Friday, May 25, 2012

"Introduction to Early Christianity" Review

I will admit upfront my frustration with many books on early Christianity. I find it rare that any book on early Christianity contains everything I am looking for. I want a book that quotes extensively from the original sources. I want a book that outlines clearly and systematically what the early church believed (although I recognize it was far from monolithic). I want it to be easy to read and to not go into unnecessary depth. I want it to be exciting and capture the drama.

Maybe I am asking for too much. But I get really tired of reading books that promise me a systematic look at the early church beliefs and then only take a few church fathers and systematize their views. Crossway's Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Chuch is a classic example in my opinion of how not to write a book on early Christianity. It was absolutely abysmal. Yet it feels that almost every book I have read on early Christianity does this. So, I will admit that approaching Laurie Guy's Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of Its Life, Beliefs & Practices, I had both high hopes and yet fully expected to be disappointed.

But here is what is awesome: I wasn't. Laurie Guy has written a truly accessible and engaging work on the early church. What I absolutely love about this book is that the author tries really hard to give you the panoramic view of what the early church believed. He deals with church government, baptism, women in ministry and more. Each chapter feels like the perfect length too. While at times, I confess, the writing is a tiny bit dry, I still really enjoyed the work as a whole.

He quotes a good bit from the original sources too. I really appreciate that. I want to hear from the church fathers themselves--not just a summary of their thought.

As far as the most enlightening chapter, that has got to be the chapter of women in ministry. Not only is the chapter incredibly challenging, but it also gives a great deal of perspective to the current debate that ranges in the church.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the book is that it puts evangelicals in touch with their heritage. So often we forget that tradition is so vitally important and we forget that our beliefs were born through much blood sweat and tears. The men who passed down our beliefs were truly brilliant thinkers. In a day and age where we have a sort of intellectual snobbery because we have more information, Guy's Introduction to Early Christianity is a stout reminder that we stand on the shoulders of God-loving, theological giants. I was humbled and excited.

So get this book. You won't be disappointed!

*Thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review*

"Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective" Review

Global Theology In Evangelical Perspective is a collection of essays that were presented at the Wheaton Theology Conference in 2011. As one might expect from a book that features of a host of contributors, some essays are solid while others are lacking. In terms of strong chapters, K.K. Yeo's chapter on Christian Chinese Theology stands out as does Jeffery P. Greenman's chapter on learning and teaching global theologies. I also found Terry LeBlanc's chapter on Native American theology quite interesting as well.

But let me be level my one major criticism against this book: in the contributors' desire to be global, they rail an awful lot on Western theology. We hear again and again about how impacted by the Enlightenment we are. We hear about how we are obsessed with either/or theology. We hear about how we are overly speculative and miss the point. We hear about how intolerant we are against people with different experiences.

A good example of this is actually in Terry LeBlanc's chapter. In that chapter he relays the story of a friend who went out and "heard the trees" tell him what to do in relation to a particular problem. LeBlanc argues that we should view this experience through the lens of creation groaning in Romans 8:15ff. However, he argues, Western theology would view this as panentheism at best and pantheism at worst--something demonic and not Christian. Westerners, according to LeBlanc, have failed in this respect.

It seems to me that LeBlanc isn't on very solid exegetical ground here (no doubt another sign of my very Western lens--I am passionate about correct exegesis). But the deeper question is this: are Westerners justified in their concern? If we are to be truly global in our theology, that means we must not just listen to other voices but also critique other voices in light of what God's Word says. One of the biggest weaknesses in the collection of essays is that God's Word is seldom cited. As a result, it reads like a bunch of speculative (overly pretentious, to be honest) people who speak a lot about experience and little about the Word of God. While our experience should play an important role, it always needs to be in humble submission to the text.

I also worry if we are not blowing the differences between our theologies out of proportion. Most of the time, as I was reading the book, I thought "We have been saying that as Westerners for years." It felt like the contributors were railing against strawmen that simply were not true.

My advice? Save money and check out this book. There are better books and the essays don't seem to contribute much to the overall discussion of global theology.

*Thanks to IVP Academic which provided me a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review*

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"Spirituality According to Paul" Review

Probably one of the best books written last year that seemed to really fly under the radar was Rodney Reeves' little book Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ. I don't say this lightly because there were a lot of really good theological works written in 2011. However, in terms of sheer practicality, I think Reeves' book is up there.

Let me explain a bit. Spirituality According to Paul is organized around Paul's three major ideas: you were crucified with Christ, buried with Christ and raised with Christ. Reeves' devotes four chapters to exploring each of these themes. The catch to all of this is that he explores in a way that reminds of the mystics--except with jam up exegesis. What I mean is that each chapter is packed with these powerful, practical ideas and insights into Paul's theology. However, the book isn't linear like many theological works and it definitely doesn't spend a significant time on any one given topic. Think a less poetic, more exegetical Eugene Peterson and you are barking up the right tree with this book. Reeves' style is fluid and compelling and makes you want to read more.

For what it is worth, I thought the first four chapters alone would be worth the price of admission. In particular, his first two chapters absolutely floored me. I actually had to put the book down on numerous occasions and just worship God. However, what is perhaps the greatest praise for a book that I can give is this: it made me want to go back and re-read the Bible. Reeves' book made me want to put his book down and pick up Philippians and read it again...and again...and again. Seriously. Reeves' book is that compelling.

I don't know really how to categorize this book. It isn't academic per se, but it would be misleading to say it isn't scholarly. It is. It is just so unbelievably practical that it makes you feel like you are reading a devotional. So go buy this book. You won't regret it.

*Thanks to IVP for providing me with a free review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.*