For those who love the church without loving everything about the church: a review of Searching for Sunday

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Depending on which headline you read about Rachel Held Evans’ newest book, Searching for Sunday, she has either exited, departed, abandoned, or rejected evangelical Christianity. (To which Charisma Magazine replied with a gentle “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”)

My spiritual journey is similar to Rachel’s in many ways. We both have evangelical roots. We both grew up believing you had to think a certain way about science and the Bible, vote a certain way in elections, and fight a certain way in the culture wars. We both grew up playing chubby bunny in youth group, somewhat against our will. (I still can’t look at a marshmallow the same way.) As adults, we both found a new spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.

Firing off a list of grievances with the church is easy. (In fairness, lots of people have good reason—more so than I—to be truly and heartbreakingly disillusioned with church.) My problem is that I can talk about how the churches of my past have let me down. But can I celebrate what they did right? Can I embrace my past without necessarily living in it? Can I leave behind what I need to without discarding everything?

This was weighing on my mind as I opened Rachel’s book. A few chapters in, one thing was clear: Searching for Sunday is NOT another how-the-church-let-me-down memoir. True, Rachel writes honestly about the pain she and others have experienced at the hands of the church. But her book is more a love letter to the church. As love matures, it sees its object for what it is—imperfections, failures, and all. That’s how Rachel sees the church.

Each [church] stays with us, even after we’ve left, adding layer after layer to the palimpsest of our faith.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

Rachel took a risk by organizing her book around the seven sacraments. (There’s one section for each sacrament.) In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have been one of those clever ideas that works better in theory than in practice. Yet it’s one of my favorite things about Searching for Sunday. The sacraments provide the perfect canvas on which Rachel paints a beautiful but honest portrait of the church to whom these sacraments—these gifts of grace—were given.

I do have to agree with Daniel Kirk, who notes in his review that some of Rachel’s best writing is found in the opening chapters of each section. Here she offers short but rich theological reflections on each sacrament. In the one on confirmation, for example, Rachel unpacks the various scriptural metaphors for the Holy Spirit. This chapter was more thoughtful—and more beautiful—than any description of the Spirit I read in my theological studies.

In the end, Searching for Sunday is not just about Rachel’s quest to find a spiritual home for herself. It’s about her desire to see the church—in all its forms—become a refuge for everyone:

The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

The way to do this is not through clever programming or marketing gimmicks. It’s not by tailoring church to felt needs as defined by surveys and focus groups. It’s something far more elemental:

After all those years of attending youth events with light shows and bands, after all the contemporary Christian music and contemporary Christian books, after all the updated technology and dynamic speakers and missional enterprises and relevant marketing strategies designed to make Christianity cool, all I wanted from the church when I was ready to give it up was a quiet sanctuary and some candles. All I wanted was a safe place to be.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

Searching for Sunday helped me understand my own spiritual journey better. It gave me a new lens for making sense of my relationship with the church.

This book is for anyone who loves the church without necessarily loving everything about the church.

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Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book. I did not receive any compensation for writing this review, nor was I required to write a review (positive or otherwise) in exchange for my copy.

Six things I’ve learned reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter

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Every night before bed, my daughter Elizabeth gets to pick two books for us to read.

As far as she’s concerned, The Story of King Jesus will always be the book I wrote for her—and it is—so it’s been making regular appearances in our bedtime routine. We’ve read it a few dozens times now since our first copy arrived.

For my part, the book is an experiment of sorts. I believe we shortchange the gospel when we reduce it to a handful of Bible verses or condense it into a formula you recite. I believe we shortchange our kids when we fragment biblical narrative into isolated stories and treat them as moral fables. I believe our kids deserve a bigger gospel. They deserve to have the Bible presented as a single, coherent story.

The Story of King Jesus is my attempt to do just that. I want to prove it’s possible to share our faith without shortchanging either the gospel or our kids.

My daughter is 4-1/2. She’s just now taking her first steps of faith. I know better than to declare victory yet. But what I’ve witnessed so far gives me a lot of encouragement.

Here are six things that I’ve learned while reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter…

1. She can (and will) use the book to delay bedtime. And I’m all right with that.

OK, I don’t know what implications it has for nurturing her faith. But Elizabeth knows how to use the book to stretch out her nightly routine.

The most sacred bedtime rule in our house—we read each book ONCE—is in tatters when she gives me those big, sad eyes and asks me to read “her favorite book” one more time. Yeah…she knows how to play me.

I find myself in less of a rush, too. I’ll confess… I’ve sped through some of her books at bedtime (Goodnightstars-goodnightair-goodnightnoiseseverywhere-THEEND), but I slow down for this one. Because this story matters. I want her to absorb every word.

Even her regular interruptions are more easily welcomed because, well…

2. She asks surprisingly good questions.

The other night, she interrupted me as we got to the exodus part of the story, where God’s people “were slaves in another country.” We’ve read these words many times, but this time Elizabeth wanted to know what slavery is.

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So we talked about how some people try to own and control others, how this is part of what we mean when we say “God’s good world is broken.” We talked about how “making the world right and good again” (another phrase from the book) means making it a place where everyone is free, where everyone is treated with respect, and where we love everyone they way God loves us.

I love that she’s asking the kind of questions that will help her connect her emerging faith to the world around her—so she can see that God doesn’t just save us from something; he invites us to become part of making the world right and good again.

Kids need to see that our faith makes a difference in this world, not just the next one. The gospel is about far more than where we go when we die. As Benjamin Corey wrote, it’s not about escaping this world; the gospel about transforming it.

Watching Elizabeth process The Story of King Jesus, I’m reminded that our kids know how to ask good questions. We don’t have to shove answers down their throats. We just have to nurture their innate spiritual curiosity.

3. She is naturally drawn to Jesus.

Elizabeth lights up whenever we get to the part about Jesus. As soon as I read the words “something new happened” and “God sent someone special,” she gets fidgety with excitement. She wants to recite the next part before I can read the words, “God sent his only Son, Jesus.” She wants to take in every picture of Jesus doing “good things everywhere he went,” and she wants to tell me about each one. (Some of her interpretations are more creative than others.)

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The Bible is all about Jesus. Jesus fulfills and transforms Israel’s story all at once. The purpose of the Bible is not to serve as some kind of rulebook or user manual, but to point to Jesus, the true logos, the final Word of God.

When we keep Jesus at the center of our gospel, our kids find someone with whom they can connect—perhaps more easily than we do.

4. She’s connecting some of the dots for herself.

The other night, when we got to the part about the kings of Israel—“Some kings were good. Some were bad. Mostly, the kings did whatever they wanted.”—Elizabeth added, “Yeah, just like the very first people.”

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She already gets that Israel’s story is an echo of the garden story—God creates people, gives them a home, offers to live with them, but the people go their own way and lose their home. She’s starting to get that this is our story as well, that it’s not just a story about people who lived a long time ago. She’s starting to understand that what God wants for the “very first people,” and what he wants for Israel, is what he wants for us: to make the world right and good again so we can live with him once more.

5. This story can hold her attention.

My daughter doesn’t have a lot of sit in her. I don’t think she’s ever sat through an entire movie—except maybe Frozen, and that was only once. Come bedtime, her ability to focus, such as it is, usually goes out the window. (In other words, she is a normal kid.) But for all the times we’ve read The Story of King Jesus, it still holds her attention. She wants to know the story behind each image. She’s learned parts of the book by heart. She talks about it during the day.

I think we have a tendency to sell our kids short. We turn the gospel into sound bites. We give nuggets of Bible stories, rendered unrealistically cute and reimagined as moral fables, because we don’t think our kids are up for more than that. We should have more confidence in them and in the story we tell—because, well…

6. She—and other kids like her—can grasp the big story of the Bible, if we give them a chance.

I remember years ago teaching a Sunday school class using a “youth-friendly” denominational curriculum. The kids in my class were bored senseless. I couldn’t blame them. So was I.

So we ditched the curriculum; instead, I started telling them the big story of the Bible (because it was clear no one had ever done this for them). The atmosphere changed immediately. Kids who had been sleeping with their eyes open sat bolt upright. They started asking questions. They wanted to know where the story was going.

As Scot McKnight wrote in The King Jesus Gospel, “We need to regain our confidence in the utter power of proclaiming the one story of Jesus.” To this, I would add we also need to regain our confidence in our ability to tell this story well—and in our kids’ ability to embrace it.

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The Story of King Jesus is available at bookstores now.

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Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CBD, Thoughtful Christian and your local independent bookstore.

The day my book arrived

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I remember reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter for the first time, earlier this year. I’d just seen it in layout, and the publisher let me keep the printouts. I couldn’t wait to get home from Colorado to show it to Elizabeth.

I’m not sure if it was a stalling tactic, but that night before bed, she made me read it twice. (I didn’t object.) The second time through, she began repeating bits of the story under her breath.

Afterward, she asked, “When will it be put together?” I thought she was asking some deep spiritual question, as in, “When will the world be put back together?” (One of the recurring themes of my book is how God is making the world right and good again.) She cut me off after a few seconds of fumbling for an answer and said, “No, dad. When will your book be put together?”

Well, at last I have a good answer. Because this came in the mail yesterday…

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I was so excited, I forgot to change her into her PJs before saying goodnight.

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We read the book at bedtime—this time the proper, bound-up version—because I want Elizabeth to know that even though there is much in our world that’s not as it should be, God made it good, and he is making it good once more.

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I want her to know the gospel is more than just what happens to us when we die. It’s about what we do while we’re alive. That Jesus not only defeated death; he made it possible for us to live.

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I want her to know that Jesus is for everyone.

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I want her to know that the gospel is liberating and life-giving. That if something is oppressive and soul-destroying, then it isn’t the gospel. I want her to know that God invites us all to join him in making the world right and good again.

I can already see glimpses from my daughter that the story is beginning to sink in, that it resonates, that it is life-giving for her.

And that is the best Christmas present I could ask for.

The Story of King Jesus is available for preorder now

God made light

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This summer was my daughter’s first Vacation Bible School. VBS is a more elaborate production than it used to be, so naturally it comes with an official soundtrack and everything.

The CD has been in rotation in our car ever since. Thankfully, it’s pretty good. The songs are a mix of originals, a couple jazzed up hymns, and a few modern worship tunes. They’re actually kind of catchy.

Most of the songs are about God’s love. I am all for my daughter singing about that. And she does, because she knows every word by heart.

However, there’s one song—or more precisely, one line of one song—that made us pause, quite literally. The Hillsong anthem “Forever Reign,” which opens with these lyrics:

You are good, you are good
When there’s nothing good in me

I didn’t even notice the words till I heard them in my daughter’s voice.

There was something jarring about hearing my 4-year-old sing, “There is nothing good in me.”

So my wife and I started skipping to the next track when “Forever Reign” would come on. Our daughter noticed and asked us why. We told her we didn’t think it was right to say there’s nothing good in us—that even though we all do bad things sometimes, God made us good.

The message seemed to sink in. Now it’s gotten to the point where, if we forget to skip the track, Elizabeth shouts a reminder from the backseat, followed by a lecture on how God made us good.

There are plenty of voices in our culture telling children—girls especially—that they are no good, that they are worthless, useless, of no value. Christian culture shouldn’t be one of them.

It’s not that I don’t believe in sin. I believe every one of us is affected by sin. I believe that in varying ways and to varying degrees, we are both victims of and participants in the brokenness of our world.

But this is not where our story begins. It begins in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. It begins in a garden, not in a wasteland. It begins with God so taken by the goodness of creation that he cannot stop singing about it.

“It is good.”

“It is very good.”

God’s light permeates everything and everyone. No amount of evil can fully eradicate goodness from creation. No amount of darkness can fully shut out the light.

No matter what else may be true about us, God made us good.

Which is where my friend Matthew Paul Turner’s new children’s book comes in.

God Made Light is my new favorite answer to religion that says, “There is nothing good in you.” This book recaptures the magic and wonder of creation—something all too often lost in our theologizing about sin and our debates about origins. Matthew writes near the beginning:

In flickers and flashes,
in spills and in splashes,
shine began shining across
nothing but blackness.

Light glared and glimmered.
It flared and sparkled.
And wherever light shined,
dark stopped being dark.

Both the story and the vivid art by Matthew Paul Mewhorter connect the light of creation to the light that lives in each of us:

IMG_4089When God said, “Light!”
the universe lit up,
a dazzling display
of big shiny stuff.

And all that light,
every bright golden hue—
did you know that God put that
same light inside you?

God Made Light was rejected by 11 different publishers, so Matthew decided to publish it himself. In its first week, it broke into the top 200 bestsellers on Amazon. (Sometimes, the good guys DO win.)

The other night, I read God Made Light to my daughter for the first time. She chose it again for bedtime the following night. (Matthew, in case you were wondering whether you were capable of writing the kind of book about God that kids would want to read again and again…)

Elizabeth's first choice of bedtime book, two nights running

Elizabeth’s first choice of bedtime book, two nights running. (And yes, she’s wearing a cape.)

There are three or four places in the book that talk about God’s light shining inside us. Every time Elizabeth and I get to one of those pages, the expression on her face changes. Her eyes light up (pun intended, sorry). She puts her hands over her heart, as if feeling the warmth of light inside her.

My daughter knows it’s not true when others sing, “There is nothing good in me.” She knows she’s not perfect; but she knows that God made her good, that his light hasn’t stopped shining, and that she radiates that light simply by existing.

Every child needs to hear this. God Made Light should be required bedtime reading.

(Yes, she’s also wearing a monkey towel on her head.)

 Note: Matthew was kind enough to send me a copy of God Made Light, for which I’m very grateful. I can already tell this is going to be one of those books that stays with my daughter for years to come. 

Women in theology, book 2 of 10: The Gospel of Ruth

Yeah...it looked nothing like this.

Yeah…it looked NOTHING like this.

After realizing almost all the religious books I own were written by men, I decided to be more intentional about reading books by women. I asked for help from my readers, who recommended over 70 different authors. I chose 10 books to start with, representing authors from across the theological spectrum. A few weeks ago, I shared some reflections after finishing the first book on my list, Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt.

This week, it’s on to the next book, The Gospel of Ruth.

A note about these posts… they’re not meant to be reviews. I don’t see it as my place to critique or judge the value of each book. I want to embrace the posture of a learner. My goal is to share how each book challenges, teaches, or inspires me.

41xqAd4R2+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Gospel of Ruth
by Carolyn Custis James

Of all the writers on my list, Carolyn is probably the most evangelical. As for why I chose her book next, well… that’s a little embarrassing. It’s one I already own but never bothered to read. A colleague gave it to me a few years back… and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, collecting dust.

I couldn’t even be bothered to read the few female-authored religious books I did own. In this case, I was missing out in more ways than one. Carolyn Custis James’ book The Gospel of Ruth utterly changed my view of one of the greatest female characters in the Bible.

Carolyn may be better known for her other book, Half the Church, which looks at how women—who almost certainly comprise more than half the church—have been shut out from serving (and leading) in God’s kingdom, much to the detriment of us all.

I chose The Gospel of Ruth instead because, apart from the fact that I already own a copy, I don’t want to limit myself to books primarily about “women’s issues” (though I think it’s fair to say Half the Church is more than that). I want to experience the contributions women are making in the broader fields of theology, biblical interpretation, ethics, etc.

The Gospel of Ruth has plenty to say about women’s issues—in particular, the patriarchal gender stereotypes that color people’s interpretation of the Bible. Carolyn shows how the scriptures subvert these stereotypes at times. But The Gospel of Ruth is also a full-on, deep dive into the book of Ruth as whole. It’s not a commentary per se, but it provides a vital framework for interpreting Ruth just the same (and maybe even better than most commentaries do).

Carolyn shows how Ruth captures the essence of the gospel, centuries before an itinerant preacher from Galilee came along, proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. Along the way, Carolyn corrects some common misreadings of Ruth, like the view that her sister-in-law was somehow selfish or wrong to go back to her family. Or the notion that Ruth was clueless or bungling when she deviated from Naomi’s instructions about Boaz. (More on that in a minute.)

Ruth was courageous. She was relentless. She was resolute, determined to keep her vow to Naomi no matter the cost to herself. And she was shrewd, too.

Ruth was a woman in a man’s world. She was a widow. A foreigner descended from Israel’s archenemies, the Moabites. Yet when she spoke, one of the most powerful men in Bethlehem listened—and obeyed.

Carolyn helps us see how the characters in Ruth’s drama repeatedly break the rules of “appropriate” behavior for the sake of doing what’s right. Specifically, Ruth breaks the rules in order to do what’s right for Naomi…

  • Like when Ruth silences her mother-in-law by refusing to leave her side…
  • Or when Ruth boldly requests the rights of a harvester—well beyond what gleaners were entitled to by law—earning Boaz’s praise and enabling her to provide more than just scraps for Naomi…
  • Or when she charts her own course with Boaz, ignoring Naomi’s instructions along the way. Naomi simply wanted security for Ruth. (This was, after all, a brutally patriarchal world where widows faced unimaginable hardship, neglect, and exploitation.) Ruth wanted something more: a future for Naomi. Ruth broke all the rules when she proposed marriage and called on Boaz to go beyond his legal obligations (again) by acting as kinsman-redeemer for Naomi.

To put it another way, Ruth challenges Boaz to go beyond the Bible. “The letter of the law says, ‘Let them glean,’ ” Carolyn writes. “The spirit of the law says, ‘Feed them.’ ” Where Old Testament law only required landowners like Boaz to permit the poor to glean the corners of their fields, Ruth forced him to ask, “ ‘How big is a corner?’ ”

The book itself is an exercise in breaking the rules, simply by its presence in the canon. Don’t let its brevity fool you. Ruth is not a sideshow or a pit stop in the Old Testament narrative. It’s a pivotal moment in the story of how God turned a wandering band of nomads into a kingdom through which to bless the world. And at this crucial point, women take center stage. As Carolyn writes:

The book of Ruth breaks all the rules, as two unescorted women take command of the storyline and men recede into the background. Naomi and Ruth do not climb to this high point in the action on the backs of men. They get here on their own.

Perhaps most importantly, Carolyn de-romanticizes the story of Ruth. There is plenty of love in this book, but we trivialize the story when we reduce Ruth and Boaz to star-crossed lovers. As Carolyn shows in chapters 4-5 (which are worth the price of the book by themselves, even when it isn’t being discounted by Amazon), the driving question of Ruth is whether God’s hesed—his covenantal, sacrificial love, his vision for how we are to live for each other—has run out for Naomi.

Carolyn reminds us that submission runs both ways. When Ruth proposes to Boaz (honestly, it’s like she didn’t even read I Kissed Dating Goodbye), he responds, “Everything you have said, I will do for you.” Boaz submits to Ruth. In similar fashion, everything Ruth does, she does for Naomi. Submission is not unilateral. It’s not just for women. And it is not weakness. As Carolyn writes:

Ultimately the impact of submission means those with power over others give it up. Women grow strong and flourish as kingdom-builders. Children thrive and begin to realize their calling to give back. And slaves walk free, side by side in full equality with their Christian brothers who were once their masters.

Carolyn helped me to see how Ruth prefigures the gospel, envisioning a world where everyone submits to each other mutually in sacrificial, self-giving love. The gospel envisions a world where women and men share the same mission of extending God’s hesed to those for whom it’s run out.

Next up: it’s into unchartered territory (for me, anyway) with Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible by Dr. Musa W. Dube. 

Image credit: Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett

Women in theology, book 1 of 10: Reframing Hope

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A few weeks ago on this blog, I wrote about how a disproportionate number of religious books are written by men. In response, I was flooded with suggestions of female religious writers, more than 70 authors in all, to help correct the imbalance on my own bookshelf.

After taking some time to learn about each author, I narrowed down the list down to ten books I plan to read by the end of the year.

Earlier this week, I finished the first book on my list, Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt. My choice of where to start was driven partly by a pragmatic consideration: I’m starting with the books I already have. Carol was generous enough to send me a copy of Reframing Hope. (She also sent copies of her other books, Tribal Church and Fighting for Peacewhich look equally intriguing.)

My plan over the coming weeks is to share some of my takeaways from each book. I’m not planning to review each book, per se. I don’t see it as my place to judge which voices are worthy of a hearing. Instead, I want to adopt the posture of a learner. My primary hope is to learn the art of listening to voices I haven’t always been very good at hearing.

Now, on with the show…

Reframing Hope CoverReframing Hope
by Carol Howard Merritt

The premise of Reframing Hope is to help churches to thrive in a constantly shifting world so they can meaningfully connect with their communities—and, in particular, with new generations. Carol argues for churches doing what they’ve have always had to do: contextualize the “hope within us” for the world in which we find ourselves, not the one that existed 50 years ago.

Some of the things I appreciated most about Carol’s book…

The way she transcends the extremes of stubborn resistance to change on the one hand and, on the other hand, a reactionary tendency to throw everything old out the window.

The way she expertly diagnoses recent trends in three distinct streams: mainline, evangelical, and emergent—and relates them to the larger cultural and technological shifts taking place. She connects the dots in ways I hadn’t considered before.

The wisdom she shares on using technology as a tool for ministry. On the one hand, Carol unpacks some of the dangers of relying too much on faceless digital technology. One danger I hadn’t thought much about until reading Carol’s book is how all this technology, if not carefully used, can reinforce inequality between the economically privileged and the disadvantaged, who have less access to technology. Yet Carol also shows how social media can be a tool for nurturing community, alongside (not in place of) more traditional means.

She practices what she preaches, too. Case in point: Carol and I have never met in person. Our interaction to date has been confined to a few tweets and maybe the occasional blog comment. Yet she saw my post about wanting to expand my reading list so I could start listening to more female voices, and she offered to send me some of her books. That may not sound like much, but look at it this way. She made a meaningful investment in my spiritual formation. It required the gift of her time, a certain amount of money to send me her books, and genuine concern on her part for someone she’s never even met. All made possible by Twitter and her willingness to use her platform for community-building rather than empire-building.

Loyal radicals

I also appreciated how relatable some aspects of Carol’s journey were. We both grew up in evangelical churches, we both intersected (to varying degrees) with the emergent movement, and we both wound up finding a home in the mainline church. I’m especially grateful to Carol because she gave me new language to help make sense of my own journey. She writes about “loyal radicals” who possess many of the same proclivities as their emergent counterparts, yet find themselves drawn to more “institutional” expressions of the church.

Carol makes a powerful case for the importance of these institutions, too. Some in the emergent stream like to think of denominations as a thing of the past, having long outlived their usefulness. Tony Jones, for example, talks about the “denouement of denominations.” To him, this is not a tragedy but something to celebrate. Elsewhere, he writes, “Few things piss me off as much as the sinful bureaucratic systems of denominational Christianity.”

Emergent Christianity imagines itself breaking the shackles of organized religion in the name of inclusivity and progressive values. Yet the leadership of emergent is almost entirely white and male. And if some of the more explosive charges made recently are true (see the comment thread on David Hayward’s recent post), then the emerging church has a long way to go before it can claim to have put sexism and misogyny behind it.

It was the mainline church—for all its bureaucratic inefficiencies (and oh there are many) that gave Carol a platform for ministry, that affirmed her calling and made room for her and others like her to lead. As she writes:

The organic leadership model, where pastors are raised up through the community without the shackles of a denomination, did not work for me—and I daresay that model probably fails to work for countless other women, as well as some historically disadvantaged minorities…. Although many emergent church leaders point to the denominational church as an unredeemable bureaucratic structure that stifles innovation and is inseparably bound to modernism, I have a different experience. I have found denominational congregations to be less hierarchical because they encourage leadership of women more and have a longevity that allows the community to thrive long after the pastor is gone.

Carol makes a crucial distinction between the empire-building so pervasive in some corners of the church and the community-building she advocates. She offers a prophetic critique of the “bigger-is-always-better” mentality that has shaped much of evangelicalism—and the broader culture—for the past 50 years:

From our produce to our political power to our pulpits, we decided that bigger is better. We opted for less personal contact. We began to lose sight of what is good for our communities and began to focus on the individual. However, the bigger-is-always-better attitude left us empty, anxious, and depressed.

Denominations, for all their faults, offer a means of accountability and stability. It’s harder to build your own empire within the confines of a denomination. There’s a reason why there are fewer “celebrity pastors” in mainline churches. We understand that, as Carol writes, “When a church rises up around a charismatic leader, the congregation tends to dissolve when that leader leaves.” Outside of a denomination, there’s nothing to hold someone like Mark Driscoll accountable to charges of abuse, because he is an empire unto himself. Denominations value continuity, accountability, and inclusion. And as Carol can attest, there is often more follow-through on these commitments within denominational structures than outside them.

“Words create reality.”

Carol’s book is not about helping aging mainliners come to grips with modern technology. (Though for anyone who’s wondering how to bring their church into the digital age, she has lots of great advice to share.)

Reframing Hope envisions something bigger. It calls for a renewal of both the medium and the message. Carol understands the power of narrative for igniting change. And, dang, she can preach. One of my favorite extended passages in the book comes from the chapter on retelling the message:

Scripture reminds us that we have the power to bless and to curse (Gen. 12:3). This may seem like a foreign concept, but any father who hears the words “I love you” from his child knows the power of a blessing. The words create a reality. Parents also often have the power to bless and curse, and indeed we parents are typically the first ones to create our children’s realities. Our answers to their question of “Who do you say that I am?” have a lasting effect on them, for better or worse… We are a storied people. Our lives are formed by the truths and lies we’ve been told throughout the years.

In the same way, as people of the Word, Christians are connected through words to a larger history and tradition. In the story of creation, we recall how God created out of nothing, through the use of words… The Word then became the history of a people. As the story unfolds, we read of the fiery and comforting words of the prophets. Words are eaten. Words blacken the mouth. Words become as sweet as honey. Words are set in stone and carried around in a dramatic covenantal ark. They are lost and they are found.

Then we read how Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, dwelt among us. Over the centuries, as the church formed and continues to form, the Word becomes central to our lives. We say and hear, “This cup is the new covenant,” and we know these words signify a new reality, a new relationship of promise, forgiveness, and reconciliation…

All of these words bind us to a story, a purpose, a community; they form as they inform us.

What we need, Carol writes, is to recover a narrative understanding of the Bible. We need people “who can present the facts [of our story] within a context and with an emotional impact.” We need to recover the art of sharing the good news—that is, sharing our story.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing mainline churches is that we are too easily fixated on what Carol calls a message of deprivation: “Come to our church because we need more people, money, and energy (which doesn’t sound like good news at all).”

She continues:

If churches can develop and communicate a narrative that invites people to enter—if they are places where a person can slip into the pew for an hour of internal wrestling, where she can mentally question everything that happens, and at the end of it, she knows that such questioning is okay—then people will attend again… It’s an extensive, tough, and beautiful process. And it is one of the great things about being the church.

That’s one of the most important things that I took from Carol’s book. She reminded me of some of the genuinely good things that are still true about the church, while prophetically inviting us into a new era of ministry.

Next up: the other book already on my shelf, The Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James

Matthew Paul Turner’s Great Big American God

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God has an image problem, so it seems. The question is, which God?

There have been many manifestations of God over the last four centuries of American religious history, according to Matthew Paul Turner’s newest book, Our Great Big American God. MPT’s sweeping historical overview doesn’t always make for comfortable reading. For him, nothing is sacred.

Though perhaps you’re writing about our tendency to make and remake God in our own image, nothing should be sacred.

Unknown-1From the Pilgrims to Jonathan Edwards and arguably the creepiest children’s sermon ever… from the emergence of modern-day evangelicalism to the corporatization of God… MPT sets his sights on the popular, sanitized version of our history—one that depicts America as a shining “city on a hill” planted by God himself. The effect can be jarring at times, even for those of us who’ve learned to take the sanitized version with a grain of salt.

Take, for example, how Our Great Big American God demolishes the notion that the Puritans came to America for the sake of religious freedom in the broad sense of the term. In truth, they came for their own religious freedom. Once on these shores, they denied such liberty to those who believed differently that they did. MPT concludes that the Puritans effectively turned God into a “controlling, state-run deity, the same God that had made England so impossible for them to endure.” Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson would probably agree.

A few chapters later, Our Great Big American God turns its attention to D.L. Moody, the father of mass evangelism and a forerunner of sorts to Billy Graham. Our Great Big American God doesn’t shy away from the ostensibly darker side of Moody’s legacy: his uncomfortably close ties with the robber barons of the Gilded Age and how he openly preached against the labor rights movement—at a time when child labor was commonplace and the average worker toiled 10-hour days, six days a week in downright horrific conditions.

Our Great Big American God also traces the development of dispensational theology by men like J.N. Darby and C.I. Scofield, including the doctrine of the rapture. MPT seeks to connect dispensationalism to the modern church’s failure to practice the kind of radical compassion embodied by Jesus and his first followers:

Darby’s ideas not only changed how America’s Christians thought about God and the Bible but also how they thought about the world. According to Scofield, Christians shouldn’t worry about “the reformation of society.” He said, “What Christ did not do, the Apostles did not do. Not one of them was a reformer.” Which is why so many of America’s Christians do little to improve American society, because why bother when Jesus is coming back?

If you find yourself cheering while MPT takes on someone else’s golden calf, just wait. He’ll probably turn his attention something closer to home before too long. Like I said, nothing is sacred in his book. Reading Our Great Big American God was at times an unsettling experience. But the conclusion it points to ought to be unsettling:

We’ve all fashioned God after our own image, to one degree or another.

God has become, in effect, “like a naked paper doll, one that free individuals could and would dress up into whatever Americanized deity they liked. Which is exactly what Americans have been doing with God all along.”

We think it’s God’s story we’re telling when, all too often, what we’re really doing is using God’s name to baptize or legitimize our own agenda. Which is why God so often ends up being angry at the same things we’re angry at and hating all the same people we hate.

The irony, for MPT, is that this leads to a smaller view of God, even when we think we’re proclaiming a big, all-powerful deity:

The big sovereign God that Christians usually boast about becomes a small and narrow-minded deity incapable of handling unorthodox ideas, at least not without humans helping him to carry the burden… As hard as we try to demand that God be this or declare that God hates that, in the end, our actions often undermine our understandings about the sovereignty of God.

Our Great Big American God should prompt plenty of discussion and debate. But it should also encourage us to seek a fresh dose of humility in how we go about telling God’s story. Being confronted with the less savory bits of our religious history should remind us that maybe we don’t have God entirely figured out, after all.

To quote something Matthew Paul Turner shared in a recent interview with Bedlam Magazine:

If we really care about God’s story we would be more careful how we express it. We would approach it with gentleness and questions and humility as opposed to such confidence and arrogance that we are just absolutely convinced that we know what God thinks about this issue. I hope it gets people talking about our Christian history and how there are so many bits and pieces of our history that play out in the here and now. As we tell the story it would behoove us to consider the words we use.

Our Great Big American God is worth reading, even if it makes you squirm at times. Which it should.

On reading my book to my daughter for the first time…

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Last night I read The Story of King Jesus to my daughter for the first time. Well, I read printouts with not-quite final art that my publisher gave me last week. Still, it was a moment I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

It’s been two years since I shared the first draft of what became The Story of King Jesus. Then Scot McKnight picked it up and shared it on his blog. Many, MANY rewrites later, it was a book proposal…and finally (after more rewrites), an actual book with a publisher and a release date and everything (ahem, March 2015). But it’s always been—and always will be—something I wrote for my daughter. This is how I want to introduce her to our faith.

She’s picked up bits and pieces about Jesus over the years. She knows Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, though she wonders why she’s never seen him in person before. We’ve read some Easter books together, as well as excerpts from The Jesus Storybook Bible and the Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu. But this was her first time hearing the whole story of Jesus in one sitting—including the story of Israel, which he brings to fulfillment.

I think one of the reasons we reduce the gospel to a handful precepts or sound bites is because we’re not sure our kids are up for something bigger. Or because we don’t think of the gospel as being primarily a story. Or maybe we worry our kids won’t have the attention span for something more than a few quick bullet points about sin and salvation.

I want to prove these assumptions wrong—because, frankly, this kind of gospel doesn’t work. It doesn’t stick. Stories stay with us for life. Bullet points, not so much. Our kids need a better story.

Last night, my daughter stayed with The Story of King Jesus all the way through, even though it’s longer than most of her bedtime books. She even had me read it a second time. OK, that may have been a bedtime stalling tactic. And granted, she’s a focus group of one. But she’s also a bit younger than the target age group (4 to 8) for my book, so I was thrilled to see how she engaged with it.

She was absorbed in the story and the art (thank you, Nick Lee). When we got to the part about the crucifixion, she grabbed her owl nightlight and held it close to the page so she could look more closely. On our second time through, she started repeating some of the key lines—completely on her own.

I have no illusions that everything got through on the first or even the second read. But she was absorbing, processing, engaging with the story. After we finished, she said it was her favorite story she’s ever read. (Though earlier that evening, she said the meatless chicken nuggets we had for dinner were her favorite food she’s ever had. The night before, peanut butter sandwiches were her favorite.)

As for the “most clueless dad” moment of the night… afterward she asked me, “When will it be put together?” I assumed she was asking a deep spiritual question about the state of the world. After all, God fixing the world—putting it back together—is one of the recurring themes of The Story of King Jesus. So I proceeded to stumble my way through a response…until she cut me off and said, “No, dad. When’s the book going to be put together?”

But she also asked me when Jesus is coming back, which gave us a chance to talk about how we get to be part of making the world right and good until he returns. We talked about how God gave us a job to do: love each other with all we’ve got.

The bottom line is, last night, I got to talk to my daughter about bringing heaven to earth.

I know it can be terrifying to talk to your kids about faith. We’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing and screw it up for them. But it can also be a wonderful, rewarding experience. It can be like bringing a little bit of heaven to earth right here and now—especially when we let go the pressure to extract a decision from our kids now and just tell them the story and watch it begin to click in their own imaginations.

I think—I hope and I pray—that’s what started happening for my daughter last night.

UPDATE: I just found out you can already pre-order The Story of King Jesus through Amazon…

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The Bible is messy, troubling, and weird. And that’s OK.

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Someone shared this quote with me from Peter Enns’ preview of his forthcoming book The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, September 2014):

What if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is? Not the well-behaved version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith. Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of our inner disquiet, a warning signal of a deep distrust in God. A Bible like that isn’t a sure foundation of faith; it’s a barrier to true faith. Creating a Bible that behaves itself doesn’t support the spiritual journey; it cripples it. The Bible’s raw messiness isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s an invitation to a deeper faith.

What if the battle for the Bible is really just a battle for control? Is it really such a “high view” of Scripture if it means making the Bible something it’s not and never meant to be? Isn’t it a higher view to accept and embrace the Bible we have than the one we might wish we had?

Needless to say, I will be buying Enns’ new book when it comes out. (Unless I can wrangle myself an advance review copy…)

For more, see “Quick preview of my next book (or, respecting the Bible enough not to defend it)” on Peter Enns’ blog.

In which my book has a title, a cover, and a release date

So this is real, friends.

Yesterday, I saw the final cover of my book. With my actual name on it.

Apparently, they’re really letting me do this. (Yeah, I’m surprised too.)

As of today, my book has a title, a cover, and a release date.

The Story of King Jesus will be published on March 1, 2015. Five days before my 38th birthday. A month to the day before our son turns one. Exactly two hundred days after our daughter turns four.

She’s the first of two very good reasons I have for doing this book. I wrote the first draft when she wasn’t even two years old. Back then I had no idea it would ever become a book. I just wanted something we could use to nurture her spiritual curiosity and introduce her to a more holistic gospel story, the kind of thing Scot McKnight calls for in his book The King Jesus Gospel. Something that’s more than just a set of spiritual laws. A gospel that’s not about escaping from this world but something much better: the story of God making this world right and good again.

I’m thankful I get to share the end result with you. Thankful that David C Cook is taking a chance on this first-time author (one who never thought his first real book would be a kid’s book). Thankful that a talented illustrator named Nick Lee has thrown everything he’s got into making this story come alive with his captivating artwork.

And, of course, thankful to any of you who end up buying a copy or sharing it with someone who’s wondering how to introduce their kids to their faith.

This is coming March 1.

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