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TOTAL CHURCH By Tim Chester and Steve Timmis Crossway Books Reviewed by Heather Munn “If only there were a different way of doing church,” say Tim Chester and Steve Timmis in their introduction to Total Church:A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community. There is indeed a different way, they go on to argue, and though it is certainly radical, it is not new. Unapologetically evangelical and biblical, Chester and Timmis call for an understanding of the church that is centered on the gospel word and its proclamation, and on the community of believers, not as Sunday-morning acquaintances but as a true family.Their book is a powerful reminder of the very first church, revealed in Acts—a far-flung yet local, deeply involved community, its members sharing homes and lives and possessions with each other, inviting in strangers, talking constantly about Jesus. That image doesn’t come out of nowhere. Chester and Timmis are lead-
ers of The Crowded House in Sheffield, England, a “network of missionary congregations, most of which meet in homes.” This book is deeply informed by that experience and includes some of its stories. But this is not the story of The Crowded House, nor a take-home version of its model; this is a theology of “total church.” Not a how-to, but a vision. Without once using the word “holistic,” Chester and Timmis paint a picture of the church that is unrelentingly whole. Church is not an item on our schedules but a community that helps us to both think through and carry out our responsibilities. Evangelism, social action, missions, theology, and youth work are not a list of competing priorities (don’t be fooled by the fact that each has its own chapter) but integral and overlapping parts of our life as a church. Social action and evangelism are inseparable; theology is born from crosscultural missions. There is a great deal to think about here—and plenty with which to argue. Some will take issue with the authors’ wholesale rejection of contemplative spirituality; some will see their apolitical, gospel-centered vision for social action as insufficient. These questions matter, but something else here is so compelling that I just had to put them aside and read on. The wholeness of this vision as it works out in evangelism and church-planting is simply beautiful. Imagine that evangelism means inviting a non-Christian coworker, not to a church meeting, but just to spend time with your group of friends, who are your church, who actively care for each other, and who talk about Jesus all the time. Imagine letting her get to know them and decide for herself when to jump in and ask what this God thing is about—then imagine that she actually does. Imagine that this little group outgrows their living rooms, but rather than starting a building fund it forms a PRISM 2009
church-planting team for a nearby town and sends them out. Imagine these groups of disciples, instead of megachurches, spreading across the nation. This is not fantasy; this is work in which the authors have been collaborating with the Holy Spirit for years. This message is radical—and true.We would do well to listen. n Heather Munn lives in a Christian intentional community in Tiskilwa, Ill. She and her husband are pioneering a ministry that offers free spiritual retreats to the poor.
SIN BOLDLY By Cathleen Falsani Zondervan Reviewed by Erika Bai Siebels Yes, this is yet another book about grace. But this is one to read and put down, then pick up again, savoring it like a visit with a dear friend. Cathleen Falsani, an award-winning former religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, last wrote The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People in which celebrities the likes of David Lynch, Anne Rice, Bono, and Barack Obama wax poetically about their thoughts on God. Falsani readily admits that grace is hard to define. As the book’s front inside flap says, “...you can’t do grace justice with a textbook, theological definition, but you can get closer to describing it with music and film, pictures and stories.” And so she sets out to describe grace, not necessarily define it, painting story after story of instances in which she sets out looking for grace and it finds her, unexpectedly, as grace often does.
But what about the title? What does it actually mean to sin boldly? Turn to page 105, halfway through the book. Falsani explains that the term “sin boldly” refers to a quotation by great reformer and radical Martin Luther, who wrote after being put on trial for heresy: If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly...Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner. We might not notice grace, but we have all experienced it, Falsani says. It happens without explanation. And that’s what makes grace so stunning. Falsani’s stories are remarkable for the pure delight with which she tells them; they have caught her, too, offguard. For example, her belittling tour guide in Tanzania ends his disappointing safari with a close encounter with elephants, something Falsani has been secretly waiting for, like a child staying up for a glimpse of Santa Claus. That’s grace. And then there’s the grace of a nun in a wheelchair who stretches out her hands and tells Falsani, “You have the face of an angel.” Or determined people who refuse to let Hurricane Katrina ruin their desire to celebrate life. Or an orphan whose heart gallops within his chest just from getting up and walking across the floor; when you read Falsani’s description of the boy’s poor health, your own heart melts along with Falsani’s.These are moments of “grace-spotting,” as Falsani and her friend call them: jaw-dropping opportunities to point and shout, “Look! Grace!” Lest we forget to notice the grace all around us daily, Falsani concludes her book with a call to get outside and into nature, a place where even Jesus himself escaped to be alone with and encounter God. And who better to tell us some-
thing about grace than God, the Creator, the man behind the curtain of grace? n Erika Bai Siebels is a frequent book reviewer for PRISM. She lives with her family, including a daughter named Grace, in Troy, NY.
A Christianity Worth Believing By Doug Pagitt Jossey-Bass Reviewed by Kevin Lester If you are anything like me, you have a shelf in your house with a number of unfinished books on it. While I often tell myself that I will go back and finish each one, I know there are some I never will. A couple of chapters into some books and I generally understand what the author’s message is and am not inclined to finish the whole thing. After the first few sections of Doug Pagitt’s new A ChristianityWorth Believing, I thought I had it all figured out. Certainly there are moments when Pagitt’s writing almost warrants this reaction. The subtitle promises an exposition of a Christianity that is “alive and well” for all those who feel “left out, left behind, and let-down” by their faith experience. The first chapter opens with Pagitt’s claim that, although he is a Christian, he does not “believe in Christianity”—at least not as it has been practiced for the last 1,500 years. His sweeping generalizations and reactionary statements are disappointing, and when he rants against contemporary Christian spirituality while encouraging a return to an idyllic early church, I heard some all-too-familiar echoes from early emergent thought. However, Pagitt soon surprised this PRISM 2009
fickle reader. In the remaining chapters of his book, he offers a well-crafted and insightful exploration of emergent theology, told through the lens of his personal experience within the movement.With this tactic, he provides the reader not merely a systematized checklist of alternative stances on theological issues but also an understanding of how and why he himself has been led to step aside from mainstream Christianity and into something quite new. Or perhaps, more accurately, renewed: Pagitt’s apologetic for emergent thought begins with his making a case for theological freedom while drawing from the heritage of the Christian faith. He notes that much of what conventional church has come to hold as orthodox has been based on a Greek worldview. Ancient Christians allowed the gospel to be shifted from its context in the Hebrew worldview into that of Plato and Aristotle; the God of Israel became the Unmoved Mover. At one time, Christians felt free to engage their culture in such a way as to address the concerns and life of people in the Roman Empire.The question Pagitt poses is “How are Christians today free to respond theologically to the worldview of our contemporary culture, which is developing an alternative set of questions and concerns?” He is eager to see what Christians may find if they dare to peel off the remnants of Greek and Enlightenment philosophical presuppositions. After discovering the right questions to ask, Pagitt provides us with his findings. He offers his thoughts on God, humanity, sin, salvation, mission, Scripture, and eschatology, inviting the reader to see the interplay between his worldview, wrought from his own life experience, and Christian faith.What is supremely helpful about Pagitt’s book is that even if you disagree with him, you can better understand where his emergent theology is coming from. While it may not be as original or creative as other works, such
as Bell’s Velvet Elvis or McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian, Pagitt’s book is certainly as engaging. If you’ve been either suspicious of or interested in the goings-on within some progressive Christian communities, give A ChristianityWorth Believing a read. n Kevin Lester lives with his wife in Philadelphia and is currently a student in the M.Div program at Palmer Theological Seminary.
CRISIS Edited by Mitchell Gold Greenleaf Book Group Reviewed by Tim Otto I suspect that Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain andTrauma of Growing up Gay in America is a book that few members of its target audience—religious conservatives—will read. Mitchell Gold, the editor, introduces the book by saying that the primary purpose of the book is to overturn “religious prejudice” against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) people. Gold relates a story of listening to a Christian minister who said that people are born gay and should be treated with respect. The minister also said that “gay people can control their behavior by accepting Jesus Christ as their savior and having a personal relationship with God.” Gold then charges that such a message is nothing short of “child abuse.” Given hyperbole like that, should Christians, especially Christians who take the traditional view on homosexuality, read a book like Crisis? I would offer a qualified “yes.” While there is plenty to beware of in the book, there is also much to be learned. In a Barna Group study of
non-Christian young adults, 91 percent of them perceived Christians as “antihomosexual.” If those young adults are on to anything—if Christians need to learn how to care for homosexuals—then listening to firsthand accounts of how the church has done poorly by the gay community might be a good initial step. Reading these stories is painful. Irene Monroe recounts how her Christian foster mother frequently threatened to return her to the foster agency whenever she acted too masculine. Mel White relates how he, as a result of a deep self-loathing brought on by constantly hearing that homosexuality is a sickness and sin, wrote a long suicide letter to his parents and almost jumped into the Seine. Jarrod Parker tells how as a teenager he paid for reparative therapy for two years, hoping in vain that he could change his sexual orientation in order to be accepted by his family and church community. Although heartbreaking, these stories teach us much.We get a sense of what it might be like to grow up thinking of oneself in theological terms such as “abomination” or in schoolyard terms such as “faggot.” Such stories might help Christians realize that Christianity should not be used as a pretext to look down on or ridicule homosexuals. Although the Scriptures condemn gluttony, no one thinks ridiculing obese children will reduce the number of gluttons. Perhaps Christians should champion school initiatives such as the “Day of Silence,” which opposes attitudes of contempt toward GLBT students. Another theme that emerges is the inadequacy of simplistic answers. “Just date more girls” or “Just be celibate” or “Just go to reparative therapy” or “Just play with dolls more” just doesn’t cut it. In the wake of the sexual revolution, ministers have rethought how the church teaches sexuality.Attempting to get beyond simplistic answers, the church has tried to discuss sexuality more openly and positively and honestly, while still holding on to biblical teachings. It seems to me PRISM 2009
that this book challenges us to do a similar rethinking in regard to homosexuality. What if we were to say something like, “If you have same-sex feelings we would be honored if you would let us know. We promise to respect you and walk with you as family.We will look to the Scriptures for answers and seek the Holy Spirit’s help as we discern together what God might have in mind for you.” In addition to the stories of growing up gay, the book offers a couple of chapters that argue that homosexuality is not sin. The best of these is a chapter entitled “Homosexuality, the Bible, and Us” by Rev. H. Stephen Shoemaker.Although his treatment of Romans 1 seems unconvincing to me, Shoemaker makes the case for affirming same-sex relationships in a concise and graceful way. Hearing solid reasons offered for the affirming stance may encourage some Christians, who hold the traditional view, toward a much-needed humility in the conversation about homosexuality. My greatest hesitation in recommending the book is that editor Mitchell Gold is completely oblivious to his own faith agenda. Gold has started an organization called Faith in America, whose mission is “the emancipation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from bigotry disguised as religious truth.” His deepest trust and belief lie in the Enlightenment values of freedom, tolerance, self-expression, and equality expressed in the experiment called America. Gold is essentially trying to evangelize us all into believing that these are the ultimate truths that should trump religious beliefs. The stories contained in the book often serve as testimonies of how the Enlightenment story released the person from the bondage and guilt of the “repressive” religious story. The testimonies are compelling and moving. If we are truly Christian, such testimonies should and will evoke our compassion. I worry, however, that some Christians might not realize how Gold is subtly hawking another gospel.
So my recommendation is a qualified one. Let us learn what we can about how to love gays and lesbians, but let’s not convert to the religion of America. n Tim Otto is the preaching and teaching pastor at Church of the Sojourners, a small “new-monastic” church in San Francisco.
True Story By James Choung InterVarsity Press Reviewed by Al Tizon True Story:A Christianity Worth Believing In is a cross between a novel and an evangelism manual. As peculiar a combination as this may sound, James Choung, director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s San Diego division, successfully uses it to introduce a new way of doing evangelism that agrees with postmodern sensibilities. More importantly, it agrees with the holistic nature of the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached. The first three-quarters of the book tell the story of Caleb, a college-age evangelical Christian who has been raised on personal morality, missionary zeal, and the Four Spiritual Laws. In the story, Caleb undergoes a spiritual crisis as he tries desperately to discover something of the faith that is not only worth believing but also worth sharing with others. What, if anything, about the gospel is even remotely compelling for his irreverent and skeptical friend Anna, who in the story personifies postmodern disdain for institutional religion? He desperately wants Anna to see the light, partly because he has a crush on her, but also because her skepticism uncovers his own doubt about how great
“the greatest story ever told” really is. If it’s so great, he asks as he argues with himself, then why does the gospel seem indifferent to the poverty, suffering, and pain that blight our world? Caleb’s doubts frighten him. How can he even begin to talk about them with Jeff, the well-respected pastor of his church, without sounding as if he’s losing his faith? In one of their conversations, Pastor Jeff, who personifies (at least at first) the fundamentalist suspicion of anything that may undermine a “passion for souls,” asks, “Are you questioning the gospel?” Fortunately for Caleb, he finds an empathetic ear in an ethnic studies professor named Shalandra Jones, who affirms Caleb’s questioning, helps him deconstruct the gospel of personal salvation, and then guides him in re-envisioning the good news that encompasses both personal and social transformation. The drama that unfolds between Caleb and the supporting cast turns the pages, and before you know it, you’ve read most of the book. With Caleb’s journey from crisis to discovery fresh on the reader’s mind, the last quarter switches to the manual portion of the book, providing the why, the what, and the how of telling God’s “Big Story.” Indeed God’s plan of salvation is bigger than saving souls; it also includes mending broken relationships, healing sick bodies, feeding the hungry, challenging evil sociopolitical structures, and taking care of the earth. In this light, evangelism must be more than offering eternal fire insurance to individuals destined for hell. Surely, insists Caleb (I mean, Choung), there is a way to be more faithful to the gospel of the kingdom in our evangelism. Inspired to pave this way, Choung proposes the Big Story approach. Through a series of circle diagrams, lines, and arrows, which are all simple enough to be drawn on a napkin from memory, he illustrates the truths that PRISM 2009
humanity was/is (1) designed for good, but (2) damaged by evil, then (3) restored for better through Christ, and (4) sent out together to heal a broken world. The net result of this new approach is that it restores the “good” in the good news, thus making it something that Christians can once again be genuinely excited about as well as something that non-Christians can understand easily and interact with nonthreateningly. Finally someone has come up with a simple evangelistic approach that reflects the wholeness of the gospel. Holistic ministry practitioners tend to nuance truths to a fault, articulating the height, width, and depth of the gospel, and as a consequence often make the good news harder for people to access. So the simplicity of Choung’s circle diagrams is a welcome, refreshing, and much-needed approach. On the other hand, the simple diagrams are also open to the charge of being just another formula. Is it just a matter of time before the American Bible Society produces hundreds of thousands of “4-Circles Tracts” to be handed out by zealous Christian students on college campuses all over the world? Please, no! If somehow we can understand the Big Story as a way to keep the crux of the gospel straight in our own heads while developing authentic relationships and serving the world in compassion and justice, then perhaps it doesn’t ever have to be reduced to an impersonal formula. But if its fate is eventually to crystallize into something resembling an Amway pitch, then I pray while it is still new and dynamic that the church will utilize it to welcome many to new life in the kingdom of God. n Al Tizon is director of Evangelicals for Social Action’s Word & Deed Network and assistant professor of holistic ministry at PalmerTheological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.
A field guide for grace, radically reshaping around gospel and community, the pain of growing up gay in America, a way of doing evangelism t...