Hearers & Doers: A Review

Hearers & Doers: A Review

How does a pastor help Christians become “fit for their purpose” as disciples, citizens of the Kingdom of God? This is the question that drives Kevin Vanhoozer’s recent book Hearers & Doers. The answer he offers is not more programs, more staff, or more lights and screens. Instead, he suggests a deeply Protestant “diet”: Scripture and doctrine.

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Preaching Through a Pandemic? Read These Four Books

Preaching Through a Pandemic? Read These Four Books

The last four months have undoubtedly raised new questions for pastors, questions about ministry in general, and the tasks of ministry in particular. One of the most pressing questions for me has been about preaching. In my specific context, we’re emerging from fully digital worship to a hybrid with outdoor, in-person worship, and a livestream for those who need to maintain social distancing. Another significant change is the need to include children as part of the hearers of my preaching since we are no longer offering children classes during the sermon. What should my preaching look like? How must I adapt to this new situation? How do I think about who I am preaching to? And what might I say to people in this strange season of life?

Fortunately, I am not facing these complicated questions on my own. Four books, kindly sent by their respective publishers for review, have provided wisdom for these odd times.

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Cultivating a shared Christian imagination

My latest review for Christian Century is live on their website. It’ll be out in print with the next edition. This time I’ve gotten a chance to read Garrett Green’s news book Imagining Theology.

The concept of imagination has been a focal point for me because it’s been a focal point for many of my teachers. I’d not read Green before, but he’s been working on this stuff for years. This book spans his career and, while I found some of his essays less compelling than others, I found his faithfulness and his creativity to be a great joy.

From the review: “Paul tells the Corinthians to be of the same imagination just before he de­scribes how God turns wisdom and foolishness inside out: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (NIV). Imagining Theology tells the story of one theologian who allows his imagination to be captured so that he may see the power of God at work in the world.”


What does “God is Love” mean? A Short Reflection

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

1 John 4:16

What does “God is love” mean? Ian McFarland frames this question by reminding us that Scripture does, in fact, say God is other things—spirit, light, etc. He raises another concern by noting that humans “are before they love.” Is God’s love similar? If not, what is distinct about God’s love?

Like an ancient commentator, McFarland responds by observing a small thing in the Gospel of John’s epic opening hymn about the Word who was with God. Like a ghost note that catches the hearer’s ear, that word “with” captures McFarland’s eye. “Significantly,” he observes, 

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Theology for a World in Peril

The old quip that we should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other is increasingly relevant for the church today. Reading the story of Scripture apart from the story of today’s world is, in a sense, to practice the ancient heresy of Gnosticism: salvation through escaping (in this case, by ignoring) embodied, worldly existence. But reading the newspaper without the Scriptures may push one near the edge of despair. Jürgen Moltmann’s new book The Spirit of Hope: Theology for a World in Peril models for us a variety of approaches for engaging deeply in both the Word and the world, especially its “peril.”

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Paul and Pastoral Ministry

Are there metrics for defining the task or success of pastoral ministry? I’d venture to guess those metrics change from tradition to tradition, and congregation to congregation. Scot McKnight’s new book Pastor Paul makes a compelling case for why one metric is the cornerstone for all the rest. You can read more about it in my newest review on Christian Century.

From Jesus Creed, McKnight’s blog.

While you’re over there, you really need to check out two other pieces from next week’s print edition. Sarah Jean Barton–one of the kindest people I’ve ever met–has a beautiful review, “When Liturgy Embraces Difference,” on The Disabled Church by Rebecca Spurrier. Jason Byassee has an outstanding profile on Katherine Sonderegger (whose Systematic Vol. 2 releases soon!).

Overall, this is one of my favorite issues of the Century since I started reading. I’m proud to have contributed to it.


Want to Give Good Books for Christmas?

Unsplash / Sharon McCutcheono

Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give. It is about the gift, a singular gift, of God choosing to become what we are so that we might become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1.4). But, in thankfulness and imitation of God’s gift-giving, we share gifts with others. So, what better gift could we give than books that help people come to know this gift-giving God better? (Yes, yes, the sacraments are the first and the true Christ-koinonia gifts, but lighten up! ‘Tis the season, right?)

These are mostly books that straddle the fine line between devotional reading and academic reading, with some poetry and practical theology in there for good measure.

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An interview with Ellen Davis

A Conversation With Ellen Davis on Opening Israel’s Scriptures

Unsplash / Mick Haupt

Whenever a congregant or student asks me what to do with the Old Testament, I recommend Ellen Davis’s book Getting Involved With God. It exemplifies the kind of careful, creative, and genuine reading that the Old Testament—and New Testament—expect of any reader. That Ellen Davis wrote such a book is no surprise. Throughout her career, she has written with critical rigor for the sake of the church. 

In her most recent book, Opening Israel’s Scriptures, Davis offers us, in her words, “the grown up version” of Getting Involved With God. It is grown up in two ways. First, the writing requires a bit more from the reader; second, the book covers a much wider range of the Old Testament writings. Nonetheless, for professors and pastors, this book gives us a joyful taste of theological, canonical, literary, and ecclesial approaches to exegesis.

Ellen Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. She has graciously agreed to respond to some of my questions related to Opening Israel’s Scriptures. (Thanks to Oxford University Press for the review copy of this book.) Enjoy the conversation below. Join in by commenting!

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Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram

I turn 44 this year, and, despite my best efforts, in many ways I’m still a mystery to myself.  A younger Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagramversion of me imagined that I’d hit some milestone of adulthood and be settled about all that. False.

The longer I live, the farther into my marriage I reach, the deeper into myself I’m taken by my role as father, the more intently I pursue a truer relationship with God—through all of this I keep discovering that I don’t know myself as well as I’d like. Frustrating.

Cue the Enneagram. Over the last several years it’s been immensely helpful to me as a tool for naming the persistent motivations and default reactions that I experience but struggle to quantify, much less do anything redemptive about. (If you feel lost in the Enneagram conversation, read Allie Brown’s  brilliantly clear introduction here). For instance: why do I wake at 4am worrying about a book manuscript that isn’t due for years – why the tight stomach now of all times? Why do I buy 10 books about any new thing I’d like to engage – why is intellectual understanding my default for the unknown? Why do I always migrate to the perimeter of social gatherings – not at all unhappy, but content and comfortable along the edge? And why do I retreat to my “mind castle” when things go wonky in relationships? On and on I could go. My mysterious self.

Before my introduction to the Enneagram, I never had a useful personality tool for processing these questions, much less move toward wholeness in Christ. I found other personality tools entirely unsatisfying. They closed me down rather than opened me up; making me feel like a smaller, shrunk, oversimplified version of me. The Enneagram, however, helped me see how my deep motivations and default reactions come together within a particular kind of complex person. Me.

But where do I go from here? Even after reading several books about it (yes, my approach) and using it in relationships with close friends, my nagging question concerned life with Christ. How do I apply Enneagram wisdom for life with God? How could knowing my number (5 with a 4 wing) help me partner with the Holy Spirit as I seek to live into my true, Christ-like self? More specifically still, what spiritual practices are best suited for my unique wiring as a 5? How can I live toward integration as a whole, complex, often mysterious self with the help of Enneagram wisdom? Where do I go from here?

So I was thrilled to discover IVP’s most recent book on the Enneagram, Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation, coauthored by Adele and Dough Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige.

The book is structured around an approach to the Enneagram called the “Harmony Enneagram.” In this model, the authors link Enneagram numbers together in a novel, triangular way  to show how a person draws upon their gut, head, and heart intelligences. Continue reading

God in Himself: An Interview with Steven Duby

God in Himself.DubySteve Duby is a contributor to this blog and recently published his second book, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (IVPAcademic, 2019). I was asked several months ago to endorse the book, and without a moment’s hesitation I agreed. But, alas, the manuscript languished in my inbox until the semester wrapped up and I could clear some time.

Having now read it, and happily written my endorsement, I struggle to express the impression the book made upon me. It is stunning. Here is what I wrote.

This rich and rewarding study demonstrates how the contemplation of God himself, theologia, is not some idle speculation—a distraction from the Christian life or descent into abstraction—but is in fact a spiritual exercise that fuels our communion with God and affirms the shocking nearness of God to us in Jesus Christ. God in Himself is a courageously scriptural work of theology, for Steve Duby dares to let Scripture lead where some have supposed that only metaphysics will take us: to gaze upon the resplendently complete life of the triune God.

God in Himself is at once beautiful and rigorous (in the best sense). Beautiful in the sense that Steve is a great writer. His prose carries you along as the argument unfolds through his intuitive structure and organization. It is rigorous in the sense that Steve fulfills the very difficult task of doing Christian theology in the classic tradition. By “classic tradition” I mean this: Steve is attentive to the life of faith, centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ, trained on Scripture, and he situates his theological work squarely within the Great Tradition of orthodox Christian reflection about the life of God. Beautiful and rigorous.

Let me say one last thing before I interview Steve. God in Himself is dedicated to a region of Christian theology we have far too little being written about today: God. Yes, I mean that. I don’t believe enough theology trains itself specifically on God. Continue reading

The Enneagram for Relationships

Susanne Stabile’s The Path Between Us is a wonderfully readable application of Path Between UsEnneagram wisdom for relationships. Taking the reader gently by the hand, she leads from one Enneagram type to the next, showing how each particular way of being in the world shapes relationship.

The Enneagram teaches us that there are nine different ways of experiencing the world and nine different ways of answering these basic questions about life: Who am I? Why am I here? and Why do I do the things I do? How we build and maintain relationships varies significantly from one number to another. Looking through the lens of the Enneagram makes it possible to better understand ourselves and others, increase our acceptance and compassion, and navigate the paths between us.

This book will help in understanding how each of the nine Enneagram numbers sees the world, how they make sense of what they see, how they decide what to do, and how all of that affects how they relate to others (4).

This is Stabile’s second book on the Enneagram with InterVarsity Press. The Road Back to You, coauthored with Ian Morgan Cron, is more like a broad entryway into the Enneagram, while the The Path Between Us is tighter, more condensed, more focused on relationships. Her aim is less grasping the Enneagram as a whole and discovering your type, than it is applying Enneagram wisdom specifically to relationships.

Using myself (Kent) as an example, I’ll overview the chapter on my Enneagram type so you can see how the book operates. I’ve learned over the years that I identify most readily with Type 5 (what Stabile calls the Investigator). In day to day life, my 4 wing expresses itself in terms of creativity, a love for beauty, and the desire for authentic, deep relationships, though the loyalty dimension of my 6 wing is ever-present (if you know me, then you’re saying to yourself, “Ah, yes. That makes total sense!”).

The chapter devoted to Fives is aptly titled, “My fences have gates.” Continue reading

Accidental Preacher

I took Will Willimon’s introduction to ordained ministry class in my first semester of divinity school. Pastoral ministry was not on my radar; and I’d never heard talk of ordination until student orientation, when I discovered nearly everyone was seeking ordination but me. Will wrote a chapter for Kent’s book Sanctified by Grace, which I copyedited. So, I signed up for his class because I thought, “If Kent likes him enough to invite him to write for his book, he ought to be pretty good.” Will did not persuade me into pastoral ministry. In fact, he wound up being the professor who signed off on me switching from a Master of Divinity to a Master of Theological studies, as I flailed about unsure of what God was calling me to do. So, in some sense, I suppose you could call me an accidental preacher, which is also the title of Will’s memoir. We are kindred spirits in that regard.

Will’s memoir is filled with honesty, joy, humor, and rich theological and pastoral insight. For those who have listened to Will for any length of time, his sarcasm is predictable and his grace is abundant. Most of all, this memoir is a testimony to the God who refuses to stay an arm’s length from any part of the world God so loves.

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Christ the Preacher of Virtues?

Christ didn’t speak Spanish but, if he did, the first word of his sermon on the mount might have been bienaventurado. What English speakers often hear as “blessed,” Spanish speakers hear as a word made up of two words: “good” and “adventure.” A friend who asked her native Spanish-speaking friend shared this bit of information with me. Suddenly, Christ’s beatitudes took on a different shape. It isn’t that persecution or poverty of spirit (or just poverty in Luke’s gospel) are signs of “blessedness” or things to be happy about. They are invitations to take God’s hand, to join in on a good journey toward human flourishing. “On a good journey are the poor in spirit, for God is drawing them into the kingdom of heaven.”51igpt44dhl

In the same vein, Jonathan T. Pennington’s book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing sketches an interpretation of Christ’s lengthiest sermon utilizing the language of virtue theory. Pennington gently guides the reader into this interpretation by introducing the sermon’s reception history before making the case that what Jesus is providing is “a Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation.”

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