ways to scrape off the layers and find the living faith again. The New Testament tells us of the very first churches planted by the apostles, but I wanted to see how a group of gentiles, freshly introduced to the gospel, carried on the faith before Rome took hold of them firmly. The ancient Celts were much more aware of God’s omnipresence and his activity in every moment of life. I was surprised by the monks’ emphasis on the Trinity, and their prayers are poetic praises to the Three in One. And, as always, I was reminded of the importance of intentional silence in our noisy lives.

Readers who wish to step outside of time for a while will find some wisdom here. Balzer’s layout is organized and clear, and her discussions are a good introduction to Celtic thought, particularly for non-Catholic Christians. Her notes and bibliography are rich with material for further exploration.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I own of copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. LewisRivers of ink have been spilled by and about C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don who wrote 20th century classics for children and adults, such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Through the years since his death, biographers have given us hints of his late-in-life marriage to Joy Davidman, and the book and movie Shadowlands have introduced her to the public. Rarely, though, have we seen their relationship through her eyes, but now Patti Callahan has written a novel that moves this misunderstood woman to the forefront.

Joy Davidman was born into a scholarly Jewish family and later converted to Christianity as an adult. When the novel opens, she is a young mother of two boys, married to an alcoholic and adulterous husband. Both of them are writers, and because of the times, Joy is expected to put up with her husband’s behavior and concentrate on improving her homemaking and motherly skills, pushing her own writing aside until her boys are grown. When a friend gives her a couple of books by C.S. Lewis, she takes a risk and writes to him for advice on a theological question. They continue to exchange letters for several years, increasingly confiding in one another and becoming close friends.

When several health issues and her difficult marriage have both reached crisis level, Joy travels to England to consult with doctors there and to do research for her writing projects. Here she finally meets Jack, as Lewis was called, and his brother, Warnie. She soaks in the history and beauty at Oxford and at The Kilns, Lewis’ home. While she is there, she receives a letter from her husband informing her that he is in love with her cousin and is living with her, along with their young sons. Joy’s life is at a crossroads.

The story takes place over years, but nothing goes smoothly for Joy, her sons, or her overwhelming love for Jack, fifteen years her senior and seemingly oblivious to her devotion. She is an acclaimed poet, but no one sees the series of sonnets that she writes to him. She longs to tell him of her feelings, but he is cheerfully friendly and perhaps purposely obtuse. All the while, he arranges to see her every day, asks for her help with his work, and considers her a member of his family. Warnie is devoted to her, and Jack acts as a father to her children, but romantic love is completely absent. It takes a catastrophe to open his eyes, and then it is almost too late.

Using all of the Lewis scholarship available, plus Joy’s prolific papers, poems, and the letters between them, Callahan has filled in the gaps with imagined conversations and Joy’s intimate thoughts on her frustrating, fulfilling, and quietly spectacular life. There are many famous individuals among their acquaintance, and they weave in and out of the narrative. Tolkien, in particular, disapproved of Joy intensely, even though he was a happily married man himself. Callahan is not on a feminist rant here at all, but she does include gentle reminders that even nice men did not respect women’s work just fifty or sixty years ago (or ten or five or yesterday). Callahan has also interviewed Douglas Gresham, Joy’s son and one of Lewis’ most authoritative biographers. As a matter of fact, I own a Lewis biography by Gresham and had forgotten that Gresham was Joy’s married name.

Lewis lived most of his life before he met Joy, and his earlier romantic relationships have been—and remain—an interesting and perhaps unseemly mystery, but his evolving and complex relationship with Joy Davidman affected him so deeply as to change him in foundational ways. Not only did he rethink his opinions on serious issues, but he also seemed to open doors in his soul that he had kept locked all of his life. Joy was his muse for the book he declared to be his favorite, Till We Have Faces, and, of course, she is the subject of A Grief Observed. However, Joy Davidman met her great love after having lived a full life, as well, and together they played a tragic, but magnificent, final act.

I highly recommend this book to all those who are fellow Lewis nerds, historical fiction fans, and to anyone who relishes a great story with literary characters.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Finding God in the Waves, by Mike McHargue

Finding God in the WavesMike McHargue, or “Science Mike,” as he is known online, was a happy member of his evangelical church, teaching Sunday School, eating lunch with the church leaders, and leading his daughters to Christ. As a scientist, though, he eventually had to admit that he didn’t believe any of it. He was an atheist.

After Mike admitted his disbelief to his stunned wife, he was invited to a gathering in California with Rob Bell, during which he had what can only be described as a supernatural experience. He wasn’t looking for it, but it was a turning point in his life. From that day on, he began the work of examining every aspect of faith from a scientific and logical perspective and reconstructing the parts of his faith that he could accept. In this volume, he scrutinizes the existence of God, the origins of the universe, the humanity and deity of Jesus, the validity of the Bible, the practice of prayer, the church, and other basic Christian beliefs chapter by chapter. For each concept, he has written an axiomatic statement, saying what he can believe at the very least about each one. His beliefs are still far from what anyone would call orthodox Christianity, but his research is fascinating.

Mike has two websites, Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists, which he co-hosts with the musician, Michael Gungor. My niece, Hannah, had mentioned The Liturgists to me a couple of years ago, and I’ve listened to several of their podcasts. They examine issues of faith and doubt, science, culture, and art from a wide-open viewpoint that could speak to believers of any religion, spiritual seekers, and non-believers alike. When I read the book The New Copernicans (reviewed here), David Seel also talked about Mike McHargue and The Liturgists. When he said that Mike had written a book, I had to check it out.

Science Mike’s experience is different from most former Christians in that he loves the church. The vast majority of books written by the deconstruction/ reconstruction crowd recount intensely painful episodes that estranged them from the church and caused them to doubt God’s goodness or the truth of Christianity. In Mike’s case, he stopped teaching Sunday School out of respect for his church, but he continued to attend. After his podcast, Ask Science Mike, became popular, though, people started coming from far and wide to attend his church and talk to him. Services got weird. Eventually, his pastors came to him and basically said, “Dude, we love you, but do you mind?” He got it. His family left their conservative church and finally found one where he could ask hard questions and not always find answers.

If you or someone you know has doubts about God or spiritual experiences that need scientific answers, Finding God in the Waves could be a great starting point. Mike describes what happens in the brain when we pray, looks into scientific explanations of the origins of everything, and even describes his own evolution on several topics. The book is not an apologetic work in the religious sense of that word. Mike does not attempt to lead anyone to Christ and may even lead a weak person further away. However, this is a very friendly and readable account of one man’s pilgrimage toward truth.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, obtained through interlibrary loan, after which I purchased a copy to share. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The New Copernicans, by David Seel, Jr.

New CopernicansNo one seems to have a kind word to say about Millennials: they’re spoiled and entitled, they live in their parents’ basements and still expect to be treated as adults, they spend all their time waiting to be triggered by the slightest micro-aggressions, and on and on ad nauseum. I disagree, and so does David Seel. As a matter of fact, he thinks that the church needs to take a lesson from them, because Millennials are more like Jesus than the generations that came before them.

For the past 300 years, the church has been steered by an Enlightenment understanding of the world: left-brained and rational. Seel believes that the current young generation operates on a more right-brained basis, and that there is a huge frame shift coming. He prefers the terms “frame shift” and “social imaginary” to “worldview.” He considers the coming frame shift to be on a scale not seen since Copernicus posited that the sun is the center of the universe, rather than the earth. For many reasons, not the least of which is the ubiquity of the internet, today’s young adults are exposed to hyperpluralism on a daily basis and are more apt to deal with life experientially, rather than drawing up rational arguments. Seel reminds us that the Bible was written well before the Enlightenment, and that Jesus related to his disciples by walking on the road with them and telling stories.

Seel divides up our social imaginaries into four categories. On the left side are the two closed frames of thought, those who are “dwellers,” and are unable or unwilling to be flexible. On the right side are the two open frames of thought, those who are “explorers,” and are open to new considerations or ideas. On both the open and closed sides, one finds transcendent and immanent people. Those who are immanent believe only in what they see, hear, touch, and so on. Those who are transcendent believe that there is more than we can see in this world. Evangelical Christians are closed transcendents. They believe in more than what is on this earth, but they are rigid about what that means. They may differ from one denomination to another about those beliefs, but each group is fixed. The church’s missionary efforts are directed at two types of people: those who grew up in the evangelical community and are now living a sinful life, whom the church is trying to woo back, and the classical, university-type atheist, who is a closed immanent. Old-style atheists are just as fixed in their beliefs as the church, and the two groups lob Aristotelian and Scholastic logical arguments back and forth with little movement on either side. Seel states that both of these groups are disappearing rapidly.

All New Copernicans live on the “open” side of the divide, rendering the church’s efforts useless. Most of them are open immanents, for whom God is not terribly important. They live as practical atheists, not really seeing a need for God, but because they are open to other ideas, they are “haunted,” as Seel says. They are willing to believe in supernatural or spiritual experiences, and Christians have a great opportunity to walk on pilgrimage with them in order to lead them toward open transcendence, which is where Seel believes the entire church needs to be. We should be willing to talk about our doubts and struggles, willing to evangelize through relationships without ulterior motives, and willing to be more like poets than politicians. As Seel so beautifully says on page 68:

“What if a relationship with Jesus is more like falling in love than answering the questions on a philosophy or history exam?”

For several years now, those closest to me have had to endure hearing my anguish over the state of the church. As an institution, it cannot continue as it is today. Just a glance at some statistics about Millennials should be enough to make this case. For example, consider the exponential growth of the group called the “nones.” These are people who check the box “none” on forms asking for religious affiliation. Within the Millennial generation, which makes up almost a quarter of the American population, 40% consider themselves nones. This is a 400% increase since their parents’ generation at the same age, and it is growing daily. According to Pew research, 78% of religious nones were raised in religious households. In case that hasn’t hit you yet, think of how many older believers you know who have grown children who have left the church. Seel contends that they are not coming back, so we should stop thinking that they will follow in their parents’ footsteps, get married, have kids, and go back to church. They have a completely changed frame of reference, and closed transcendence will not be a part of it.

It is not only Millennials who have moved from closed to open transcendence, however. Seel mentions many historical and current church leaders who are on pilgrimage, as well, including many who have been seriously wounded by the institutional church. As he says, “There is usually blood in the water.” (p. 105) Seel believes that Millennials, because of their age and common experiences, are the most likely to be carriers of this monumental frame shift, but because others are moving with them, it is more accurate to use the term “the New Copernicans.” He believes that it is essential for church leaders to listen to younger pastors and other church leaders and to begin to hand over the reins to them as soon as possible.

This book is written with an eye to church leaders and pastors in order to bring about awareness and positive change, as, indeed, the subtitle is Millennials and the Survival of the Church. I heard Dr. Seel speak on a podcast, and he said that when he wrote the book, he considered that the church had ten good years left, but since then, events have happened so rapidly that he believes the timeline is down to five years. Readers, particularly those in traditional churches, will not agree with everything that Seel is recommending—I certainly did not– but it is not necessary to agree on particulars, as long as we can widen our view. However, many of his ideas are intriguing, motivational, and kind. With all of our denominational infighting, we are losing the forest for the trees. Or, in Seel’s frequent metaphor, the church is still playing Spades, but the game has changed to Hearts. How can we win, if we aren’t even playing the same game?

Important, but controversial, reading.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Tell It Slant, by Eugene H. Peterson

Tell It Slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible paraphrase, discusses Jesus’ parables found in the book of Luke, as well as the seven prayers that Jesus prayed in the gospels. This is ostensibly a book about language, about why Jesus spoke as he did when he walked with his disciples in Samaria. “Samaria is the country between Galilee and Jerusalem in which we spend most of our time between Sundays.” (p. 18) Peterson brings out the very earthy examples that Jesus used as he established the kingdom of heaven, and he reveals deeply spiritual insights that are as startling to us today as they were to the residents of first-century Palestine.

This is The Book that I loved this year. I was one-third of the way through it when I went on vacation in April, and I am just now finishing it in July. I only read until I felt that I was not absorbing it anymore, and then I would move on to a novel or a different nonfiction book, only to come back later, ready for more. All those familiar stories that we nod over after years of sermons, or the ones our eyes slide back and forth over as we read Luke yet again, come to life in new colors in Peterson’s meditations. Who are you in the story of the Prodigal Son? How did the story of the Good Samaritan play to its original mixed audience of Jews and Samaritans? What in the world is the meaning of that carefully-avoided story of the Shrewd Manager?

Jesus often told us truths in stories, not lists of do’s and don’ts. Stories are the way that we communicate with one another across generations, and Jesus’ stories used familiar images that light up our imaginations, eschewing cold analysis and pulling us into the action, engaging the heart and the mind.

Eugene Peterson and BonoI am not a big fan of The Message Bible, although I use it sometimes to get fresh perspective on a too-familiar or confusing passage. Peterson is known in some circles as a controversial theologian, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA, someone who does not mind stirring the pot. I fell in love with this gentle soul, however, when I saw him on YouTube with Bono. They have an enthralling discussion on the Psalms, and we see Peterson and his wife as a soft-spoken and kind older couple, serving homemade cookies to an Irish rock star in their rural Montana home, where Bono came on pilgrimage. Here in Tell It Slant, Peterson’s language reveals an intimate relationship with Jesus, a deep life of prayer, and decades of thoughtful meditation on the scriptures. No controversy here; just drink in his wisdom.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Be sure to buy your own copy– it’s an inexpensive paperback. You’ll want to spend some time in these pages.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning

Ragamuffin GospelFormer Catholic priest, husband, father, alcoholic, divorcé, and writer, Brennan Manning led a full life. Despite the suffering he endured, most of his books focus on the overwhelming love of God and his grace toward us sinners. Those of us who, like Manning, were raised Catholic need regular reminders of God’s love, since this is not the message we were fed as children. Guilt for our sins and a strong sense of unworthiness are much more likely to keep the kids in line. I cannot count the number of times that something happened to me and my mother said, “God is punishing you.” And she truly believed it.

The Ragamuffin Gospel is considered to be Manning’s magnum opus, although I loved Abba’s Child more. I reviewed it here. However, many famous people identified strongly as ragamuffins. Rich Mullins, in particular, named his musical group The Ragamuffin Band. The front cover of the latest edition of the book is one of Mullins’ album covers. Michael W. Smith wrote the foreword. So, in the almost thirty years since its publication, this small volume has worked itself into the music and conversation of the Christian community, even in ways we do not see.

A few years ago, David and I were talking about current issues and whether or not we considered them sinful. We were in the car on a long trip, so we had hours of uninterrupted time, and at the end of it, we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that we were quite willing to consider our own sins as no big deal, maybe not even sins, whereas those activities toward which we were not even tempted were obviously heinous sins. Since then, I have come to believe that most of us—believers and unbelievers alike— think that way. Or, to go even further, once we’ve forgiven ourselves for all of our own sins, we hasten to erase guilt for everything everywhere, just in case someone turns the spotlight on us.

Manning does not take that approach. Rather, he identifies with other sinners because he is aware of his own sin. For example, “You steal cupcakes? Yes, that is a sin. Me, I stole cookies. But take heart! Jesus forgives both cupcake and cookie thieves.” We are ragamuffins, with nothing to offer God, and yet he loves us as we are. His favorite verse in the Bible is Luke 15:20, in which the prodigal son’s father runs down the road to meet him, arms outstretched, before the son has bathed or even had time to apologize. Beautiful.

My favorite chapter in this book was “The Second Call.” He says that every spiritual person, somewhere between the ages of thirty and sixty, will go through a crisis of faith that will crash them back almost to nothing, only to begin “the second journey,” learning about Jesus all over again. For me, I was right smack in the middle of that age range, and I found this chapter to be a startling revelation that this was a common experience. Manning writes that we move through years of suffering and searching this second time and emerge wiser, though more wrinkled. We finally accept that no one will ever truly understand us, and we are far less likely to care about what other people think.

That’s a useful result for Brennan, since he was constantly barraged with accusations of universalism and cheap grace. Not that his critics are completely wrong, since his theology can be a bit loose at times, but dry tracts of systematic theology never made the wounded whole. For those of us who need reminding that God loved us before we ever did anything good or bad, The Ragamuffin Gospel can help to heal the sin-sick soul.

You may find some comfort here.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The World Jesus Knew, by Marc Olson

World Jesus KnewHow could they light lamps in the Bible if there was no electricity? Why were there Roman soldiers when they were in Israel? Did Jesus read the Bible, too?

Christian parents want to read scripture to their children, but we live in such different times that the New Testament is often hard to understand. If we want to reap the greatest benefits from our reading, a broad understanding of Middle Eastern culture in the first century is a big boost. This large-format volume, subtitled A Curious Kid’s Guide to Life in the First Century, is thoroughly illustrated and directed to upper elementary and middle school kids, although adults may find new nuggets of information here, too. Each chapter is a two-page spread explaining one topic, such as first-century clothing, the Jewish calendar, the Temple, crucifixion, the role of women, occupations, and much more. An introduction with a timeline and map sets the stage, and the small font throughout packs in a lot of text. Despite the serious subject matter, Marc Olson writes in everyday language with even a hint of humor at times. This book has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild selection. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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