Book Review – The Pastor and Counseling

I’m a big fan of 9Marks and their resources.  I have found them consistently helpful and accessible.  This book, The Pastor and Counseling, is no different.  Deepak Reju [Pastor of Counseling at Capitol Hill Baptist in DC] and Jeremy Pierre [Biblical Counseling Professor at SBTS] team up to write a fantastic book.

Counseling is an unavoidable element of pastoring.  I’m profoundly grateful for a great seminary education at SBTS, and also organizations like ACBC that stress the centrality of biblical counseling. Pastors, we aren’t giving advice.  Our people are coming to us for instruction in the Word of God and the application of it to their problems.  BUT, this is not without compassion.  This book succeeds on both ends of that spectrum.

And as the Word of God centers on Jesus Chris, so then must our counseling.  Jesus Christ is the means of change. Jesus Christ is the goal of change. [18]

The book is logically divided up into three main sections:  concept, process, and context and also has a few handy appendices in the back.

Right away, the authors challenge us pastors to make sure we are not having a “pulpit-only” ministry.  Ours is a personal ministry as well.  We identify with the weakness and sin of people, speak to God on behalf of the people, and speak to people on behalf of God. [28]. We have to get involved.  Yes, it is messy.  Yes, there is drama. Yes, it will take time.  But…that’s the nature of compassionate biblical pastoring, kids.

So, where to start?  This book offers three initial goals:  Address the presenting problem, display the relevance of the gospel [it’s always relevant!], and help people grow in Christlikeness.  “The main confidence of the pastor is that if a person belongs to Christ, God has pledged himself to the task of renewing him or her.” [38]

Aaaand there it is.  Transparency time.  As a pastor who counsels, this is the elephant in the room in all biblical counseling sessions…”IF a person belongs to Christ…”  Biblical counseling doesn’t “work” unless you are a Christian. I’ve had more failed counseling cases then I’d like to admit, but all of them were because people weren’t made new in Christ or refused to submit to the authority of His Word.  This is one of the biggest challenges in pastoral ministry, how to help people who are up to their ears in the misery of sin, yet refuse to submit fully to Christ.  I was curious to see how Reju and Pierre addressed this.

But getting back to the meat of the book – how do we actually do this?  The authors answer that question with three basic steps:  You listen to the problem. You consider heart responses.  You speak the truth in love. [49]

All of this requires a relational connection grounded in mercy, love, and respect.  I appreciated how practical and honest the authors were as they explained this – sometimes that is hard when you “are dealing with folks that are shifty, egocentric, foolish, arrogant, or just plain infantile.” [61].

Once the relational connection is established, explore the concern [listen well and ask good open-ended questions]; display hope [one of your primary jobs, there is always hope in the gospel!]; and set expectations. [homework, next meetings, etc.]

In the meetings that follow – get updates, follow up on homework, continue to explore the concern, and offer redemptive remedies. This will be the bulk of the rest of your meetings, but second to “is this person a real Christian” – how we actually do this is the biggest challenge.  The authors rightly point out that it requires patience.  We can all see the behavior is wrong, but what is motivating the behavior, the inner heart workings, are not immediately known.  This takes time to draw out.  We can’t simply “tell them what their idols are and then admonish them to worship God instead.” [76]. This is the great temptation for us pastors.  Why aren’t they getting it?!  “And we urge you brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” [1 These 5:14]. I sincerely appreciated the authors emphasis towards the compassion we should have and felt adequately convicted.

But…there has to be balance.  This too was well covered.  “Consider the 80/20 rule.  The person you’re helping needs to be responsible to do 80 present of the work in any given counseling session, with you guiding him or her with good questions, a few Scripture texts and appropriate advice.” [86] Amen.

The authors also took this opportunity to remind the readers of a few important considerations. Primarily of which is “Is this person saved?”  Again, due to the importance of this question, I would have liked to have seen this broken out into a full chapter…or even a full book.  [Anyone?!].  We will also be called to ministry to the unbelievers, and there is a tremendous evangelistic opportunity in it for us – but there needs to be more practical application of how that relates to counseling from the word of God to someone to doesn’t submit themselves to it.  #EndSoapbox

That brings us to the final meeting.  Sooner or later, you have to figure out when to end meetings.  Counseling can either have a positive ending, or a negative one.  Hopefully, it’s obvious that the positive ending would be that real, lasting, biblical change happens. Buuuut…that’s not always the case.  Dare I say, I think it’s probably the minority due to the effects of sin.  Sometimes counseling has a negative ending.  There is no change, they aren’t interesting in actually applying the 80% effort, they don’t trust you, they need more help than you can offer [90-91]…and what wasn’t mentioned that I wish was which is probably bigger than all of them – “they really won’t submit to the authority of the Scripture because they aren’t legit Christians.”    Sadly, after a negative ending we usually never see them again…until a few months or years later when the problems didn’t actually go away and they return for help.  This leads to the final section, how do we create a culture where helping others is in the DNA?

Pastors, we are the primary shaper of the church’s culture. [104. I just actually got scared typing that.]  “The way to glorify God is to make disciples. This task should be in the departs part of a pastor’s value system.” [105 – Giant AMEN].  The authors point out a few key expectations to lay down.  Membership – does your church have a high value on biblical church membership?  Equipping – are our people being equipped by the pastors/elders for discipleship through teaching and modeling? Third, connecting.  You have to actually be with people and encourage your people to be with each other as well.

Sometimes, despite doing all of this “right” there still are times where you may need to refer out to another counselor, or even medical “professional” help.  I sincerely appreciated the authors bold stance on this, as I’ve personally walked thru a few very painful seemingly “dead end” counseling situations and can see new hope springing from a fresh counseling perspective with someone else.  The authors provide a helpful overview of this sensitive topic, but emphasize the centrality of God’s Word.  “A guy with a Bible is not enough.” [122]. Pastors/elders:  we need to actively guide any referrals and resist the temptation to just pass someone off because we are tired.

This book was extremely encouraging to a tired soul who has walked through many difficult counseling situations.  I recommend it to all pastor and elders diligently laboring in God’s church for His glory as we walk beside our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

 

 

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Book Review – Creation Regained

I received Creation Regained [1985, Eerdmans] from a Pastor friend of mine, and had never heard it before. I’m a sucker for any good book on worldview.   The subtitle “Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview” hooked me even further.

Albert Wolters defines ‘worldview’ as “the comprehensive framework of one’s basic beliefs about things.” [2]. Everyone has one.  Whether they know it or not.  Now…for a Christian then, Wolters states, and I agree, that our worldview must be shaped and tested by Scripture.  From that foundation the book “offers help in the process of reforming our worldview to conform more closely to the teaching of Scripture.”

This should be understood to mean all of life – a biblical worldview is simply an appeal to the believer to take the Bible and its teaching seriously for the totality of our civilization right now and not to relegate it to some optional area called “religion.” [9]

The author lays a foundation for distinguishing between those disciplines that usually play in the worldview sandbox together – philosophy and theology.  He lays down a “distinction between philosophy and theology that can be make more clear if we introduce two key concepts: ‘structure’ and ‘direction.’ Philosophy can be described as that comprehensive scientific discipline which focuses on the structure of things…and theology can be said to focus on the direction of things.” [10-11]

What makes this view reformational are the details within the big parts of the grand meta narrative of Scripture – Creation, Fall, and Redemption.

When we talk about creation, we must not “lose sight of the Creator’s sovereign activity in orientating, upholding, guiding and ruling his world.” [14]. Scripture clearly presents Christ as intimately involved in the preservation of creation.  All things were created by him and are held together in him [Col 1:16-17], he sustains all things by his powerful word. [Heb 1:2-3].  Thinking then of the work of Christ, he is in fact the mediator of both creation and re-creation. [24]. Scripture therefore, [the Word of Christ]  must be used to illuminate creation.  One fundamental concept to hold true is that creation, before sin, is wholly and unambiguously good. “Deeply engrained in the children of Adam is the tendency to blame some aspect of creation (and by implication the Creator) rather than their own rebellion for the misery of their condition.” [50]

The fall, was “not just an isolated act of disobedience but an event of catastrophic significance for creation as a whole.” [53] Furthermore, “it is one of the unique and distinctive features of the Bible’s teaching on the human situation that all evil and perversity in the world is ultimately the result of humanity’s fall, of its refusal to live according to the good ordinances of God’s creation.” [55]. “Sin is an alien invasion of creation, is completely foreign to God’s purposes for his creatures. It was not meant to be; it simply does not belong.” [58]

When speaking then of a worldview, the “world” is not just limited to a realm outside of the church, for there certainly is worldliness [=sin] in the people of the church.  There is no sacred/secular divide, as Wolters states “this compartmentalization is a very great error.” [64].  What’s the result?  “Christians have abandoned the ‘secular’ realm and have themselves to blame for the rapid secularization of the West.” [65]

This is a glaring call for redemption.  A restoration which “affects the whole of creational life and not merely some limited area within it.” [69] Note this is a restoration, not that God “scraps his earlier creation and makes a new one, but he hangs on to the former creation and salvages it.  He refuses to abandon the work of his hands – in fact he sacrifices his own Son to save his original project.” [70]. I love where Wolters goes this this – everything then is not necessarily avoided or abandoned, but redeemed for God’s glory.  Marriage, sex, politics, art, business…the list goes on and on.  “Redemption is not a matter of an addition of a spiritual or supernatural dimension to creaturely life the was lacking before; rather it is a matter of bringing new life and vitality to what was there all along.” [71]. YES!

“What was formed in creation has been historically deformed by sin and must be reformed by Christ.”  [91] AMEN.

Wolters then goes into an extensive practical section on “Discerning Structure and Direction” which I appreciated for the most part. He separates the sections into societal and personal renewal.  I was into the societal, but the personal section included a bit on “Dance” which makes me itchy.  Maybe it was because this book was originally written in the 80s.  Or maybe it’s because I see little to no use of social dancing [private is another story] redeemed or otherwise.  [Or perhaps it’s because I look like a complete DORK anytime at all I dance? I’ll consider that too…]. Also, the topics seemed very random.  What about including other topics like alcohol? Medication?  Even self-improvement?

The book includes a very helpful post script which I appreciated.  I love anything that brings us back to the centrality and foundational nature of the gospel, which the author(s) did well.  “The gospel is a redirection power. It is not first of all doctrine or theology, nor is it a world view but it is the renewing power of God unto salvation. [Ruel: Romans 1:16]. The gospel is the instrument of god’s Spirit to restore all of creation.” [121]. They also go on to note that the gospel is restorative, but they point out that the “creation itself is the goal of the salvation”…I would push on that word a bit and say rather that “God himself is the goal of salvation” which I’m certain the authors would agree with, but I understand in the redemptive context what they are going for.

The gospel is also comprehensive in it’s scope and it fulfills the long story that is unfolded in the OT.  Last – the church, the people of God is essential to the gospel.

“This gospel is the source of our life and the means by which we interpret our place in the world.”  [143]. AMEN!

Great resource for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of a gospel based worldview!

 

 

 

Book Review – Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons

OK, so true story, I finished this book weeks ago, but have not posted a review.  I think what finally makes me post it is the fact that I’m nearly done with another book and I don’t want to be in the place of having to post two reviews. That would be weird.  Anyway…onward.

Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons is another great resource from author Thabiti Anyabwile and 9Marks.  I received this book [among many others] in my goodie bag and it is indeed a goodie.

71qIfSbyeJL.jpgThe book, as one would expect is very well organized into three helpful sections – deacons, elders, and pastors.  Also, as one would expect, all the chapters are solidly biblically based – and by that I mean the chapter content is all based on a particular qualification for an elder or a deacon.  There are 28 total chapters but they are short and impactful.

So, when it comes to deacons, think not of high church Baptist style, but rather think of Acts 6 –

“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.”  (Acts 6:1–3 ESV)

Anyabwile steps thru each of these, and more deacon qualifications in a systematic and helpful manner.

Likewise, elders are clearly identified in Scripture in such passages as 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  Elders are called to shepherd the flock of God, but doing so knowing that “ultimately, the shepherd we need is Jesus himself.” [49]

Last, the author provides a section on pastors, which at first I found a little odd, as pastors and elders are used interchangeably in Scripture.  The qualifications for each are the same, with the grand exception of a pastor being one who is called to be an elder full time and receive his income from it.    Thabiti writes about this difference “on the one hand, a senior pastor has the same basic tasks as an assistant pastor or a lay elder.  On the other hand, the leadership demands are different. More issues stop at my desk for decision, input and direction.” [111]

One of the primary ways this is manifested is the regular preaching of God’s Word.  All elders must teach, but there is something different about the man who is called to be the primary teacher, Sunday after Sunday, of God’s Word to a particular body of believers.  This should be a weight and responsibility that drives us to our knees in humility and supplication for God to empower us to do this diligently!

With so much misunderstanding about the role of the church, flat out false teaching, and confusion about church leadership, this book is a breath of fresh air and a challenge.  This should find it’s way onto every pastor, elder, and deacon’s book shelf.

 

 

Book Review – Defining Deception

This is a bold book.  It is a personally revealing and transparent book. It is a humble and sensitive book [see the Preface – “The Heart of the Authors”]  It is a book that will make lots of people uncomfortable.  I’m sure many people are angry about this book.   It’s a book that will make many people stop and think about the music they listen to and the teachers they repost on Facebook and Twitter, and what they are actually teaching and promoting about the charismatic work of the Holy Spirit in healings, tongues, spiritual experiences, and prosperity.  [Think “Word of Faith” and “Name it Claim It…” God wants me to have a car, I just have to speak it into existence and receive it with thanksgiving. A la Osteen and Copeland…]

Therefore, this is also a colossally important book at a very important time.

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I have been looking forward to reading Defining Deception, since I stumbled upon the news of it’s upcoming release on the Twitter.

As a Pastor, one of the hardest parts of my “job” is to gently, yet clearly, identify false teaching and as a result have hard conversations with people about it.  One of the worst parts of my “job” is the painful untangling of years of false teaching and helping sort through the spiritual corrosion that bad theology leaves behind in it’s wake.  It shipwrecks faith, undermines marriages and relationships, and spreads like the flu on social media.

For this reasons and more, I’m very thankful for this book.

I was also surprised by the focus of this book.  I was thinking with someone like Costi Hinn, nephew of infamously famous false teacher, Benny Hinn, that it would focus primarily on him.  Indeed some time is spent on Uncle Benny – but Costi and Wood also present a balanced, comprehensive, and historical survey of the Pentecostal and New Apostolic Reformation landscape.  To say the conclusions are terrifying would be an understatement.

Nearly 1/3 of the book is devoted to a history of Pentecostalism and it was well worth the history lesson to see the twisted theology of the forefathers of these modern movements.

However, one of the most noteworthy modern movements is Bethel Church, Bill Johnson, and their band Jesus Culture.  Now, I get it. JC is a ridiculously talented group of musicians.  Years ago, when I first heard “Your Love Never Fails,” I didn’t stop playing it for about a month.  I even did it in church at a worship night. [I simply couldn’t wait to capo my Telecaster and chug it up.] The lyrics [at that time] didn’t have any red flags.  But then I discovered the theology of the ministry at large and needless to say, I stopped listening and never lead that song again.  Yet, so many simply don’t know. Yet, I didn’t know the scope and depth of the heresy. This book will help.

The authors spend a chapter identifying legit doctrinal errors in Johnson’s teaching with [jaw-dropping] quotes from his book that fly in the face of orthodox Christianity and are in direct contradiction to the Word of God. There are too many errors to list here, but this isn’t little stuff, this is HUGE stuff.  Not squabbling over eschatology, but like the deity of Christ and the authority of Scripture over and above our experience.  As the authors so clearly put – “A regenerated life surrendered to the Holy Spirit will always point back to Scripture for faith, theology, and practice. Christianity has held this truth for 2,000 years, and no self-professed modern-day apostle or prophet should lead us away from this foundational truth.” [105]

The book closes with a very helpful appendix section with an honest and personal testimony from Costi, amongst scores of others who have had their eyes opened to the purity and power of the true Word of God centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Another appendixes include a helpful FAQ section, clear teaching on what Scripture actually says about speaking tongues, being slain in the spirit and healings.

In this current spiritual milieu with so many voices, I’m very thankful for this helpful, clear, and strong voice crying out for a return to God’s truth in His Word.  Our experiences and feelings cannot drive the bus, our hearts will lead us astray. This book defines that deception and it needs to be read. That is clearly what is happening with false teachers preoccupied with the supernatural and the experience.  May we have the courage to call it what it is in our lives, pulpits, and relationships to the glory of God.

 

 

Husbands/Dads: Spiritual Leadership?

It’s a topic that can strike fear in the hearts of men.  Especially, when you realize that the Bible in fact calls men to be the spiritual leaders of their home, [Ephesians 5:22-23] and you have little to no idea what that actually means or how to do that.

I get it.  Some days it seems as complicated as my daughters AP Calculus homework.

BUT, don’t let your hearts be troubled –  it doesn’t have to be that way.  Let’s look at 4 practical areas to focus on.

  1. Your Own Spiritual Growth.  Flat out:  you can’t lead anyone where you haven’t gone yourself.  Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. [Matthew 22:37-38] Husbands/Dads, are you personally pursuing a deeper relationship with God thru His Word, centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ?  Does your family know that you have a time where you daily seek God in His Word and prayer?  Do they see your relationship with God being of the highest importance to you?  Here’s one that hurts – do they see you actively putting sin to death? Even when it includes confessing sin and asking for forgiveness from family members? Until your own spiritual growth is a priority, it doesn’t make much sense to try to lead others.
  2. Your Wife’s Heart.  Next to loving God, we are called to love others as much as we love our own selves, as the second most important commandment.  [Matthew 22:39]. There is no closer neighbor than the one you share your bed with.  Are you pursuing your wife?  Knowing what is going on in her life? Her cares, concerns, victories?  What is battling for territory in her heart?  Are you leading her to God’s Word to encourage her? Are you initiating prayer with her regularly?
  3. Your Kid’s Hearts.  Now that you’ve addressed the most important two commandments, we have a foundation for getting after our kids.  We are called to not exasperate them, but bring them up in the fear and instruction of the Lord. [Ephesians 6:4] Are you praying for them regularly?  Are you asking them how they are doing in their spiritual walks?  Are you having the hard conversations with them about the sin in their lives and teaching them how to handle it?  Are you having family times of being in His Word and praying? Are you prioritizing church attendance and membership? Which leads us to…
  4. Your Service In the Church. It’s critical that you are plugged into a solid, Bible-preaching, Christ-centered local church where you can serve others.  [1 Peter 4:11] Does your family see you serving?  Even better – do you serve together?  Do you celebrate the church or tear it to shreds on the ride home?  Do you show them you really value worshipping God as you stand and sing, track along with the sermon, and prioritize serving the body in humility.

Rest assured, this is not an exhaustive list, but it hopefully is helpful in getting our arms around what it means for a man to spiritually lead his family.

Let us all strive to better understand and walk in this as we all grow into the image of Jesus by His grace.

 

Book Review – If You Only Knew

91Q8sZbrKwLThis book caught my eye immediately for two main reasons.  First, I thought [correctly] it was the wife of Austin Stone Worship Leader Aaron Ivey.  [Can you say “Jesus is Better“?  If you haven’t heard this song, STOP and go listen now. Seriously.  It’s OK.  We’ll wait.]

Second, it’s the author’s “unlikely, unavoidable story of becoming free.”  Many of us have a dark past and I’m no different.  I love to hear stories of redemption, and always have hopes that the gospel will outshine the darkness, especially in the re-telling of the story.  Jamie succeeds mightily at this.

If You Only Knew” [B&H, 2018], by Jamie Ivey is a refreshing, vulnerable [borderline uncomfortably so], and best of all – thoroughly gospel-grounded look into the journey of faith.   [One that doesn’t look as neat and tidy as sometimes we can represent it to be in our churchy churches.]

I’ll come clean.  I started to read this book and was filled with “meh” and thought “Oh boy.  Please don’t let this be another ‘I-used-to-be-awful-but-then-God-restored-everything-and-now-I-speak-everywhere-and-have-3M-Insta-followers’ book.”  As a Pastor, I see plenty of ‘regular’ people who actually don’t have everything restored.  Again, I am stoked to say “This is not one of those books.”

I totally get the pain and loneliness of having a sinful past and then walking into church where everyone looks so dang perfect.  I definitely remember thinking,  “If they only knew my story, they’d probably run for the door.  I’m not as perfect as they are.”  I get it. It’s the old square peg/round hole with a healthy dose of an identity that’s not rooted in Christ.  However, as Jamie writes – “When seen through the eyes of the gospel, our stories are not obstacles to our freedom; they are actually the key to unlocking it.” [9]

The author powerfully confesses how self-imposed labels can paralyze one’s spiritual and emotional health.  [“F” = Fake; “W” = Whore; “U” = Used, etc.]  Jamie writes “Not only until years later did I begin to realize that the only one obsessively focused on all these letters was me…and those letters don’t match up with God’s letters”  [27/29].  She boldly and very transparently chronicles, possibly sometimes with a little too much detail, a deep past of sexual sin and the wreckage and heartache it caused.  All the while, trying to fit in this God that she was taught about all her life.

I can also throughly relate to this – the challenges of growing up in church, especially in the theologically light 80s and 90s [flannel graphs, Christian rock and “True Love Waits” need I say more?] and yet not truly understanding the gospel.  “Knowing where to find the Sermon on the Mount and truly believing what Jesus meant when He said it are two vastly different things. Spending time at church and living like you are the church are not the same.” [47]

All sin is at it’s root is a decision to please self rather than please God.  Whatever we are thinking we need to please self – sex, substances, attention from others, fill in the blank.  The author also doesn’t let us off the hook.  In this social media fueled world, we crave attention and glory.  Addressing this and hitting a book theme, Jamie writes “But I know deep down where my desire comes from.  It’s from wanting to be truly known and loved for exactly who I am. And that’s something I’ve discovered can only come from God.” [66]

This is the role of the church, to clearly point people to the love of God in Jesus Christ and  boldly stand on His Word.  Jamie exhorts us to continually make the church where people don’t “feel unwelcome to be real.” [81]

Our churches have to be this place, I completely agree and my people will tell you I say “It’s OK to not be OK…we just can’t stay there…” [thanks Chandler] many weeks from the pulpit.  A faithful, biblical church is where people should see the blood soaked cross, standing center stage, proclaiming we all need a Savior, and in fact he pursues us in his overwhelming love and grace.

This is what turned Jamie Ivey around.  God pursuing her.  Indeed I can relate to this as well and I’m sure many can.  God’s love comes after us and in the author’s word “leads us to a point of unavoidable vulnerability that felt more crippling to me that anything I’d ever been through before.” [88]  Amen.

This relationship with a God who pursues us isn’t neat and tidy.  It’s full of fits and starts in the beginning.  We “stumble [our] way toward trusting Him.” [117]. I felt conviction in my heart as Jamie told her story of failure AFTER surrendering to Christ and becoming new.  It’s such a vulnerable time, all the appetites of our old, newly dead self all up in the mix.  It caused me to think about new Christians, new church members, and how much they need our support, biblical friendship and grace.  Just because someone makes a really dumb decision, doesn’t mean they aren’t saved.  We are all capable of great sin. May God cause us to persevere.

What I learned from this book was that grace is needed, because this is a long haul.   It’s not an instantaneous thing.  Jamie writes that this took her years to get [156].  Even in all that, my self-righteous wondering “How common is this to take years to get it?” This be a disconnect on account of me being male.  Upon checking with my lovely wife, she verified that indeed my man-ness may be revealing itself in a lack of grace.  It does take years, especially with extensive sexual sin and especially for women.  This is why it’s all the more critical to keep preaching the gospel of Jesus, for only in that is true hope of healing and renewal.

I thoroughly appreciated the way Jamie opened up a gospel fire hose in the closing chapters of this book and went deep dive.  She carefully, and biblically, and passionately preaches the life giving gospel in this book and it was what I was hoping for.

Make no mistake, sin is profoundly destructive.  Jamie, at great personal risk, tells us that clearly from her story.  But what I really like about this book is that as great as the damage of sin may be, Jesus truly is far greater in his ability to save and renew.  Let’s help each other stop looking so long at our sin and look at our Savior.

Book Review – Our Secular Age

This is one of those books that I wouldn’t have picked up…unless I got it for free…like at a conference.  Which I did.  I’ve [shockingly] not heard of Charles Taylor, nor “Our Secular Age” and I now officially feel like I have been missing out. [#FOMO].

Taylor, a Catholic philosopher, wrote “A Secular Age” in 2007 and based on the endorsements page, it seems to have been a hugely impactful book.  The issue appears to, as I’ve not read it, the accessibility of the book.  It reminds me of Piper and his revisions of Jonathan Edwards books in a much more accessible format.  As is probably needless to say, this book was a pleasant surprise for me.  I love to engage secular thinking with the truth of the biblical (not cultural) gospel.

All that being said, the Gospel Coalition commissioned 13 authors wrote essays to interact with and explore gospel concepts in a secular world, of course the one in which we all live and engage with.

One of the key questions addressed is “Does God get to be God?” The answer, even for many self-described Christians is, “No, only on our terms.” How true this is and how much this comes in conflict with our secular age…one in which we might be more alike than different.  Author Collin Hansen reflected that Taylor helped him answer the questions “Why reformed theology?” with this response to the initial question.  You really only have two options in a secular age. Either God is for you, on your own terms, or you set the terms. This is what makes reformed theology, and our “homeboy” Jonathan Edwards not only unthinkable, but also reprehensible to modern sensibilities: Edwards God is about God, not us. [6-7].

Michael Horton helpfully points out in his essay that it’s “not merely that our beliefs have changed, but that our way of believing has shifted.  We are masters of our own destiny. Even if God plays a role, it is a supporting one, helping us achieve our best life now.”  [#ShotsFired 23-24]

What this world view organically leads to is the collision with reality and the transcendence of God.  There will be moments that we are faced with the reality that there is something bigger than us at work.  Everything this secular world has to offer can’t be enough and we end up realizing we are “missing something.”  As Taylor writes, and John Starks points out “There is a fear and anxiety that ‘our actions, goals, achievements, and life, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.’ ” [40]

This sets up a few of Taylors foundational concepts, one of them is the “buffered self.” The buffered self “blocks out certain ways in which transcendence has historically impinged on humans, and been present in their lives.”  For the buffered self, the purpose of everything is human flourishing and hence has no category for a God that calls us to “die to ourselves, consider others more important, turn the cheek, etc.  It creates a conflict with the modern buffered self.” [43]. I have come across this countless times. Most recently in a man who was determined to “fix his marriage” and wanted to use God as a tool to do that.  Yet, he refused to surrender his buffered self, deemed it “not working” and we’ve never seen him again.  I’d like to say this is the exception, but it only proves Taylor’s point is still valid in 2018.

I’m sure we all can relate to [if not personally experienced] a sense of being unfulfilled in this world.  Another key concept of Taylor is this “malaise” – which only “deepens because even tough we have given up on transcendent reality, we haven’t given up on transcendent feelings and experiences.  We instead look for transcendence within an imminent frame, which only exposes the smallness of our reality and intensifies the sense of loss.  This takes on three forms: We struggle to find significance in life, crucial moments in life such as birth, marriage and death only heighten the sense of malaise, and we receive a lack in everyday moments, in the mundane.” [44-45]

In this, as Derek Mishmawy writes, there is an opportunity – “Christians have an opportunity to present the gospel as a beautiful alternative to the creamed ideologies of immanence that dominate our landscape.” [59] AMEN!

“The church must not be a place prone to overreaction, or quick to provide conversation-stopping cliches (which inadvertently produce reactive questioners). Questions and dialogue must be welcome. The approach actually calls for a more robust ecclesiology  and community, rather than a thin one. Churches with strong practices of membership and discipline actually have the stability required to include someone without destabilizing the community or undermining it’s credibility.” [61].  This too, is a sad reflection of the current landscape of churches which are lacking in these areas.  Many would argue, and I would be one of them, another reason why the video campus model is ultimately unhealthy and unsustainable.

Compounding that point is Taylor’s concept of authenticity.  “While many speak of there desire for “community,” the community they seek is…participating only the shallow and fleeting “community” that can be enjoyed in the “lonely crowd.” This community can be “synthesized – rather than a bond of deep mutual commitment and she shared disciplines that powerfully and enduringly unit us in the pursuit and celebration of common objects of love.” [68] Indeed, one look at the landscape of churches today will reveal many focused on a worship “experience” – which ultimately leads to precisely what Taylor describes.

It is no wonder why Christians church-shop, looking for just the right fit to suit their consumeristic mindset.  Churches not grounded in biblical ecclesiology only “amplify the instability. They encourage the fickle, commitment-phobic habits of consumers who attend only insofar as it fits the nuances of their personal curated spirituality.”  [Again #ShotsFired, 78] Brett McCracken continues to drive his well-taken point home – “By shifting the focus away from the fixed point of Jesus to the fickle, frequently diverging paths of individual churchgoers, church lose their bearings and become inherently unstable. When a church becomes less bout the demands of Scripture and more about the demands of individuals on the church to fit their prefaces, it loses its power to transform us and subvert our idols.  It becomes a commodity to be shopped for, consumed, and then abandoned when another shinier, trendier, more relevant option appears.” [81]

This directly sets the true biblical gospel against the modern secular goal of human flourishing. “God never signed his name to or promissory notes of marriage, children, financial security, meaningful work, and health.  Let’s not forget we are in the middle of the drama, groaning for God to finally and fully repair this world…our ethic is not autonomous freedom, but obedient love.” [121-2]

Judging by my daily social media feeds, this is still the challenge of the day.  We all walk around and being far more influenced by the philosophy of secular human flourishing and using God and the church as a path to get there.  I am thankful for books such as these that bring well thought out perspectives to combat such drifting.