Monday, December 31, 2007

Books Battle for "Most Provocative Title" Award

Over the last week, I've been reading Rob Bell's Sex God (review on the way) and now I find myself looking at a review copy of Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna.

I'm all in favor of heady, incendiary titles, so long as they make good with some solid, jaw-dropping copy. Mere titillation is, of course, deplorable. I'll be reporting back on how these two books fare...

In the meantime, Quick Reader Poll: Which title do you think is more provocative?

And while we're at it, are there other outrageously eye-catching titles that I should be aware of before I hand out my "Most Provocative" award?

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Church Planting Q&A with Jason Allen

Time for another interview with an active church planter. This talk with Jason Allen actually dates back to last semester. Since Jason is planting LifeConnection Church in Independence, Missouri, we had the luxury of meeting at Westport's Broadway Café, my favorite coffee shop.

Over some really great espresso, Jason explained what he’s trying to do in Independence. I'd known Jason informally via his blog for some time, so it was a pleasure to meet him in person. I'm especially impressed that he's launching his church plant as a married guy with three young kids! (Possibly I see a mirror of my own life here...) Great interview Jason, thanks.

Can you tell me a little about yourself (biographical stuff), and how you got interested in church planting?

I graduated from Midwestern Theological Seminary in 2003, and worked at Central Missouri State University for four years as a collegiate minister. I took the “long path” to church planting…saw stats on the numbers and effectiveness of new churches, and as a strategically-minded guy, it made a lot of sense. My interest in the subject began five or six years ago. I came to Christ in high school, but my church experience up to that point had been lame. Gradually, I realized that church could be a vital experience. I read Robert Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals, and that was a very journey-shaping book.

What’s been the greatest challenge(s) of church planting?

The tension of having to juggle so many diverse things at the same time: Reach people, raise funds, recruit team members. All these things together are daunting, and require juggling a lot of details. Then building into your team—you have to add that to the mix. It's exciting, encouraging, discouraging. And then it's lunch time. It's this up-and-down deal.

How do you deal with the financial needs?

Aside from starting a meth lab in the garage to fit in? [Independence has gained a local rep as a high-meth area.] We focused heavily on relationship networks—starting at the place of friends and family—and they lead to other contacts. Eventually, we talked to people a couple degrees removed from us. Also church networks, although I only called churches that I had relational links to, either myself or someone on my team. The last piece is our affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention—we get some financial support.

How do you deal with the "people" needs? (finding the right people to back you)

We started with fifteen, twenty, people and asked for input: “What do you think of Jason Allen starting a church?” Community is the context. At this point I know the growth and discipleship needs of everyone on the team. It’s very small, very relationally-driven, very community-driven. We have one-to-one discipleship and small group meetings.

How did you (or would you) put together a core group? (What type of people did you look for, how did you get them on board...?)

I started a year ago at CMSU--began quietly recruiting people, since I was very relationally connected. College ministry was my network, so the vast majority of people we talked to were college students or former students. We spoke to 40-50 people initially, then to a second layer of relationships, friends of friends. More recently, we've connected with people via extended networks. Our most recent piece has been a preview service we do monthly. As people come to check out the church, we're trying to connect with them relationally. We've talked to a lot of people...but there are a few things we are really looking for: An outward focus--people who are committed to focusing on others. People who are teachable--we can't have people coming in who think they have it all figured out. A servant's attitude--we don't have the luxury of doing "niche ministry" right now. And faithful people--ready to commit to the vision and value we have, what we are willing to fight for. As we talked to more and more people, it became evident that some wouldn't come along.

What was or is the role of your mentor(s) or role model(s)?

A church planting pastor in Belton has filled that role, Chris Pinion at LifeQuest Community Church. I meet with him twice a month, essentially to be encouraged and bounce ideas off him. More than anything, Chris is a guy who's encouraging. I thought it would be different--that there would be multiple pastors and leaders who would want to support what we're doing, but that hasn't happened. Chris has been that guy. There have been other guys for shorter periods...I just try to soak in as much as I can when someone opens that door.

I think the rarity of mentors continues to instruct us...we want to end up being these people, pouring time, energy, and money into growing new leaders. Ultimately, that's what our city needs--a reproducing church network.

What is the role of sponsoring/partner churches? What has worked? What would you change and why?

For us, it's been relationally-driven in this region. Financially, there's a lot that existing churches can do. Beyond that, some level of mentoring and accountability would be great. Also, physical involvement and ministry partnerships at some level. So far, we haven't seen this take off as much as we'd hoped. We have more individual than church connections. The bottom line is, I don't want to be out there alone--not just with that kind of responsibility, but with that kind of burden.

There's also something valuable in being tethered relationally to the Southern Baptist Convention and Missouri Baptist Convention. Most families since Adam and Eve have been dysfunctional in various ways--but you don't give up on your family. This is derived from our commitment to community.

Something we run into, a huge obstacle in forming partnerships, is confusion about what church planting looks like today as opposed to 30 years ago. Ideally, now there would be several sponsoring churches, not just one "mother church"--it's about that conglomerate. No single church can foot the bill with people, money, time and energy. My hope is that we'll start to see more of the other churches partnering with us so they'll be part of this project physically.


Other church planter interviews: Kevin Cawley, Pete Williamson, Hunter Beaumont.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Preach the Word (Book Review)

Because I don't have religious profiles of you readers (my supercomputer is still working on that) I'm not sure what chunk of you this review will pertain to. Probably a minority. But I'm going out on a limb to mention Preach the Word regardless, because it's worthy of...well, mention.

Preach the Word is a collection of essays on the topic of expository preaching--preaching that aims to "expound," i.e., directly explain, biblical texts--from over a dozen contributors. Some of the names I recognized were J.I Packer, Don Carson, Wayne Grudem and John MacArthur, but I felt that every author pulled his weight--and in fact, several writers who were new to me wrote my favorite chapters.

The book is theologically conservative (if a book repeatedly quotes the Puritans, it qualifies), and makes the case that expository preaching is the best way forward for preachers, because it allows the Bible to set our agenda and exposes people to the full breadth of God's revelation. (I tend to agree, while appreciating the point one writer makes: Even "topical" messages can be delivered in a way that is faithful to the texts being used.)

If you move in Christian ministry circles, the expository perspective is not new to you--but the collection of voices in Preach the Word make the position come alive in ways that a single author cannot. Because the writers focused on different aspects of theology and methodology, they are rarely redundant. Instead, they compliment each other, and the reader benefits from hearing a diverse group of personalities weighing in, which is a good way to avoid the mistake of merely emulating one favorite guy and trying to duplicate his approach with a checklist.

This book was a refreshing read, both theologically reflective and nitty gritty, with suggestions and anecdotes. I read a chapter each night before I went to bed...does that make me a theology geek? My own "Expository Preaching" class last semester would have benefited immensely from using Preach the Word as a textbook.

Highly recommended for anyone who pastors, speaks publicly from the Bible, or wonders about what exactly a preacher is supposed to accomplish. I only wish this book had a wider audience. Strong A.

Preach the Word now enjoys the honor of being the only book explicitly about preaching on the Master Book List.

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Camo Christmas Cameo

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Back from Christmas

Here at the urban Vanderhorst crash pad, we've rebounded slowly from Christmas festivities. We spent Christmas day in three locations, starting at home, visiting Lindsay's parents in the afternoon, and rounding out the day at my parents' place. It was a long, fun day, and we ended up stuffed with turkey, ham and chocolate--and very tired.

Since then, we've spent some more time with family, and slowly put our home back together after Hurricane Aidan rolled through Christmas morning. Gifts have gradually been stacked and cataloged and the initial results look very promising. A few highlights: New music from The Weakerthans and Iron and Wine, a commentary on Philippians, and all three volumes of C.S. Lewis' letters. (Kind of like having source notes for the New Testament papyri...kind of.)

As I casually mentioned before Christmas, I have a bunch of posts on tap, but I'm struggling to get to them because of 1) the above paragraph, 2) a message I'm preaching at church this Sunday, 3) some independent study work that's still due, thanks to a gracious course extension from my professor, and, 4) a promising new sports blog that I've signed on with but have so far ignored.

Some of you may also be aware that I started an application to Acts 29 (church planting network) a couple months ago--and that stopped cold when Asher got here--but restarting it is also a priority.

Now you know a little about the craziness around here. BitterSweetLife will be back on track soon, but I'm not rushing back...and I'm trying to ration my time out deliberately instead of blogging compulsively. (I recommend trying this.) As much as I love blogging, the time away has been strangely therapeutic...

More soon. I'm out like a disposable diaper.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Silent Night, Holy Night

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Thoughtful on the Eve

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Hanging a Host of Angels

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On Christmas Eve, the World is a Gate

Wake up, you sleepyhead city!
Wake up, you sleepyhead people!
King-Glory is ready to enter.
Who is this King-Glory?
God, armed
and battle-ready.

Wake up, you sleepyhead city!
Wake up, you sleepyhead people!
King-Glory is ready to enter.

Who is this King-Glory?
he is King-Glory.
- Psalm 24:7-10, The Message

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Moments Before He Scaled the Tree

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Deck the Halls...or Wreck 'Em, Either Way

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Christmas, You Hep Cats!

Asher is lying on his back cooing and Aidan is stabbing a flathead screwdriver down the spout of our tea kettle. Joy and peace rule our home, so I take keyboard in hand to wish all you readers Christmas cheer.

I'll be unplugging for the next week or so, to focus on other projects like Lindsay, Aidan, Asher, Family, Reading, Warm Drinks...and Jesus Christ. A few Christmas photos may appear, for the sake of Aidan and Asher's fan club.

Lindsay and I have been wrestling with our plans for the new year, so when I return, I'll update you on the exciting, whacked-out things that appear to be coming up and beg you to pray for us. Also on tap are my Top Ten Books of the Year, the explosive results of the reader poll, and, as a bonus, more disconnected ramblings spiced up with fantasmagoric adjectives.

In a perfect world, I would send each of you a bag of perfectly roasted dark coffee beans from KC's Broadway Cafe, a first-edition The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, signed by Lewis, and an unbelievably swank fleece bathrobe to help you enjoy the first two presents.

But this world is not perfect quite yet, so instead I like to write a yearly Christmas post as a kind of gift. This year's post is right here. (Archives: Christmas 2006, 2005, 2004.) May the joy, peace and goodwill that come only through Jesus Christ be yours in the days ahead.

Now there's just one more thing to say to all you hep cats who read this blog: Merry Christmas!

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Slightly Apprehensive About that Descending Arm

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Disaster, Narrowly Averted, & A Clean Start

Chaos Theory. Murphy's Law. I should have seen this coming. When you least expect it, government officials will enter your loft to inspect your appliances and criticize your shoe storage strategy.

Last week, Lindsay and I received a note from our apartment office, warning us that on Thursday and Friday of this week, selected units would be inspected by the Grand Poobah of Functioning Appliances to make sure management was not conning us into paying rent while secretly installing dead dishwashers and lifeless hot water heaters in our lofts.

When you see "selected" in an official notice, it is safe to assume that you are safe. "Selected" means "a statistical sample so small that you are in no danger." "Selected" means "other apartments will be ransacked, but not yours." Everyone knows this.

At around noon today, our building manager and a couple inspectors knocked on our door. Of course, this was completely unexpected. I had no choice but to open up and usher the trio into the squalor of our daily life.

Well, not squalor exactly. There was too much stuff everywhere for squalor. Total chaos and rampant, magnificent carnage would be more accurate. Welcome to our apartment, the chosen vacation destination for dozens of plastic toys and balls of every color and size! At one point, the lead inspector stepped on Aidan's sippie cup. "Oh, kiddie toy," he assessed. "Good call dude, since you're surrounded by them on every side," I prevented myself from saying, with effort.

Shortly thereafter, the Appliance Poobah deemed our apartment operational--but not before frowning at the ingenious way I had attached a shoe rack to the inside-door of our appliance closet. "Not enough air flow," said our apartment manager. "You'll have to take that down."

I smiled. "Oohh, OK, I see." Which meant, "I will take down my shoe rack the instant that you install an additional closet in this storage-challenged loft." We understood each other well, and all parted on peaceful terms. But most important, no one noticed the REAL LIVE (at least until Aidan forgot to water it a couple days ago) Christmas tree by the window.

I take some credit for that, since I stood between the tree and the door for the duration of the inspection, and made conversation with our manager to distract her. Shortly after the inspection ended, Aidan and I pulled out the vacuum cleaner and feverishly cleaned the entire place as a kind of penance. (Sadly, a congenital defect prevents Lindsay from vacuuming, as she is missing the finger joints that allow normal people to perform this task.)

All's well that ends well.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (Book Review)

So I finished Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass last week, and rather than rushing to write a review, I walked over to the high school library on my lunch break and picked up a random fiction title to tide me over for the rest of the day.

This is not the act of someone who has just been regaled and thrilled by a newly-discovered King of Children's Stories.

Maybe it was the movie hype, maybe it was the fact that Pullman himself thinks he's an improvement on C.S. Lewis, maybe it was wishful thinking--since I really wanted Pullman to be a great "discovery"--but The Golden Compass underwhelmed me. Therefore, this review may come off as scathing. This is what happens when a reader's expectations are let down like a slow leak in a hot air balloon...

I don't deny that Pullman is a good writer, maybe even a great writer. Some of his imagery is deeply compelling. He excels at conveying a sense of "place," whether the place is a thriving, spy-riddled university town, or a lovely northern wilderness. But what I kept expecting to find, and never did, was a warmth in his writing, a sense of tenderness or good humor--this was completely absent.

I'm not talking about sentimental prose. What I wanted was to identify in some way with his characters, to root for them, to be forced to grin and buy in. I wanted to like them as people, not merely as pawns on a board. Never happened. While I am willing to forgive this in a spy novel or a Camus, it's a gaping hole in a children's book.

Lyra is a tough little girl, smart, tricky, and she cusses. So what? "Roger the kitchen boy" is her sidekick, and all he does is look anxiously to Lyra for direction. Best character in the book? A polar bear. Some of the additional cast occasionally intrigues, but I find very little that makes me want to care for them like I cared about the people in Narnia, Harry Potter, and other top-notch stories. All told, The Golden Compass was a good book, but not a great one. Yes, I'll finish the trilogy (what happens to the polar bear?). But I'll do it at my leisure...maybe after I reread the Chronicles of Narnia.


Yes, The Golden Compass appears on the Master Book List along with other, better titles.

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Meds-Free Props to the Jayhawks

Ha ha ha.

“I must have been off my medication when I scheduled that one. Their second five could probably win 25 of the 31 conferences. I’m not sure how they’re not favored to win the (national) title. Everyone in their top 10 is going to play basketball at a high level.” - Ohio coach Tim O’Shea, whose Bobcats were thumped by KU, 88-51, on Saturday at the Sprint Center

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Peter Jackson to Film The Hobbit (Finally!)

Everyone who loved the Lord of the Rings film trilogy has been waiting to hear this news for several years:

Said Peter Jackson, “I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to put our differences behind us, so that we may begin a new chapter with our old friends at New Line. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a legacy we proudly share...and together, we share that legacy with millions of loyal fans all over the world. We are delighted to continue our journey through Middle Earth."

The two “Hobbit” films – “The Hobbit” and its sequel – are scheduled to be shot simultaneously, with pre-production beginning as soon as possible. Principal photography is tentatively set for a 2009 start, with the intention of “The Hobbit” release slated for 2010 and its sequel the following year, in 2011.

I can't say I'm excited about waiting three years to finally see young Bilbo Baggins, younger Gandalf, a bunch of dwarves and Bard the Lakeman take on Smaug the Dragon, but there's no doubt that Peter Jackson is the man for the job. I didn't see any mention of the WETA Workshop in the press release, but you have to assume they'll be back on the monster-making job.

Also interesting is that The Hobbit will be shot as a two-film saga. By that logic, the Lord of the Rings could have been filmed in six installments...I'm assuming Jackson will use the looser leash to take his time and tell Tolkien's story right, as opposed to inventing additional plot lines to fill out all that screen time.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dan Haseltine Wants to Emulate C.S. Lewis

The Jars of Clay frontman has recently written a children's book, and comments:

If Jars of Clay decides to start touring less, I would love to make [writing for children] a bigger part of my work, because I want to stretch the imagination of kids. Apart from C. S. Lewis, there's a bent toward realism in children's literature in the Christian community. I feel like that does a disservice to kids, because they don't have the capacity to begin to understand a kingdom of God that is so wild and imaginative and creative if they're not given that opportunity in the books that they read.

I agree with Haseltine's assessment of children's books--they should be imaginative adventures!--and I also happen to know he's a pretty good writer. I've read some of his stuff in Relevant magazine, and so I can dispense with the skepticism I usually feel when a famous artist tries to cross genres. All right Dan, you have my ear...

Read Haseltine's whole interview in CT. He also talks about the Jars' Christmas album and their new "indie" status (high time, by the way).

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He's a Right Sporting Baby

Aidan has revealed a fine sense of sportsmanship in recent days. He seems keenly aware of the disadvantage that Lindsay and I are at in various games we play, games like The Invisible Baby and Boo! Goes the Baby. A few minutes ago...

Aidan: Daddy, hiding 'hind chair!
Me: You're behind the chair, huh. OK, hmmm... Now where could that boy be hiding?
Aidan [sticking his head out]: Boo!

I think he is aware of the constant state of terror and confusion that Lindsay and I live in, due to his gaming skills, and is doing what he can to help. Admirable in a one-year-old.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Merry Christmas, Invincible Jesus

I have been thinking about the way Jesus offers people a choice to be for or against him and then takes the haters and uses them anyway. It’s not that the choice wasn’t real. It’s that Jesus saw it coming before he made the universe out of nothing and thoughtfully decided he had a use for it.

Look at the Pharisees. They were so ignorant of Scripture that in their cruel antagonism to Christ, they made the hero-will-rise predictions of the old prophets come true. Call it dramatic irony.

Breathtaking is God, in the way he makes his enemies do what he wants “against their wills”—and at the same time, not. He makes his enemies do precisely what he wants by doing precisely what they want, which is infinitely more difficult than coercion.

Look at the Sanhedrin, the Jewish inner circle of Jesus' day, where mafia-like decisions were made: blood deals cut, expediency weighed on scales, lives played like card tricks. The Sanhedrin decided it would be better for their people if Jesus died, so they paid off a crowd of thugs to perjure themselves in court, and Jesus was found guilty. Did that work well for them? No. Jesus subversively climbed the cross , causing mere Judaism to implode.

Now look at the Roman death squad, the gurus of murder, crucifying the revolutionary Christ, deleting this purported threat to Caesar. Watching nearby, the Father commented, “Good luck with that.” When Jesus reversed his martyrdom three days later, he sparked the movement that would bleed the Coliseum dry and override the reign of the Caesars.

Look at the devil, choking with laughter at this unthinkable divine death, this sovereign slip-up. He’s singing Mementi mori to celebrate this morbid joke, but in another part of the heavens, the angels are laughing. God’s “mistake” will kill death, neuter pain, and doom the devil to an eternal vacation at Lake of Fire Resort. Satan, how do you like them apples? Satan?

All this to say, examine your options carefully, and then claim your prerogative as a human: weighty choices. Not all decisions are created equal. Some seem small, most are not, and some will ultimately define you. In the economy of God’s will, all will ultimately prove useful—but some of them will bless their makers and some will destroy them.

This is because God leaves you free to choose against him, free to cause pain. But if you do, in the end you’ll be like Greek Oedipus, who discovered that his best intentions led unswervingly to the worst of catastrophes. Except in Christ’s story, it’s your worst intentions that will lead unswervingly to the best of eucatastrophes—just like the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, the Roman death squad, and the devil.

I once made this point to an atheist, who was arguing with me about God, and he accused me of being unfair and called me names. I didn’t blame him. I told him that I understood his feelings of irritation. Being God's enemy is hard work. Think about it: He has many enemies but no nemesis.

As God’s opponent, you get to have your hatred and your choices, but no vengeance, no satisfaction. It’s like having your chocolate cake, and then discovering that it’s not really cake at all, but a dried out fajita, a case of mistaken identity, and you can’t eat it after all.

Being God’s enemy is, by definition, a life of divine utility and personal futility. No wonder God’s opponents hate him. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Philip Pullman—all will have their theistic uses. At God’s nod, the world’s story is quietly working against them.

Of course, those of us who are not fighting a battle against Jesus simply say Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Christmas is a reminder that when God the baby is revealed in brilliant eternal splendor, brighter than the sun, more beautiful than the Northern lights, atheists will fall on their faces and groan at how he satirized their plans for his demise.

When we say Merry Christmas, we celebrate a happy irony: Jesus the invincible, born in an animal trough, death-defeater, empire-eraser, competitor-conquistador—who puts his enemies to use whether they like it or not.

Like an unappreciated GI, this Jesus quietly stamped his initials on earth when he lived here here the first time. When he appears again, it will be to set off fireworks and collect his property.

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Is Master of His House

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Jesus Didn't Give Us Flowcharts

Check this quote from E.M. Bounds. At this point in my life, it falls in the read it and weep genre.

I feel it is far better to begin with God, to see His face first, to get my soul near Him before it is near another. In general it is best to have at least one hour alone with God before engaging in anything else.

I certainly agree, but right now, this advice only makes sense to me if you are single or married without kids. Or a monk. And the monk is the best option for success.

Sometimes "best practice" approaches to your spiritual life end up being unworkable, which makes me happy that Jesus gave the disciples the Lord's Prayer and not a set of flow charts. If I couldn't talk with God in the car or the shower, and grab pieces of scripture on the fly, I'd have to hang it up right now. Give up this "be like Jesus" idea.

Instead, we have a God who'll meet us anywhere, anytime, and doesn't ask us to perform cute Christian tricks when we're fighting to make ends meet and keep our eyes open. Yet another example of grace, yet gift to celebrate on Christmas.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Conservative Atheists Recoil at Prince Caspian Trailer

This just struck me as funny. Although it could also be interpreted as a satiric take on the knee-jerk reactions of some Christians.

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From Achilles to Christ by Louis Markos (Book Review)

"The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact." -C.S. Lewis

I was reading Louis Markos' From Achilles to Christ while subbing (i.e., babysitting) for a high school class, and one of the students asked me what I was reading.

Me: It's a book about Jesus and know, the Greek and Roman stories.
Her: Is it any good?
Me: Yes, definitely...if you like literature and epic stories, like Homer's Odyssey.
Her [wrinkling her nose, nodding condescendingly]: Oooh...
Me: Fine, just forget it, alright?

And just like that, I had an accurate demographic snapshot of the type of person who will love From Achilles to Christ. They are probably not high school students--and if they are, they're the unusual ones who love reading the classics and will later go on to earn an English major and then struggle to find their place in the world. However, once you leave the confines of high school, Louis Markos' genius becomes a lot more marketable.

Markos is an excellent scholar, but he's also an admirable writer, which makes him a pretty rare hybrid. His thesis is that, unknown to their authors, God infused the early pagan myths with astonishing foreshadowings of the coming Savior:"Though the fullness of deity is found only in Christ and the fullness of revelation in the Bible alone, the shadow of the Almighty yet hovers and broods over the yearnings of the pre-Christian world" (22). And with very accessible writing and a love for great stories, Markos brings this assertion to life.

He enters the writing of Homer, Virgil, Sophocles, and others, walking through Troy and Italy, sailing the wild seas of the Odyssey like an insider. He guides us through tangled histories of characters like Achilles, Hector, Helen, Odysseus, and Aeneas, revealing startling storylines that point to Christ--the greatest hero ever, and one who was not confined to, but attested to, in the pages of a book.

As I finished From Achilles to Christ (Did you know that the "wrath of Achilles" was a result of his futile longing for immortality?) I was moved to worship God's merciful creativity, as I considered the "hidden" meanings in the old Greek and Roman myths. I had the random thought that had C.S. Lewis read Louis Markos, the former would have made his way to Jesus sooner. It was Lewis, after all, who was led to Jesus via the Christ-haunted roads of pagan mythology (and Lewis does make an appearance near the end of the book).

I award Markos an A, and recommend From Achilles to Christ to those who want to be amazed at how God prefigured the coming of his own son in ways that would eventually help many Greeks and Romans toward Jesus, the invincible warrior, the dying God--who leads us at last to the immortality we all long for.

Yes, this myth-enlightening book has taken its rightful place on the mythic Master Book List.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Amazon Kindle - The iPod for Books?

You've probably heard about the new toy that Amazon recently premiered: the Kindle. According to Amazon:

"The Kindle is a revolutionary portable reader that wirelessly downloads books, newspapers, magazines and blogs to a crisp, high-resolution electronic paper display that looks and reads like real paper, even in bright sunlight... At 10.3 ounces, Kindle is lighter and thinner than a paperback book, carries two hundred books, and includes built-in access to The New Oxford American Dictionary and wireless access to the Earth’s biggest encyclopedia,"

On top of that, Amazon foots the wireless charges, so the only additional money you spend, beyond the Kindle's $399 price tag (gulp), is for the books and articles you choose to download. Clearly, one needs to take a position on technology like this, and I've picked mine. It is: I HATE the Kindle! True, I am strangely intrigued by it...but I DEPLORE it, because it's not a TRUE BOOK! On the other hand, I wouldn't mind owning--NO, the Kindle is a perversion of all that is good and true in the bibliophile's world. But fewer trees would die. BESIDE THE POINT! I like the tactile goodness of real tree fibers beneath my fingers, the crisp sound of a REAL PAGE turning. Although you like your plastic-metallic iPod. COMPLETELY different! And the Kindle looks cool. Sleek. Hip. It could do for books what American Idol did for karaoke. SILENCE! You could carry it into class and read books on the sly... STOP! Previously illiterate high school students might start reading C.S. Lewis and Tolkien on their Kindles...Yes, you might have a point there...YES.

OK, so I'm kind of conflicted about where I stand on all this. I love my books in their physical forms. I love to stack them and color code them and write in their margins. I'll always think of books as, well, books. Not downloaded files. But I'm wondering if the Kindle and real books can coexist...maybe heavy, hardback books will even gain some extra allure; people might start collecting them like LPs.

So I'm not convinced the Kindle is a bad thing, especially if it puts quality writing into the minds of a tech-savvy generation. What do you think? Are you happy the Kindle has appeared? Would you want to own one?

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Asher Threatens NBA Defection

I always had the impression that the teen years were the rebellious ones, but Asher has already revealed a deep-seated defiant streak.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

I Am Kind of a Big Deal Around Here

Not really, although word has reached me that the blog has been using that line with prospective dates.

But what I was going to say was, getting a book with "the compliments" of the publisher definitely provides some satisfaction... probably only because I'm a juvenile, book loving, fool. But each time a review copy arrives in the mail, it causes a brief moment of celebration. Sometimes a fist pump. Not a YES, after 12 years of sucking at ping pong I just waxed my brother in a best-of-7 series! pump, but the smaller, happy yet subdued fist pump that says Thank you, Thank you, I appreciate that, although I've still got a lot of work to do.

For all the tired people out there--you know, the ones dragging ourselves through grad school or life on our elbows with the assistance of very small children and a coffee dependency--I dedicate this small victory to you. To us.

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Contraband Christmas Tree Stands Guard

...watching for anti -Christmas-tree -smugglers.

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Monetizing BitterSweetLife

Some of you may have noticed the text ads that have been showing up on the blog in the last several days. I've been wondering how to recoup some of the operating costs of running this blog, since sitting down at the keyboard and opening up that vein gets expensive. Seriously. We constantly have to buy Spiderman band-aids for daily use and the occasional IV for when I fall asleep on the blog.

I don't know that BitterSweetLife will ever be a professional, money-raking uber blog, but I wouldn't mind making enough money to say, pay hosting costs when I leave Blogger (Out, damn'd spot!) or pay for my text books.

How do the ads look? If you read via RSS, you'll have to come over and check 'em. Are they really annoying? Do they make you want to denounce this whole world of blogging because everyone is in it for the dirty money? I'm using Adsense at this point, which serves up some real winners, like the following, which I'm sure that many of you moved quickly to take advantage of:

hypoKriTe clothing
Rockin your face with amazing Grace

I'll probably continue to play around with ads, so hopefully it's not too off-putting. I wouldn't mind picking up the cost of dinner with Lindsay every month or so. Or being able to buy one of those cool, non-plastic mechanical pencils. Or some more Spidey band-aids...

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Exam at the Bottom of the Deep Blue Sea

Since I know you're sitting by your monitors with red eyes, nervously waiting for me to let you know that I defeated my final exam, I'm letting you know.

It's done. I did it. I done did it.

Over the course of two hours, I jotted a sea of knowledge that silently, inexorably drowned my final in an Atlantic ocean of historical facts and pithy summary sentences. Somewhere at the bottom of 13 pages of essay-question-answers lies the original test. It threatened me. Now it lies at the bottom of the deep blue sea. Take the lesson to heart, all ye exams.

Now that's over with, book reviews, coffee detox, and silly rejoicing will follow, although not necessarily in that order.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Further Mental Adventures

My progress in studying has been slow and erratic. I was aiming for a kind of hare/tortoise hybrid approach--fast and steady--but I got the worst of both creatures.

I just shaved my head, took a shower, brewed a second pot of coffee and put on some U2 to help me get the edge. The sky is misty and pale, but there are no signs of a cataclysmic winter storm yet, so I'll have to proceed.

After this is all over, I'm going to borrow some Johnson's Bedtime Bath from Asher, throw a few sedatives in Aidan's chocolate milk, and sleep for at least ten hours. At least that's what I'm telling myself. I suspect there's a carrot and stick involved, though...

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Mental Sharpness, the Urban Legend

Aidan never rises any later than 6 a.m., but his room has a door. Unfortunately, it is not soundproof. And since we live in a loft, the walls don't reach the ceiling, so hermetically sealing him in his room to muffle the wrathful screams is not an option. However, there are other uses for doors.

When Lindsay left Asher asleep this morning and came to check on us around 7, she found me curled up under a blanket on the floor of Aidan's room, dozing as Aidan sat by my head, reading to me loudly from The Big Book of Trucks. "SHOW DADDY CAR-CAR? SHOW DADDY CAR-CAR?" And I was drinking it in, from behind my two-ton eyelids. The door, of course, was shut (containment), the lighting low.

I have one final exam left, and I'm hoping some kind of repressed survival instinct kicks in, because I have realized, in a foggy, hallucinatory way, that I need to study for it. Alternatively, you could all pray that a winter storm will select Kansas City as its epicenter and descend in swirling, freezing clouds of serendipity RIGHT NOW, or at least before my test at 8 a.m. tomorrow.


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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Little Cool Love

Google has spoken, giving this blog some long-awaited credit for being an oasis of cool in a tool world. Looking for a modern definition of cool? Look no further. You are here, you are part of it, you are contributing to this bloggy pool of icy, snow-chilled coolness.

In related news, Google didn't show the same precision with this one...actually, Google was almost an abject failure here (you can blame a previous post title if you want, but Google is supposed to be omniscient, no?) In reality, I think that if you searched for "creating chaos out of order," BitterSweetLife should be in the top ten. And if you added "Aidan" as a search term, we would show up at #1.

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'Twas the 'Noon Before Freedom

'Twas the 'noon before freedom,
and all through the class,
not a synapse was firing,
no one was on task.

About curving and finals,
and grades from the past,
or Grinchy requirements--
no one even asked.

Notebooks were stuffed
in their backpacks with care
in the hope that real living
soon would be there.

Then class time was over,
the hour had struck,
but the teacher kept talking,
could he be such a schmuck?

And the students stood up
and charged with a shout!
They trampled the professor
on their way out...

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This Christmas, Read the Bible as Literature

--Not Pulp Fiction or a Cheap Philosophy Text

Sometimes we fall into the habit of reading the Bible only to observe interesting models of behavior or extract abstract principles, and this would be an especially bad mistake to make at Christmas. Martin Luther:

I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature, pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters [literature studies] have declined and lain prostrate, theology, too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless he has first prepared by the rise and prosperity of language and letters, as though they were John the Baptists... Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily.

This Christmas, are you handling the story of Jesus "skillfully and happily?" The Bible is more than mere "literature," but never less. A story is a story is a story. Just something to remember this week as you read the Gospel narratives. Enjoy the wonderful, true myth of Jesus. Let what happened wash over you, and soak in the slow, happy implications of what it all means.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Favorite Christmas Music: What We're Playing...

I've seen a variety of "Christmas Music" posts circulating, but none of them have been precisely right, if you know what I mean, because they were all written by other people. I know it's kind of late in the game to be writing about Christmas music, because you'll have to move fast to get hold of these albums (you could always download the MP3s). But to avoid wasting any more time, I'll get right to it.

Christmas Songs, by Jars of Clay. Reworked classics (Drummer Boy!) and some originals showcase the excellent musicianship I've come to expect from the Jars every time out. They create a more folksy, contemplative album this time, aiming to recover Christmas' mystery and depth.

Songs for Christmas, by Sufjan Stevens. Stevens is justifiably notorious for his jangly, acoustic, lyrically-driven Indie albums, and he brings the same lyrical flair and compositional genius to this set of five EPs. The sheer volume of music (released over five years) makes this set a great deal. Add the fact that every CD contains multiple gems, and the value is fantastic.

The Darkest Night of the Year, by Over the Rhine. Dating back to 1996, this album is anything but trite and syrupy, reminding us that Christmas was, in fact, a divine rescue operation. Darkest evokes wide open spaces, chilly air, and starlight. Acoustic, with soulful vocals.

Wintersong, by Sarah McLachlan. Love her or hate her, McLachlan's ethereal vocals are hard to forget. And (surprisingly), the pop diva delivers a Christmas album that is romantic, wistful, and Christ-celebrating in turn.

Snow Angel, by Over the Rhine. Released a couple months ago, Over the Rhine's newer Christmas album is bluesy and haunting, but also features warm, jazzy titles. Over the years, vocalist Karin Bergquist has become very accomplished, adding nuance to every line she sings. This album feels like an instant classic. (Two Over the Rhine offerings? Yeah, we're definitely fans.)

The Messiah, by Handel. The title almost says it all. Handel's Messiah will never be surpassed for orchestral, Jesus-exalting glory, and this recording is a very good one.

The John Rutter Christmas Album, by John Rutter. We love Rutter's choral and orchestral arrangements, and this album features the Cambridge Singers, his usual partners in sublime. Worshipful, contemplative, joyful, the album covers a spectrum of traditional songs, and the play time is impressive: 78 minutes.

Celtic Christmas I, by Windham Hill (various). I'm a sucker for the bittersweet melodies of Celtic music (and the instruments! harps, violins, penny whistles...) and I think the Celtic Christmas series from Windham Hill is pretty good, featuring an array of "best tracks" from talented artists. I actually own all six albums. Laugh, go ahead--the music is beautiful, and it makes me think of windswept hills, deep snow, and Jesus coming down to save a Christ-haunted world.

So, what are you listening to?

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Tim Challies on Blogging

Tim Challies has a helpful post up about starting and sustaining a good blog. He makes some good points (and I also think his post compliments one I wrote a few weeks ago about how to avoid blogger burnout). Here's an excerpt from Tim:

For people who are considering beginning a blog, I think the best place to begin is with your motives. It is worth asking yourself, I believe, why you wish to blog. And more so, it is worth considering why you want to have other people read your blog. I receive lots of questions from prospective bloggers and can often detect an underlying attitude that seems to say, “I have something to say that the world needs to hear.”

If I understand him correctly, Challies is saying here that wanting to take over the world is not a solid reason for starting a blog? Darnit, I knew I was doing something wrong! But take a look at the article, especially if you're a new or aspiring blogger. Good advice from a seasoned writer.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

The War on Sleep

The boys put their heads together and came up with an ingenious plan. At least that's my theory. Asher likes to go to sleep for the night at 11 or 12 p.m. And Aidan likes to get up at 5 or 6 a.m. Sleep is aggressively attacked at top and bottom in our home, left with bruised feet and black eyes. Sleep is a perpetual invalid.

This morning, 6 a.m.

Me: "Hey Aidan, do you want to get a blanket and cuddle with Daddy?"
Aidan: "No! Make foffee?" (i.e., coffee)

And that's pretty much the way it goes.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Scot McKnight is Emulating Me

[Small print: Not really.]

However, McKnight has been blogging through Telford Work's book, Ain't Too Proud to Beg, which I reviewed some time ago. I wrote a glowing, succinct review, while McKnight is appreciatively discussing a chapter at a time. I very much liked Telford Work's book, so if you want to hear more about it, with a lot of quotes (and huge flurries of reader comments), head over the Jesus Creed. McKnight's last post was over chapter 5. You can get all the installments by searching Jesus Creed for Telford Work.

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Captivating by John & Stasi Eldredge (Book Review)

A guest post by Lindsay

I admit it, when I saw Captivating, by John and Stasi Eldredge, sitting on our bookshelf my high opinion of my husband’s book acquisition skills began to teeter. What was he doing bringing that book into our house? Doesn’t John Eldredge tend to lump men into huge, stereotyped categories? Isn’t he the guy who is a little too “in love” with God for my taste? Now he’s writing about women? Why in the world did my husband buy this book? Then I remembered: he gets a lot of books for free nowadays. Voila! Opinion restored.

However, my automatic reaction against the book fueled my curiosity. I casually picked it up and flipped through the pages…I’ll just glance at it, I thought to myself. An hour later I was still reading, a few days later I had finished it, and the next thing I knew I was recommending it to my husband. What did I think of Captivating? It was well, uh… captivating, I have to admit it.

So why did I have a hard time putting the book down? The writing style is very accessible and there is an abundant use of good quotes and stories which make the book easy to read. But that’s not the main thing that kept me turning the pages. The premise is essentially the same as Wild At Heart, so it wasn’t originality and creativity that hooked me.

The authors ask believing women to step away from insecurity and fear and ask God to show them how to best offer others their beauty with a heart of bravery and vulnerability.

What particularly captured my attention was the Eldredges’ claim that there are three desires that fuel the heart of a woman: to be romanced, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to unveil her beauty. And though I wanted to shrug these off as over-generalizations, the more I read, the more I found myself resonating with the Eldredges’ observations. They contend that these desires are good and essential to the way God made women. The problem comes when women seek the fulfillment of these desires in something other than Christ.

Each of these three points is examined in individual chapters of the book. This section invites the reader to contemplate past wounds that crushed or frustrated these desires. I found as I read that the Holy Spirit was directing me to examine how my past wounds in these areas have effected the way I interact in relationships as well as how I view myself. This section also offers guidance in bringing healing to those areas of injury. Thankfully, this section is not merely focused on blaming others for our relationship problems. There is an emphasis on the ways women twist, misuse, and misdirect these longings of the heart as well.

The concluding chapter was another highlight of the book. There is a strong call for women to use their specific, God-given loveliness to bless the church and the world. The authors ask believing women to step away from insecurity and fear and ask God to show them how to best offer others their beauty with a heart of bravery and vulnerability. The Eldredges’ also call the Church to open its eyes to ways in which it has failed to affirm and encourage the God-given beauty (inside and out) of believing women and encourage women to aspire to be more than childcare providers and bake sale organizers. (Not to understate the need for these roles to be filled—I can’t imagine my husband organizing a bake sale, nor would I want him to!)

While there is much insight to be gained from reading Captivating, there are some cautions I should mention. The Eldredges tend to be overly person-centered. There are sections of the book that suggest God needs women in an almost dependent, boyfriendish fashion. There is also a tendency to overplay the incredible loveliness of the creation (in this case, women) and understate the loveliness of the Creator. I think their intent is to say the loveliness of women reflects God’s beauty, but the language throughout the book tends to subvert this.

Another weakness is the Eldredges’ less-than-biblical idea that God is somehow each woman’s individual lover or date partner. The Eldredges affirm varied “romantic encounters” with God that include having a date–type experience with God where women can sing “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera as an expression of worship (an illustration from the book) as they light a bunch of scented candles. Also, Captivating tends to over-simplify and overstate certain observations on womanhood that veer away from having a biblical foundation such as the idea that women are the prime enemy of the devil.

These weaknesses aside, I found myself crying at the end of the book. Why? God’s Spirit was at work as I read through Captivating. He used it to cleanse wrong desires, affirm progress He is making in my life, and ultimately, speak words of love to my heart. Yes, I, as well as all God’s daughters, am captivating to Him. And yes, as the book states, it is because I reflect the beauty and loveliness of God, but as His Spirit made clear to me (and not so much the book, explicitly), that loveliness is completely given me through the amazing redemption of Christ who has taken this stained and unlovely woman, washed her clean, placed a crown of beauty (instead of ashes) on her head, and joined her with all the other once-unlovely saints that He now calls His beautiful Bride, the Church.

After careful consideration, I give Captivating a strong B+ grade and a place on the Master Book List. Recommended.

[Lindsay is a 20-something, married, stay-at-home mom who loves to get two hours of sleep in a row and take showers more than once a week. Her writing has been influenced by her husband A.J. and Squeaky the Mouse from the Usborne Touchy-Feely Books.]

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Friday, December 07, 2007

"We eat steak tonight!"

As our boys have grown older, we have begun to delegate responsibilities to them so that they can take an active part in running our household. One of Asher's jobs is to read through the weekly grocery ads and let us know if there are any good buys we should be aware of.

We seem to be eating steak a lot lately.

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife