That screaming sound you hear is me pulling the arrows from my soul after reading Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods. His incisive writing cuts straight to the heart of the issue of personal and corporate idolatry, those “counterfeit gods” we worship and serve rather than Jesus Christ. Keller tackles four of the most prominent American gods—love, money, success, and power—unveiling their worthlessness and the inevitability of disappointment we will experience when we worship them.

counterfeit godsEach chapter reads like a sermon and concludes with a call to worship the true God and his son Jesus Christ. Through this repetition of structure, Keller calls his readers to abandon their false gods and worship and serve Jesus only. It is an effective literary and rhetorical technique (I can only assume that these chapters were originally written as sermons) in which the false gods are crushed and the true God is elevated to his rightful place on the throne of our hearts.

The real cunning of idolatry, he argues, is that we make idols of good things (or at least things that are morally neutral). Money, Sex, Power, and Success are not evil entities. They corrupt us not because they are inherently corrupting, but because we are inherently corruptible. “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’” (xviii) Idols occupy a place in our hearts that belongs only to God.

Many of the books I have been reading lately have an academic bent. Counterfeit Gods, while being intellectually rigorous in its own right, is a book that all Christians (and nonChristians, for that matter) should read. It will help you unmask your idols, and to see the deeper needs of your soul that you’re trying to meet through your idolatry. Only when we remove our idols from the throne of our hearts will we be free to fully worship the true, living God who loves us and sent his Son to die for us.

The Church has a leadership problem. So argues Leonard Sweet in his new book, I Am a Follower. The problem, however, is not that we don’t have enough leaders, or that our leaders have lost their way. The problem is that we have become enamored with leadership culture, obsessed with leading, and supremely focused on raising up the next generation of leaders. The trouble is, Jesus never told us to lead. He told us to follow.

The evangelical church has bought into a brand of leadership that, since the economic crisis of 2008, has gone bankrupt. But the lonely, trailblazing, genius-coming-down-from-the-mountain model of leadership is not what Jesus had in mind for his bride. The picture of leadership in Jesus’ mind was himself, and the rest of us are called to follow him. “What the world defines as leadership is not the way God works through his people in the world. …Christians are called to live by faith in a world that lives by fame.” (28-9)117084166

Christians are not to be leaders, Sweet argues. They are to be followers. First followers. In other words, Christians should find where Jesus is going, discover where he is at work, and then take up their crosses and follow him there. “In posing the paradox of the ox with an easy yoke and a light burden, Jesus is inviting followers to ‘walk alongside me. Just be with me, and the doing will come naturally.’ …Leadership is a functional position of power and authority. Followership is a relational posture of love and trust.” (39-40)

I Am a Follower is a prophetic call to abandon the culture of leadership, with it’s cultic practices of celebrity-worship and the fruitless pursuit of power and fame. Instead, we must take up the position of a sheep, humbling ourselves, and permitting Jesus to be the Good Shepherd of us—yes, even us church “leaders”! Sweet’s call is one to return to a position of relationship to God in Jesus Christ, and to forsake our position of function within the institution of Church. “All too often these days, the church’s stories are about success, leadership, justice, happiness. When ministers become social workers, preachers become motivational speakers, and evangelism becomes marketing, the result is a gimcrack gospel that is tawdry, tacky, and cheap. Asked, ‘What story do you love to tell?’ a first follower’s first answer is, ‘I love to tell the story of…Jesus and his love.’” (144)

I Am a Follower is a necessary, if imperfect, book for our times. Evangelicalism is swimming deeper and deeper into the ocean of celebrity and leadership. But there are sharks here, and there is blood in the water! If our primary aim is to focus on leaders, then who will care for the flock? If the image of the ideal Christian is a leader, then what hope is there for followers? The truth is, we are all followers, and Christ will be more glorified when we learn to accept that reality and let him lead.

Scot McKnight’s latest book, The King Jesus Gospel, is a revolution for evangelicalism. It is an incredibly important and timely work, one which calls us to leave behind our “salvation-culture” and take up, once again, the “gospel-culture” set forth by the preaching of Jesus and the apostles.

I’ve worked through a little over half of the book on the blog already. My discussion of the first three chapters, which lays the groundwork by establishing the problem McKnight sets out to address, can be found here. The second post on the book, which dealt exclusively with chapter four, in which he lays out the book’s thesis and defines the apostolic Gospel, can be found here. The last post I wrote on the book covered chapter 5, where Scot discusses how salvation overtook the Gospel.

9780310492986-1Here is a brief sketch of the main points of the book:

We evangelicals have mistaken the Plan of Salvation for the Gospel.
We have traded in a gospel culture for a salvation culture.
Our evangelism focuses exclusively on bringing people to a point of decision.
As a result, we do a poor job of making genuine disciples of Jesus.
The biblical gospel is the Story of Jesus, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5

In that last post I promised to cover the final two chapters of the book in a future post. So without further ado, I shall keep my promise.

Chapter 9: Gospeling Today

The way that we “gospel”, or evangelize, today is different from the way the early believers, including the apostles, evangelized. (Scot likes to use the word “gospel” as a verb, so I’ll put it that way from now on.) He sees several points of comparison, the first of which is what gospeling seeks to accomplish. “The gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as their Savior.” (133) He goes on to say, “the gospeling of the apostles in the book of Acts is bold declaration that leads to a summons while much of evangelism today is crafty persuasion.” (134) Ouch!

I’ll skip to the fourth point of comparison between the gospeling of the first Christians and our own evangelism–the problem gospeling resolves. What is the problem that the Gospel solves? Without minimizing sin and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation, Scot frames the solution this way: “The fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord.” (137) He says much more on this point, and I want to tempt you to get the book and read it for yourself with this quote:

Gospeling declares that Jesus is [the] rightful Lord, gospeling summons people to turn from their idols to worship and live under that Lord who saves, and gospeling actually puts us in the co-mediating and co-ruling tasks under our Lord Jesus. (142)

Chapter 10: Creating a Gospel Culture

So now what? How do we go about creating this gospel culture that we so desperately need? The first thing we must do is become people of the story. “To become a gospel culture we’ve got to begin with becoming people of the Book, but not just as a Book but as the story that shapes us.” (153) Too many of us are functionally biblically illiterate. We are more profoundly shaped by the doctrines and dogmas that we extract from the Scriptures than by the overarching story God is telling within them; and while there are many dogmas, there is only one Story.

We must also become people of the story of Jesus. “We need to immerse ourselves even more into the Story of Jesus. The gospel is that the Story of Israel comes to its definitive completeness in the Story of Jesus, and this means we have to become People of the Story-that-is-complete-in-Jesus.” (153) We must return to the four Gospels!

Thirdly, we must become people of the church’s story. “We need to see how the apostles’ writings take the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus into the next generation and into a different culture, and how this generation led all the way to our generation.” (155) Christianity was not invented in 1865; it has come down to us through nearly 100 generations of believers. There is much we can learn from them. “We have no right to ignore what God has been doing in the community of Jesus since the day he sent the Spirit to empower it, ennoble it, and guide it.” (156)

There is more to say on these points, and Scot presents two other important points to create a gospel culture, but this is a book review, not a book report. Here is my review: Read this book!

Now I want to say one thing that Scot doesn’t about how to create a gospel culture, and I say this to my fellow preachers out there. Preach the Gospel! Stop participating in the damnable story of American Consumerism & Pragmatism. Stop trying to draw a crowd. Stop preaching the no-Gospel of Success & Self-Improvement. That is not your task. That is not your calling. You are a minister of the Gospel, so preach it!

Your sermons shape your congregation and define its culture, and too many of you are creating a culture that is nothing more than a slightly more moral version of the wider American culture. You’re telling the wrong story. You cannot create a gospel-culture unless and until you preach the Gospel. This will most likely take you down a new path, one that you probably won’t like. You will have to say goodbye to the Story of Success and Fame and Power. But you’ll discover that the Gospel is worth it.

May the Church’s preachers become gospelers, that we all might learn to live out the Gospel, boldly proclaiming that Jesus Christ is King-over-All.

Way back in the day, I used to make mix tapes when I was a kid. I would put together a list of all my favorite songs and painstakingly record them to a cassette tape. That’s right, a cassette tape. I even went so far as to design cover art for the tapes. Don’t hate.

God is Great, God is Good (edited by William Lane Craig & Chad Meister) is kind of like a mix tape. It’s a collection of essays from many of today’s leading evangelical scholars, including Alister McGrath, Scot McKnight, Gary Habermas, John Polkinghorne, and others. The book is like a mix tape in that it gets the best that these authors have to offer, each writing within their respective sweet spots. (Wow, talk about mixing my metaphors!)

9781844744176The subtitle of the book is, “Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible”. This is a book of apologetics written in response to the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, et al. William Lane Craig opens the book by lobbing an attack against Dawkins’s arguments that God cannot exist, and the rest of the authors follow suit with short, succinct apologies for various elements of Christian faith.

Due to the nature of the book, most of the chapters are too short to present a sustained argument. This is the sort of work that hits the highlights, and then points you to further resources for more detailed information. This approach is perhaps most useful for Christians who have occasional interactions with skeptics because it will provide them with basic answers to some of the questions that have been made popular by the writings of the New Atheists. While not making any comment on the quality of the work, I would call this a primer on apologetics, not a textbook.

Some of the most rewarding material comes at the end, where the reader will find an interview between Gary Habermas and noted atheist-become-theist scholar Antony Flew. Flew was one of the most influential atheist voices in the world in the last half of the twentieth century, and his conversion to theism in 2004 caused quite a scandal. While, to my knowledge, he never became a Christian before his death in April, his “leap of faith” was certainly a dramatic and powerful conversion.

Also at the end of the book is an Appendix written by Alvin Plantinga, where he reviews Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion”. If you don’t know who Alvin Plantinga is, you would do well to look him up. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “If God exists, and he is good, why is there evil in the world”? This is often assumed to be an ironclad proof that God does not exist. Well, not anymore, thanks to Alvin Plantinga. I won’t go into details here, but almost no serious philosophers consider the problem of evil to be a legitimate critique of the existence of God.

If you’re interested in apologetics, especially in conversing with people who are influenced by the New Atheists, then you should definitely pick up this book. You’ll find that the arguments of Dawkins, et. al., are really not so devastating as they seem. If you’re really serious about Christian apologetics, then you’ve probably already read everything in this book. No need to pick up the mix tape when you already know the albums.

What’s this? Another review of Love Wins? I suppose if there were one book that didn’t need another review, it’s Love Wins by Rob Bell. But, since I blogged about it all of last week, I thought I should go ahead and give it an official sometimespreacher book review.

The book is written in Rob Bell’s trademark style.

Full.

Of.

Questions.

And.

Whitespace.

(For somebody who’s so concerned about the environment, Rob Bell sure wastes a lot of paper in his books. Ba-zing!)

rob-bell-love-wins-1As I pointed out last week, it’s important to know why Rob Bell is writing this book, and what perspective he is challenging. There are eight beliefs that formulate this perspective, and Love Wins is meant to be a “wrecking ball” that destroys these beliefs. The eight beliefs are:

  1. Heaven is somewhere else.
  2. Hell is somewhere else.
  3. It’s all about eternity.
  4. God is angry with you.
  5. Turn or burn.
  6. The gospel is your “Get Out of Hell Free” card.
  7. God has predestined a select few for heaven, and everyone else goes to hell.
  8. Those who have never heard of Jesus will spend eternity in hell.

While Bell does a good job of deconstructing these beliefs, he fails, in my opinion, to reconstruct a convincingly biblical alternative. He uses some sloppy exegesis to get where he wants to go, and his scholarship does not hold up under inspection. What Bell is saying, however, is well worth saying; unfortunately his style far exceeds his substance. It’s going to be left up to others to flesh out what the Bible says about these matters.

What I appreciated most about the book (and if you’re familiar with Rob Bell, this is nothing new) was his emphasis on the continuity of heaven, hell, and earth. He has long preached that heaven is not simply somewhere you go when you die, but that eternal life starts in this life, and that one day heaven and earth will become one. I’ll Fly Away is his least favorite hymn, and I can only assume that he’s not a rapture guy, either.

What has earned Rob Bell the labels universalist and heretic (and John Piper’s now infamous tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell”) is his chapter There are Rocks Everywhere. In this chapter, Bell asserts that “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland” can all get into heaven. How? Through Jesus, but maybe not in ways that we are comfortable or familiar with. He affirms that Jesus is the only way to the Father, but he leaves the door open for many ways to get to Jesus.

Maybe you’ve heard stories of Muslims coming to faith in Christ through dreams and visions. This is the sort of thing Bell is talking about when he says that there are rocks everywhere. Jesus is drawing people to himself by whatever means necessary, and as King of Creation, he is free and able to use any tool in creation to accomplish his purposes. “Jesus is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.” The book ends with a fairly standard evangelical call to faith in Christ now.

While not exactly a wrecking ball, I would say Rob Bell has done a good job of deconstructing the standard, fundamentalist view of judgment and the afterlife. It’s a good book to read to begin a conversation, but it is insufficient to guide you through the Scriptures in an attempt to formulate answers. But perhaps that was Bell’s point all along; he’s always been more interested in questions than answers, and that’s exactly where Rob Bell leaves us with Love Wins: far more questions than answers, far more doubt than certainty.

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