Friday, February 8, 2013

Review of Brass Heavens by Paul Tautges

We all  experience times in our Christian journey where we pray and seemingly get no response from God. We encounter situations and needs in life and we, rightly, cry out to God for a remedy. We call on him because he tells us to do so and because we believe he will listen and respond. When we don't see a remedy, we begin to wonder if God is listening. Our prayers seem to reflect back to us. This is the phenomenon we refer to as brass heavens--the belief that God won't, or can't, hear us. During these times, we look for explanations as to why God isn't answering our prayer.

Brass Heavens: Reasons for Unanswered Prayer by Paul Tautges was written to help with those explanations and to give encouragement in those times.In an honest, straightforward, yet encouraging style, Tautges addresses reasons for a lack of apparent response to our prayers.

Tautges begins by showing the triune God loves us and desires to hear from us. He goes through the role of each member of the Godhead in response to prayer. Tautges makes a strong point that, though God knows what we are going to pray, he commands us to pray anyway because prayer is more about changing us than it is about informing him or moving him to action. Tautgest writes:
The main thing is that in the present, as we pray, our greatest need is already being met. That need is the transforming work of God in our hearts, with prayer itself as one of God's appointed means of meeting that need.
Tautges moves on in the introductory section to explain that God the Father disciplines Christians by his silence. While not all silence from God is necessarily disciplinary, it is often a good indication that God is displeased with us and awaits our repentance.

In the chapters following Tautges addresses areas of sin that the Bible identifies as reasons for God's silence. First are sins of commission: doing that which we ought not do. Next are sins of omission: not doing what we ought to do (such as resolving conflicts and allowing offenses to go unresolved). Tautges then addresses religious sin. In his words:
...[R]eligious sins are those that feed self-awareness of our spirituality. Instead of driving us to God in humble dependence upon his grace, they blind us, fuel self-righteousness, breed  spiritual apathy, and often neutralize the Holy Spirit's conviction.
This category is one which others who have written on the topic of unanswered prayer fail to include. Rather than point to our inability to religiously "pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps," by adhering to a "to-do" list or other law-like solutions, we must surrender ourselves to God's grace to become free from religious sin.

The next category of sin Tautes address is the sin of men failing to understand and honor their wives. I found this curious, though encouraging, that Tautges addressed men specifically, and solely--he does not have a corresponding chapter for women. With great tact and courage, Tautges calls men to godliness in their marriage:
The challenge facting every Christian husband who desires to be godly is to love his wife by both leading her confidently and loving her gently. 
Next, the author addresses what is probably the greatest struggle and reason for being disciplined by God's silence: pride. Tautges identifies Biblical evidences of pride "by which we can be forewarned and equipped to turn from our stubborn rebellion," among them being: slowness to admit wrong, a mule-like spirit, increasing disobedience to God, resistance to correction, and demanding our own way. As we examine ourselves and observe these traits, we do well to confess our pride and repent.

Finally, Tautges pinpoints one reason for God not responding to prayer that isn't due to sin: the testing of our faith.
[D]iscontentment is necessary for our sanctification. Got often leaves our prayers unanswered so that we might become increasingly conformed to the image of his Son. Unanswered prayer is a gift from God for our growth--in holiness and in every other good and godly way..."
Throughout the book, Tautges consistently refuses to offer "steps" to compel God to hear and answer our prayer. In the areas regarding sin, his answer (rightly) is simply: confess and repent of your sin. This, to many, sounds too simple. We are trained to want a to-do list guaranteeing God's restored attention and favor. This however, isn't biblical. Tautges repeatedly encourages the reader to apply the only biblical response to sin: repentance. And in response to God's using silence to stretch our faith, we simply persevere. The primary purpose of our trials is that we might change.
There are no short-cuts to spiritual maturity. Fully developed faith can only be brought about by a long, difficult process involving trials which produce perseverance, and perseverance has an eternal reward.
As far as critique, I can only offer one that I encountered in the introduction and which turned out to be only due to my perception. I am averse to language which makes it appear that we can coerce God or compel him to change in any way. One passage had that feel: "...we will also discover the biblical means by which we may open God's ears to our voice again." This was an early blip on my radar that caused me to be on guard against any theological views that would suggest God was anything less than absolutely sovereign. It became quickly apparent that my internal red flag had been raised unnecessarily. Tautges' views communicated through the book are consistently God-honoring.

This short book is one that needs to be read every few years in a Christian's life, if not more often. Just as we need to daily remind ourselves of the Gospel, we must be reminded that sin affects our communion with God and can cause him to go silent in furtherance of our sanctification. I would commend this book to all Christians, regardless of the stage of their sanctification.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the Cruciform Press blogger review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Review of A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology, by Kelly M.Kapic

You are a theologian. The term "theology" means a word (logos) about God (theos). If you speak about God, you are engaged in theology; you are a theologian.

In the first chapter of A Little Book for New Theologians, Kapic makes the case that theology isn't just for the seminary student, pastor, or professor. According to Kelly Kapic, "Theology is not reserved for those in the academy; it is an aspect of thought and conversation for all who live and breathe, who wrestle and fear, who hope and pray." This includes most people, and most certainly should include all Christians because all Christians should desire to know and talk of God.

Having established that Christians ought to be concerned about theology, Kapic then goes on in the second chapter, to unpack the connection between knowledge of God, knowledge of self, and worship. Kapic, in summary of the second chapter, states, "Although our understanding is never final, and although we can expect that we will misunderstand or misapply aspects of what we learn, he still invites us to begin. And thus, with eyes lifted toward him we live, speak and praise. This is the beginning of the fear of the Lord; this is the beginning of wisdom; this is the beginning of worship."

Next, Kapic sets up the remainder of the book through the analogy of a pilgrimage. God  knows himself perfectly. We, however, have an imperfect knowledge of God. Although we are able to have a true knowledge of God (revealed to us in Scripture), our knowledge is incomplete. "Because our knowledge of God must grow over time as we walk with him, it should not be surprising that some of the best imagery used to depict the theological enterprise is that of pilgrimage." Kapic encourages the reader to persevere in knowing and worshiping God through theology, not giving up because of our limitations because our confidence ultimately rests on God, not ourselves.
Our call is to come, to gaze at Christ, to hear his word and to respond in faith and love. Here theology and worship come together: we are answering the call of our heavenly Father to speak words from the basis of an intimate knowledge of the Word, which is possible only by the gift of the Spirit. Theology is wrapped up in this response to God's call. Hence, it is to be faith-full: faith is always required for genuine theology. We rightly respond to God's revelation when our words about God, whether many or few, are placed into the matrix of worship.When we see the relationship between theology and worship we are moved beyond intellectual curiosity to an engaged encounter with the living God.
Kapic moves on to the second movement of the book with seven chapters, each identifying a characteristic of faithful theology and theologians:

  • The inseparability of life and theology--True theology is inevitably lived theology
  • Faithful reason--Acknowledging that our reason works properly only when it is full of faith
  • Prayer and study--To avoid depersonalizing our theology, we must be in constant communion with God
  • Humility and repentance--We can not rightly respond to God's revelation and worship him in any other posture
  • Suffering, Justice, and Knowing God--We must consistently resist the either-or choice of the Lord's justice and mercy
  • Tradition and Community--While the Bible is our only rulse of faith and practice, God's Spirit has guided the church through the ages as it rightly sought to understand that Word
  • Love of Scripture--To study the words but never encounter the life-sustaining Word is to miss everything
Kapic concludes with a working definition of theology: "an active response to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, whereby the believer, in the power of the Holy Spirit, subordinate to the testimonies of the prophets and apostles as recorded in the Scriptures and in communion with the saints, wrestles with and rests in the mysteries of God, his work and his world." This, indeed, is the path of living to God.

The author does a wonderful job of stirring the coals of desire for God and his word. I highly recommend this short book (around 120 pages) for those, as the title suggests, just beginning the pilgrimage of theological inquiry; those who have, after years of study, allowed the engagement with holy Scripture to become depersonalized; and every other Christian who wishes to, through deeper knowledge, worship God more fully.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review of Embracing Obscurity

If there is one universal mindset, it is that each of us wants to be important, to be significant, to have our names known; to be known for something--anything. It is a frame of mind that, admittedly, is vigorously self-glorifying. Some sectors of the modern evangelical church have hijacked this mentality and attempted to redeem it without changing the locus. They have tried to justify the shadiness of self-aggrandizement of significance seeking by making it about entitlement--God's way of reward for piety.

The author of Embracing Obscurity turns that idea on its head by making a solid case that, as Christians, we should marvel and imitate Christ's disposition of humility, service, sacrifice, suffering, and mystery and surrendering our own to God's glory.

The first thing to note is that the author of the book is anonymous. He (I assume it's a male author based on the tone and content and will, for sake of ease of reading, use the masculine pronouns in this review) explains in the introduction that it is the height of irony to write a book about how Christians should not pursue the spotlight of fame or recognition. Consequently, the author chose to not attach his name to the book. He even said that he hid the writing of the book from family to  prevent anyone from "accidentally" giving him recognition.

The author first spells out the chronic condition of significance. He writes, "We're intoxicated with a desire to be known, recognized, appreciated,  and respected. We crave to be a 'somebody' and do notable things, to achieve our dreams and gain the admiration of others. To be something--anything--other than nothing."

If, in moments of reflection and conviction, we are honest with ourselves, our hearts resonate with this truth. Even as Christians, called such because we profess and declare to pursue the character of Christ, must admit that we want to be known in some way even if it's by a small group of people with home we associate or have influence.This is evidenced by the number of us who have Facebook, Twitter, and other social network accounts. These accounts, with their regular updates, are about us, our thoughts, our activities, our pet causes, and our demonstration of how intelligent and socially savvy we are. We are, as much as anyone, about self-promotion.

The author says this is sin and that it's serious. "[It's serious because] it kills with the same force as the 'big sins' from which we distance ourselves."

The solution: embracing obscurity. "Embracing obscurity is not about wiping ourselves from existence but rather, voluntarily, becoming nothing in light of everything God is and has promised us. Why? So we can bring Him greater glory. It's about making Him, not ourselves, look good."

The author rebukes the church because it "has come so fair in imitating the world's tenets of success that we can barely distinguish the two. There's a sense of urgency in our condition I think few of us us realize. And unless we find the antidote soon, we'll live and die in our self-deception."

The scriptural reference used throughout the book is Philippians 2:5-11
 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The book is divided into ten chapters. In the first chapter, the author strives to humble the reader by pointing out that that each of us is only one in over 7 billion people on the planet and only one of a many of God's innumerable creations both on earth and outside of earth (though man was the "very good" creation in His own image). In the context of sheer numbers, we are almost nothing.

Having taken the reader down a notch, he goes on in the remaining nine chapters explaining some of the implications and outworkings of embracing obscurity.One of the notable chapters is Chapter 7, Embracing Suffering. The author explains that many Christians live according to what he calls the Joseph Principle: the idea that if I am suffering today, God must be preparing me for something better. He points out, rightly, that we like to view every setback through the lens of inevitable success. The reality is that this is rarely true. Our suffering does not buy us privilege or obligation for future success. Suffering is most often unending. There is no change of fortune "just around the corner." His point is that we shouldn't simply endure it, but embrace it, allowing God to use suffering to shape us more and more into Christ's image.

Another notable chapter is Chapter 9, Embracing the Spotlight.There are times when God gives certain people a position of influence, authority, or notoriety. If we are given such a time in the spotlight, we must decide whether to use it for God's glory or our own. The spotlight isn't itself evil, but how we steward the gift can be. Three purposes are identified for one's time in the spotlight: 1) to make God's name great; 2) to advance His kingdom on earth; and 3) serve others.

Throughout the book, the author drives home the point that obscurity is of both heart and position. He concludes soberly:
Obscurity in this life--either assigned or chosen--is actually a great gift.a great gift. Our anonymous sacrifices get touched with immortality. By serving others now, we get credited with serving Christ later. By choosing to live mysteriously in this life, we'll live like kings for eternity...The imminence of eternity must outshine the lure of fame today. Forever has to eclipse the day-to-day desires and pursuits of our ordinary lives.
I found Embracing Obscurity to be convicting. I've long sought to be more than I am; more than an average guy, with an average job. I've squandered time and opportunities to utilize the gift of insignificance in anticipation of significance I knew would likely never come. This book was a good wake-up call to use the time given on earth to quietly, humbly, serve others, and serve God.

The content of the book is solid. Some might make the accusation that the author proclaims law not grace.However, this charge is unfounded.There is a clear focus on the dependence on Christ's grace to make changes to the reader's heart regarding obscurity. Also, the only works the author encourages are the same that are exhorted in the Bible: to seek to be Christ-like.

I can only identify two critiques of the book, both being form rather than content. First, the narrative is written in a verbal style almost as if transcribed from a series of teachings. While this style would work well if listening to an audio book version of this book, it caused a lack of fluency in reading. Secondly, there was in my view, an inordinate use of cliched colloquialisms and phrases that were, at times, almost flippant. Undoubtedly, these were included to provide a sense of levity to an otherwise weighty discussion with great gravity. Despite these minor quirks, I would commend this book to all.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Love of Sports: One Man's Perspective

I am a fan of the Houston Texans. I have been since they started as an expansion team ten years ago. Through the worst of seasons to this season, their best yet, I've been faithful to claim them as "my" team. I also like teams in other sports (except basketball) as well as competitors in individual sports (golf, NASCAR racing, and UFC).

It's fun to watch some people who are rabid fans of teams. Their demeanor is determined, in large part, by the success of the team they support. They strut around arrogantly when "their" team is winning; they get violently angry when "their" team loses.

It's also curious how people include themselves as part of the team they are fans of. When they speak of "their" team, they speak in first-person, as if they were on the team and had an actual stake in the success or failure of the team.

This led me to wonder about the nature of our love of sports. I don't mean the "why" of our  love of sports. Explanations for why we love sports are legion and vary from sociological to psychological, to physiological. What I want to consider is the nature of our passion for sports from a Christian worldview.

At its most basic, sports is about competition. Though not all people are sports-lovers, almost everyone is a lover of competition, whether they see in themselves or not. Consider the popularity of "reality" television shows such as Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother, American Idol, The X Factor, America's Got  Talent, and on and on. They are all, basically, competitions. Viewers of both sports and "reality" television pick their competitor(s) from the available choices and live vicariously through them.

We all, through competition, seek to be, or be associated with, the best individual or best team or best organization or best institution. We want to have the experience of, not just better, but best.

What does this say about us? I think it speaks to two related concepts: 1) an innate desire for excellence; and 2) an intrinsic understanding that not everything is excellent; that there is inferiority and mediocrity. Said another way, we understand that there's something imperfect (even broken) about the world, in general, and each of us, specifically. And we are hard-wired to desire something better. We desperately seek out an expression of the excellence we know isn't currently, but could be, even should be. Sports are simply an expression of that quest. Though sporting events existed in agrarian times, they escalated in popularity with the advent of the industrial revolution and more so with the technological revolution. People in our culture no longer have to spend all their waking hours just to survive; we have discretionary time. We work to afford a greater and greater standard of living--to get more. We spend our discretionary time vicariously living through others (sports stars, musicians, actors, etc.) in a perpetual struggle against inferiority and mediocrity.

We live in a constant tension between the dream of perfection and the reality of our own inferiority.

What is the nature of our hope for perfection? God. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are hard-wired by God for a deep longing for perfection in all aspects. We live presently in the reality of the curse brought on by the fall. Adam and Eve knew and experienced perfection; they walked with God. All was right. Then they rebelled and what was once effortless was suddenly difficult. All was no longer "right." As they sweat and toiled, they did so with the memory of what it was to have had perfection. That knowledge of perfection haunts us to this day. And it drives us to pursue excellence. It compels us to vicariously associate with those individuals or teams or organizations or institutions that are closer to, though not nearly achieving, the perfection mankind was created to be a part of.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie Review of Zero Dark Thirty

I saw Zero Dark Thirty in the theater this afternoon.

It is not really a story of Bin Laden. In my view, he was incidental. The narrative was about Maya, a new CIA operative who spends a good portion of her career pursuing a target. At first, her motive seems to be duty--she's doing her part to bring to justice those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. After the death of several of her coworkers, her pursuit becomes personal. She risks her career and life to achieve her objective. During the film, which spans over a period of ten years, you see her progress from a young, reserved operative who finds it hard to stomach the tactics used to obtain "intel" to an aggressive, move-heaven-and-earth-to-achieve-the-objective veteran.

The story is told in chapters,with chapter "titles" appearing on the screen. This was a little distracting in that it caused some discontinuity in the narrative. However, due to the details of the sequence of events, it seemed necessary in order for the viewer to understand the progression and timeline of the movie.

The movie is quite long--about 2 hours and 40 minutes. And except for the occasional explosion of terrorist attack, there was no action. I started squirming in my seat after about an hour and a half. The first two hours and ten minutes were build-up for the climax of the last 30 minutes (the military operation). The first two plus hours served to show 1) what lengths the CIA (on behalf of the US) went to in order to get intelligence (including "water boarding) and 2) political machinations of the intelligence community. The writer and director did a good job of conveying the humanity of detainees during interrogation. This view of humanity was offset with graphic displays of violence by the terrorists.

Although the build-up was very long, I believe shortening it would have detracted from the final scenes, particularly Maya's reaction to the accomplished mission in the closing moments of the movie. This woman spent a good amount of her career working on one objective. It had cost her dearly in terms of lack of relationships, loss of coworkers/friends, etc. Then, what she had worked toward for so many years, was done. Jessica Chastain did a great job portraying Maya and the crush of overwhelming emotions she must have felt. The movie concluded with Maya boarding a C-130 transport (I'm not military, but I think that's what is was). The pilot told her she was the only passenger and that she must be an important person. He then asks her, "Where do you want to go?" Maya does, perhaps can't, respond.

The only real critique I have of the movie, other than its length and use of chapter titles, was the portrayal of the SEAL team during the operation. They were portrayed, to some degree, in my opinion as 1) almost sloppy--militarily undisciplined at times (almost casual) during the raid on the compound, and 2) as calloused killers who enjoyed taking lives. For example, two SEALs bragged to one another they "popped" so-and-so while still involved in the raid. And upon returning, they were all giving each other high-fives. I don't have experience with the military, and other movies I've seen about elite military units may have been cleaned up a lot, but I can't imagine a military unit being as cavalier about killing people, even terrorists.

Otherwise, this was a decent movie. I can't say it was a "must see" as described by fans and critics. Nor do I think it will garner many, if any awards.

Normally, a typical guy would walk away from a military action movie with testosterone pumping. That wasn't the case here. Even though there were some cool first-person shots of the SEAL team during the incursion, I left feeling deflated--as if I were anticipating this grand finale that never really materialized. I really think that was intentional by the director. As a nation, we rallied behind the idea of "getting" the man behind 9/11. Then when it happened, we almost feel cheated out of the "thrill" of revenge we thought we'd experience. Maybe that's sort of how Maya felt as she sat on the plane, feeling the weight of the closure of the many years of single-minded focus, and unable to gain any sense of satisfaction.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Reluctant Beginnings

Having written a few posts on Facebook that some have enjoyed, I've been encouraged to write a blog. I must admit I approach this venture with trepidation. I've started several blogs before, some simultaneous, but lacked either the commitment or content to keep them going. 

Around my keyboard are numerous sticky notes, slips of paper, notebooks, note cards, and a few white boards, each with a bit of information written on it. Individually, they don't reveal much. Together, they form a sort of narrative about my passions, interests, and hobbies. That is how I envision this blog. I'll post thoughts, insights, quotes, lyrics, off-hand comments, and prayers. Each will stand alone. Together, maybe, they will form a coherent, textured narrative. And maybe, just maybe, it  will compel us both to think.