Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: Nathan Foster's Making of an Ordinary Saint

Here's another brief book review for Baker Books Bloggers: Nathan Foster's The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (Baker Books, 2014).

When reviewing a book, there’s a temptation to read quickly, to skim for a quick grasp of the essentials. A good book on spiritual formation won’t let you get away with that: you’d see the words but miss the wisdom. Nathan Foster’s new book is no exception. In learning to embrace spiritual disciplines that had previously frustrated him, Foster makes no attempt to ignore his father’s legacy. Quite the opposite: not only does Richard Foster contribute forewords to the book and to each chapter, he’s also present through discussions that the author includes in addressing his own struggle with each discipline. And of course, these are the “classical” disciplines as determined by his father’s classic, Celebration of Discipline — fasting, prayer, submission, worship, service, etc. — so in emerging from Richard’s shadow, Foster the Younger journeys through each, but in refreshingly narrative form. He shows deep honesty in assessing his own earlier failures (and gradual, painstaking successes) in his chapter on the discipline of study, and again in admitting his struggle to “unplug” from technological media while seeking simplicity, and yet again in naming and confessing the addictive patterns that have darkened his life.

Foster does well in inviting readers along on his journey, but there are brief missteps along the way. Some of the “portrait” sections that conclude each chapter feel tacked-on, not fleshed out fully enough to do justice to the lives of those highlighted there; the inclusion of Jane Addams as an exemplar of service surprised me, perhaps because another very recent book from a Baker imprint (Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy, which I reviewed a little while ago) severely criticized Addams for diluting and over-socializing the gospel. Foster’s references to Scripture sometimes seem offhand, and in the one case where he highlights a specific Greek word from 1 Timothy, he’s simply wrong: Paul uses another word entirely. That said, many readers will find welcome ways of encountering the disciplines here, as I have. Foster’s adaptation of the monastic experience of the early church fathers and mothers — coming to recognize difficult moments through which God guides us as “my desert to embrace” (pp. 155-61) — struck deep in my heart and spirit, and I know that what he’s shared throughout this book will encourage me as I encounter the “deserts” and the joys ahead.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Review: McKnight's Kingdom Conspiracy

Now it's Brazos Bloggers' turn. This is a brief review -- well, brief for someone used to 1200-to-2000-word reviews, anyway -- of Scot McKnight, Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos, 2014).

I enjoy reading Scot McKnight's work, even when I disagree with him (usually on relatively minor points). And I don't disagree with him here, for the most part. What he's trying to do, and largely succeeding at, in his new book is to reconcile two Christian views of "kingdom" -- as theology, as language, and as activity -- that have tended to diverge over the past century and are doing so again today. McKnight casts one stream of thought and practice, which tends to aim its "kingdom" work toward "the common good," social justice, and culture-making, as "skinny jeans kingdom" people, and the other, the kingdom-as-personal-salvation camp, as "pleated pants kingdom" people (including, cleverly, "the arch-Pleated Pants scholar" George Eldon Ladd, p. 10). Those who recognize themselves as falling into one camp or the other will find their views and practices represented well here, both in strengths and weaknesses. For those folks, and for the rest of us who find ourselves somewhere between the two extremes, this book serves as a fine biblical theology of church, kingdom, and mission. It's very readable, too: the most challenging words in the body of the text are perhaps eschatological and parabolic, while readers who want to go deeper can plunge into sources recommended in the endnotes (as when McKnight notes Tom Wright's recent two-volume work in its entirety in partial support of a point on first-century use of "Son of God" imagery, p. 132!).

Throughout Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight nicely balances his attention to many facets of kingdom thought and action, including the tensions of its growth in this world (classically, the "already" and the "not yet", and as both "realm" and "reign"); the biblical (and deeply contextual) story that it encapsulates; and what it looks like to live out the kingdom in mission, in vocation, and in public and political presence -- or, simply put, what it means to embody the kingdom in and as the church. There are moments when the author nearly loses that balance. I wish he'd added more nuance to his study of the New Testament's view of "the world" and Jesus' confrontation with its idolatrous worldviews (pp. 17, 60): a brief focus on the way that Rome saw the world (as the oikoumenē, the inhabited world/culture that it had inherited from Greece) might have strengthened McKnight's discussion of culture and counterculture, both here and through the rest of the volume. But that missing nuance does little to hurt his overall argument. This book is highly recommended for anyone -- no matter how close or distant their relationship with "church" -- who has ever struggled with how the church is to embody God's kingdom in the world.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: Next: Pastoral Succession That Works

I've written short book reviews here for Speakeasy and -- and I'll be starting to add some for NetGalley, Brazos Press Bloggers and Baker Books Bloggers.  This will be the first example for Baker. 

Next: Pastoral Succession That Works, by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird (Baker, 2014).

From its first words -- "Every pastor is an interim pastor" -- to its diverse potential audience, there's much to commend about Next. The authors have clearly done their homework concerning the challenges of transitioning from one pastor to the next; in fact, it's their work with pastors and churches whose transitions didn't work well (and many others that did) that drives their concern. Whether the reader is a newly appointed pastor, one approaching retirement or a move to another post, or a new or longtime church board member, there are lessons worth remembering here. The authors are also aware that many of their readers will find themselves in more than one of the above roles over the course of their ministerial lives -- which makes this as valuable as a later reference text as it is for a first-time reading. 

Vanderbloemen and Bird wisely note that there's no single formula for a successful succession from one pastor to the next, but they aren't afraid to name names in recounting disastrous transitions, either (nor to protect anonymity, when necessary); and to their credit, even as they gather lessons from such disasters, they're careful not to make too much of the scandal involved, but to call their readers toward greater expressions of grace. They also explore the close interconnections of pastoral vocation, church mission, and personal identity, which (when undervalued) can make pastoral succession such a sensitive issue. And as the spouse of a pastor just entering her second year of ministry at our church, I appreciate that at least some of their stories involve female pastors (notwithstanding the males shown in transition on the front cover!). I did wish that more of their examples drew from smaller churches, but I recognize the difficulty of getting accurate data there. I wondered, too, if there wasn't too much emphasis on "seamless" transitions: a succession should hopefully be smooth, yes, but isn't there a potential idol to be dealt with in wanting it to show no seams, no visible places of continuity (or healthy discontinuity!) at all? That said, there's a great deal of wisdom in this book, including the "Next Steps" at the end of each chapter -- many of which will offer helpful challenges to anyone with a role to play in their church's next pastoral succession.