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Best of 2017

December 21, 2017 — Leave a comment

As 2017 winds to a close, here are my best of the year:

Image result for james ka smith what you loveBest Christian Life Book – You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. Smith’s love and promotion of orthodoxy through the church and her traditions is worth a hearing. For years I have resonated with much of what he believes is the antidote to the consumeristic, biblically-anemic spirit seeping throughout the Western church. Made me love good liturgy all the more.

Image result for adam and the genomeBest Biblical Studies/Theology BookAdam and the Genome by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. In the first section, Venema, a professor of biology who specializes in genetics, does an honorable job of putting the cookies on the bottom shelf for the lay reader who know little of science in general and genetics in specific. He avails us of the latest research as it concerns human origins and the challenges that present themselves to those who hold to Christianity (Venema is a follower of Jesus). The weakest part is when McKnight, a New Testament scholar, offers his alternative views in light of modern scientific findings. Overall, if anything, this book should provoke the church, and her intellectuals and theologians within it, to better engage the discussion of human origins and the biblical account.

Image result for A Soldier of the Great War, Mark HelprinBest Fiction – A Soldier of the Great Waby Mark Helprin. I had heard of this book years ago when a Wheaton professor of English said it was his favorite book of all time. I didn’t think anything of it until one of my friends, who I hold in high esteem when it comes to literary recommendations,1 told me I must read Helprin’s novel. I did and would put it in one of the best modern novels I have ever read. It is such a beautiful read that it literally left me in tears at parts. I read that Helprin’s work was blackballed from Pulitzer consideration because of his conservative political views. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know. I would say this is easily Pulitzer material to me.

Image result for crossing to safetyBest Fiction (Honorable Mention) Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. The same friend who told me to read Helprin also told me to read Stegner’s work. The result? He was two for two on recommendations. Crossing to Safety is a moving novel about friendship that stays with you long after finishing the book. There’s a part of me that wished I read it with my close friends as a book club just so we could talk about what makes a real friendship. An absolutely fantastic read that I won’t forget.

Image result for goodbye to a riverBest Non-Fiction – Goodbye to a River by John Graves. This “semi-historical” book (technically filed under fiction), is about the author’s last canoe trip down the Brazos River in 1957 before flood-control dams are installed, thus changing the river forever. It is part memoir, part history. It is considered a Texas literary classic. In reading it I felt not only carried along Graves’ slow, meandering journey down a river I knew while a student in Waco but also felt pulled back in time when Indians roamed Central Texas. Melancholic, enchanting, and just what I needed.

Image result for dark matter coverBest Just for Fun Book Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Flat out fun! Just when you think things can’t get any crazier, they do. Read this is a day or two and loved it for the mindless, fast-paced fun it is.

 

 

Image result for stapleton vol. 1 coverImage result for stapleton vol. 2Best Album From the Room, Vols. 1 & 2, Chris Stapleton. Maybe one of the best country albums I’ve heard in a decade. Stapleton walks with confidence into the “outlaw country” road that Nelson, Haggard, and other blazed before him. Every song is good. Every. Song. With that said, ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’ is as good as it gets with honesty, artistry, and musicality.

Best MovieWind River. I’m a fan of writer Taylor Sheridan. The native Texan has previously written both Sicario and Hell or High Water. Both flicks been some of my favorite in recent years. With themes and images that are disturbing, Sheridan makes an movie that is more about humanity, loss, and grief than simply “a thriller.” To be fair, I haven’t seen many other movies this year.  I have yet to see Dunkirk, the movie by my favorite director, Christopher Nolan. So, this entry might have changed. For now, Wind River takes the spot.

Best Moment of 2017 – My brother’s swearing-in as a U.S. Congressman in January. Pretty special to have your family member in the halls of Congress. Plus, my kids had a blast in D.C. seeing the sights as their uncle became a congressman.

Best Moment of 2017 (Honorable Mentions) – 1) Finishing my book which will be released the first week of January 2018. 2) The Astros winning the World Series!

 

 

Dr. Haddon Robinson (1931-2017)

Haddon Robinson passed away this morning. He was the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of one of the most influential books on preaching, Biblical Preaching. His article on “The Heresy of Application” is one which still marks my preaching today. I salute you, Dr. Robinson! I’m grateful for God’s work in you for making those who preach his word better in the calling they have. I know that’s been true for me.

 

*UPDATE – July 13, 2017: Peterson has now offered a retraction of his statements in the Merritt interview.

Recently, well-known author and pastor Eugene Peterson made waves in Christian circles when, in an interview with Jonathan Merritt, he spoke of his newfound support for same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general.* The response was quick from the evangelical community. Most were sad. Some weren’t surprised given Peterson’s denominational background. But the interview had several other parts. One segment dealt with Peterson’s view of the American megachurch. In lamenting the consumer mentality in American congregations overall, Peterson singled out megachurches:

I think the thing that’s most disturbing is the megachurch because megachurches are not churches. My feeling is that when you’re a pastor, you know the people’s names. When 5,000 people come into the church, you don’t know anybody’s name. I don’t think you can be a pastor with just a bunch of anonymous people out there. In the megachurch, well, there’s no relationship with anybody. I think the nature of the church is relational. If you don’t know these people that you’re praying with and talking with and listening to, what do you have? I feel pretty strongly about that.

Now, there’s a lot of innovation in the church, and overall, I can’t say I’m disheartened. I’m just upset by the fad-ism of the megachurch, but I just don’t think they’re churches. They’re entertainment places.

For the record, I like Eugene Peterson. A lot. His pastoral heart, literary giftedness, and anti-celebrity persona are incredibly endearing to me and instructive for me.1 His latest revelations on sexual issues notwithstanding, I have found myself resonating with much of what he’s written and said over the years. I felt like he was a needed voice in American Evangelicalism.

Now, among other targets, Peterson has set his sights on the megachurch. As one who pastors in a megachurch, I think it’s easy to get defensive when critique arises. My experience over the years is that diatribes against the megachurch are a mixed bag. They can be full of straw men, false equivalences, and over-generalizations as well as proper rebukes, accurate assessments, and necessary correctives. I quite remember when the tune of critique for one famous megachurch was, “They never preach the gospel there, but just some watered-down Jesus in order to draw a crowd.” These critical publications were met with cheers by those with an axe to grind while it sowed seeds of doubt in the mind of neutrals. What angered me was not that the church in question was above critique2, but that the critique given wasn’t true of what I knew of the church. I had attended that congregation over the years and had yet to hear some curtailed, gospel-lite presentation of Jesus. Maybe they only “beefed it up” when I was there, but I doubt that was the case.

But I also know churches of any stripe can easily become blind to their own shortcomings. Megachurches included. And I absolutely concur that megachurches need to be critiqued when that critique is merited (and there are many places where it surely is). That’s why I think it’s good to ask questions about Peterson’s critique. It’s also good to address his assumptions.

As to the high number of people in a church:

  • Is Peterson working under the assumption that a church should have a solitary pastor?
  • In Peterson’s view, if a church grows, should it only grow to the degree where the pastor knows everyone and is able to minister personally (pray, talk with, listen) to each and every one of them?
  • If the church grows beyond the pastor’s relational quotient (say, for the sake of argument, 250 people), would it be wrong to add pastoral staff? Or does that kind of growth necessitate the planting of another church? If another so, where would you plant it?
  • If you can’t pastor a church where 5,000 people come into it because you, as the solitary pastor(?) cannot relationally minister to all of them, what would Peterson say of the first collection of Christians in Jerusalem when “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Ac. 2:41)?3 Is that not a church as well?
  • Is it fair to say “in the megachurch there’s no relationship with anybody”? What of arrangments where the larger group is broken into smaller ones (cf., Ac. 2:42-46)?
  • Would Peterson say Charles Haddon Spurgeon wasn’t a pastor because he led a church of 5,311 people, at that time the largest independent congregation in the world?4

As to entertainment in the megachurch:

  • What practices on Sunday morning would lead Peterson to call megachurches “entertainment places”? What activities or accoutrements associated with entertainment find themselves in megachurch services?
  • How has consumerism infected American churches? Are megachurches the embodiment of this malady? How so?
  • How do megachurches address the relational dynamics needed in the local church as Peterson describes?
  • When is something innovative and when is something regressive or unbiblical?
  • What would make a service less about entertainment and more about being biblical?

To be honest, I resonate with much of Peterson’s reservations. My church isn’t perfect. Far from it. We want to honor God and his Word as faithfully as possible. I don’t want any churches, megachurches included, that don’t pastor their people or aim to entertain on Sundays. If these pitfalls are easier for larger churches to fall into, then I want to redouble my efforts for my church to be a place where the lost can hear the gospel and the those who’ve embraced Jesus can live out the gospel mission as a gospel community. However, nothing is above critique, including the critique itself. I want to engage critiques based on Scripture instead of someone’s preconceived idea of what the ideal church is. Where we have the former there should be repentance. But where we have the latter, well, it seems a brief tour through the New Testament as well as church history demonstrates congregations came in all shapes and sizes. Each have their own challenges to be sure, but let’s make sure if a church needs to repent of something it’s actually something to repent over.5