Brian Stanley. Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. xxi + 477 pp. £27.00/$35.00. [review originally published in Themelios 43:3 (December 2018), 534-535].
Brian Stanley, respected historian of world Christianity and professor at the University of Edinburgh, invested six years producing his latest work, Christianity in the Twentieth Century. Stanley’s two previous works--The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Grand Rapids, IL: Eerdmans, 2009) and The Global Diffusion of Evangelism (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013)—also explore issues of twentieth-century world Christian and mission history.
Stanley’s aim is to evaluate the “multiple and complex ways in which the Christian religion and its institutional embodiment in the Christian churches have interacted with the changing social, political, and cultural environment of the twentieth century” (pp. 3–4). To do this, he chooses fifteen themes that show how the church responded to the changing twentieth-century world, offering two case studies for each theme to make his point.
In the opening chapter, the author shows how British and American Christianity were affected by the First World War. Next, with a focus on Poland and Korea, he discusses the dynamics of Christianity and nationalism (ch. 2). The following three chapters consider prophetic and revival movements in Africa and the South Pacific (ch. 3), state-imposed secularization in France and the Soviet Union (chap. 4), and faith trends and church attendance in Scandinavia and the United States (ch. 5). He then explores church unity in India and China (ch. 6), racism in Nazi Germany, genocide in Rwanda (ch. 7), and the plight of Christian minorities in Egypt and Indonesia (ch. 8). Stanley continues his study by articulating twentieth-century mission theologies (ch. 9), exploring liberation theology in Latin America and Palestine (chap. 10), and discussing justice and the gospel issues in South Africa’s apartheid state and among Canada’s first nations population (ch. 11). He devotes one chapter to questions about the ordination of women in Australia and the gay rights in American churches (ch. 12). In the remaining chapters, he discusses global Pentecostalism (ch. 13), Eastern Orthodox Christianity (ch. 14), and the impact of global migration on the church (ch. 15). He concludes the book with a concise and summative chapter that brings the work together.
Christianity in the Twentieth Century is a rich and thorough resource. Though Stanley limits himself to fifteen themes and two case studies per theme, he succeeds in providing the reader a rather comprehensive picture of twentieth-century global Christianity. This includes some places and people that may not get as much attention in other survey works (e.g., Polish Catholics, African Orthodox Christians, Australian Anglicans).
Though Stanley adequately narrates the story of world Christianity in the last century, his many smaller nuggets of historical insights throughout the work are especially compelling. For example, he shows how WWI fractured the mission unity garnered from the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference and particularly alienated German missionaries from their European and North American counterparts (pp. 14–15). Also, he asserts that Egyptian Coptic Christians learned to be resilient as a religious minority by looking to their monastic past, to the desert fathers who remained firm in their faith amid periods of Roman persecution (p. 181). Stanley also questions the commonly held view that global Pentecostalism originated from the 1906 Asuza Street revival in Los Angeles. He points to other factors and spiritual movements that encouraged this expression of Christianity (pp. 291–92). Finally, Stanley shows how Eastern Orthodox practices, particularly the “Jesus Prayer,” spread to Europe during the middle of the century because of the large number of Russian Christians interned in German prison campus during WWI (p. 315).
I have just two minor critiques. First, though Stanley gives space to both Latin American liberation theology movements and the holistic missiology of Latin American evangelicals (Padilla, Escobar, Costas) at Lausanne 1974 (pp. 210–13, 223–31), he makes no connection between the thought and practice of these two movements. This is especially surprising given his good argument for the Protestant influences on liberation theology within the Roman Catholic Church. Second, while the author does a good job of surveying twentieth-century global Christianity, his work still seems a bit overly focused on the church in America. The biggest twentieth-century Christian story was the church in Africa. This deserves more space.
In sum, Stanley has produced an inviting, well-written, and excellent survey of twentieth-century global Christianity. Scholars, professors, and graduate students of Christian history will greatly benefit. Paired with primary source readings, this fifteen-chapter book would be a great anchoring text for a graduate or seminary level course on Christianity in the twentieth century.
Playing off some treasured Protestant language, Greg Peters’ new book is entitled The Monkhood of All Believers. Continuing his monastic scholarship, which includes works such as The Story of Monasticism (2015) and Reforming the Monastery (2013), Peters argues that though every Christian is not a monk in the institutional sense, monastic values are central to the Christian experience. Borrowing Martin Luther’s words, a Christian can be a monk but not a monk.
In the first part of his work, Peters thoroughly defines monasticism (chap. 1), narrates monastic history (chap. 2), and then discusses interiorized monasticism—the focus of every believer to have single-minded devotion to God (chap. 3). In part two, he spells out the meaning and practice of asceticism (chap. 4) and then shows that the notion of the priesthood of all believers is celebrated by Protestants and Catholics alike (chap. 5). In the final section, the author summarizes his case for monastic living for all Christians (chap. 6) and then discusses vocation in general and monastic vocation in particular (chap. 7).
I am a fan of Greg Peters’ scholarship and I learned much in this new work from his careful interaction with a breadth of sources—from early Christian monks, Russian Orthodox thinkers, Protestant Reformers, and Anglican sources. Because of this engagement, Peters successfully shows that the monastic impulse is present across Christian traditions. My views on Christian monasticism’s fourth-century origins were challenged by Peters’ claims—via Augustine and Cassian—that monasticism can be traced to the habits of the earliest Christians in Acts 2 and 4. By arguing for first-century monastic Christianity, he does support his overall claim about the monastic-ascetic nature of Christianity—single-minded devotion to God.
What’s a review without some critiques? First, though Peters’ research is thorough, his claims for the monkhood of all believers seem to rest on the thought of selected theologians (i.e. Paul Evdokimov and Raimon Panikkar in chap. 3) rather than the broader consensus of monastic history and thought. Second, the “I am a monk but not a monk” dichotomy began to unravel for me as I continued through the book. Indeed, monastic values and practices such as prayer, Scripture reading, and work ought to shape Christian spirituality for monks and non-monks alike. This is what Dennis Okholm was after in his work Monk Habits for Everyday Life (2007). While Peters aims to go farther than Okholm, calling for all Christians to be monks, in the end I didn’t see Peters’ work being terribly distinct from Okholm’s—everyday Christians can emulate monastic living to some degree. In short, while all Christians may follow the spiritual examples of monks and emulate some practices, I don’t think that makes all Christians monks.
That said, as a non-monk who admires monastic spirituality and strives to apply some monk habits in my faith walk, I highly value this new book and Peters’ efforts to probe ancient and modern monastic thinking. I hope to see Greg Peters soon and talk about some of this more.
Andrew F. Walls. Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Studies in the History of World Christianity. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2017. xii + 284 pp. $32 [note: this was published in Themelios 43:1 (2018), 167-168].
Crossing Cultural Frontiers is the most recent work from Andrew Walls, an eminent scholar of history of Christian mission and world Christianity. Previously a missionary to Sierra Leone, Walls’ academic career has included professorships at the University of Edinburgh, Liverpool Hope University, and Afroki-Christaller Institute (Ghana). The present work is a “best of Walls” compilation comprising works published in other journals and books. In fact, it is the third such “best of” compendium. The previous two include The Missionary Movement in Christian History (1996) and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (2002).
The essays in the volume are grouped into three sections. In the first, “The Transmission of Christian Faith,” Walls argues for the multi-cultural and global nature of early Christianity (chap. 1), presents Origen as the father of mission studies (chap. 2), and discusses worldview, including how much of a believer’s culture and previous religion stay with them at Christian conversion (chap. 3). By juxtaposing Adamic (forced out) vs. Abrahamic (voluntary going) migration, Walls offers a theology of migration (chap. 4). Finally, he argues that studying Christian history is a cross-cultural exercise (chap. 5).
In part two, “Africa in Christian Thought and History,” Walls explores world Christianity in the region of the world that he knows best. He explores a history of African discipleship through suffering (chap. 6), the eighteenth-century “Christian experiment” of the Sierra Leone colony (chap. 7), and nineteenth-century attempts to cultivate Christianity in the vernacular in West Africa (chap. 8). He completes the section by showing how African traditional religions began to be studied (chap. 9), and how the Ghanian scholar Kwame Bediako exemplified African Christian scholarship (chap. 10).
In the final part, Walls focuses on “The Missionary Movement and the West.” In this he dedicates chapters to how western missions and missionaries are portrayed in English literature (chap. 11), John and Charles Wesley’s theology and practice of mission (chap. 12), and the legacy of mission literature—particularly Jonathan Edwards’ Life of Brainerd (chap. 13). In the remaining chapters, Walls discusses an African (Tiyo Sago) and Indian (Behari Lal Singh) scholar living in Britain and being exemplars of world Christianity (chap. 14), western missionaries in China committed to vernacular and indigenous Christianity (chap. 15), and the work of Harold Turner who sought to grasp indigenous Christianity with an eye toward traditional religions (chap. 16). In a brief concluding chapter, Walls reflects on the vocation of missiology. As only Walls can put it, he writes, “Missiologists are the magpies of the academic world; they invade the scholarly territory of their neighbors and steal their topics . . . the biblical field, the theological field, the historical field, and the practical field in the name of the study of mission . . . This also makes them academic subversives, upsetting harmony by raising new issues; introducing new perspectives and new data; identifying new questions and problems within established fields” (p. 259).
There is much to appreciate in this collection of Walls’ essays and I will highlight two areas. First, Walls’ lifelong exploration of indigenous Christianity—the gospel at home in every culture—is well teased out in this volume. Beginning with the question, what does it mean to be a Greek (or African or other) Christian?, he illustrates this reality through a survey of the early church in general, and individuals such as Antony, Origen, Kwame Bediako, Tiyo Sago, and Behari Lal Singh (chaps. 1-2, 10, 14). He explores the eighteenth and nineteenth-century vernacular translation work of missionaries in West Africa and also China, including the struggles and failures to achieve local Christianity (chaps. 8, 15). In his study of conversion (chap. 3) and Harold Turner’s study of pre-Christian religions (chap. 16), he wrestles with the authentic cultural and religious identity of local Christians. In short, this volume offers a rich collection of case studies for indigenous and world Christianity.
Second, Walls’ discussion on theology of migration (chap. 4) contained fresh insights. His paradigm of forced (Adamic) vs. voluntary (Abrahamic) migration sets a framework for peoples on the move in Scripture and throughout history. Further, his emphasis on Greater European Migration from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries is important because it offers a context for understanding colonialism and the founding of new nations, while also offering context for the reverse migration to Europe and the West which has taken place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These historical and theological reflections are needed by the church in the West today.
To these points of appreciation, I raise two questions for critique. First, I applaud Walls for highlighting Origen as the father of mission studies (chap. 2). Origen showed how one could be thoroughly Christian and thoroughly Greek and thoroughly Egyptian and he praised the work of itinerant evangelists. However, can we call someone the father of mission studies who lacked personal and practical experience in cross-cultural mission engagement?
Second, Walls has helped the reader understand the identity of a Christian believer situated in a local culture with a pre-Christian past (chap. 3). Conversion is a messy process as the gospel makes its home in a given culture. However, I think Walls could have given more space to discussing how and when local Christianity turns into idolatry or syncretism. To borrow from Walls, what does it look like for the gospel to be a pilgrim message (exhorting, critiquing, being prophetic) within a given context?
All said, it was a pleasure to sit with Professor Walls on this journey. His call to do church history as a global, cross-cultural exercise (chap. 5) has certainly shaped this reader’s academic and professional path.
I'm honored that my article on Francis of Assisi, Christology, and mission was published in the July 2018 edition of Missiology: An International Review. The abstract reads as follows:
In recent years, global theologians of mission have emphasized a posture of mission from below—missional engagement from a place of weakness and vulnerability. In part a reaction to the mistakes of Christendom and Christian mission’s alliance with political and economic power, mission from below aims to recover first-century mission that emulates the way of Christ and the apostles. This approach to mission is also relevant in contexts today where Christian freedom (for worship and witness) is limited by tyrannical or resistant governments. As we strive to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves in contemporary mission, it seems fruitful to explore the theology of mission of a medieval Italian mendicant monk who ministered to Muslims during the Crusades. In this article, following a brief narrative of Francis of Assisi’s (1181–1226) life and journey in mission, I will focus on Francis’s Christology and how that shaped his approach to mission among Muslims and others. Finally, I will conclude with some reflections for what the church on mission today might gain from Francis.
Read more HERE.
I’m grateful for Ben Myers’ new little book The Apostles' Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism. This is the first title in Lexham’s Christian Essential Series that will include works on the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and others. Though Myers’ book is a bit more brief, it does resemble the aims of Michael Bird’s What Christians Ought to Believe (2016). These books evidence an encouraging trend that the contemporary church is seeking wisdom for faith and practice from the ancient church. May they be widely read and deeply digested.
Though Myers’ book is just 133 pages and quite readable in one sitting, I chose to read it slowly (usually after morning devotions and prayers) following the book’s structure: 22 chapters organized by the three major articles on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I think this book would best be read over 22 days of devotions or 22 weeks as a small group Bible study or Sunday School class for adults and youth alike. It would also be a great resource for discipleship with a new believer.
Breaking down each line of the creed, Myers’ engages Scripture and also leans on the thought of church fathers such as Ireneaus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. We grasp how the creed was articulated in the face of challenges from Gnosticism, Marcionism, Novatianism, and others.
I think what I appreciated most was Myer’s ability to discuss the ancient creed with 21st century cultural concerns in mind: individualism, gender identity, and the material world. Myers’ presentation of the creed—and the gospel—was winsome, dogmatic, and relevant.
I'm looking forward to giving this paper at the Evangelical Missiological Society regional meetings in Raleigh, NC and Toronto over the next couple of weeks. My abstract follows:
North Africa possesses a rich Christian history, including the stories of martyrs such as Perpetua and Felicitas (d. 202) and theologians like Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220), Cyprian (195-258), and Augustine (354-430). While many North Africans today may know these names, they do not know their faith stories. Is it possible to share the Christian message with a people through their own history? What if a high-quality feature film was developed that captured that story? This is the vision of a group of Middle Eastern and North African Christians who created “Augustine: Son of Her Tears,” which has recently been released and is currently premiering at film festivals and special showings around the Arab world (see trailer).
In this paper, I discuss how the film is connecting with audiences, particularly North African secular Muslims. Following a brief background on the making of the film, a brief synopsis of it, and the initial distribution of the film, I discuss why Augustine’s story is meaningful to secular North Africans and what missiological lessons might be learned.
Originally given at the 2016 Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, my paper, "Ignatius of Antioch's Trinitarian Foundation for Church Unity and Obeying Spiritual Leaders," has now been published in the Winter 2018 edition of Fides et Humilitas.
In the abstract I write:
While on the road to stand trial and face martyrdom in Rome, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 110) authored seven letters—five to Asian churches, one to Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, and one to the church at Rome. Providing rich insight into the issues of the second-century church in Asia, the letters also reveal a good bit of Ignatius’ theology, including his thoughts on ecclesiology, martyrdom, Judaism, heresy, and the Trinity. In this paper, I suggest that Ignatius’ pleas for church unity and obedience to the bishop—arguably the strongest themes in his letters—were founded on his understanding of the Trinity and that his ecclesiology depended on this developing Trinitarian thought.
Read the complete paper HERE.
Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church. By Hans Boersma. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017, xix + 316 pp., $39.99, hardcover. [originally published in JETS 60:4 (2017)].
Scripture as Real Presence is the most recent book from prolific author and Regent College theology professor, Hans Boersma. A Reformed theologian, Boersma has also authored other works on sacramental theology, including Sacramental Preaching (2016), The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology (edited with Matthew Leavering, 2015), Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa (2015), and Nouvelle Theologie and Sacramental Ontology (2013) among others. While building on these previous works, Boersma’s book also resembles the general aims of at least three other recent works: (1) Matthew Leavering’s Participatory Biblical Exegesis (2008), which navigates theological and historical interpretation of Scripture; (2) Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery (2007), an apologetic for modern allegorical reading of Scripture; and (3) Frances Young’s Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (1997), which aims to refresh the categories of patristic exegesis.
Continuing the legacy of twentieth century scholars Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, Boersma’s stated aim is one of ressourcement (p. 273)—to present and evaluate the sacramental reading of Scripture celebrated by the church fathers. Pushing back against modern historical approaches in biblical studies, Boersma defends this spiritual, theological interpretation of Scripture, which he defines as “simply a reading of Scripture as Scripture, that is to say, as the book of the church that is meant as a sacramental guide on the journey of salvation” (p. xii). In an introductory first chapter, the author attempts to guide the reader into hearts and minds of the church fathers, presenting their questions and concerns about Scripture. Instead of situating the Bible in Christian worship as Word and Sacrament, Boersma prefers to present the Word as Sacrament. Though human authors conveyed the words of Scripture, the Bible is a divine book that should be read in light of the divine economy. It should be read in light of Christ and the rule of faith. It should be interpreted for “a certain purpose, a particular aim—eternal life in the Triune God” (p. 159).
In the chapters that follow (chaps. 2-10), the author discusses nine aspects or values for early Christian sacramental reading of Scripture. In chapter 2 (“Literal Reading”), Boersma shows that while fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine valued a surface reading of Scripture, their understanding of literal is quite different than how we conceive of it today. By reading Genesis 18 (Abraham’s three visitors at the Oak of Mamre) through the eyes of Origen and Chrysostom, Boersma argues in chapter 3 for a “hospitable reading” of Scripture. He writes, “Reading Scripture is like hosting a divine visitor . . . when we interpret the Scriptures, we are in the position of Abraham: we are called to show hospitality to God as he graciously comes to us through the pages of the Bible” (p. 56). In chapter 4 (“Other Reading”), the author offers a basic presentation of allegory, affirming scholarly consensus which no longer holds to a strict dichotomony between Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of interpretation.
In chapter 5 (“Incarnational Reading”), using the case study of Origen’s homilies on Joshua, Boersma argues that the church fathers saw the incarnation applied not only in the person of Christ and in the written Word of God but also in the life of the church. Chapter 6 (“Harmonious Reading”) explores how the fathers thought about the essence of music and how the Psalms brought healing, harmony, and unity to the body of Christ. In chapter 7 (“Doctrinal Reading”), Boersma discusses how the fathers understood Wisdom (Prov 8:22-25) and combatted an Arian reading of this text through a sacramental approach. In chapter 8 (“Nuptial Reading), he argues that Song of Songs was largely interpreted sacramentally (pertaining to the church and the soul) in the patristic period. In chapter 9 (“Prophetic Reading”), Boersma presents the fathers’ Christological readings on the Servant Songs of Isaiah, asserting that prophecy for the early church was “not only a fore-telling of future events” but a “forth-telling of present realities” (p. 247). Finally, in chapter 10 (“Beatific Reading”), the only portion of the book where the New Testament is emphasized, Boersma summarizes the fathers’ spiritual reading of the Sermon on the Mount. The purpose of the beatitudes is to “participate in [the] happiness of God” (p. 272).
This book has a number of strengths. First, Boersma does a very thorough job of engaging the primary sources. Though he does not exhaust the corpus of patristic writings, his chosen case studies are strong and representative enough to make a compelling argument. Second, and related, the author succeeds in helping the modern theology student enter into the thought and church world of the fathers. By sketching out background details on subjects like philosophy and music, the reader is able to put on the lenses of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and others and begin a sympathetic reading of the fathers. In terms of ressourcement, Boersma makes a winsome case for reading Scripture today in a sacramental manner.
I only have two quibbles that are not content related. In terms of overall flow and structure, the book lacked cohesiveness between chapters. Church fathers, other scholars, and ideas are introduced again and again as if we had not read the preceding chapters. Because much of this book had already been published in other forms, more effort could have been made to bring this work together into one organic whole. Second, at points, the author seems unnecessarily critical of contemporary Reformed Protestants for failing to grasp patristic readings of Scripture. While his presentation of patristic sacramental exegesis was winsome, his invitation for modern Protestants to participate in this approach to reading the fathers and Scripture could have also been more welcoming.
In sum, Boersma’s book is accessible and thorough and would serve as a good resource for a seminary level course on patristic exegesis, which is apparently where the book was in part nurtured and developed.
Most of my reading in 2017 included academic books in history, theology, and missiology, and some practical devotional works. For some books, I wrote formal reviews for journals; for others, I simply read for my own enjoyment and edification. Some were published in 2017, while others were just new to me. So here goes:
The Mission of the Church (Craig Ott, ed.). A timely book on an often-debated issue, Ott invited an excellent team of diverse scholars (Catholic, Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical) to weigh in on the meaning of Christian mission. This book is a wonderful mix of agreement and diverging views on this important question. My full review HERE.
Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture (William Edgar). Making a case for Christian cultural engagement, Edgar argues that “the cultural mandate, declared at the dawn of human history, and reiterated throughout the different episodes of redemptive history, culminating in Jesus’ Great Commission, is the central calling for humanity” (p. 233). This biblical theology of culture ought to shape how we think about work, government, the arts, and loving our neighbors. See my full review HERE.
Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Hans Boersma). Continuing the legacy of twentieth century scholars Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, Boersma’s stated aim is one of ressourcement (p. 273)—to present and evaluate the sacramental reading of Scripture celebrated by the church fathers. Pushing back against modern historical approaches in biblical studies, Boersma defends this spiritual, theological interpretation of Scripture, which he defines as “simply a reading of Scripture as Scripture, that is to say, as the book of the church that is meant as a sacramental guide on the journey of salvation” (p. xii). My review is forthcoming in JETS.
Crossing Cultural Frontiers: Studies in the History of World Christianity (Andrew Walls). This is Walls' third "best of" compilation from previously published articles and chapters on world Christianity. Grouped into sections on theology of mission, Africa, and mission from the West, Walls’ continues to develop his lifelong exploration of indigenous Christianity—the gospel at home in every culture. My reviewing is forthcoming in Themelios.
Abraham Kuyper: A Short Personal Introduction (Richard Mouw). In this short book, Mouw helps the reader meet Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the Dutch minister, newspaper editor, theology professor, university founder, and political party founder, who went on to become prime minister of the Netherlands. Believing that every aspect of our lives should be lived coram Deo (before God's face), Kuyper asserted that God should be glorified in business, the arts, politics, and education. Kuyper’s theology of work flowed from the “cultural mandate” of Gen 1:28 (“be fruitful and fill the earth”), which implied that humans labored to cultivate or make culture and to flourish in the process.
Every Waking Hour (Benjamin Quinn and Walter Strickland). Defining work as “what creatures do with God’s creation,” the authors argue that since creation is inherently good, then work is good (p. 6). They define vocation or calling as “the way we make ourselves useful to others” (p. 8). Building on Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and love others (Matt 22:37-39), they add that the purpose of vocation is to glorify God and serve others. Through pursuing vocation, humans act as image bearers doing God’s work. I've adopted this for a first year course on calling and vocation at CIU.
Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Joshua Jipp). Jipp's work is a thorough study of hospitality in the New Testament, especially in Luke-Acts, John's Gospel, and in Paul's writings. Jipp summarizes, "If this work makes one point it is simply that hospitality to strangers--both understood as extending hospitality as host and receiving it as guest--is indeed at the heart of the Christian faith" (p. xii). Beyond his scholarship, Jipp shares practical suggestions for what that looks like in our communities while illustrating it from his own personal ministry.
The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place (Andy Crouch). As parents of kids with screens, my wife and I read this for practical help. More than advice on security settings or policing screen time, this book reminds us that the family is a community for cultivating wisdom and virtue. One of the best practical take aways (that we are still working on) is making the central living space in our home an increasingly tech free zone where we create (i.e. playing music and games, reading) instead of consume.
Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (Tish Harrison Warren). For me this was a purposefully slow read after morning devotions in summer, including a few days on a cabin porch in the Tennessee mountains. As the title suggests, following the church calendar of ordinary time, it is a call to orient our daily rhythms (even the mundane) along the sacred tracks of worship. This is well written, funny, and honest.
The Songs of Jesus: A year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (Tim and Kathy Keller). For most of the year, my wife and I read and prayed through this as part of our morning devotions. While this time has become oxygen for my soul, reading the Psalms and gaining insights on them from the Kellers helped shape our daily rhythms. In 2018, we're going to give God's Wisdom for Navigating Life (on Proverbs) a shot.
You are what you read and this is what I am becoming. Merry Christmas.
Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture. By William Edgar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. x + 262 pp., $24.00 paper. [note: this review was originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 60:3 (2017): 607-609].
Created and Creating is a new work from William Edgar, professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). Edgar’s previous books include A Transforming Vision: The Lord’s Prayer as a Lens for Life, Schaeffer on the Christian Life, and Truth in all Its Glory: Commending the Reformed Faith. Making a case for Christian cultural engagement, Edgar’s stated thesis is that “the cultural mandate, declared at the dawn of human history, and reiterated throughout the different episodes of redemptive history, culminating in Jesus’ Great Commission, is the central calling for humanity” (p. 233). With this focus, Edgar’s project bears resemblance to some other recent works including: 1) Andy Crouch’s Culture Making (2008), which invites Christians to be constructive contributors to culture; 2) Rod Dreher’s new work, The Benedict Option (2017) that actually urges believers to disengage from politics and to take shelter from the secular world; 3) Richard Niebuhr’s older theological work, Christ and Culture (1951) that discusses the various angles in which Christ relates to a given culture. Cultural engagement has also been a key theme in James K.A. Smith’s works, including his recent book, You are What You Love (2016). What makes Edgar’s work distinct is his primary emphasis on a biblical theology of culture.
In the first of three parts (“parameters of culture”, chaps. 1-2) Edgar surveys nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship, showing the development of cultural studies in general. Next, he summarizes the thought of key twentieth-century theologians (including Lewis, Kuyper, Schaeffer, Conn) who have written about culture from a biblical perspective. In part 2 (“challenges from Scripture,” chaps. 3-7), the author carefully works through Scripture to explore the tension between not being conformed to the world (contra mundum), while also being a winsome participant in and shaper of culture. Finally, in part 3 (“the cultural mandate,” chaps. 8-12), Edgar fleshes out his thesis to show the cultural mandate at work throughout biblical redemptive history from the garden of Eden to the eternal state.
There are many things to commend about this work but I will focus on three areas. First, since the author grew up in France and later served as a missionary there, he demonstrates a good grasp of the products of western culture (e.g., art, music), which he draws freely upon to make illustrations in the book. Also, particularly in the first section, he emulates his mentor Francis Schaeffer in being able to understand European philosophy and converse with these ideas from a biblical perspective.
Second, Edgar succeeds in accomplishing his aims of presenting a biblical theology of culture by doing excellent exegetical work throughout the book. His study is rich with reflection on particular passages, including biblical terms and themes, all within the context of biblical redemptive history. This thorough and sober study of Scripture might provide the best response to date to the claims of cultural disengagement laid out in Dreher’s Benedict Option even though that is not Edgar’s specific aim. Finally, the author’s discussion on the image of God in man certainly critiques the historic social sins of slavery and racism though, again, that is not his deliberate purpose.
A final strength was Edgar’s discussion in chapter 12 on “culture in the afterlife.” Most reflections on Christian cultural engagement focus on the here and now; so it was thought provoking and even inspiring to think about culture making in heaven. Edgar accomplishes the goals of his study by exploring the cultural mandate even in the eternal state.
To these affirmations, I add three areas of constructive critique. First, though Edgar deeply engages Scripture and western philosophy, the Christian voices that inform much of his thought are almost entirely white, western, male, and Reformed. While no disrespect is meant for the likes of Murray, Kuyper, Vos, Frame, Conn, Schaeffer, Keller, and others, if Edgar had engaged other diverse global theological voices, then his book would have been strengthened.
Second, I was hoping that the third part of the book would do more to unpack a theology of work. Although the title of chapter 8 (“first vocation”) hints at such a discussion, and a paragraph in chapter 12 (p. 218) only briefly raises the issue of work, this reader would have appreciated more biblical and theological reflection on vocation.
Finally, in chapter 12, Edgar’s assessment of Augustine’s thought on cultural engagement from City of God appears incomplete. Edgar writes: “Yet [Augustine’s] dichotomy between the two cities, based on the two loves, leaves the reader to believe the present world is a confinement, a place of captivity, as we await immortality” (p. 221). While Augustine regarded believers as temporary pilgrims in the earthly city who yearn for the heavenly city, he also affirmed that actively living in the earthly city prepares the believer for heaven. Also, Augustine encouraged believers to actively participate in society in order to influence the earthly city with heavenly values. Augustine applied these values in his own ministry by serving as a monk-bishop and living in a monastery (in the bishop’s house) near Hippo’s center. There he and the brothers regularly open their doors to visitors and demonstrated hospitality. Further, under the Theodosian code, Augustine functioned as a judge and mediator in the Roman courts so he could influence local society with biblical values (cf. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1.4.4; Sermon 88.15; City of God 22.21.16; 21.15; Letter 133; Possidius, Life of Augustine 19).
In summary, William Edgar has written a thoughtful introductory work on a biblical theology of culture. This would function as a good supplementary text to an Introduction to Mission or Biblical Theology of Mission course at the seminary level, especially if it is read alongside other works from diverse global theologians.