Friday, December 17, 2010

"If God is Good" Book Review

"If God is good, then why does evil exist? Perhaps he is not really all good or all-powerful or all-knowing. Perhaps there is no God." So the typical argument against theism goes. Of course, this is a popular argument that has been leveled against believers by unbelievers and skeptics alike for hundreds of years. Many fine treatments of the topic have been published, but a serious need has not been met with those publications: the need for a popular-level, non-technical approach to theodicy (a defense of God). It is here that Randy Alcorn's fantastic book, If God is Good, attempts to meet that need. While men such as Bart Ehrman have published popular-level works on evil with God's Problem, an adequate, readable response has yet to be issued. Again, Alcorn attempts to meet that need in this book.

I say "attempts" because as approachable as Alcorn's presentation is of the problem of evil, the book clocks in at 494 pages. These 494 pages are loaded with intense, at times repetitive, discussion of God's goodness despite evil. This is not an easy read but, for those who are willing to wade through Alcorn's work, they will find many gems an altogether outstanding defense of God.

The book itself is divided into 11 sections. Section 1 deals with understanding the problem of evil and suffering; section 2 handles understanding evil: its origin, nature and consequences; section 3 addresses problems for non-theists; section 4 discusses proposed solutions to the problem of evil that limit God; section 5 presents how Jesus' death addresses the problem of evil; section 6 discusses the problem of human responsibility and God's sovereignty; section 7 takes a long-term look at the problem of evil by inspecting the doctrine of heaven and hell; God's allowance and restraining of evil is discussed in section 8; section 9 talks about how evil and suffering are used for God's glory; section 10 addresses why God allows suffering; finally, section 11 discusses how individuals can live meaningful lives in the midst of suffering.

As can be seen by the simple section divisions, the book is nearly exhaustive in its treatment of God's goodness. There is a good deal of overlap, unfortunately, in some of the chapters in each section. For instance, in chapter 17 which addresses arguments that attempt to limit God's goodness, Alcorn divides the chapter into many sections. One section heading states, "To say that God is good is not to say God will always appear to be good, or that when he is good we will always like him for it." The next section is entitled, "God's acts of goodness may appear harsh or even cruel." While I value the subdivisions, those two points could have easily been conflated into one larger point. This happens at least once per chapter and needlessly extends each chapter.

However, despite these criticisms, Alcorn's book is simply outstanding. Alcorn is exhaustive because he realizes how many books attack God's goodness. He is not scared of addressing the difficult issues such as man's responsibility and God's sovereignty. He does not give cop-out answers either. On the contrary, he takes the reader back to Scripture again and again.

Which leads to one final point that needs to be made concerning If God is Good: Alcorn's use of scripture, while encouraging for the Christian, is not likely to persuade anyone outside of the Christian faith. Although Alcorn's book is already quite large, he would have benefited from including a basic defense of why the Christian Bible is used to argue the case for God's goodness. For this reason alone, If God is Good will likely only reach the Christian sub-culture. It will be a book that reaches those Christians who have undergone intense tragedy and are perhaps wrestling with God. However, it is unlikely to reach anyone outside of that audience.

If God is Good  is destined to be a undergraduate theology textbook for its presentation of God's goodness in the midst of evil. The fact that it is destined to be one can, of course, be both good and bad. It is good because it is a testimony to Alcorn's thoroughness and research in this project. It is may be bad because the size of this book will not likely entice many to wade through the entire thing. In many ways, after the first three sections (by far the most important), the reader can approach his work selectively, picking the chapters he wishes to pursue further.

I highly recommend Alcorn's work. Though the size is quite large for a popular-level treatment of the God and evil, it is by far the best one available. Readers who work through his work carefully will be richly rewarded. For those who are doubting, you will find no better treatment of the topic than If God is Good. For those who have friends who are struggling, pick up this book for them. You can trust that the answers provided are both biblical and refreshing to the soul.

Note: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Forgotten God Review

The Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit by Francis Chan is a pretty good practical work on the Holy Spirit. Basically, Chan sees a major neglect on the Holy Spirit in both the church and the Holy Spirit. In regard to the Holy Spirit, he writes "Perhaps its not theology we're missing, but rather theological integrity. Many have the knowledge but lack the courage to admit the discrepancy between what we know and how we live." (18). Chan, following through with that premise, focuses less on a theology of the Spirit (although chapter 3 is devoted to providing a basic overview), and more on how to hear the Spirit's voice and some sure signs of the Spirit's presence. Mini biographies and auto-biographies of Christians (both famous and not-so famous) end each chapter as examples of how the Holy Spirit might work in a Christian's life.

I feel conflicted concerning the book as a whole. The open chapter is so hard-hitting with quotations like, "No matter what religious tradition you come from, you likely carry baggage and harbor stereotypes when it comes to the Holy Spirit. It's going to require laying aside your baggage and stereotypes so you can be open to what God wants to teach you. Are you willing to do that?" (19)  and "Some of you would like it if I said we were going to find a healthy balance between unhealthy extremes. That's not what we're going to do. When we are referring to God, balance is a huge mistake. Go dis not just one thing we add to the mix called life. He wants an invitation from us to permeate everything and every part of us. In the same way, seeking a 'healthy balance' of the Holy Spirit assumes that there are some who have too much Holy Spirit and others who have too little." (20)

But the book rarely soars to those sort of levels throughout. In fact, nearly completely absent from Chan's book is a discussion on the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives. He avoids any talk on tongues. I think the furthest thing from Chan's mind should be fear of being "too extreme". I am sure many Charismatics will think he did not go far enough, but most will be pretty satisfied with Chan's coverage of the Holy Spirit.

I for one was often convicted by reading what he wrote. He writes sentences which are open, honest gems that are seldom said today like, "Even our church growth can happen without Him. If you combine a charismatic speaker, a talented worship band, and some hip, creative events, people will attend your church. Yet this does not mean that the Holy Spirit of God is actively working and moving in the lives of the people who are coming. It simply means that you have created a space that is appealing enough to draw people in for an hour or two on Sunday." (31).

Yikes! Good stuff indeed! Chan places a great deal of emphasis on the fact that the Holy Spirit will probably push us to a place we don't want to be. The tendency in our culture today is to downplay the more radical verses about giving up things and dying to self, but Chan confronts those verses head on. He says, "The truth is that the Spirit of the living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn't normally want or choose to do. The Spirit will lead you to the way of the cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be. The Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be." (50).

Chan also reminds us that the Holy Spirit cannot be fully understood and that fact alone should lead us to praise God (65). It is due to our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit, that many churches fight. He states, "I believe that if we truly cared about the Holy Spirit's grief, there would be fewer fights, divorces, and splits in our churches. Maybe it's not due to a lack of belief but rather a lack of concern. I pray for the day when believers care more about the Spirit's grief than their own. In fact, I pray that some of you readers would be broken over the grief you've place on the Holy Spirit. So broken that you actually put down this book and work to resolve any conflicts you have with other believers." (73).

Chan, while reminding us that the Holy Spirit empowers and strengthens, also challenges us to question our own motivations for wanting the Holy Spirit. "The Holy Spirit is not a commodity to be bought or traded according to our individual wants, whims, or even our felt needs. We absolutely cannot have this discussion about the Holy Spirit without calling our motives into question." (84). Well put! He unpacks this idea quite well.

In essence though, Chan's book simply calls us to do the same thing Crazy Love, Don't Waste Your Life by Piper and Radical by Platt already do--be open to doing extreme things for the Gospel. Don't be contented with a mediocre Christian life--be satisfied with one that is sold-out wholeheartedly for Christ. I am glad for this message and I think it is a needed corrective to the American Dream. However, I am fearful that this thesis will be beat to death soon.

The good news is that Chan's book stands out enough from others in the same genre because He spends a great amount of time on the role of the Holy Spirit--something the other books really lacked. While I wished some of his chapters were more detailed (such as his chapter entitled "Forget About His Will for Your Life!") and the book was a big heavier on the theological side of things, these are relatively small quips concerning the book as a whole. It was a refreshing book that many times made me stop and praise God, confess my sins, and stand in awe of the fact that the Holy Spirit is in me. It create an insatiable thirst for my life and ministry to reflect the Holy Spirit!

Overall a very good book!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Experimental Calvinism

I absolutely love this. Take a look. I think a huge problem with the young Calvinistic movement is its lack of true experiential power. Jonathan Edwards would have a thing or two to say about that!

Preview of What is to Come

I recently signed up for Multnomah's Blogging for Books program. This is my blog covering all of the books I have read there. I am pretty excited because I am pretty sure it is going to be epic.