Book Review: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

We love a good pile on, don’t we? We love to see someone get what’s coming to them. Except when it’s us. Then we cry for mercy.

At the heart of Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is this dichotomy. How has the advent of social media given us such a ready outlet for (sometimes violent) shaming? And how can we turn it off when it’s directed at us?

Shaming works. And that’s why so many publicly shame others. But at what cost? Ronson delves into the data to determine how lives have been wrecked and who has paid the greater price when publicly shaming goes awry. From a poor joke at a conference to a photo splashed throughout Twitter to a rape-themed backlash on 4Chan. A simple misspoken word in a moment can lead to a lifetime of regret and ruined reputation.

Ronson himself faced publicly shaming and backlash from the publication of this book. When he offered that shaming a joke sent on Twitter about AIDS and Africa was overblown, he was called racist. He readily ascribes to the title of Social Justice Warrior, and this book gets at the ugly roots of that endeavor. What strikes me is what we call justice nowadays. No longer do we look out for victims. We see blood in the water and plunge in like sharks. But justice and punishment aren’t the same. Shaming is punitive, never restorative. And justice must be more wholistic.

I would love to hear what you get out of this book. And if you enjoy it, by all means find more from Jon Ronson. He’s one of my favorite writers, and there’s no shame in that.

Book Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster

Want to read better? I don’t mean read faster or read more. And I don’t even mean read better books. I mean just flat out read better. I mean read and know what you’re reading. Well then, you should read like a professor.

And professors – or at least literature professors – do read better than you and me. Because they understand what is going on behind the words. Thomas Foster invites us to go behind those words with him. His book How to Read Literature Like a Professor gives insights that you can only gain by taking several years of deep study classes in the classics.

For instance, did you know that when it rains in a book it may actually be talking about a character purifying herself or her surroundings? And that trip the hero took and encountered all kinds of problems? It’s really a shout out to Homer’s Odyssey. And don’t forget the Bible! Never forget how much literature borrows from the Bible.

Each chapter is rich in examples from literature and even film, and that may be the only time this book bogs down a bit. But otherwise this is a rich reservoir of information for any reader out there. Pick it up and put it in your library!

Book Review: 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith, by Gregg Allison

The problem with most theology books is accessibility. Whether it’s the jargon, the heady material, or the large page count, for the average Christian reader who just wants to understand God better the theology book shelf gets pretty bare.

The option is usually theology lite. Picking up books that are weighted more towards theological platitudes than deep truths is the modus operandi of most of us. But the thirst to know more is still there.

Gregg R. Allison attempts to slake that thirst. His book on 50 core truths is literally a theological text book but written in a very accessible manner. The sections are presented in the traditional systematic theology of the protestant tradition. And each section is then broken down into easy to read chapters with simple scripture references and ready-made teaching outlines. Obviously, this work is tailored for Sunday School teachers and small group leaders. Yet because of its simple and systematic layout it can find a place on anyone’s bookshelf.

Allison writes in the conservative tradition, and as such he doesn’t provide much space for the debates about each doctrine. That’s both good and bad. This works best as a theological primer with an eye towards knowing that there are diverse voices out there. After all, you have to learn to walk before you can dance.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Book Review: Open to the Spirit, by Scot McKnight

Full disclosure: I grew up in a Pentecostal church with a decidedly charismatic bent. I remember hearing older saints cry out in the middle of service in an “unknown tongue” and then wait while someone else declares the “translation.” It was normal for me, but eventually I learned it wasn’t normal for everyone.

Scot McKnight didn’t grow up like I did. And because of that, he has a different take on the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather than providing a fully-fledged theology on the topic, he’s written Open to the Spirit. The book has a more devotional slant to it. And because of that, it outlasts the endless theologies written on the topic.

But the real element of uniqueness is McKnight’s personal perspective on the topic. He provides some of his own biography as a way to frame the argument in favor of a more fervent and vital presence of the Holy Spirit in our churches. He didn’t grow up in a charismatic church, he doesn’t serve in one now, and his own experiences were mostly positive. As an outsider, though, he may have a better handle on it and gives a fuller polemic for churches who resist the move of the Spirit.

Unfortunately I felt several times in this book that being open to the Spirit meant going halfway. He is not willing to fully embrace all aspects of the charismatic perspective – including prophetic and miraculous gifts. That’s to be expected, though. But I wonder if writing in conversation with two other voices – one for and one against these items – may produce a fuller examination. Regardless, the work presented by McKnight is definitely worth your time!

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.


Book Review: After Acts, by Bryan Litfin

Have you ever watched a movie based on true events? At the end they run an image of each main character and give you a short sentence or two about what they’ve been up to since the story ended. Or maybe you’ve seen those “Where are they now?” segments in magazines or on TV. We love to find out, along with Paul Harvey, the rest of the story.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the main characters of the New Testament after the final words were written, then you can go through hundreds and hundreds of extra-Biblical writings. You can learn Latin and Greek and Armenian. You can filter through all the existing early documents from the Church Fathers. You can weigh whether what they say is true or false or legend or myth.

Or you can pick up After Acts and let Bryan Litfin do that for you. He takes all the material that we have on the lives of the Apostles and other biblical figures and weighs them out. He can do this because of his extensive background in church history. And since we don’t have the same background, we can trust him.

Did Mark really found the church in Alexandria, Egypt? Did Thomas make his way to India or Edessa? How did Peter really die? These are the types of questions that Litfin answers. And along the way he gives some great insights into the compilation of the New Testament texts, the assembling of the cannon, and the early politics of the Church.

Litfin’s assessment is fair (although admittedly conservative), but he gives you a sliding scale rather than a full “yes” or “no” answer on each issue. At the end of each chapter he lists a few of the major theories about the character and then grades them (A to F) on whether or not they’re reliable. That way you can decide for yourself. But the rest of the story? Litfin does a great job giving you that.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Book Review: The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus, by D. A. Carson

I’ll admit it. I love commentaries. I’m kind of a commentary junkie. If you don’t like trudging through line after line of biblical criticism, grammatical analysis, or inter-textual dialogue, then this book is still for you.

With D. A. Carson’s other, more famous work in John (his Pillar Commentary), this provides a nice companion piece. And it reads more like prose than scholarship.

He opens with a narrative take on John 13, the foot washing and Judas story of the Last Supper. It’s important to frame the following, dialogue driven text of chapters 14-17 of John with the more artistic and flavorful story of the disciples’ final moments with Jesus before the cross. Context adds weight.

But Carson’s work here is not light. He still deals with all the details of the text, driven by the idea of “What should we learn from this?” As such, any audience can learn something.

This is a reissue of the original 1980 edition. It’s good to see “classics” coming to new light and being brought before new audiences. Carson has always been a favorite scholar of mine. In fact, the commentary I mentioned earlier was the very first one I purchased after graduating college. I’ve added several more, and I’m always willing to pick up one of D. A. Carson’s. I hope you will too.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Book Review: Paul and His Team, by Ryan Lokkesmoe

“What does the Bible say about leadership?”

All too often that question is never answered. The question that’s actually answered is, “How can I use the Bible to support this latest leadership principle that I want to promote?”

That’s not the case with Ryan Lokkesmoe’s book, Paul and His Team: What the Early Church Can Teach Us about Leadership and Influence. He first delves into what it means to have influence. We all have it is some measure. And so, just as the master who handed out “talents” in Jesus’ parable, we’re expected to do something with it. Handling that influence is the essence of leadership.

Next, Lokksemoe digs deep into particular Pauline passages to find the most important leadership lessons. Instead of working the text backwards (“What does this say about what I already believe about leadership?”) he works it the right way round (“How can this story, this text inform my leadership process?”).

This book is great for pastors and church leaders, but can also find room on the shelf of Christian leaders – CEOs, managers, shop owners, teachers – anyone who follows Christ and has a following, basically. Pick it up next time you see it and enjoy!

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Book Review: The Burden is Light, by Jon Tyson

Get this book! Well, not now. Because it doesn’t come out until March 2018. But when it does – Get this book!

In The Burden is Light, Jon Tyson wants to help you live a life free from the tyranny of performance so so-called success. And it all comes down to living well and avoiding “misliving.”

How we live reveals what we truly believe; everything else is just talk.

Tyson covers 8 main ideas that hold us back from living the life God intends for us, and each is intricately tied into the cultural pressures of performing to a specific standard or meeting an external measurement of success. Instead, we should embrace an alternative model, one that is exemplified in the life of Jesus.

Those 8 cultural pressures and their alternatives are…

Comparison / Calling

Competition / Compassion

Control / Surrender

Complacency / Passion

Judgment / Mercy

Pride / Humility

Distraction / Presence

Take a look at that list. If you have an issue with even one of those areas, this book is for you. It’s a great book to read with a group of people, or just take a chapter at a time over a week or a month or two months. Go deep in the area that you need help in most. This book is set up just for that.

And go tell Jon Tyson how much you enjoyed it. I know I will!

Disclaimer: The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Stressed Out???

Are you feeling stressed out today? Are you overwhelmed and overloaded? Do you feel underpaid, underappreciated, or just under water? Guess what? That’s completely normal.

Stress is not unnatural and it’s not uncommon. We all feel stress. In fact, most of us have a feeling of stress at all times.

Stress is just another name for pressure. If we have a deadline, a task that needs completed, or an obligation of any kind, we feel pressure to finish it. When the deadline is well within our grasp, a task is mundane or simple, or the obligation fits our expectations, the pressure we feel is minimal. In fact, we may not even feel it at all! But the pressure is still there.

When the pressure begins to build past those points, we call that stress. What we think of as stress is really abnormal stress. It’s being stressed out.

Here, let me give you an illustration to help explain what I mean. Think of a water hose. If there is no pressure at all, is the hose useful? Of course not. Without any pressure at all, you won’t get any water out of the spigot, through the hose, and onto your rose bushes or tomato plants. And I know how important water is to those two things. I’ve killed many a plant in my day by not applying pressure when needed!

But when the pressure is too much, when the water is coming too fast through the hose, it can get out of control. That’s why you don’t use a firehose or a pressure washer to water your garden. You’d destroy your plants! Pressure is good. Too much pressure is dangerous.

One way we try to deal with stress and pressure is to shut it out. We bear down, push it out of our mind, numb our emotions and feelings, and just try to get through it. That’s like crimping your water hose to cut off the flow. When you try to block off all the pressure, it builds and builds until it eventually bursts! That’s not good.

The biggest stressers we have are the things we can’t control. We can’t control when our kids get sick and we have to stay home from work. We can’t control when someone has an accident on the freeway and makes us late. We can’t control when our computer crashes right in the middle of writing this blog post! The things we can’t control are the biggest reasons for stress. We can’t shut those off at the source, so we try to block them out and then we end up bursting – we explode in anger, we drown in depression, or we treat it with self-medication. None of those are healthy or helpful.

Along with a lack of control, there are plenty of other sources of stress. Too many deadlines. The lack of time to complete a project. An increase in our own workload. Missed or unrealistic expectations. These are mostly within our control, but for one reason or another we let them slip through and cause stress. Which is fine, to some degree. But it can still be unhealthy.

We can’t really live a stress-free lifestyle. But we can live a stress-less life. Instead of shutting stress of completely, we need to learn to manage our stress better. We might think the only two options are to shut it off at the source – in other words, just quit – or block it off at our end – which just makes it worse. Instead, we need to apply filters – like a nozzle at the end of your water hose – to our stress. Here are a few filters you can apply:

Set Expectations

I’m not talking about lowering expectations to a bare minimum. Set realistic expectations. How long will it really take you to complete that task? How many assignments can you really finish in a week? What’s the right number of clients you can really handle at this time? These are all expectations that I’m setting for myself right now.

And it’s not just the expectations you put on yourself, but what you expect from others. What should you really expect from others that depend on you or you depend on?

Master Your Time

Make the most out of every opportunity that comes your way. I don’t mean that you assign a task to every single minute of the day and work until you burn out. Layer in breaks and take your breaks regularly. But then get back to work! Don’t make the mistake of scrolling Twitter and Facebook, surfing the web, or playing some computer game and thinking you’re actually working. Use your time wisely.

Unplug Regularly

It’s not just about taking breaks throughout the day, but taking a day (or two!) each week just for yourself. This is about slowing down from time to time so that you don’t run yourself into the ground. It’s also about understanding your own pace. Listen to your mind and body and obey it when it tells you to slow down or stop. The spiritual principle is called “sabbath,” which means seven. Every seven days we should stop and recharge.

Recharge Your Way

And that leads to the last point – recharge often. But don’t recharge the way everyone else does. What’s the right way for you? Some people love to go hiking, fishing, or camping. I gotta tell you, that would stress me out! I’m what you might call a “great indoorsman.” Give me a mystery novel and a comfy chair and I’m all set. But that’s how I recharge. And it may not be how you recharge.

These are just a few ideas about how to handle stress. It’s not about controlling the stress in our lives, it’s about how we respond to stress. Our perception and reaction are the two most important factors in how we deal with stress.

How are you doing? Do you manage your stress well? How do you recharge when you feel stressed out?

Mountains, Trees, and the “Shouldn’t Bes”

There are some things in life that just shouldn’t be. A mustard stain on your tie right before a big interview. A dent on your passenger side door even though you parked it in the back forty. Tortilla chips without salsa or crunchy peanut butter instead of smooth. How about size 32 pants on a 38inch waist?

But there are more tragic “shoulnd’t bes” in life. The shouldn’t be of losing a loved one to cancer, of a marriage ending in divorce, or of a parent abusing a child. Many times we hear bad, awful, horrible news and shrug. “That’s just the way it is.” Well, it shouldn’t be.

Jesus didn’t put up with the way it is. He got in the face of the way it is and kicked over tables. He didn’t care what others thought. He knew it shouldn’t be that way, and he did something about it.

There’s a real strange story in the book of Mark, right in the middle of Passion Week, or the week leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s about Jesus getting mad at a fig tree and then cursing it.

The story is actually what scholars call a “Markan Sandwich.” You didn’t know that scholars used fancy words like sandwich, did you. It basically means that all throughout Mark he starts to tell a story and then interrupts it to tell another story before finishing the first one. The middle story is like the meat of a sandwich. And when you find one of these Markan Sandwiches, it’s from the meat that you get the meaning.

The fig tree story in Mark 11 is a sandwich. Here’s how it starts. One morning Jesus is heading into Jerusalem from Bethany to join the week-long Passover celebration. He’s hungry and wants a little snack and sees a fig tree. But when he sees the fig tree doesn’t have figs on it, he curses the tree! “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” (This is all in Mark 11:12-14).

The next morning, the disciples are walking with Jesus back to Jerusalem and they see the fig tree. And it’s dead, right to the roots! (For this part, skip down to Mark 11:20-24) “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” And Jesus is like, “Yeah, what did you expect? Nothing is impossible if you have faith in God.” Which includes cursing fruit bearing shrubs, I guess.

It seems pretty menial, getting mad at a fig tree. But that’s just part of the reason that this story has always been strange to me. You see, Mark is careful to tell us it was spring and fig trees don’t have figs on them in the spring. But Jesus doesn’t care. He’s hungry now and there’s no fruit so he’s going to curse it.

Once I found out about these Markan Sandwiches, this story started to make sense. Remember, it’s in the meat that you find the meaning. And the meat of this particular sandwich is the classic story of Jesus kicking over tables in the temple (Mark 11:15-19). In those days, Jews were required to bring a sacrifice to the temple at Passover. It might have been a dove or another type of bird or even a lamb. If you didn’t have an animal, don’t worry, they would sell you one! Right there, in the temple. But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. The exchange rates at the temple were outrageous! It was a rip off. They were cheats.

Everyone else who went to the temple said, “Well, that’s the way it is. I’ll just have to pay a little extra, I guess.” But Jesus said, “No, no, no…it shouldn’t be that way. I’m not going to put up with this anymore.” And he goes to kicking and throwing and flipping tables! And what does he say while he’s getting worked up? “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17)

The centerpiece of this teaching from Mark isn’t horticulture or snacks or sacrifices. It’s prayer. The whole point of this whole story is prayer! Jesus saw a situation that shouldn’t be, and his response in pushing against the system was to pray. “Make this place a place of prayer,” Jesus says, “And you won’t ever have this problem again.”

And that’s what’s going on with the fig tree, too. He sees something that everyone else shrugs at. “Well, Jesus, of course there’s no fruit. It’s spring. That’s the way it is.” But he’s not satisfied with the way it is. He sees the “shouldn’t be” and decides to do something about it! It’s no coincidence that the rest of the story, after they see the fig tree withered to the roots, is some of Jesus’ most powerful teaching on prayer.

22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Mark 11:22-24

Is there a mountain of “shouldn’t bes” in your way? To the sea with them! Is there a tree that’s not bearing fruit in your life? Curse it to the roots! Is there a situation that seems impossible? Don’t shrug another “It is what it is.” Get in its face! Is there a doctor’s visit, a court case, a parent/teacher meeting, a crime report, or a news alert that’s got you fired up because you know the way it is just shouldn’t be? It’s time to start flipping tables! It’s time to put some faith in God and believe for an answer to the “shouldn’t bes” in your life.

If we always accept the way it is, then we’ll always have the way it is. But when we get the attitude that it shouldn’t be, it can drive us to divine prayer moments, tapping into the man who told us to pray for mountains to be moved. Wait, not moved…not budged just a little bit. But picked up whole and thrown into the sea! It’s time we get a little bit of “shouldn’t be” in our lives.

What “shouldn’t be” in your life do you need to flip the table on? What is causing you to doubt that God can do it?