Category Archives: Books

Spiritual Growth – The Way Forward?

Most churches, regardless of denomination, meander along aware that they are failing in one respect or another, but unable to address it. Largely, this is because the church, to protect the offering plate, has fostered dependence rather than independence as the relationship model with members. The minister(s) are expected to be and do everything, whether they can or not, and the members are expected to warm the pews and mouth the right platitudes.

As a result, Christendom globally has receded like a hairline and left bald many societies and countries. In the United States, church members will worry and chafe over the state of everything from the state of the nation to the state of clothing styles but do nothing to influence either, and yet tell themselves that magically, through their mere presence in the church building, they have made all the difference they can. They trust God and when they might be shocked to realize, God trusted them.

The recent book Reveal – Where Are You? by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, staffers at the Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, however, may have turned on a flashlight that might lead us all out of the darkness.

Their book is available from their website, It is not really a book. It is really an over glorified color glossy pamphlet. It was designed to be read in about an hour. But, it is worth the time and money. That is not to say it goes anywhere near as far as it should. The analogy to a flashlight was chosen intentionally. But, in the darkness, so far, it is one of the few lights even on.

Their research led them to develop data using sophisticated marketing techniques to measure the actual success of their own church in developing long term spiritual growth. They spent years struggling with this adaptation, but it seems that they have out Barna-ed Barna. They have cleverly concluded that even if a church is winning the lost in its operational area and serving new believers, it may not be serving maturing or even mature Christians, and, indeed, may be hurting them. They discovered in their research, for example, that even quality small groups and quality worship services have a point at which their effectiveness has been maxed out.

One solution they adopted was to treat their own region as a mission field, rather than just building ever larger facilities and engaging their burgeoning membership with ever longer commute times. While they do not describe their regional campus system, if they have created and staffed infra-structure at each location, then they have created for mature believers many opportunities for service that a consolidated location would efficiently eliminate.

The other solution has been a new focus on relationship with Christ, first achieved with improved personal skills (prayer, personal Bible study, etc.) and then improved with greater involvement in personal service and ministry. Mature believers want to do things and they want to accomplish things, they do not want to be herded. The Willow Creek research demonstrated that mature believers will actually contemplate, if not leave, the “best” church in search of a church that actually needs them.


Mysteries Include Religious Themes

Christian fiction now abounds in ways unexpected even a few years ago. Most of it, however, is drippy with sentimentality and banal in its either seeming ignorance or its seeming refusal to acknowledge the existence of evil. Secular treatment of religious themes is often on the other extreme: full of characterizations of all persons holding religious beliefs as either criminally insane or monumentally stupid.

There are numerous exceptions such as the Chronicles of Narnia. But, truthfully, often authors either with no religious beliefs (or silence about their beliefs more so than atheism) or espousing variant religious beliefs, challenge our thinking on religious issues with greater alacrity than those who claim that their fiction was either Christ centered or somehow Christ inspired.

Now available in paperback is Matthew Pearl’s murder mystery in which nineteenth century literary and religious beliefs are tested, along with the fictional historicity of post-Civil War racism in the northeast. The Dante Club is a marvelous historical speculation about nineteenth century authors, Boston, the first black police officer, mental illness afflicting Civil War veterans, the poetry of Dante, and especially Dante’s life and vision of hell.

Also available in paperback is Tim Powers’ engaging mystery, Declare, about the evil powers trapped on our world since The Flood, briefly mentioned in Genesis, and intriguing speculation about how interaction with them might be carried out by the intelligence services of the various nations in existence from 1930 into the 1960s.

Neither of these books is “new” so they are easily obtainable online. These authors have also written several other books, none of which I have yet read. In Pearl’s book, the characters of 1865 are confronted with the needs of many around them but seem oblivious until they realize their dependence upon a black police officer whom they have not previously regarded. The characters in Powers’ book struggle with their own identity and meaning in light of the overwhelming spiritual powers with which they must contend. Thus, if you’re looking for “Christian fiction,” you might do better to look to these authors to stimulate your imagination.


Golden Compass: “B” Rating At Best

Because of the controversy among evangelicals regarding the recently released movie, The Golden Compass, and the underlying trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman upon which the movie is based, it seemed logical to see it and review it. As it turns out, the controversy was unnecessary. Golden Compass gets a “B” rating at best, and all the talk may have given the film more credibility than it deserves.

In World Magazine, December 8 issue, Janie Cheaney reported that New Line Cinema, the studio that produced The Lord of the Rings movies, spent $250 million to bring Golden Compass to the screen. I doubt the movie will ever earn that, nor will it be remembered for long, like The Lord of the Rings movies.

Golden Compass starts with an impossible task: how to be a children’s movie with a PG13 rating. It’s next impossible task: how to use the talents of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee and others in a meaningful way without giving them enough, or even any, meaningful screen time. Why do movie makers not understand the process by which an audience begins to empathize with a character? The movie’s third and final impossible task: how to tell a complex story, which originated in a 500-page novel, without enough dialog in 118 minutes.

Unlike the Harry Potter movies, Golden Compass must deal with several unfamiliar story ideas before the story gets in the way. Harry Potter dealt with magic, sorcerers and witches, things we all have some fictional experience interpreting. But the “parallel universe” theme of Golden Compass is a very slender thread in the science fiction genre (and equally a minor part of quantum physics). We were expected as an audience to meet, understand, and then empathize with an entirely new universe in less than two hours. As Lord of the Rings demonstrated, it takes longer.

Thus, Golden Compass has received a mediocre public reception. New Line may not be able to raise the money to bring a sequel to the screen, if that financing is dependent upon success of the first installment. This movie will not boost Pullman’s book sales, if that was the fear of some evangelicals.

The movie was imaginative, with one glaring exception. Sam Elliott appeared to be playing the same character in Golden Compass that he played in Ghost Rider. It appeared he was even wearing the same costume and using the same guns. Elliott’s character also appeared to be about equally sympathetic to the lead character in each movie, such that I had to look twice to see whether Dakota Blue Richards had morphed into Nicholas Cage.


Christian Novels and Weak Tea

Based upon the recommendation I saw in World Magazine, I obtained and read a novel by Randy Singer entitled False Witness. For a summer novel, it was not a burden to read but I could not give it high marks. It is a paperback you can buy about anywhere. I got mine online.

The novel was an attempt to explore the intrigue of bounty hunters, corrupt lawyers, mobsters, and incredibly valuable technology that falling into the wrong hands, might destroy our way of life. It even included the naïveté of law school students. It was written in a way to maximize its readability, but that always seems to import a certain amount of shallowness. With a governor on violence, there was also a concomitant impediment to self-examination by the characters. Because they did not go too far, they had little to regret, and without regret, there is no twisting of the soul with which to commiserate or self-examine.

The other thing that made it less noteworthy was that the author, to be a “good Christian author,” minimized sexuality and violence while writing about characters that would not have been less violent than they desired, much less than to meet criminal objectives of the highest magnitude. Likewise, Christian characters were noble in the face of sure death and none suffered from cowardice or avarice. In other words, to protect our sensibilities, the author failed to take us where we are afraid to go, failed to take us where we cannot go, and failed to make us confront our own failings, lusts, and weaknesses. In other words, what was the point of the cost, time or effort spent writing it or reading it?

If you like weak tea, well-done meat, and abhor frantic dancing, then you can safely coast through this novel. But if you want a novel that challenges your emotions, challenges your assumptions, and has something lasting to say, this is not it.


The Mystery of the Middle East

The U.S. government and all people of goodwill have struggled to understand the culture of the Middle East, the people of the Middle East and especially the violence erupting in and from the Middle East.

A new book may assist in developing an understanding of the Middle East. Michael B. Oren is the author of Power, Faith & Fantasy, America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present. Rather than attempting to explain every event and every group’s motives, Oren simply places a certain subset of events in chronological order. The events are the interactions between the United States and the Middle East.

Context is incredibly conducive to understanding. In order to understand the Indian Wars of the United States, the history does not start in 1776. The Indian Wars on the North American continent had been a fact of life for over two hundred years prior to 1776. The Indian Wars had been a fact of life for another century by the time the U.S. government prosecuted the Indian Wars to finality during the last thirty years of the 19th century. Whether more than three hundred years of warfare justified how it ended is a moral question, but knowing how it started and progressed at least explains how it ended. The best history of the Indian Wars I’ve seen was co-authored by Robert M. Utley in 1977, Indian Wars.

Likewise, Oren’s theory was that understanding could be achieved, or at least made more likely, by reviewing the chronology of interactions between the U.S. and the people of the Middle East. Oren is an excellent writer and, if his facts are correct, is excellent at providing context for the selection of events and persons he discusses.

Oren admits that the events during the last thirty years cannot be explicated with declassified documents, because secret government documents have not been declassified. Older events can be explicated with secret government documents because many have been declassified.

Oren, just as he did in his book about the Six Day War, seemed to put the events he chose for his chronology together in a way that perspective becomes an obtainable position. There are some hard truths that Oren points to that make the perspective to be gained quite frightening.

– During the wars with the Barbary Pirates, at the time of war of independence, the Barbary Pirates described themselves as “mujahideen” and in 1785 declared:

It was …written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their [the Muslims’] authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners…

– The first sovereign to recognize the new United States was Morocco — or at least Morocco, a Middle Eastern country, so claimed.

– The first country ever to declare war on the U.S. was Tripoli, in 1801, a Middle Eastern country.

– The first military engagement in the Middle East involving the U.S. was in the war against Tripoli, when the USS Enterprise captured a 14-gun ship of the same name, the Tripoli, which constituted the offensive naval capability of the nation of Tripoli. (The Enterprise pretended to be the ship of an ally to Tripoli until the Tripoli drew close and then the Enterprise raked her decks with canister blasts.)

– The second war declared on the U.S., in 1803, was declared by Morocco.

In other words, America’s engagement with the Middle East has been going on for as long as the country has existed. Those who claim “those people,” usually meaning the Arabs and the Jews, or the Palestinians and Jews, or the PLO and Israel, have been fighting for thousands of years, forget that the United States has been engaged since its own inception.