Category Archives: Christian Life

The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher

Benedict OptionThe title of this book has been so confusing for so many that I’ll start with what the book is not. It is not about Benedict Arnold. It is about Saint Benedict, the monk who founded the Benedictine order in the sixth century. It is not a political book. There is a chapter about politics, and recent political events may have motivated Mr. Dreher to write the book, but it is not about how conservatives can win elections. Finally, it is not advocating that Christians leave public life altogether, drawing into communities behind walls, reading the Bible and singing Gregorian chants.

Benedict was a man living shortly after the fall of Rome who took a good look around and realized that there were barbarians all over the place, and if the church was going to survive, she would have to take some drastic protective measures. He drew a group of men together and started a community founded on work and prayer, keeping all of their lives centered around God. Eventually, he wrote up a summary of what they needed to do and why, calling the document the Benedictine Rule. Following the rule ordered all of their days and marked out appropriate times of work and prayer, living in asceticism, chastity, and silence. The monks sometimes received visitors, often those in need of healing, whether physical or spiritual, but the visitors had to live under the rule while they sojourned with the monks. As we learned in Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the monasteries for rescuing many manuscripts of antiquity from destruction, and when the Dark Ages were over, the church emerged strong and resilient because of the disciplined labors of the religious orders that were, by that time, scattered across Europe.

Dreher considers that the Christian church in the west is facing another perilous time, a modern Dark Age. The Christian faith is effectively dead in Western Europe, and religious freedom is rapidly being eroded in the United States. As a matter of fact, if there is one political issue for which we must fight tirelessly, it is religious freedom. Most of this volume, though, is taken up with the ways that twenty-first century Christians—who may be women, men, married, single, parents, working for secular employers, and addicted to their smartphones—might adopt the best points of the Benedictine Rule in their own lives. He offers advice and examples of people who have founded Christian communities ranging from loose groups of church members in a neighborhood to actual modern-day monasteries. Among many, wide-ranging topics, there is a chapter devoted to education, another on sexual beliefs and practices, one on the liturgy of the church, and the last one encouraging us to fast from our technology.

About a decade ago, I read Rod Dreher’s earlier, generously-subtitled book, Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party). Not that I cared to save the Republican Party, but otherwise I thought the title was a hoot, and it was good to know that someone out there had identified the tribe among which I lived. This current work is more serious, but it is also calling upon those who are willing to pull away from mainstream America to strengthen a church that is confused, fragmented, and in danger of disappearing into the dominant secular society. I cannot say that I agree with everything Dreher proposes in this book, but many of his ideas are so fascinating, and the necessity of some kind of drastic plan is so obvious, that I’ve gathered a group of readers together to discuss each aspect of The Benedict Option over a series of weeks. We will start in two weeks, and I may write a column or two on TheReaderWrites to give you a taste of our conversations. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for many readers across the country to start some discussion groups on this and similar titles. Let’s find ways to get our ideas together.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer, church, or anyone else. The beautiful abbey on the cover is not Benedict’s abbey in Norcia, Italy, but is actually Mont Saint Michel in France, which used to be a Benedictine monastery. The abbey in Norcia was completely destroyed by earthquakes just a few months ago. All of the monks survived.

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Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright

Surprised by HopeN.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, was called by Newsweek “the world’s leading New Testament scholar.” I recently listened to a podcast in which he talked to Eric Metaxas about his latest book, but during their conversation he mentioned this earlier work, subtitled Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. These are topics that have been on my mind lately, so I decided to dive in.

Wright is a historian, so his books usually start off with a section that will orient the reader to the mindset of Jesus’ audience, the Jewish people of the first century A.D. His attention to historical detail can seem overwhelming, but it is important to prove his main thesis, which is that the church has lost its way in its teachings on the afterlife. He traces this confusion through the centuries, paying particular attention to the medieval church’s wholehearted embrace of Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism, which taught that earthly things are merely a shadow of heavenly realities. Gnosticism had been around for centuries by that point, as well, which is the belief that matter is temporary and evil, and that the spirit is the higher realm. These two philosophies still intrude into much of Christian theology, and after the many wars of the twentieth century, people just wanted to escape the earth, so much so that what I call the “winged kitten” vision of heaven—disembodied spirits floating around on clouds with harps and such— has become entrenched in the popular imagination, and even, unfortunately, in Christian hymns and sermons.

Jesus’ Jewish audiences had no such understanding of the afterlife. Rather, they had believed in a bodily resurrection at the end of time for centuries before Jesus was born on the earth. Wright shows that humans were created for earth and vice versa, and that before the fall, God called all of his creation “good.” The whole story of scripture is about restoring all things, including our loving relationship with God, and when Jesus tells us to pray, “your kingdom come on earth, as in heaven,” he means here, now. We know from Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross that there is an interim time, which he calls “paradise,” where our souls go to be with God until the resurrection, but that is temporary. The concluding chapters of Revelation, to mention just one example, affirm that our final destination will be on the new earth.

I won’t reveal all the details of Wright’s ideas about the location of heaven or what our resurrected bodies will look like, but it is fascinating. Furthermore, he explores the major implications that a firm belief in this sort of future would have on environmentalism and the mission of the church today. I can’t say that I agree with him on all of the particulars, especially his beliefs about hell and judgment, but our eschatology is in dire need of this sort of scholarly examination. Perhaps because we live in first world countries, where we enjoy good health and long, peaceful lives, we rarely have serious discussions about the afterlife, and our popular theology has taken us far off course.

Toward the end of the book, Wright focuses on the importance of Easter, asserting that this holiday celebrates the crux of our faith, even though our culture makes the most of Christmas. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, our faith is futile. But he has been raised, and that very act is the point upon which all of Christianity rises or falls. As we approach that celebration, Wright offers up suggestions of ways that we can enjoy that day more fully, coming from a delightfully British and Anglican perspective. He starts with champagne before breakfast. I like the way he thinks.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and may not reflect those of my pastor, church, or any particular denomination.

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Present Over Perfect, by Shauna Niequist

present-over-perfectA few years ago, if Shauna Niequist had been a Roger Hargreaves character, she would have been Little Miss Dependable. Her Midwestern upbringing had taught her to value hard work and reliability as the greatest virtues. Of course she can be class mom! Of course she can bring another meal to a family in need! Of course she can speed up the deadline on her book! Of course she can head up another committee! Of course she can speak at your event! The word “no” could not form in her mouth. She had chosen to be a writer so that she could stay home with her kids, and then discovered that she had been traveling for 40 weeks of the previous year. Never mind that she was throwing up in the airport bathrooms from stress. It all came to a head when she was snorkeling with her little son at a beautiful coral reef, but all she felt was that she was suffocating from a deep sense of self-loathing. Thus began a total meltdown. She called a mentor to ask for advice, and the woman very wisely said, “Stop. Just stop.”

Ms. Niequist has spent the last three years learning how to stop. At first, the silence frightened her, and she discovered that she hated to be alone with herself. Through counseling, prayer, retreats, writing, worship, and other practices, she has struggled to let go of her controlling grip on her life. Written in a series of essays, she shares her journey with the reader, awakening our work-addicted, competitive, exhausted culture to the understanding that life is found in the quiet moments, when we are present to even notice nature, art, and the people we love the most. Her counselor guided her to find what Brennan Manning would call “the present risenness of Christ.” In one telling passage, she admits that her prayers used to sound like a board meeting, listing all of the things she was “working on,” and apologizing for her shortcomings, assuring God that she would do better. Really, she would. Slowly, she is coming to believe that God loves her as she is, unconditionally.

I picked up this new book because of the subtitle: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living. When I first heard about it, all I could remember was that it was that book about not being frantic. Who doesn’t need that these days? Turn on the news: everyone is frantic everywhere. Social media is full of panic and unrest—even violence. In my heart, I knew that Christians should not live in fear or constant turmoil. Although Ms. Niequist and I are at different stages of life and have very different personalities, there was much treasure to be gleaned from these pages. If we can make deliberate choices to turn away from all of the busy-ness of the world and focus on living and loving deeply and authentically, eventually we will be able to rejoice in the love of God and the richness of our relationships.

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

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The Plot to Kill Hitler, by Patrica McCormick

plot-to-kill-hitlerDietrich Bonhoeffer was an unlikely assassin. This educated, well-to-do young pastor was everything genteel and intellectual until the rise of Adolph Hitler and the takeover of the German church drove him to join a group of conspirators who were actively plotting Hitler’s death until the Nazis captured them just before the end of World War II.

Patricia McCormick has taken on some difficult topics in the past, including self-harm in Cut and human trafficking in Sold. Here, she takes the very complex life of a German theologian and somehow makes it understandable for young readers. She includes two of the turning points in Bonhoeffer’s life: when he travels to Rome and realizes that Christianity is for all nations, not just Germany, and when he goes to the United States, visits an African-American church, and comes to understand that faith in Christ is not just memorizing theology, but involves the whole individual, including the emotions. McCormick conveys Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and motivations in a way that is accessible to young people, while remaining profound and authentic. She shows how the course of events around us can change our personal lives, and how one, single life can change the course of history.

Teenagers today are growing up in an increasingly polarized and secularized world. They are being forced to adhere to a narrow set of beliefs in the name of tolerance, and they will never escape these strident voices if they receive their cues from social media. Rather, let them read books with great heroes and heroines, so that they will grow strong in character and free in thought. Until they are old enough to read Eric Metaxas’ masterful biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Patricia McCormick provides a compelling story of a young man who is a great role model for all of us.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own, and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry

passion-of-dolssaThree sisters grow up without a mother however they can. Eventually, they settle into a town in southern France and open a tavern together. The oldest brews the ale, the youngest tells fortunes, and the middle sister, Botille, is a matchmaker. When their elderly neighbor sends Botille on a journey to bring back her nephews, they meet a dying girl in the woods on their return trip. Dolssa is being pursued by a devout friar who is bent on purging the church of all heretics like her, those who think that they can speak to God themselves, without the intervention of a priest. By taking her in, the sisters are putting themselves and their entire village in mortal danger.

Books with a medieval setting are usually fantasies, it seems. However, this is a novel based squarely on history, and disputed history at that, which makes it even more intriguing. Julie Berry, author of the riveting All the Truth That’s in Me, begins by stating that history is written by the winners, but every so often, the underdog leaves enough evidence that we can begin to piece together the truth. In 13th century southern France, the Catholic Church allied with the king of France in the first Crusade in which Christians sought to kill other Christians. It was called the Albigensian Crusade, and the heretics were later called Cathars. However, Berry recently studied manuscripts that show that the Cathars are a construct created by historians, a mythical synthesis of several groups of believers who threatened the power of the institutional church. Men and women like Dolssa, however, were just devout believers who lived simple lives and ministered to the people in their communities. Following Berry’s hypothesis, however, means that ordinary men and women were also working miracles in Jesus’ name in 1209 in southern France. Let the reader decide.

When I began this beautiful tale, I had the luxury of calling my brother, a medieval scholar, and getting a quick, off-the-cuff summary of the history of southern France from 1209 to 1410. However, the book was written for teens and can be read as a compelling, transcendent story of the effect that one pure, extraordinary life can have on everyone she touches. Berry includes copious back matter: notes, glossaries, and bibliographies. The characters are perfectly relatable for twenty-first century readers, and the terrifying realization that a human being can be convinced—out of fear or love of money—to abandon a friend or neighbor to an unjust death is a truth that we see repeated over and over throughout history.

I loved this book. That’s the best recommendation I can give. There are so many things to think about and discuss in its pages, but most of all, it was just a great story. Very highly recommended for teens and adults.

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Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, but I handed out several of the library copies to other people, whether they asked for it or not. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Miracle Man, by John Hendrix

Miracle ManThis captivating picture book biography of Jesus tells a simplified version of his life for children up to perhaps third grade, beginning with the start of Jesus’ public ministry and ending with his resurrection. Hendrix has a colorful, cartoonish, almost psychedelic style of illustration, and one outstanding feature of this slender volume is his bold use of fonts and text placement. Words sometimes circle around the picture, or are made of stone or wooden planks to complement the story being told on that page.

Another element that sets this biography apart is that it is warmly written by a believer. In the informative author’s note at the back, Hendrix says, “The first reason I wanted to write and illustrate this story is that I am a follower of Jesus. At a very young age, I fell in love with the Miracle Man.” Although only a judicious few events from Jesus’ life are covered, the text is very moving, and the chosen stories will introduce children to the outline of the Miracle Man’s life and his teachings. Some parental explanations will be needed— preferably while the children are nestled on a lap— such as that not all of the disciples were actually fishermen, and what it means when Jesus is shown walking out of the tomb.

Very highly recommended. Do not miss it.

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

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Sarah Bessey and Me

Several years ago, a pastor told me that the Bible’s teaching on women implied that women should never supervise men at work. At the time, I supervised two, so I told him it was too late. So he said that I should give them preference over the women I supervised, just because of their gender. I kid you not. Fast forward a few years, and a woman in our small group opined that a woman’s main role in the workplace is to make the men there feel better about themselves. Try as I might, I cannot find this chapter or verse in my Bible. Furthermore, I think my employer would be much more pleased if I followed the Bible’s real admonition to employees, which is to work for your employer with a great attitude, as if you were working for the Lord, instead of other people.* Apparently, though, no one in the room found her opinion sort of creepy except for me. There was more, but you can imagine my state of mind.

Jesus FeministIn my line of work, book titles run past my eyes all day long every day, and one day that title was Jesus Feminist. I tend to turn away from the word “feminist,” since it is so often allied with the hard-left, pro-choice crowd, but this was just too provocative, so I took a look, read the description, logged into my Amazon account, and made my first acquaintance with this Canadian pastor’s wife, blogger, and mommy.

We all have visions of our future lives when we are young, and having a full-time career was not part of my vision. Mother, wife, and maybe writer, yes. But I believe in a sovereign God, and a decade and a half ago, we went through a life-changing chain of events, and here I am, doing what I sincerely believe is the right thing to do—the honorable, loving, and responsible thing to do—and I have found happiness there. All day, every day, I am surrounded by brilliant, hardworking women who find great meaning in their work. I believe in a God who gifts people with the ability to make other lives better, and who puts each person in place for the good of all. The universe is not random. So how can someone else who believes in a sovereign God say that the way I lay down my life is a sin?

I opened Jesus Feminist and wept in the introduction. I sobbed through the first two chapters. I found someone who had been here before me, and she dealt with her wounds by reading the gospels over and over. She reminded me that Jesus treated women like people. He talked to them directly, against the custom of the day, and never treated them as “other.” She reprinted a Dorothy L. Sayer essay that I read decades ago that is still one of the best things I’ve ever read on the topic of Jesus and women. Sarah Bessey reminded me, in her poetic, storyteller fashion, that Jesus truly loved me, and that’s all I really needed to hear. Some of the later chapters didn’t speak to me as much, but those first chapters were so powerful that this bright yellow paperback has sat on my desk, beside my laptop, ever since then. Not that I told anyone, though, because I knew how controversial she was, and I didn’t want to be met with either gasps or outrage.

Last summer was another life-changing time. Everyone knows that it was a summer of grief over my mother’s death, as well as months filled with unrelenting physical pain from the compressed discs in my neck causing nerve pain all the way down my arm, but I’ve never told the story of the deep wound gouged into my soul during this rough time.

David and I have moved around a lot in our lives. For the first twenty years of our marriage, we moved about every five years for David’s work. Sometimes the transitions were heartbreaking, but we met all kinds of people and learned a lot from them. We studied loads of theology, visited dozens of churches, and had long, intense discussions late into the night with some folks who are deeply lodged in my heart forever. By my best count, we have been members or long-term visitors of ten separate denominations, and more than one church for a couple of those. I feel old just saying that. We’ve hosted church in our house and helped to start a couple of churches from scratch. We’ve driven long distances to church for years a couple of times, just to be sure that the teaching and fellowship we were receiving were truly biblical. We knew of a small denomination that agreed with us that two seemingly opposing ideas were both Biblical, but we never lived near one of their churches until we lived here. We were passionately devoted members of this church for seven years—until last year. When my mother died last summer, my church did—nothing. I received sympathy cards from individuals, and I treasured each one, but as a church: nothing. No meals, no visits, not even a phone call from my most beloved church of my whole life.

In the year since my mother’s death, I have had time to reflect on what God may be teaching me through long nights of grief, pain, and loneliness. I have worked and prayed to forgive, and I have come miles down that road by his grace. I have learned that love, in God’s eyes, is the most important thing, and I’ve repented for the times I didn’t love others as I should have. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I’ve realized that those first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13 cover all the kinds of churches in the world, from charismatic to reformed to legalistic to liberal, whereas I had only seen individuals in those verses before. The last verse of that chapter, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” has become my heart’s cry. I am doing my best to love now, having people in my home, supporting everyone I can, and praying for the most unlikely people. I will never be good at this—it is not my gift—but it is everyone’s calling.

At the same time, other things have become less important. I have started taking stock of the ways that I have fit myself into someone else’s mold, rather than reading the Bible without filters and living what it says. We live in a world full of noise, with someone telling us what to think about everything, and when we agree with one side about an issue, we’re thrown into a box with dozens of other opinions that we’re expected to believe as well. But I don’t, and it’s becoming bewildering to think that I’m the only one who holds nuanced opinions that don’t fit neatly onto a bumper sticker.

Out of SortsAnd along came Sarah Bessey again. When I saw her new book title, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, I thought, “Yes, that’s where I am.” Truly, if your faith is not evolving, you are just not paying attention, and considering the political events of the past year, I think most Christians are not thinking deeply enough about their faith. The idea that our religion can be co-opted into a political cause is tremendously disturbing in its own right. Combining the events of my personal life with the national, even global, turmoil has caused me to be discouraged and almost despairing for particular churches, but also for the universal Church. Heaven knows the answer doesn’t lie in creating yet another denomination.

Ms. Bessey is one of a growing group of believers who think that the church is ripe for a new reformation, and my heart resonates with that idea. She points out that a major upheaval happens about every five hundred years in the church. In other words, we’re due. We just can’t continue in the splintered, contentious fashion that we now tolerate. Who is for Paul, who is for Apollos, and who is for Jesus?** The world has changed since Martin Luther nailed a paper to a cathedral door to ask for a discussion. Thousands of discussions are taking place every minute on social media with no moderator whatsoever, and in the church, we have no leader. Pope Francis? Jerry Falwell, Jr.?

Sarah Bessey writes by telling stories, and every one is soaked with her passionate love for Jesus. I read this book like drinking a life-giving elixir. I consumed it. To paraphrase Roberta Flack, I felt she’d found my letters and read each one out loud. If I had time, I would go right back to the beginning and read it again. She pulls out one topic after another and encourages the reader to examine it honestly, leading us to be courageous by telling her own life’s stories. She has also been a part of different kinds of churches in different parts of the continent, and she has drawn truth and beauty from each experience, but she now realizes that she cannot fully assent to the beliefs of any one church. No one is right about everything, after all, but neither is everyone else wrong about everything. You may as well tell the truth about how you feel and what you think, rather than making yourself believe something in order to please someone else, because when it comes right down to it, if they don’t love you because you disagree, what do you gain by hiding the truth? The only one who matters already knows what you think, and he can take it. You may not agree with Sarah Bessey on every issue—or, like me, you may not know what you think about some of them—but she will take you gently through all of the things that need sorting out in your heart and mind.

I do believe that the future is hopeful for me and for the church, but I believe just as firmly that there is suffering ahead. The Lord has used my pain to force me to change, to let go of things I held dear, to work harder for the kingdom, to forgive and to love. As Switchfoot’s new album*** says, the wound is where the light shines through, where the grace pours in, where he reaches in to heal. Be courageous! Lean into the pain and love well.

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It was not my intent to hurt anyone with this post, but rather to tell my story so that others who have been deeply wounded can find comfort here. Scripture quotes are from the ESV Bible.

*There is a reference for this! Ephesians 6: 6 & 7.

**Riffing on 1 Corinthians 1:12.

***It always come down to Switchfoot, doesn’t it? I am here freely making inferences from the song “Where the Light Shines Through” and the album of the same name.

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