Full disclosure: I’ve never believed in the rapture. It’s nowhere to be found in the Scriptures, and the very idea of all true believers being snatched away doesn’t make any sense. How does that gel with the rest of the Bible? When the going gets tough, God just pulls you out of the world. Huh?

Barbara Rossing’s book “The Rapture Exposed” is a passionate and well-informed refutation of the dispensational, rapture-oriented theology of popular American fundamentalism as seen in the Left Behind fictional adventure series. Dr. Rossing begins her book by artfully laying out the case for the destructive nature of rapture/escapist theology. The unbiblical axiom “It doesn’t matter since it will all burn someday” is the grounds for committing deep sin against the world, and Dr. Rossing rails against the escapist worldview that fosters this thinking.

rapture-exposedPerhaps the most useful chapter of the book is the second, in which Dr. Rossing recounts the development of the Rapture from the vision of Margaret MacDonald in 1830, to its popularization by John Darby, and its cementation in the American theological landscape by Cyrus Scofield in the Scofield Reference Bible. She goes on to simultaneously delinieate and debunk the foundations of rapture theology through the proof-texting of various passages in Daniel, Revelation, and other New Testament books.

After the first two chapters, Dr. Rossing presents her own interpretation of the book of Revelation, the cornerstone of which is Lamb Power—that is, the victory of the nonviolence of the Lamb Who Stands But Was Slain over the conquesting and Nike-worshipping violence of the power of Rome. The book of Revelation, she says, is not about the violence of a vengeful Lion Messiah coating the world in the blood of the heathens, but rather about the hope found in the resurrection of the Lamb from the dead. “Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.” (111)

Dr. Rossing goes on to issue a stern warning against the Christianist Zionism she sees embedded with rapture and dispensational theology. She warns against the blind support by many fundamentalist Christians of the secular nation of Israel, especially in regards to the occupation and settlement of traditionally Palestinian lands. Because dispensationalists see the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 as a “super-sign” that the end is nigh, these fundamentalist Christians will (and have) sought to shape American foreign policy in a way that fully supports Israel and, in their minds, speeds the timeline of events that must occur before Jesus returns. But, Rossing warns, there are real people who are real casualties of the pursuit of this policy, namely Palestinians, and Palestinian Christians in particular. “Whenever people invoke biblical prophets to support a program of violence or injustice,” she writes, “this is a misuse of the Bible. This is extremism.” (73)

This extremism is manifested through a strange, violent obsession with and pursuit of Armagaddon, which dispensationalists see as absolutely central to the prophecies of Revelation. But instead of Armageddon, Rossing posits that Christians should see the Tree of Life and the healing it offers as the central image of the Apocalypse.

Rossing’s book does more than just challenge the unbiblical and heretical rapture theology, it offers an alternative vision and interpretation of the book of Revelation. She debunks the myth of the Rapture, and provides a sound exegesis for those “rapture-passages” that form the backbone of the escapist theology. She goes on to offer an alternative story, not one dripping in the blood and vengeful violence of the Left Behind series, but rooted in the healing and hopeful reality of the Tree of Life which flows from the throne of the Lamb. There is hope for the nations because the Lamb Who Stands But Was Slain, not the Wrathful Lion, wields the power of the throne of heaven. Lamb Power, not Tribulation Force, will have the final say, and all true believers will be right here, with feet firmly planted on the ground, to see it happen.

What do you think of this alternative vision of the Apocalypse? Will there be a Rapture? Will things be as peaceful and healing as Rossing hopes and writes that they will be? Perhaps more importantly, what role should eschatology play in the formation of public policy?

With the possible exception of the story of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son is probably the most famous of Jesus’s parables. You’ve heard it before. No doubt you’ve read it. You’ve even heard it preached on at church. If there’s anything in the New Testament that you’ve got down by now, it’s the story of the Prodigal Son. It is absolutely certain that what Jesus means by that parable is that no matter what we do, no matter how far we run, we can always come back to God.

While that’s true, that’s not all that the parable is about. It goes, in fact, much, much deeper. To discover that meaning, may I recommend to you Tim Keller’s excellent book, The Prodigal God. You will never read the parable the same way again.

Prodigal-GodThe key, Keller argues, is to recognize that there are two sons in the story, and both are lost. In fact, the younger brother may have captured the attention of the evangelical mind, but the story is really about the elder brother. It was originally told, after all, to a group of elder brothers called the Pharisees. The younger brother is lost because of his sin, but the elder brother is lost because of his righteousness.

Huh? How can that be? It is because the elder brother tried to manipulate and control his father by obeying all of the rules. “It is not his sins that create the barrier between [the elder brother] and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that keeps him from sharing in the feast of his father.” Like the younger brother, the elder brother never truly cared about his father; he only cared about the estate. While the younger brother was audacious enough to demand it, the elder brother quietly resented his father’s presence whilst working slavishly to keep him happy. For elder brothers, “the good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment.”

Where Keller goes from here will absolutely astound you, and no doubt leave that impression on your spirit that, at last, this parable makes complete sense! This book will be a valuable resource not only for understanding the parable of the Prodigal Son, but also of discovering how to rightly relate to God.

Every once in a while you come across a book that is good for your soul, steering you back onto a course you hadn’t yet become aware you had left. I’ve had the good fortune of reading two of those in the past couple months. The first was Pure Scum by Mike Sares (you can read my review of it here), and the second was The Pastor by Eugene Peterson.

The Pastor is a memoir, the bulk of which is taken up with Peterson’s life before he moved to Vancouver. It is filled with stories of his childhood in Montana and his church-planting days in the Baltimore area. Peterson’s pastoral reflections are priceless, and should be read by everyone in the ministry.

0323 The Pastor Eugene Peterson Message Bible coverIt’s difficult to review a memoir. They’re his stories. It was his life. What I want to write about, then, is how his book impacted me on a personal level.

There are many temptations in ministry. Envy is one. Whose church is biggest? Whose church is most renowned? Which pastor has the national ministry? Who is saving the most souls? Whose books are selling fastest? Inevitably, the answer is, “Someone else.” Envy is a pastor-killer. Go to any church conference and you’ll hear pastors comparing attendance figures. If that ain’t sad…

Peterson has taught me that none of that matters. It’s all a trap. His church never grew past a few hundred–paltry numbers in today’s megachurch climate. His words to a friend seeking significance through church size hit me like a ton of bricks: “The church you want and expect is the enemy of the church you are being given.” If you’re a pastor or in the ministry, you need to read that sentence again. Write it down, hang it on your door. Put it on your computer desktop. Here, let me type it bigger and bolder so you can read it better.

The church you want and expect is the enemy of the church you are being given.

Is it sinking in yet? God is giving and has given you a church, a congregation, a flock. (Not, by the way, an audience. God never gives you an audience.) But you are discontent with your church. You lust for more attendees, more resources, a wider appeal, a broader reach, more recognition, more fame, a book contract, a speaking circuit… The list goes on and on. But God doesn’t care about your selfish lusts, and he certainly doesn’t owe you anything. The church you want and expect is the enemy of the church you are being given. Embrace the church God has given you. Embrace the people under your spiritual care. Be their shepherd.

When I decided to go ahead with planting Ember Church in the fall of 2010, I was overwhelmed by the process. I knew there was a lot of work to be done, but I didn’t know where to start. I found a lot of books on church planting, but couldn’t tell which ones were good and which ones weren’t. I tried judging those books by their covers, but this turned out to be a bad idea. The old saying is true after all, I suppose.

9780801072628It wasn’t until several months into the process that I finally picked up The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting by Aubrey Malphurs, and I immediately wished I had read this book sooner. This book is exactly what it says it is: the nuts and bolts of a project that can often seem overwhelmingly complex and about as solid as water. Malphurs helps the reader get his hands on and head around the process of church planting.

The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting demystifies the church planting process and gives new church planters (like myself) a plan and some solid direction for accomplishing their end of this task. He simplifies the ministry of the new church down to the overall mission of the Church, which is to make disciples. Keeping this mission in the front of your mind, regardless of how you frame it for your church, will keep you on track as you trudge through the difficult phase of church planning and planting.

As somebody who is doing this right now, I can’t think of a better book to give to church planters than Aubrey Malphurs’ The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting. It’s simple, practical, readable, and comes with an abundance of support material (16 appendices!) to help guide you through this difficult process. If you’re thinking about planting a church, read this book first. If you’re on a church plant team, get it for your pastor! The more time you spend with this book, the more time you will save and the more frustration you will avoid in the church planting process.

The first chapter of Genesis is the most hotly contested biblical text of our time. Theories and interpretations abound as scholars have turned the chapter upside down and inside out looking for biblical clues (and ammunition) to the origins of the universe. There are at least four major schools of interpretation on Genesis One: young-earth creationism; day-age theory; the gap theory; and the literary hypothesis. It’s time to add a fifth school to that list: John Walton’s cosmic temple inauguration.

Walton derives his thesis from his exploration of Ancient Near Eastern cultures and their creation myths. The problem with the current, Western interpretations of Genesis One is their failure to overcome the distance between our modern culture and the culture of ancient Israel (existing alongside and within larger cultures like Egypt and Babylon, which all have their own fascinating creation stories). “Despite all the distinctions that existed across the ancient world, any given culture was more similar to other ancient cultures than any of them are to Western American or European culture.” (12)

9780830837045Crossing this cultural gulf means making one significant, and seemingly obvious, proposition: Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology. (16) This means that “it does not attempt to describe cosmology in modern terms or address modern questions.” (16) What, then, are the terms in which it describes cosmology? This is the crucial question, and what sets Walton’s interpretation on a different course from the others.

Moderns tend to think of creation only terms of material origins. What is the sun made of and how did it come into being? How long did it take for the mountains to be formed and how did they get their current shape? What is the physical composition of humanity and how did we get to be the way we are now? These are the questions of a modern, Enlightenment-oriented culture. But these are not the questions of a polytheistic culture, or even a monotheistic culture within a wider polytheistic world? In order to understand Genesis One, we need to ask the questions the ancients asked.

Rather than questioning the material origins of the universe, the ancients told stories about the functional origins of creation. Existence, for them, was not tied to the material properties of an object, but rather to how that object functioned within a closed system. “In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties.” (26) Walton proves his point through numerous examples from ancient Near Eastern texts, and concludes with this contrast between modern and ancient thinking: “We tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and argue whether someone is running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos more like…a kingdom.” (35)

Functional Ontology is the cornerstone of Walton’s interpretation of Genesis One. Using this as his lens, he sees in Days 1-3 the creation of the three fundamental functions of life: time, weather, and food. “So on day one God created the basis for time; day two the basis for weather; and day three the basis for food. …If we desire to see the greatest work of the Creator, it is not to be found in the materials that he brought together—it is that he brought them together in such a way that they work.” (59) Perhaps a better translation of “It was good”, then, would be “It worked.”

From here, Walton proposes that Genesis One “should be understood as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as a temple.” (84) Because “divine rest takes place in temples,” (87) the seven days of creation are best understood as a temple inauguration. “By naming the functions and installing the functionaries, and finally by deity entering his resting place, the temple comes into existence—it is created in the inauguration ceremony.” (89)

The implications of this interpretation are numerous., but I will only mention two. First, if Genesis One is an account of functional origins rather than material origins, there is no conflict between a “literal” reading of Genesis and the findings of evolutionary science. (Walton argues that the real fight between the creation (and ID) camp and the evolution camp is over teleology, and he makes some interesting prescriptions for public scientific education.) Second, if the cosmos is God’s temple (or divine resting place) then there are no such things as natural resources—there are only sacred resources, and we must adjust our ecology accordingly.

Walton’s book offers valuable insight into the Genesis One debate, and ought to be carefully examined by those on all sides. There is much more in the book that is worthy of discussion, and it is accessible enough to encourage conversation between all interested parties.

Questions: Does Walton present a reading of Genesis One that allows Christians to remain theologically and exegetically faithful while being scientifically relevant? Do you find the argument of functional ontology convincing? How does this interpretation change the game on cosmic origins?