Barry Wolfer

About Barry Wolfer

Barry's Blog
Hailing from the great, and they mean Great, Pacific Northwest, Barry currently resides in Korea with his wife and son. He teaches middle and high school Bible at a Christian school and enjoys air gardening in his meager spare time. Having graduated from Western Seminary (Portland, OR), he hangs his gently used theology degree between the pickaxe and shovel in his air-gardening tool shed. Air gardening: it’s what Pacific Northwesterners do when they live in Asia and can’t have a real garden.



Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament Book Review

Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament Book Review

Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament

by Greg Carey
Length: Approximately 5 hours. To read (152 pages)
TCB Rating:
four-stars
Buy on Amazon

Book Overview

It turns out that God wasn’t as silent as the term ‘400 years of silence’ suggests. Rising from Jewish apocalyptic literature, key mainstay ideas such as Messiah, resurrection, and final judgment thoroughly flavor the entire New Testament. This book traces the rise and influence of apocalyptic literature in the New Testament.

Who should read this?

Those wanting a greater understanding of apocalyptic literature, its influence on the New Testament, our interpretation of it, and how we ought to respond to it.

Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament Book Review 1

SUMMARY

We tend to think that Messiah is all over the pages of Jewish Scripture. But He isn’t. Well, Messiah is there, but the idea of Messiah wasn’t a fully formed idea until after the last of the Biblical prophets had their say. When we read the New Testament, Messiah seems to be an integral part of the understanding of 1st century Jews and Christians, so how did the idea of Messiah coalesce from a collection of prophecies scattered throughout the Old Testament? If Old Testament Jews didn’t conceive of the concept of Messiah, how come New Testament Jews did?

These questions are answered when one studies apocalyptic literature between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC. It was during that time period when the Jewish ideas of Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and final judgment took form and came to the fore of Jewish thought. Along with these ideas, more codified understandings of Satan and demons developed and were added to the Jewish theological underpinnings.

Understanding that these ideas about Messiah, resurrection, and judgment came primarily from apocalyptic literature helps us see just how influential Jewish apocalyptic literature was on Jesus, the writers of the New Testament, and the early church.

In Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament, Mr. Carey takes us on a brief but broad tour of Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic literature, teaching about its purpose, use, and how it commonly is interpreted. After this enlightening introduction, we are led to explore apocalyptic themes and discourse in Paul’s writings, the Gospels, some extra-Biblical sources, and finally, the New Testament’s single apocalypse – Revelation.

By the time the reader arrives at Revelation, he or she realizes that the New Testament writers were steeped in the apocalyptic tradition and that it flavored all their writing. “Apocalyptic concepts, assumptions, and literary devices occur all over the New Testament, and they function in remarkably flexible ways” (p. 141).

Mr. Carey helpfully concludes with four takeaways from his book:

  1. We should note the “ubiquity of apocalyptic discourse in early Christianity.”
  2. We should understand the varied sources of apocalyptic literature: starting with Jewish prophets, through intertestamental apocalyptic literature, New Testament writers, as well as non-canonical books.
  3. We should discern the “rhetorical flexibility of apocalyptic literature.”
  4. We should see the “link between apocalyptic literature and politics.”

In the end, Mr. Carey links apocalyptic literature and action. “Apocalyptic literature articulates the connection between our overarching values and our daily behavior” (p. 151). A lofty claim indeed, but one that demands we learn more about apocalyptic literature and its impact not only on the New Testament, but on our lives.

ANALYSIS

Apocalyptic literature always seems shrouded in mystery. This mystery is not helped by the myriad interpretations of Daniel and Revelation and the all-too-often-complex timelines that are created to explain how many days from such and such this or that will happen to that country when this other country attacks them. Oh, and the US attacks on Syria were prophesied in Revelation! For many people, Revelation has become the Christian version of Nostradamus.

I remember reading a book on apocalyptic literature and Revelation a couple of years ago and having my eyes opened to the stunning realization that perhaps Revelation was written to people in the 1st century AD. Like every single other book in the New Testament. That doesn’t mean there aren’t prophecies of future events, but Revelation, like the other books of the Bible, was written at a certain time for certain reasons and to a certain audience.

So reading books about apocalyptic literature is akin to peeling back the mysterious shroud and seeing what is behind, but, like Dorothy, revealing the truth behind the curtain can leave one feeling disappointed – maybe the revelation isn’t as grand as the intrigue. Still, reading a book like this feels a bit like the discovery of secret knowledge.

In the final analysis of Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament, there is much to love and little to loathe. Here’s my breakdown:

Pros

  • Mr. Carey’s simple explanations help a reader breeze through somewhat confusing concepts. In a short amount of space you will get a good handle on the key ideas to better understand the genre of apocalyptic literature. The reader always has a clear idea of where Mr. Carey is taking you, and this helps the reader grasp the content and implications more easily.
  • There is coherence in his arguments and flow in his writing. Again, this makes the book easy to follow and a joy to read.
  • All sections have clear introductions and conclusions which add to the high level of readability contained in this book. A reader knows exactly what to expect from each section and after reading a chapter you get a succinct recap handily summarizing the main points of the chapter.
  • Mr. Carey does an excellent job of supporting his arguments with examples both from the Bible and from extra-Biblical texts. Though I wouldn’t typically endorse using non-Biblical texts, for this type of book that explores the influence of Jewish literature from the 3rd-1st centuries BC it is essential. Mr. Carey makes plenty of citations and backs up his claims well.
  • This book helps the reader better understand the background and context of key New Testament ideas of Messiah, resurrection, and final judgment.
  • And finally, this book bridges the gap between the Old and New Testaments. Between Malachi and Matthew, a lot happened in Jewish history and philosophy. Understanding at least a part of what happened during the intertestamental period goes to great lengths to help readers better understand Jesus, the early church, the writings of Paul, and the book of Revelation. This book opens eyes as to how influential apocalyptic literature was in 1st century Judaism and Christianity.

Cons

There is really only one negative about this book, but it’s a big one. It’s the reason I dropped a star from this otherwise excellent book. I’m not sure of the exact term to use, but Mr. Carey is a liberal Bible scholar. Perhaps minimalist would be a better term? I’ve separated my complaints into three categories:

  • There is a chipping away at Biblical authority. Earlier I said that it is essential to use non-Biblical texts in this book, but when those books are held up as equal in value as Biblical texts, there is an erosion of the view that the Bible is authoritative. This view especially came forward when Mr. Carey put the Gospel of Thomas on equal footing as the Gospel of John.
  • Along similar lines, there is an undermining of Biblical inerrancy and inspiration. There are several times when Mr. Carey uses phrases that effectively mean or connote “if the Bible is accurate or true.” Saying that is a huge breach of trust to those of us who hold to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
  • These first two views of Scripture combine in an oft-held liberal/minimalist view that Paul only wrote half the letters he purportedly wrote. To further compound the problem for this particular book: if you view extra-Biblical texts as on par with Biblical texts, and if you doubt the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, what does it matter if Paul actually wrote a letter or not? If you don’t view Biblical texts as any greater than extra-Biblical texts, authorship shouldn’t matter, and if it doesn’t matter then don’t spend time defending your view that Paul didn’t write half the letters he claimed to write.

To summarize these cons: Mr. Carey doesn’t seem to have much faith in God’s Word being truth; he has hope but he doesn’t have faith.

These cons are serious enough that some people will dismiss this book out of hand. I only removed one star from my rating for Mr. Carey’s view of Scripture because I felt it rather easy to look past. Mr. Carey’s view of Scripture doesn’t get in the way of the core ideas of the book, and if a reader goes in fully aware of the eroded view of the importance of Scripture, one easily can read, enjoy, and learn much from the book.

CONCLUSION

Apocalyptic Literature in the New Testament is a very well written book. Highly engaging and informative, I learned much and came away glad to have read it. I would encourage you to read it too! Yes, I have some stiff criticisms, but I found they didn’t get in the way of the key messages of the book. I hope other readers also will be able to overlook them as this is an otherwise excellent book. The reader will come away with not only a greater understanding of apocalyptic literature but also a greater appreciation for how much apocalyptic literature influenced the New Testament.

four-stars
By | 2018-04-26T22:16:52+00:00 April 25th, 2018|

Jesus Through the Centuries Book Review

Jesus Through the Centuries Book Review

Jesus Through the Centuries

by Jaroslav Pelikan
Length: Approximately 9.5 hours. To read (232 pages)
TCB Rating:
four-stars
Buy on Amazon

Book Overview

How has the view of Jesus changed over time? In answering this question, Mr. Pelikan recounts church history as seen through the lens of the view of Jesus through the centuries.

Who should read this?

Anyone desiring to learn more church history, and those interested in how the views of Jesus have changed over time. This is not a beginner’s church history book but better suited for those who already have a working knowledge of church history.

Jesus Through the Centuries Book Review 1

SUMMARY

In Mr. Pelikan’s own words, “The nature and purpose of this book [is] not a life of Jesus, nor a history of Christianity, nor even a history of theological doctrines about Jesus, but a series of images portraying his place in the history of culture.”

From the time when the concept of Messiah arose, followers of God have had a view of Him. Jesus faced much opposition from those who expected Messiah to act in certain ways, but Jesus continually surprised even those closest to Him when he didn’t fit their preconceived Messianic notions. So it should come as no surprise that even after Jesus lived, died, resurrected, and ascended into heaven believers still change the way they view Jesus.

With this book, Mr. Pelikan shows the intersection of faith and action – how one’s view of Jesus changes their life and leads them to action. Mr. Pelikan does this by looking at individuals and movements throughout church history. Despite Mr. Pelikan’s attestations, this is a book on church history, but it’s not your regular book on church history as it focuses on how throughout history the church viewed Jesus and how that prompted action in response to its view. So while church history is infused in these pages, the primary flavor is Jesus.

Each of the 18 chapters of this book focus on one view of Jesus. Some, like Rabbi, Son of Man, and Prince of Peace, come straight from the Bible, while others, like Cosmic Christ, Teacher of Common Sense, and Liberator, relate to a cultural view of Jesus. The chapters are arranged chronologically, but they can span more than a century so there is overlap in time periods. Mr. Pelikan doesn’t provide dates for the chapters, but I get the impression that some time periods are lacking entirely while other periods are covered over several chapters. The reason for this is Mr. Pelikan focused on the different types of views of Jesus over time rather than on how each generation viewed Jesus.

At the start of each chapter there is what he calls an initial cross – an artistic symbol representing that particular view of Jesus. This graphical depiction shows the representation of Christ and is expounded upon in the chapter. Usually, Mr. Pelikan highlights one to three people that represent that view of Christ par excellence. In this way we learn about key figures and their movements in church history, but from the perspective of how they viewed Jesus and how that view prompted them to act. Additionally, Mr. Pelikan sometimes highlights how the broader culture perceived Jesus, and we find examples of these views in the art and literature of that day.

Through symbols, artwork, and Christian examples, Mr. Pelikan briefly summarizes, illustrates, and explains a view of Jesus and how it influenced those in that era. A person’s view of Jesus – if they are at all serious about Jesus – necessarily prompts him or her to act. Jesus, after all, called His disciples to take action, and throughout history there have been those who built churches, traveled to other lands, took up arms, pens, and brushes, started movements, and influenced the world around them. Mr. Pelikan shows how fervent believers have done this throughout history, and in this way we see how views of Jesus through the centuries impacted the church and the world.

ANALYSIS

I have a problem with this book, but I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it is. On the one hand, Jesus Through the Centuries is a unique walk down the path of church history, but on the other hand, isn’t this book supposed to be more about Jesus than church history? Perhaps I got that idea from the book’s title? Then on another hand, this book is about Jesus – or at least how people have perceived Jesus and how that influenced their thinking and actions – but on still another hand, there is hardly any talk about Jesus.

Most of the book is filled with stories of people who are major players in the history of the church with comparatively little talk about the view of Jesus. Yet is is how those people viewed Jesus that compelled them to start monasteries, paint paintings, start revolutions, and give up their lives, so Jesus is there in the pages, just not very explicitly.

So I guess I’m hung up on the title. “But it’s a great title!” It is a fantastic title, but it’s misleading. “But it’s about how the view of Christ has changed over time – it’s all about Jesus!” Yes, but it’s not as much about the view of Jesus as it is about the actions people took based on their view of Jesus. “But the subtitle, His place in the history of culture, tells you to expect that!” Okay, okay, it must just be totally my fault for thinking the title a misnomer. Next time I need to pay more attention to subtitles and not have so many expectations for what a book will be about.

Title bouts aside, I still have reservations about this book: Does it truly focus on Jesus through the centuries? Are the key players and events of church history conditioned on the actors’ view of Jesus or do key people arise more in response to cultural and socio-political pressures? Not to mention the prompting of the Holy Spirit to act out God’s plan through history. So while this book is about Jesus, and despite Mr. Pelikan’s protestations, I couldn’t escape the sense that this book is more about church history than it truly is about Jesus.

To give an example of this, let’s look for a bit at Chapter 11: The Divine and Human Model. In a chapter that talks about how people live out the calling to become like Jesus, Mr. Pelikan engages in what appears to be Francis-worship. Mr. Pelikan displays a pro-Roman Catholic bias throughout the entire book, but in this chapter it gets in the way. Saying that “most people” would call Francis the most Christ-like figure in church history (Even more so than Paul?); the papal designation of Francis as the 2nd Christ; glorifying his stigmata; and treating Francis as the ultimate example of a Christian: to me this appears to be Francis-worship.

Francis of Assisi certainly has been an influential Christian and is worth noting in this book, but the chapter in question was primarily about Francis and had precious little to do with Jesus, illustrating my contention that this book truly is more about church history than it is about views of Jesus. While Chapter 11 is the most egregious example, it is not the only instance of other people overshadowing Jesus, as it were.

That said, this is a unique book on church history as it overlays the view of Jesus on top of history. It focuses more on specific people and movements rather than on dates and events. Most of the time there are no dates supplied, so Jesus Through the Centuries reads as a fresh take on church history. Additionally, because of the emphasis on the church’s view of Jesus, there is a unique lens which produces a unique view of church history. In short, this book is unlike most other church history books.

The perspective that Mr. Pelikan takes also adds an interesting flavor to the study of the legacy of Jesus. Some of Jesus’ lasting impact on society and culture is the same from age to age, but other aspects change. It is these changes on which Mr. Pelikan focuses, and the result is to add broader understanding of how Jesus has changed the history not only of the church but of the world. This leads to some fascinating discoveries about how there came to be monasticism, the Crusades, the Reformation, various art movements, and more modern revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.

By focusing on the church’s changing view of Jesus, Mr. Pelikan shows how believers live and act in response to their perception of Christ. Though this book was written more than 30 years ago, it shows how each generation views Jesus in light of society around them, thus challenging our current generation to examine how we view Jesus and how that prompts us to act. In this sense, Mr. Pelikan wrote a timeless book that keeps updating itself as culture and society change.

While he doesn’t explicitly train people to critique the contemporary view of Jesus based on society and culture, if one pays attention to how Mr. Pelikan examines culture through the ages it is possible to learn to do the same thing. This also makes for an interesting self-examination: How do I view Jesus, and how does that affect how I live my life?

One more strength of this book is its form. Each chapter is written about a facet or epoch of church history, so the reader is presented with relevant characters and thoughts behind each age and movement. The basic view of Jesus in each chapter is presented clearly at the beginning of the chapter, and the reader gets a good sense of the salient points before getting a more in-depth look at that view of Jesus. And the writing! Mr. Pelikan writes beautifully, succinctly, and majestically. His wording is wondrous to behold; his style, elegant. One gets the impression that in this book you have reached the pinnacle of church histories simply because of the linguistic style of Mr. Pelikan.

CONCLUSION

There is much to like and appreciate about Jesus Through the Centuries. If one is able to overlook the strong Roman Catholic promotion and doesn’t expect to read a book strictly about Jesus but approaches this as a unique church history, this is a superb book and well worth the read. Mr. Pelikan spends most of each chapter illustrating how people viewed Jesus rather than writing about the view of Jesus itself, and because of this we can see more easily how believers were spurred into action by their view of Jesus.

four-stars
By | 2018-04-26T22:24:01+00:00 April 3rd, 2018|

War of Words Book Review

War of Words Book Review

The Grace of Yes

by Paul David Tripp
Length: Approximately 9 hours. To read (245 pages)
TCB Rating:
four-stars
Buy on Amazon

Book Overview

Too often, speaking from the heart is like shooting from the hip: it’s hasty, dangerous, and inaccurate. How can we improve our communication? We need a heart transformation and we need it now. Rather than speaking from the depths of our selfishness, God can change us to speak redemptively to others.

Who should read this?

Anyone who can speak; anyone who wants to help not hurt; anyone looking to reduce the frequency and severity of arguments. I’m guessing that covers nearly every single adult ever.

War of Words Book Review 1

SUMMARY

Words hurt. Words wound. Words kill. But words also bring healing, relief, and life. God used words to bring worlds into existence, and God will use words to condemn the judged to an eternity apart from Him. To say that words are important is an understatement. To say that we should be judicious in our word choice is obvious.

So why then is this book written? In the words of Mr. Tripp, “It is not a discussion of the techniques and skills for effective communication. Rather, it is the story of the great battle for our hearts that is the reason for our struggle with words.”

And stories he does tell, from the Bible, from his own life, and from his experiences as a pastor and counselor. These stories serve to illustrate the struggles we face in our wars of words. With frequent illustrations from his own life, we become aware that Mr. Tripp is not coming from a place of expertise, but as a co-journeyer, Mr. Tripp humbly offers practical explanations for why we war with words and how to fix the heart problems that arise.

Jesus says that words reveal character. He says that words reflect the heart of a person. When a person believes in Jesus he or she is given a new identity. Christians carry this identity of being little-Christs out into the world, so when Christians speak they speak not as themselves, but as the mouthpiece of Jesus. This of course does not mean that every word that comes from a believer’s mouth issues directly from God Himself, but it means that we represent Christ and should speak as if Jesus Himself is speaking. And how would Jesus speak? Lovingly. Redemptively.

Our natural inclination, when we are upset or hurt by someone else, is to lash out at them with our words. We condemn their actions, or themselves; we defend ourselves; we speak from our pain, woundedness, pride, and vanity. None of this is how Jesus would speak, but since we aren’t Jesus, we reason, our speech really isn’t that bad. We are, after all, saying the sorts of things everyone else says all the time.

But Jesus calls us to be perfect as our Father is perfect, and this perfection includes perfection of speech. Which is impossible. On our own, at least, which is why we need the Lord’s help to transform our speech from hurtful to helpful, always keeping in mind that we speak on behalf of Jesus and need to speak redemptively into the lives of the people around us.

The first step in speaking redemptively is to admit we make mistakes and repent of our hurtful words. Remembering that words flow from the heart, we essentially are repenting for our heart-set of pride and self-centeredness. “Real repentance always involves confession,” says Mr. Tripp, and don’t just confess to God but to the people we have hurt with our words. After confessing our sins we must commit to speaking redemptively into the lives of those around us. Confessing sin is a good start, but if it doesn’t lead to change it is not a redemptive confession. Committing to change our speech patterns will help our patterns actually change.

It is never too late to start; never too late to redeem our words, but we must start – the sooner the better. It won’t be easy – change usually isn’t – but if we commit to practicing speaking as Jesus would speak, slowly but surely our speech patterns will be transformed into ones of which Jesus is proud. Our goal is to speak like the King: redemptively. We must, as Jesus does, choose to speak the truth, in love, with restraint, while gracefully forgiving those around us. We must do this because we speak for the King and bear His name. Nothing less than perfection is acceptable.

ANALYSIS

My biggest complaint with this book is that the first section of the book didn’t really need to be written. In it Mr. Tripp tells us that words matter and we can hurt or heal people with our words, therefore, be careful. I’m stating the obvious to say that he’s stating the obvious. We all know that words matter and that we can hurt people with our words. How do we know that? Because we all have been hurt by the words of others, and, if we are being honest with ourselves, we all recognize that we ourselves hurt others with our words.

It’s fine to talk about this in a book, but it doesn’t take 60 pages to explain how hurtful words can be and that there is a war of words going on. Taking 60 pages to explain both Biblically and sociologically how damaging our words can be made for a slow start to an otherwise excellent book.
That said, the concluding part of the first section was insightful as Mr. Tripp delved into the root nature of our talk: selfishness, which he labels idolatry. It was fascinating to see ‘hurtful words’ broken down to a heart level, and that chapter was helpful in identifying motivations behind my own hurtful words and thoughts.

In the second section, Mr. Tripp builds his case that we are God’s ambassadors upon the logic of the first section, so there is a nice logical progression to the book. Still, the middle section runs longer than it needs to as some of what he writes about is pretty obvious once you recognize that there is a conflict within us between what we ought to say and what we actually say. Like the first section, there are some good insights scattered throughout – enough to keep my interest in the book, but not enough to make the book a must-read.

But the final section – oooo. The final section is golden! This section is what makes the book worth reading and why I recommend people to read it. I hate to urge people just to skip to the end and read the final section, but I think mature believers who already have examined their own talk-life can reasonably skip to the final section without being greatly confused or at a loss. It contains tips for gaining control of one’s tongue, and Mr. Tripp speaks to the heart – the heart we must have in order to gain control of our tongue and win the war of words.

Another aspect of the book that I appreciate is all the personal anecdotes sprinkled liberally throughout the book. These often humorous stories illustrate the point Mr. Tripp makes and they show his own vulnerability and personal war of words. This not only is helpful, but makes the content more believable as it is field tested. First-hand experience doesn’t always assure the most reliable source of information, but when a pastor/counselor writes about the collected first-hand experiences of hundreds or thousands of people, the content is more believable.

But perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in its approach. Most self-help or Christian living type books have endless lists, or helpful-but-all-too-often-cheesy acronyms for us to remember lists of things that we are to do or not do. If you can remember all 7 or 12 keys then you can level up in Christianity, but if not, there’s always the follow-up book that will be more helpful for your specific case. Thankfully, Mr. Tripp does away with most of that by focusing not on steps but on the heart. His approach is refreshing, insightful, and much needed.

CONCLUSION

Is it possible to win the war of words? Absolutely not! On our own strength, that is. We must rely on God to guard our tongue, stop tearing down others, and start speaking redemptively into the hearts and lives of those around us. Can we do this? Absolutely! With God’s help, of course.

This book points out what we all know and experience: words hurt. But more importantly, we are called to use our words to speak love, healing, and redemption into others. This is not just the job of pastors and counselors; this is the job of all believers. No it is not easy, but yes it can be done. No it will not happen overnight, but if we keep practicing our words can heal more than they hurt. We can and we must for the sake of Christ, whose name we bear and in whose name we speak.

four-stars
By | 2018-04-26T22:26:55+00:00 March 19th, 2018|

Mere Christianity Book Review

Mere Christianity Book Review

Mere Christianity

by C.S. Lewis
Length: Approximately 7.5 hours. To read (227 pages)
TCB Rating:
five-stars
Buy on Amazon

Book Overview

Mr. Lewis describes the mere (simplified) essence of Christian practices and beliefs adhered to by all major branches of Christianity. Covering doctrine and practice, Mr. Lewis runs the gamut of basic Christianity.

Who Should Read This?

Anyone looking for a basic Christianity 101 type book; anyone looking for a rational defense of Christian beliefs; anyone looking for great sermon or teaching illustrations. It is designed for those who don’t already know a lot about Christianity, so Mr. Lewis has kept it accessible to novices yet thought-provoking for seasoned Christians.

Mere Christianity Book Review 1

 

SUMMARY

It was Britain during the height of World War II. People were hounded by the threat of bombs and missiles falling from the sky and wondering why oh why, not too many years after the Great War had ended, was another war claiming the lives of so many of their own, and for what purpose?

Amidst the existential angst of the day, the BBC aired a series of radio talks to help people understand the basic beliefs of Christianity in order to help their listeners gain perspective on suffering and the bigger picture of life, death, and the hereafter. I suspect that the BBC would not host such a series today. Apparently, 75 years ago Christianity was not so taboo.

C.S. Lewis was tasked with communicating to listeners the essence of Christian faith. He was selected not so much for his expertise in Christianity but because he himself was relatively new to the faith and offered the perspective of an initiate rather than an expert. As a result, Mr. Lewis offers loads of analogies and illustrations to make his points easy to understand and relate to. It also results in a conversational tone rather than a professorial tone that he likely would have adopted in a talk or book on English literature. It is this warm conversational tone that makes Mere Christianity so palatable, easy to digest, and beloved by many.

To ensure that he was getting the mere of Christianity, Mr. Lewis ran his scripts past clergy from four denominations. They agreed that what he said was indeed essential to all branches of Christianity and not slanted towards one particular confession. One result of this is that Mr. Lewis does not delve into specific details about practices like baptism and communion. He keeps it general and paints broad strokes.

Mere Christianity is broken down into four different books. Book 1 is a moral argument for the existence of God; Book 2 narrows the field from any god to the God of the Bible; Book 3 outlines basic Christian behavior based on cardinal and theological virtues; and Book 4 focuses on how God works inside of believers and answers questions about why God needed to become man.

As one steps back to eye the finished product it becomes apparent that each book and each chapter build on each other to present a compelling argument for the saving power of Jesus. Mr. Lewis starts, of all places, with quarrelling, a choice that makes me chuckle as he is arguing – arguing – for the truth of Christianity. Adroitly using quarrelling to show the existence of an objective moral standard that he calls the Law of Human Nature, he moves on to show that this objective moral can only come from a Higher Power, and since we have all violated the laws of this Higher Power, we have cause to be uneasy. Quarrelling → objective morality → God exists: all in 30 pages. Mr. Lewis is a genius.

In Book 2, we are given an oversimplified, brief overview of the world’s religions and explanations of how evil came to exist, why God sent Jesus, and how faith works. Again, in around 30 pages. This is all well and good, if you buy into Mr. Lewis’ logic, but if you don’t then I suspect you will be crying foul at this point in the book. “Too simplified!” you’ll cry. “You aren’t addressing the real issues!” you’ll mutter under your breath. But by now we aren’t even halfway through the book, so just hang on to your questions and complaints to see if Mr. Lewis addresses them.

It is at this point in the book that Mr. Lewis steps back from doctrine and moves into praxis – How does it look to live as a Christian? To answer this in Book 3 he dives into some weighty moral issues surrounding sexuality, marriage, forgiveness, and pride. Defining our relationships in terms of self, others, and with God, Mr. Lewis shows that pride taints all of these relationships and drives us to the pursuit of selfish pleasure.

He contends that pride is the chief sin and lays out his case accordingly. Book 3 is rooted in the ‘seven virtues’, and while he doesn’t tell one how to be more virtuous, he does demonstrate how a neglect of the virtues leads us further and further from God.

Mr. Lewis ends Book 3 with a discussion about the three great theological virtues: faith, hope, and love, but as this book is intended to present a rational argument for the truth of Christianity, he focuses more on faith than on love. His closing argument in this book is that while many may profess assent to Christian faith, that is simply the beginning of true faith; we must let God’s truth penetrate our very being, changing us from the inside. But we ourselves are helpless to do this – we must let allow God to change us. How? It is in Book 4 that he describes this process.

The mechanics of sanctification, the process of a believer becoming more like Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, are difficult to explain, but Mr. Lewis, ever the able analogist, starts by showing how the creator of something is necessarily of a higher order and substance than that of the created. Think here of a toymaker crafting a toy or a baker baking bread.

God has made us as tin soldiers, and sin has rendered us lifeless, so to breathe life into His tin soldiers He transformed Himself into a tin soldier to impart in us a bit of Himself so as to turn us into the higher order being that our Maker is. God shows us how to be like God by becoming a man-who-lives-like-God-and-really-is-God-but-is-also-a-person-like-we-are. That would be Jesus. God is interested in turning us into an entirely different kind of being than we are, and while it is impossible for us, it most certainly is possible for God.

ANALYSIS

Mere Christianity is a much-hyped book from a much-hyped author, which usually is a recipe for disappointment. And I was disappointed. I found it thoroughly meh. The first time I read this book, leastways. But then I re-read it several years later with a small book club and found it far more enlivening when discussed in a group. And then I read it with a class I teach and we spent weeks discussing and digesting, and the rumination became illumination and the genius of Mr. Lewis revealed itself like a pearl peeping out of an oyster shell. Conclusion: read and discuss this book with others.

One reason Mr. Lewis is so quotable is because he is a writer through and through. He knows writing, but more importantly, he knows his audience. He knows how to get inside the reader’s head and speak to him or her in a way that will be listened to. But his writing requires reflection, so if you consume this book quickly you likely will not get much from it. Slow, steady, and lots of time to think, ponder, reflect, and discuss it with others: then you will glean much.

Another reason Mr. Lewis is so quotable is his command of the English language. Given his profession that shouldn’t be a surprise, but when you write a sentence containing three colons you are either a madman or a genius. Or a poor writer. I suppose there are other options as well, but Mr. Lewis is a genius, no matter how many other options you include. He basically is the Muhammad Ali of writing: his writing floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. No matter how hard swung is his truncheon of truth, he doesn’t come across rude or condescending, which also allows his writing to be accessible and palatable.

Mr. Lewis is a superb analogist. I mentioned earlier the tin soldier / toy maker analogy and in briefly summarizing it it lost its glow. That’s my fault, not his; his analogy is brilliant. Earlier in the book he used a ship analogy to explain the three key relationships (self, others, God), and his illustration is so effective that his explanations immediately become understandable and applications leap off the pages even before he writes them. And in the preface he includes a house / hall analogy that makes clear his purpose of writing the book. Beyond these three are some equally astute analogies that explain the origin of morality, how we are aware of morality, how morality guides us, and the sexual saturation in society.

Another strength of this book is the combination of logic and simplicity. By not focusing on details that are quibbled about, and by writing with an apologetic focus, Mere Christianity is a streamlined book that makes sense, is easy to follow and understand, and is a fair depiction of the basics of Christian faith and practice. Though not completely airtight, his arguments are well-presented and logically lead from premises to conclusion.

That said, by focusing more on Christian practices, Mr. Lewis has oversimplified Christian beliefs to the point where a reader will come away with a better understanding of how a Christian ought to behave rather than of what a Christian believes. Though this book makes a good apologetic argument for the existence of God and explains how God transforms the life of a believer, I’m not sure a person will read it and be able to articulate the Gospel or core Christian beliefs.

A niggling concern of mine is the fact that it took me two or three reads through this book to get much out of it. For as much of a genius as he is, I don’t seem to connect with Mr. Lewis as well as it appears many people do. I’m sure it’s me, not him. I don’t think I’m a dullard – but then if I were I also wouldn’t think so – so I’m not sure what to make of the need to read the book a few times to appreciate it. Again, I will just recommend that you discuss this book in community so as to wring out the wisdom of Mr. Lewis that drips from its pages.

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CONCLUSION

Most books on Christian apologetics focus on the reasons for belief in the existence of the Christian God and don’t bother getting into Christian faith itself. Conversely, most books on Christian faith explain Christian tenets but they neglect a defense of the existence of the Christian God. In Mere Christianity we find a unique blend of both apologetics and theology, which results in apologetic theology. If there is such a thing. Apolotheology, anyone?

While not the best apologetics book and not the best theology book, Mere Christianity does a good job of outlining a moral defense for the existence of God; explaining how a Christian ought to live; how God transforms a believer’s life; and providing ample discussion material over topics of God, Christianity, and morality. I encourage you to read this book, discuss it with others, and see for yourself why Mere Christianity is a much-hyped book.

five-stars
By | 2018-04-26T22:28:27+00:00 February 12th, 2018|

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