The Bible is a book. It may be called a collection of books compiled into one majestic volume. As a book it is designed to be read. In this respect it is like all other books. But in important ways, the Bible is not like any other book. It is the Book of books. We customarily call this book the Holy Bible. Its holiness is found in its otherness. It is a sacred book because it transcends and stands apart from and above every other book. It is holy because its ultimate Author is holy. It is holy because its message is holy. And it is holy because its content is designed to make us holy.

The Bible is an inspired book; that is, it is “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16). It is inspired in a way that reaches far beyond the inspiration of human artists. The Bible offers more than brilliant insight, more than human sagacity. It is called “inspired” not because of its supernatural mode of transmission via human authors, but because of its origin. It is not merely a book about God; it is a book from God. Therefore, the true church confesses its trust and confidence that the Bible is the vox Dei, the veritable “voice of God.”

The Bible is a normative book. The church has rightly declared that the Bible is the “norm of norms, and without norm.” A norm is a standard, a measuring rod by which things are judged. We may use many lesser standards to regulate our lives, but all such regulations must be subordinate to Scripture. To be the “norm of norms” is to be the superlative norm, the standard by which all other norms are measured. The Bible is not simply “first among equals”; other standards have no parity with it. As Jesus is exalted as King of kings and Lord of lords, so we submit to His Word as the norm of norms, the standard of truth, and the one infallible rule for the people of God.

God is the Lord of heaven and earth, and He alone is able to impose absolute obligation upon His creatures. He does this through the written Word. The Reformers of the sixteenth century recognized this unique authority of the Bible, expressing it in the motto sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.” The Reformers did not despise other authorities or deny the value of tradition and the creeds, but they distinguished the singular authority of the Bible, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

God calls every Christian to pursue righteousness. Our trust is to be childlike, but our understanding must be mature. Such trust and understanding require study of God’s Word. The authentic disciple meditates on it day and night. Our goal is more than knowledge; it is wisdom, the fruit of inward and outward obedience. It is our prayer that the Reformation Study Bible will aid students of the Bible in their understanding of Scripture that they might walk wisely before the Lord in all wisdom.

The Reformation Study Bible is so called because it stands in the Reformed tradition of the original Geneva Bible of the sixteenth century. In modern Geneva, Switzerland, a memorial wall has been built and dedicated to the sixteenth-century Reformation. This International Monument to the Reformation is adorned with statues of the great leaders John Calvin, Theodore Beza, William Farel, and John Knox. Surrounding these figures is the phrase Post Tenebras Lux—“After darkness, light.”

The light of the Reformation was the light of the Bible. Luther translated the Bible, which in his day could be read almost exclusively by professionals who knew Latin, into everyday German that could be read by ordinary people. John Wycliffe and William Tyndale translated the Bible into English. Yet there was substantial opposition to these efforts in England. Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536, and later, the Reformation was suppressed during the reign of Mary Tudor (1553–58). The Roman Catholic Mass was enforced, services could not be conducted in English, and priests were forbidden to marry. Two hundred eighty-eight people were burned alive, including the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.

These persecutions drove exiles from Britain to the European Continent. Many of the most capable scholars among them came to Geneva. There they undertook the task of preparing a new translation of the Bible in English. This new translation, the Geneva Bible, was published in 1560 and was carefully designed to be accurate and understandable. It was the first English Bible to use verse divisions, as “most profitable for memory” and for finding and comparing other passages. It included study notes explaining Scripture based on the interpretative principles reclaimed during the Reformation.

The Geneva Bible was the most widely used translation in the English-speaking world for a hundred years. It was the Bible used by John Bunyan, Oliver Cromwell, John Knox, and William Shakespeare. Though the King James Bible was published in 1611, it did not supplant the Geneva Bible until fifty years later. It was the Geneva Bible that the Pilgrims and Puritans carried to the shores of the New World. It was used by many American colonists who read it, studied it, and sought to live by its light.

Since the Geneva Bible was published, a multitude of English translations and study Bibles have appeared. This present volume intends to return to the clarity and power of that important translation. By presenting a modern restatement of biblical, Reformation truth in its comments and theological notes, the Reformation Study Bible aims to carry on the legacy of the Geneva Bible in shining forth the light of biblical Christianity, which was recovered in the Reformation.

The Reformed tradition understands biblical Christianity as “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This faith, we believe, is expressed in the ecumenical creeds common to all Christian traditions, together with the Reformation distinctives that are the result of accepting the Bible as the supreme and only infallible authority for faith and practice. We believe that these ecumenical creeds and the Reformation confessions provide the church with a full-orbed summary of the doctrine of Scripture. The words of the Bible are true, and its message is powerful. It conveys the infallible promise of God, its Author, that it will not return to Him empty but will certainly accomplish His intended purpose (Is. 55:11).

From the Introduction to the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible, written by Dr. R.C. Sproul, general editor. Dr. Sproul is also the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries.

New from Reformation Trust. The new edition of the Reformation Study Bible has been thoroughly revised and carefully crafted by 75 theologians and pastors from around the world under the editorial leadership of R.C. Sproul. Pre-order by February 18 and receive free shipping anywhere in the continental U.S. Visit ReformationStudyBible.com.

The ShackA few months back, I posted an article from Tim Challies blog series “The Bestsellers” regarding William Paul Young's “The Shack”. I had commented on the book several time prior to posting Tim's article, basing my comments on the reviews of writers that I greatly respect, but up until that point, I had not read the book, nor did I have any desire to read the book.

However, I did make this comment on the article. “I said that I would never read the book. I am willing to revise that statement. If the author asked me to read it, I would do so.” While I did not receive a request to read it from Paul Young himself, I did receive the next best thing. (You can read the Facebook post here.)

A good friend of mine works for the agency that represents Paul Young and was gracious enough to send me a complimentary copy, for which I am grateful. I took time and read the book and here are my impressions.

First of all, all of my original comments regarding the book have not changed. If you care to read them, check out the comments on Tim's post. In fact, they have all just been confirmed.

Second, I was moved by the pain that Mack suffered. I have dear friends who lost a child, not to abduction and murder, but to a tragic accident and spent a lot of time with them during their grieving process and it is an excruciating experience. There is a definite need for comfort for those who have gone through this kind of pain. This book, while empathic, is woefully lacking in an accurate portrayal of God, in fact, bordering on heretical.

Third, the portrayal of God in “The Shack” is one that replaces the true nature and character of God with one that is steeped in self-importance. Mack is the focal point of the book and it seems that everyone capitulates to him. That role should have gone to the accurate portrayal of God.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I find this book not only theologically inaccurate, but totally unnecessary. We already have a book to tell us how God deals with tragedy in our lives. It's called the book of Job. Here we see God actually suggesting to Satan that he afflict Job. It was God's idea! Why? We can't know all of the reasons, but God certainly does and if He does not share them, He absolutely has the right to do so. My guess would be to show Satan that when God's Holy Spirit controls a man, that man will never turn away. Consider Job's word in Job 19:25-26:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God,”

Remember, in a matter of minutes, Satan took Job's wealth, killed all of his children and eventually his health by covering his entire body with boils. It was so bad, Job's wife said, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9b) Wow! She must have had the gift of encouragement! It is in the very next verse we see, “But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (Job 2:10) That is a man confident in the true God.

As I said in previous comments, if you want to read “The Shack”, go ahead. It's not a bad story. In fact, it's better than reading about adulterous affairs and various and sundry other types of abominations, just don't get your theology from it. Make sure you are exercising your discernment fully in light of Scripture so you don't fall into it's abysmal theology.

The Bestsellers
Here is another entry in a series I am calling “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez) and Paul Young (The Shack). Today we look at the only bestselling book written by a alumnus of John MacArthur’s college and seminary.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Click Cover To Order From Amazon.Com


Francis Chan was born in San Francisco in 1967, the son of Chinese immigrants. After professing faith at a young age, he attended The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary, graduating with Bachelor of Arts and Master of Divinity degrees. In 1994, he and his wife Lisa founded Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California. Though the church began with only thirty people, it grew quickly and within six years numbered over 1,500.

In 2005 Chan released a video titled Just Stop and Think that quickly went viral while also setting him up for the release of his first book: Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Published in 2008, the book is a call for Christians to live an authentic faith, and it was marketed behind language like this: “Does something deep inside your heart long to break free from the status quo? Are you hungry for an authentic faith that addresses the problems of our world with tangible, even radical, solutions? God is calling you to a passionate love relationship with Himself. Because the answer to religious complacency isn’t working harder at a list of do’s and don’ts — it’s falling in love with God. And once you encounter His love, as Francis describes it, you will never be the same.”

Chan develops two substantial themes. The first is a painstaking self-examination to determine if the reader is truly saved. “A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.” The second theme is a radical obedience concerned more for future rewards than present comfort or prosperity. “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

What may sound cliché after nearly ten years and a host of imitators was fresh in its time. “This book is written for those who want more Jesus. It is for those who are bored with what American Christianity offers. It is for those who don’t want to plateau, who would rather die before their convictions do.” At the time Chan was writing, many Christian leaders seemed to be leading people away from the centrality of the local church. Chan, though, wished to express his love for the church and wanted to draw people back to it. In an interview after the book’s publication he said

As a pastor I hear a lot of emergent leaders talk about what is wrong with the church. It comes across as someone who doesn’t love the church. I’m a pastor first and foremost, and I’m trying to offer a solution or a model of what church should look like. I’m going back to scripture and seeing what the church was in its simplest form and trying to recreate that in my own church. I’m not coming up with anything new. I’m calling people to go back to the way it was. I’m not bashing the church. I’m loving it.

Crazy Love served as a call for young Christians to live obediently rather than safely. It was a message that resonated with an entire generation.

Sales & Lasting Impact

By 2009 Crazy Love had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded the Gold Book Award; the following year it crossed the 1 million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold more than 2 million copies. It is now clear that Crazy Love was responsible, at least in part, for kick-starting an entire theme in the Christian world—the theme of living radically, but doing so while being grounded in the gospel. Bestselling books like Radical and Jesus > Religion develop the same topics, though with different emphases.

Since the Award

In 2010 Chan announced to his congregation (which now numbered several thousand) that the Lord was leading him in a new direction, though he was not yet certain what it was. He explained that he was weary of being an Evangelical celebrity and that he was concerned that within his church he heard the words “Francis Chan” more often and with greater excitement than “Holy Spirit.” After his resignation he spent several months in Asia before relocating to San Francisco where he founded a church planting movement geared specifically to the city’s poor. He continues that work today.

Chan followed Crazy Love with Forgotten God, a book about the Holy Spirit, and then with Erasing Hell, a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In 2012 he teamed up with David Platt to write Multiply and to launch a discipleship movement. He has also written several books for children and travels extensively to speak at conferences and other events. While his influence crosses many demographics, his greatest popularity is among teens and young adults.

A Personal Perspective

My first exposure to Chan, at least to my recollection, was his “Just Stop and Think” video. I reviewed Crazy Love in 2008, shortly after its release, and expressed gratitude for it. Though I still think we need to focus on being ordinary Christians as much as we focus on being radical Christians, I understand how and why his book had such massive appeal, and especially among young people. While I have been a little bit concerned by some of the things Chan has said and done over the past few years, I appreciate his generosity (To my knowledge he has given away all or most of his book royalties which would now number in the millions of dollars) and his desire to escape the Evangelical celebrity culture.

 

The-Bestsellers-Cover1Here is another entry in a series I am calling “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez) and Paul Young (The Shack). Today we look at a controversial devotional work that has left an indelible mark on Christian publishing.

Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

ljesus-calling-119195560017700_2Compared to other bestselling authors, Sarah Young is a mysterious figure. Notoriously secretive, she has written a book that has sold in the millions, but to my knowledge has never spoken in public, has never appeared on television or radio, and has completed only the smallest handful of written interviews (and even then only through a publicist).

What we do know is that Young is American, was a 1968 graduate of Massachusetts’ Wellesley College, is married to a Presbyterian missionary, lived in Japan for many years, and has recently returned to America after living in Australia. Also, she suffers from significant health concerns related to vertigo and Lyme disease.

Thomas Nelson published Young’s first book Jesus Calling in 2004. Though sales were slow at first, the book began to hit its stride in 2008, tallying over 200,000 sales that year and growing year-over-year from there. To date it has sold over 10 million copies and has outpaced many better-known New York Times bestsellers. The Daily Beast, writing for their non-Christian audience, rightly referred to it as “The Evangelical Bestseller You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Jesus Calling is a daily devotional that contains a year’s worth of reflections on the Christian faith. What sets it apart from the thousands of other devotional works is not what Young says as much as the claim behind it. She claims that as she listens, Jesus speaks to her, and that these devotionals are his more than they are hers. Through them she promises a closer relationship with Jesus and a more tangible sense of his presence.

The first editions of Jesus Calling reference her indebtedness to A.J. Russell’s 1932 work God Calling which Russell claimed was prepared by two “Listeners,” women who received and recorded messages directly from God. This book was unorthodox both in its writing and in its content and in many ways more closely resembles the New Age movement than orthodox Christianity. Still, Young says it “became a treasure to me,” and that as she read it over and over

I began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God. I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believe He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message. It was short, biblical, and appropriate. It addressed topics that were current in my life: trust, fear, and closeness to God. I responded by writing in my prayer journal.

What she wrote in her prayer journal was later compiled into Jesus Calling and she makes a bold claim: “This practice of listening to God has increased my intimacy with Him more than any other spiritual discipline, so I want to share some of the messages I have received. In many parts of the world, Christians seem to be searching for a deeper experience of Jesus’ Presence and Peace. The messages that follow address that felt need.”

This excerpt from the reading for January 8 is representative of the daily devotionals:

Softly I announce my Presence. Shimmering hues of radiance tap gently at your consciousness, seeking entrance. Though I have all Power in heaven and on earth, I am infinitely tender with you. The weaker you are, the more gently I approach you. Let your weakness by a door to My Presence. Whenever you feel inadequate, remember that I am your ever-present Help.

Sales & Lasting Impact

In the first 3 years following its publication, Jesus Calling sold fewer than 60,000 copies, but then sales suddenly spiked so that it quadrupled its sales in year 4 and has nearly doubled every year since. It sold its millionth copy in 2010 and was accordingly awarded the Platinum Book Award. The publisher claims that the book has now sold more than 10 million copies in 26 languages. Not surprisingly, it has spawned many imitators which also claim to bring the voice of God to the printed page.

Since the Award

Despite the book’s massive success, Young has remained as mysterious as ever and has completed only a handful of interviews. She has continued to write other books, including a sequel called Jesus Today (which received ECPA’s Book of the Year award in 2013), and children’s titles Jesus Calling: 365 Devotions for Kids, and the Jesus Calling Storybook Bible. A host of gift editions, calendars and other related products have also sold in the millions.

While Jesus Calling has sold far beyond expectations and has been joyfully received by Christian readers, it has also garnered a significant amount of criticism for both its method and its message.

Not surprisingly, the primary concern relates to Young’s method and her claim that she speaks for Jesus. Many concerned Christians have pointed out that the Bible gives us no clear indicator that we can claim Jesus will speak through us (apart from the Bible) and that Jesus’ agency behind her words is unverifiable. Young implies that though the Bible is inerrant and infallible, it is insufficient. After all, it was not reading Scripture that proved her most important spiritual discipline, but this listening, this receiving of unmediated messages from the Lord. Thus the heart of the book is not the Bible, but these extra-biblical messages from Jesus. Some have pointed out with suspicion that the Jesus of Jesus Calling does not speak in the voice of the Jesus of the Bible, but in the voice of a middle-aged woman.

As for the message, Michael Horton says it can be reduced to one point: “Trust me more in daily dependence and you’ll enjoy my presence.” He goes on to point out that “Compared with the Psalms, for example, Jesus Calling is remarkably shallow. … The Psalms first place before us the mighty acts of God and then call us to respond in confession, trust, and thankfulness. But in Jesus Calling I’m repeatedly exhorted to look to Christ, rest in Christ, trust in Christ, to be thankful and long for a deeper sense of his presence, with little that might provoke any of this. Which means that I’m directed not actually to Christ but to my own inner struggle to be more trustful, restful, and thankful.” It is noteworthy that “The first mention of Christ even dying for our sins appears on February 28 (page 61). The next reference (to wearing Christ’s robe) is August 9 (p. 232). Even the December readings focus on a general presence of Jesus in our hearts and daily lives, without anchoring it in Jesus’s person and work in history.” The message of Jesus Calling is, thus, very different from the message of the Bible.

In her few interviews, Young has defended both her method and her message. Interestingly, the references to God Calling that appeared in early editions have since been removed and the word “messages” to describe the revelation she receives has been replaced with “devotionals” and other synonyms. But the book itself remains unchanged.

A Personal Perspective

I reviewed Jesus Calling in 2011 after seeing it rocket up the list of bestselling Christian books and it quickly proved one of my most-read reviews. I concluded, “Jesus Calling is, in its own way, a very dangerous book. Though the theology is largely sound enough, my great concern is that it teaches that hearing words directly from Jesus and then sharing these words with others is the normal Christian experience. In fact, it elevates this experience over all others. And this is a dangerous precedent to set. I see no reason that I would ever recommend this book.” I stand by those words today and believe the success of the book says a great deal about a lack of spiritual discernment among Christians.

The Most Encouraging Book on Hell Ever
Click on cover to purchase from Amazon.Com

Hell and humor between the same two book covers. Seriously? As a co-founder of Cruciform Press, I like to provide occasional updates on news and tell you about our books. Our recent release, The Most Encouraging Book on Hell Ever, by Thor Ramsey, is as unusual and compelling as its title.

In recent years, some very famous books have claimed that the hell described in Scripture doesn’t actually exist. These books have gotten a lot of attention and generated a ton of controversy. Bible-believing Christians understand that we can’t deny this doctrine (it’s taught plainly in Scripture), but we tend to be uneasy about it just the same. As Ramsey says, “In today’s age of peace, love, and misinformation, the subject of hell seems to make church leaders sweat even when they’re not trying to be ironic.”

Ramsey doesn’t think this attitude is wise or ultimately helpful. He even goes so far as to say that he’s learned to delight in the doctrine of eternal punishment. As he shares his delight, you will see how he managed to write a book on hell that actually does turn out to be encouraging.

This might seem shocking to you, but I delight in the doctrine of hell. Let me explain myself before you tell me to go there. I didn’t arrive at this mindset overnight, but now I delight in everything that God has revealed to us about himself. Any glimpse into the workings of the mind of God should delight a Christian.

Ramsey starts with the question, “What do we really lose if hell freezes over?” As he works through this, we see that the answer is…everything. The orthodox doctrine of hell is closely tied to the fear of God, the holiness of God, the gospel of God, and the love of God. Ramsey unpacks each of these four points in separate chapters that make up the heart of the book.

Ramsey is an unusual guy. Besides being a pastor and teacher, he spent 20 years as a Christian stand-up comic, and it shows in this book. Some have wondered whether a book about hell from a comedian could truly work. It does work, though. Ramsey’s sense of humor comes through, and the book is entertaining and even funny in places, but he’s not flippant or disrespectful. Sometimes the humor catches the reader by surprise, but isn’t that the nature of humor?

With the reality of hell still actively under attack, this accessible, winsome book on a difficult subject is truly needed. If you’re halfway familiar with the debate about hell, you’ll know whose ideas Ramsey is dismantling. Ramsey, however, does not focus on the teachers, but on the doctrine. As he says, “The person is not the point. The bad theology is.”

So while this book does correct recent false teaching, it does more than shore up a besieged doctrine. It logically and theologically integrates an orthodox view of hell into the gospel, thus reminding the reader to delight in the beauty and cohesiveness of the whole of God’s Word. With endorsements from author Eric Metaxas, actor Stephen Baldwin, and Drew Dyck of Leadership Journal, I doubt you have read anything quite like it. You will come away from this book with a better understanding of a doctrine that many reject, while growing in appreciation for God’s love and holiness. Along the way, you will probably even chuckle, and more than once. Now that’s no small trick.

You can buy The Most Encouraging Book on Hell Ever at Amazon (Kindle; Softcover) or direct from Cruciform Press (all formats).

It has nineteen thousand reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of five stars. I try to keep up with what’s new and notable in publishing but even with nineteen thousand reviews I had no intention of reading this novel until both my son and daughter (separately) asked if they could buy it. After all, they said, all their friends are reading it. It’s called The Fault in Our Stars and the movie adaptation has just hit the silver screen, opening as the most popular new movie in North America.

(I am assigning this review a full-out spoiler alert; you have been warned.) The Fault in Our Stars centers around two teenaged characters who are brought together in a common battle against cancer. Hazel, who narrates the book, is sixteen and has lungs so badly damaged by cancer that she must always be connected to a source of oxygen. Though drugs are currently controlling her illness, she knows that she has only years, not decades, to live. One day she attends a church-based cancer support group where she meets Augustus who is seventeen and recovering from osteosarcoma.

Hazel and Augustus immediately hit it off and begin a romance centered around Hazel’s favorite book: An Imperial Affliction by the fictional author Peter Van Houten. This book so closely describes her life and condition that she views it as her Bible, the book that best describes reality as she experiences it. Because Van Houten deliberately left the book unfinished, her dream is to go to Holland to meet him and to find closure by finding out what happened to the characters.

As she and Augustus date, we find out that Augustus has an outstanding Wish (granted by a Make-a-Wish foundation) and he uses his wish to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet the elusive Van Houten. They do meet him and find that he is an angry, raving alcoholic and that they will get no answers from him. They deal with their disappointment by going to a hotel and taking one another’s virginity.

No sooner do they return to America then Augustus finds that his cancer has returned worse than ever. Hazel stays by his side, their love growing all the while, until he dies.

The story isn’t exactly morbid, but it also doesn’t qualify as feel-good literature. I suppose most people probably cry at the end. But as I read The Fault in Our Stars I found it very difficult to understand why so many young people are raving about it. I read Twilight and immediately understood why young women had responded to it so strongly; I read The Hunger Games and immediately understood why both young men and young women enjoyed it. But The Fault in Our Stars? What sets it apart from the billion-and-one other teenage romance dramas? It is much less clear to me.

But I do have a theory. As far as I can see, Green has not written teens as they are, but as they’d like to be perceived. I remember that when I was a teenager I wanted to be taken seriously and believed that big words and deep thoughts would give me a kind of legitimacy I otherwise lacked. And this is what Green does: he creates characters that talk like, well, middle-aged men—characters who have the philosophical background, verbal expression, and vocabulary of people much older than them. The way the main characters express themselves sounds suspiciously like the way a middle-aged man would express himself, and especially so if he was trying to impress everyone else with his deep thoughts and extensive lexicon. I love how this reviewer says it: “The problem is that indicating that your characters are intelligent by giving them all the voice of a 30-year-old Yale English Lit major who is trying to impress a date is not great writing. It is (brace yourselves) mediocre writing that tramples and ignores and substitutes any genuine character voices with your own.” Indeed. And therefore we find Hazel saying things like this:

How did scrambled eggs get stuck with breakfast exclusivity? You can put bacon on a sandwich without anyone freaking out. But the moment your sandwich has an egg, boom, it’s a breakfast sandwich. … I want to have scrambled eggs for dinner without this ridiculous construction that a scrambled egg-inclusive meal is breakfast even when it occurs at dinnertime.

Of course she also speaks about weightier subjects than scrambled eggs, but typically in a similar voice and with similar language.

So my theory is that the real attraction is that the characters think big thoughts. They think big thoughts and use big words and big concepts to express them. Green takes his teenaged characters seriously instead of making them hopelessly shallow and obsessed with trite issues. These aren’t characters from an Archie comic who care only about who dates whom and whose car is the nicest. These are characters wrestling with the big issues of life and death and who are capable of waxing eloquent about them. In fact, in this book the teens are complex and the parents are shallow. In that way its subtly rebellious, an upside down world where the kids get it and the parents do not. Green writes as an adult who is down on adults—as an adult who gives young people what they want to hear.

In the end I would hesitate to recommend The Fault in Our Stars to its intended audience of teens and young adults. Green does offer a lot of interesting insights into morality and mortality and there are some pretty good lines mixed in. “Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.” “Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.” He also ably contrasts Hazel, who is content to die unknown and unnoticed, with Augustus who feels that life is only meaningful if he achieves distinction and notoriety.

And yet it’s not all good. There is a considerable amount of profanity and sexual innuendo, and a surprising number of blends of “god” and “damn.” There is a considerable amount of complaining about authority, defying authority and, of greater concern, belittling it. That extends to the Bible’s authority. At one time Green had apparently intended to be a minister and vestiges of a Christian worldview can be found in the book, but only vestiges. Mostly he teaches—well, I don’t know what he teaches. It’s not nihilism, but neither is it Christian hope and optimism. In a novel about illness and death, he makes suffering meaningless and eternity dubious. Of equal concern is the minor plot line that brings the sixteen and seventeen-year-old together in bed. Though it is not particularly alluring or explicit, the moral is that it is far better to find a soulmate and have sex with him or her than die a virgin.

Would I allow my children to read The Fault in Our Stars? I guess it would depend on their age and maturity. I’m certainly not afraid of the book; the message of the gospel is not only far more powerful than what Green presents but also far more hopeful. If they were to read it, I am sure they would quickly spot the contrast between the bleakness of Hazel’s and Augustus’ reality and the hope and joy of the gospel.

(If you have read the novel, and especially if you are a teen who has read the novel, I’d love to hear from you about what you appreciated, and perhaps what you didn’t appreciate, about it.)

 

There is something to be said for evangelism strategies and discipleship programs. My guess is that most churches have some way to introduce unbelievers to the Christian faith and to mature those who are new to the faith. I would guess as well that most churches keep an eye on the various new offerings, looking for what is original, what is interesting, what promises results. But what if we’ve made it all too complicated? What if both evangelism and discipleship can be as simple as reading the Bible?

One To One Bible Reading
Click Cover To Order From Amazon.Com


One-to-One Bible Reading by David Helm offers the simplest solution of all. “Reading one-to-one is a variation on that most central Christian activity—reading the Bible—but done in the context of reading with someone. It is something a Christian does with another person, on a regular basis, for a mutually agreed upon length of time, with the intention of reading through and discussing a book or part of a book of the Bible.” In their book The Trellis and the Vine (a must-read for anyone involved in ministry), Colin Marshall and Tony Payne dream about just this kind of thing:

Imagine if all Christians, as a normal part of their discipleship, were caught up in a web of regular Bible reading—not only digging into the Word privately, but reading it with their children before bed, with their spouse over breakfast, with a non-Christian colleague at work once a week over lunch, with a new Christian for follow-up once a fortnight for mutual encouragement, with a mature Christian friend once a month for mutual encouragement.

It would be a chaotic web of personal relationships, prayer, and Bible reading—more of a movement than a program—but at another level it would be profoundly simple and within reach of all.

It’s an exciting thought!

It is, indeed. Can you imagine this in your church, in your neighborhood, in your home? It would be a beautiful thing to see.

Helm sees at least four potential benefits in something so simple as one-to-one (or two-to-one or three-to-one) Bible reading:

  • Salvation. The Bible alone, when read and understood, is sufficient to turn a heart from darkness to light. In this way it is an effective means of evangelism.
  • Sanctification. Christians are told to encourage one another and to build up one another. What better way to do this than to learn together from God’s Word—to allow the Bible to be the training manual.
  • Training. Simply reading the Bible together is a great way to train new leaders and future leaders toward greater ministry responsibility.
  • Relationship. Many people, and perhaps most people, are hungry for more and deeper relationships. Reading the Bible together is an ideal means of growing deeper in relationship together.

This short book not only explains the why of one-to-one reading, but also the how. In fact, at least two-thirds of the book offers gentle counsel on how to actually go about such a relationship—who to look for, how many times to meet, what books to read in specific circumstances, and so on. There are even short guides to some of the books of the Bible to help those who are uncertain about leading another person through Scripture.

What I love about one-to-one Bible reading is that it extends the expository ministry from the pulpit to the pew. It is not only the preacher who is going to God’s Word week-by-week and day-by-day to teach, to train, to call to faith, but the entire church. It is not longer simply expository preaching, but an expository church where every person is leading others to and through the Word of God.

One-to-One Bible Reading is a short and inexpensive book, but one that accomplishes its purpose well. It’s just the kind of book you can buy in bulk and distribute within your church. Buy it, read it, and implement it!

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Joel Osteen (Your Best Life Now) and Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). Today we look at one of the bestselling Christian novels of all time and one of the very few books to receive the Diamond Award.

The Shack by William Paul Young

lthe-shack_2William Paul Young was born on May 11, 1955, in Grande Prairie, Alberta (Canada). However, he spent most of his younger years in Netherlands New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries among the Dani, a stone-age people group. He later said, “These became my family and as the first white child and outsider who ever spoke their language, I was granted unusual access into their culture and community. Although at times a fierce warring people, steeped in the worship of spirits and even occasionally practicing ritualistic cannibalism, they also provided a deep sense of identity that remains an indelible element of my character and person.” When he was six he was sent to boarding school, but soon thereafter his family left the mission field and his father returned to Canada where he pastored a series of small churches. Later Young would tell how he suffered abuse both at the hands of tribespeople and at the hands of those at the boarding school—abuse that shaped and scarred him.

Young attended Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon where he earned a degree in religion. Shortly after his graduation he married his wife, Kim, and began seminary training while also working at a church. In the years that followed he held a variety of jobs, ranging from sales to janitorial.

When he was thirty-eight Young engaged in an extramarital affair. His marriage survived, but he was forced to think hard about who God is and what he expects of his people. He says that by 2004 he had come to a place of “peace with myself and peace with my sense of who I believe God to be.” But even then he was in a difficult financial situation after a series of bad monetary decisions. In 2005 he was working three jobs and had lost his home.

It was in this context that Young decided to write about his evolving understanding of God in the form of a story, thinking it might be of interest to his children. He called it The Shack. After he sent the manuscript to his children, he began hearing from them and from others that he ought to consider publishing his work. He forwarded a copy to Wayne Jacobsen who offered it to twenty-six different publishers. After the book was rejected by every one of those publishers, Jacobsen and his colleage Brad Cummings created Windblown Media and published it themselves. In 2007 they printed 11,000 copies. Little did they know that the book would go on to sell 20 million.

The Shack is a book that seeks to provide answers to the always timely question “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?”. It is a tale that revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years before the story begins, Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family vacation. Though her body was never found, the police did find evidence in an abandoned shack to prove that she had been brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer who preyed on young girls. As the story begins, Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness, receives a note from God (known in this story as Papa). Papa invites Mack to return to this shack for a time together. Though uncertain of what to expect, Mack visits the scene of the crime and there experiences a weekend-long encounter with God, or, more properly, with the Godhead.

Each of the members of the Trinity is present and each appears in bodily form. Papa, whose actual name is Elousia (which is Greek for tenderness) appears in the form of a large, matronly African-American woman. Jesus is a middle-aged man of Middle-Eastern descent while the Holy Spirit is played by Sarayu (Sanskrit for air or wind), a small, delicate and eclectic woman of Asian descent.

The reader learns that Mack has been given this opportunity to meet with God so he can learn to deal with his Great Sadness—the overwhelming pain and anger resulting from the death of his daughter. There is very little action in The Shack and the bulk of the book is dialog. The majority of the dialog occurs as the members of the Trinity communicate with Mack, though occasionally the author offers glimpses into their unique relationships with one another.

As the weekend progresses Mack participates in lengthy and impactful discussions with each member of the Trinity. Topics range from the cross to the Trinity and from forgiveness to free will. He finds his understanding of God and his relationship with God radically and irrevocably altered. His faith is dismantled piece by piece and then put back together. As the reader would expect, he leaves the cabin a changed man.

Sales & Lasting Impact

In 2008 The Shack surpassed one million copies sold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. By 2009 it had sold over 10 million copies and had achieved Diamond status. It will soon be awarded a double-diamond. Along the way Windblow Media sold the book’s rights to Hachette Book Group.

The Shack was widely criticized by conservative Christians based on a number of doctrinal concerns. Though it is fiction, it is fiction with a purpose—doctrine wrapped in narrative. Most critics focused on Young’s understanding of the Trinity and his understanding of what God accomplishes in salvation, even going so far as to suggest Young is outright heretical in some of what he teaches.

Young proves to have an inadequate and often-unbiblical understanding of the Trinity. While granting that the Trinity is a very difficult topic to understand and one that we cannot know fully, he often blurs the distinct persons of the Trinity along with their roles and their unique attributes. He even goes so far as to say that God submits to human beings. Al Mohler says, “The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being—or to all human beings—is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous.”

Though the cross is central to the Bible and central to the Christian faith, it appears only sparingly in The Shack. A person who is unfamiliar with the Christian faith is unlikely to glean from it a biblical understanding of what the cross was for and what Jesus’ death accomplished. Nor would he understand how God saves us and what He saves us from. Of greater concern is a thread of universalism in which God states that “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions.” Jesus says, “I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, my Beloved.”

Since the Award

The success of The Shack propelled Young into the public eye. He was soon able to stop other work and focus on writing and public speaking. In 2010 Young appeared in the news when the Los Angeles Times reported that he was embroiled in a series of lawsuits between himself and the men behind Windblow Media; Young believed he was owed some $8 million. The case was eventually settled and dismissed. More recently, rumors have surfaced that Forest Whitacker will direct and star in a film adaptation of The Shack which will also star Oprah Winfrey (presumably playing the character of Papa). Young travels extensively and continues to write. In 2012 FaithWords published his second novel, Cross Roads.

Today Young lives in Happy Valley, Oregon with his wife and children. Notably, he and his co-publishers no longer attend church for, as he told WORLD magazine, “[The institutional church] doesn’t work for those of us who are hurt and those of us who are damaged.”

A Personal Perspective

I ignored The Shack for a time since I read very little fiction, but received many requests to review it and eventually did so. Many who read this site today first encountered it when they looked for a review of The Shack. I eventually expanded my concerns into a lengthy PDF document which was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times and remains available today. The Shack remains a fascinating phenomenon which exposed just how hungry Christians are for an intimate, personal relationship with God; it is sad that Young’s answers were not more faithfully grounded in Scripture.

 

I guess we’ve all been to good weddings and not-so-good weddings. We’ve been to gloriously God-honoring weddings and embarrassingly God-dishonoring weddings. The best weddings, at least in my assessment, are the ones where the couple is willing to step out of the spotlight to ensure that attention is focused squarely on God. The best weddings are the ones where the couple makes much of God, where he is at the very center of it all.

Weddings are big business today. As comedian Jim Gaffigan says, “Weddings are an important event where we spend a lot of money so the bride can pretend to be a princess and marry her prince and live happily ever after.” He isn’t far from the truth. The bride is taught that this is her day, her day to shine, the day to fulfill her dreams and fantasies. And in too many cases, even among Christians, Christ is shoved to the margins.

A Christ-Centered Wedding
Click Cover To Order From Amazon.Com


Into the fray step Catherine Strode Parks and Linda Strode with their new book A Christ-Centered Wedding. They write, “Marriage is one of God’s good gifts. It is a blessing to all of creation, and it’s a beautiful picture of Christ’s relationship with the church. Before you can experience the joy of this gift, though, you need to get through the wedding, and the wedding planning. This can be either an uplifting, encouraging experience or a frustrating exercise in trying to please everyone and failing. Many times it’s a combination of the two.” They want to make sure that the wedding and the preparation are uplifting rather than agonizing and that the ceremony is Christ-focused rather than self-focused. And so they wrote a book about rejoicing in the gospel on your big day.

And it’s a good book. A Christ-Centered Wedding is a guide to Christians who want their wedding to point to Christ and to be a reflection of the great gospel message. They cover both the theology of marriage and the practical side of the ceremony, making this a book that is helpful in both theory and application. They begin with a biblical explanation of what marriage is, why it exists, and how it is meant to honor and glorify God. They show how, from the very beginning, God intended marriage to be a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church.

With that in place, they move to the practical side of weddings, and cover premarital counseling, wedding locations, planning, time lines, music, finances, vows, and pretty much everything else you could think of. They draw from many other people, giving a variety of interesting and helpful ideas. What sets this book apart from the million-and-one other books on weddings is the constant focus on Christ. Every decision matters, from music to flowers, from dresses to sermon texts, from vows to honeymoons. Every decision matters because every decision can be made in a way that honors Christ and focuses on him, or a way that dishonors Christ and steals his glory.

A Christ-Centered Wedding is an excellent and much-needed resource. It is ideal book to give to an engaged couple as they begin to move toward their big day. Every pastor will want to read it and to keep some copies on hand as assigned reading. I appreciate and agree with what Russell Moore says in his endorsement: “The Church has been waiting way too long for this book. How many of us have sat through, or officiated at, train-wreck weddings, wondering how the glory of Christ came to be eclipsed in all this circus? This book, by a wise mother and daughter team, offers guidance and counsel about how to plan a wedding where Jesus is the focus, not an afterthought. I commend this beautiful book to couples pondering marriage, to families planning weddings, and to pastors seeking to navigate through the morass of the modern wedding-industrial complex. This book liberates us to see the wedding as the means to the marriage, and not the other way around.”

 

I don’t know for certain, but my guess is that the early church did not need a lot of books or sermon series with titles involving words like “dangerous” or “extreme” or “radical.” If we need these books today, it is only to battle the complacency that can come when Christianity is a majority religion or an accepted religion. When Christianity is in the minority or when it is the object of persecution, life is already plenty dangerous.

Yawning At Tigers
Click The Cover To Order From Amazon.Com


But our temptation is toward complacency and sometimes we do need a good shaking up, a good talking to. Drew Dyck delivers this in Yawning at Tigers which carries the subtitle You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying. The title conjures up an image of a tiger in a zoo, taken from the wild, penned into a little cage, pathetically pacing back and forth. When he is caged up we can approach him confidently, safely, at our own time, without any hesitation. But this is not God as he reveals himself in the Bible.

Dyck shakes up our complacency in two broad ways. In the first half of the book he looks at the way we can inadvertently shrink God down to our size, to a manageable size. We tend to do this by neglecting or redefining his holiness, by ignoring or writing-off his wrath. To combat this, Dyck draws the reader to God’s majestic holiness, his (dare I say it?) dangerous holiness—the kind of holiness that caused Isaiah to fall on his face and Uzzah to fall dead on the ground. Through several chapters he examines God’s holiness from several different angles and reveals this holy God as being infinitely better than any safe and manageable God we may prefer.

In the second half of the book he shows that we can also attempt to tame God by diminishing his love. Just as God’s holiness is too terrifying, his love is too unbelievable, so we try to make it make sense in light of our fallibility. “We take the infinite, divine love described in Scripture and place limits on it. We make it reasonable. We project our own faltering brand of affections heavenward and assume God’s love is as flawed as ours. Even as we pay lip service to God’s boundless mercy, we tabulate our shortcomings and wonder whether we’ve exhausted his grace.”

The book packs a powerful one-two punch with the emphasis on holiness followed by meditations on love. Dyck is a good writer—a very good writer—and his prose is lively and always interesting. The whole “God is dangerous” theme could easily be overplayed, but he doesn’t allow that to happen. He turns constantly to the Bible and to a host of good sources to back and extend his claims.

With all that said, I have some concerns about the book’s sources, which raises a question I’ve often considered: How much must a book be taken on its own merits and how much do we need to be concerned with secondary sources? In this case Dyck quotes a few books, authors, or people that I would be hesitant to promote. While he quotes them in such a way that they advance good points, a reader following footnotes might find himself reading books that may prove as unhelpful as Dyck’s book is helpful.

I also find myself concerned with some of his discussions on the immanence of Jesus. I understand that Christians are constantly attempting to properly account for both the transcendence and immanence of God, the fact that God exists beyond time and space and the fact that he is fully within it as well. One way the emphasis on immanence can go too far, at least as I understand it, is to suggest that we see Jesus himself in the faces of the poor or the downtrodden. That manifests itself in quotes like this: “When I touch a poor child, I touch Jesus Christ. When I listen to a poor child, I’m listening to God’s heart beating for all humanity.” There are traces of this in Yawning at Tigers and I think it is unnecessary; the book would have held up very well without it.

Those concerns aside, Yawning at Tigers accomplishes what it means to. It convicts us of the ways we have diminished God and encourages us to see God as he really is. It’s a sweet and powerful book and one that both blessed and encouraged me.