Review: God’s Century

Last fall I read the book God’s Century. I really benefited from the book and felt the authors did a very good job of analyzing the role that religious actors can and do play in international affairs. They also provide a theoretical framework for helping to understand why a particular religious group in a particular setting acts the way that it does.

I wrote a review for e-International Relations and you can view it in full there: Review – God’s Century

Here is the conclusion to my review:

What will the next century look like? Will it be appropriate to label it “God’s Century?” We can’t know for sure but the trends appear to indicate that religion and religious actors will be significant in the shaping of the political landscape. Toft, Philpott, and Shah offer insight that governments would be wise to heed in their policies and actions. The final chapter is structured around their 10 Rules for Surviving God’s Century directed specifically at Western politicians and policy makers that is summarized in their conclusion:

“Only if policymakers in the United States and other Western societies come to understand that religion matters and how religion matters in global politics will they enjoy strategic success in engaging those contexts – including their own countries – where God’s political comeback will not soon be reversed.” (4716)

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Why Church Matters by Joshua Harris


Why Church Matters: Discovering Your Place in the Family of God
by Joshua Harris

Do you go to church? Yes? Okay, why?

This book helps you answer that question. It is aimed to help restore your vision for what the church is all about and what your role is in relation to a real and tangible local church – you know “the church down the street” (the phrase he uses for the local church that you attend).

Joshua Harris first gained notoriety in the Evangelical world for his books on relationships (“I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and “Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship“) in the early 2000s. He has since become the senior pastor of a growing church in MD and has written a few other books.

This book has echos of his early books on relationships. It opens with the reality of what we are missing out on when we don’t commit to the relationship and what we get to be a part of when we do commit. It is a call to not be a “church dater.”

Why should you commit? Why is the church important?

The strongest argument I know for why you and I should love and care about the Church is that Jesus does. The greatest motivation we could ever find for being passionately committed to the church is that Jesus is passionately committed to the Church. (Loc. 265)

It is pretty hard to argue with that logic. If Jesus loves the Church then we should too.

But that’s the “Church.” What about “the church down the street”? It has got problems you know. Well, you know what? Problems are part of what makes the church wonderful. It is where God’s wisdom is on full display. “It’s the powerful effects of the Gospel being worked out in real lives and real relationships” (Loc. 280). The Gospel changes individuals. That is wonderfully amazing. What makes the church special is that it is where you see a whole new kind of humanity on display. A whole community of people who should be divided – by race, by class, by political ideology – all brought together into one body (Loc. 283).

The early part of the book is trying to answer the “why” question of loving the church. The end gets more practical with some suggestions for “how” to love the church. It means coming not for what you can get but for what you can give. It means being a part of the church more than just for those two hours on Sunday morning. It is about living out the “one another” commands in the context of “shared life.” It means coming to actively listen and be transformed by the preaching of the Word. Harris shares a quotation from John Piper who “encourages his church to ‘come on the lookout for God and leave on the lookout for people” (Loc. 1048). This what life in the church should look like. People transformed by their individual relationship with God, loving others out of the overflow.

This book is really just a call to care about the Church – including the church down the street – because Jesus cares about the Church.

It isn’t a deep theology of the church. Those are out there if you want them. It isn’t long. It is conversational and really is easy reading. It is a relationship book. It’s about the relationship between you and the church.

 

DISCLAIMER: I received a free evaluation copy of this book from Waterbrook Multnomah. I did not receive any monetary payment nor was I required to write a positive review. I hope my comments about the book will help you evaluate whether or not the book is worth purchasing and reading.

2011 (Reading) Year in Review

During 2011 I set a goal to read 50 books during the year. I ended up doing exactly that. Some of them were great, others were less great. Overall, I would not say that there were any that were awful. There were definitely some highlights. Some books move so much quicker than others. I actually have come to realize that I really enjoy fiction – mystery, suspense type novels, sometimes historical fiction. I also try to read for personal intellectual growth and also spiritual growth. So without further ado here is…

2011 (Reading) Year in Review

This year I did not have a real plan for what I read. Some books were recommended to me. A few I read to supplement classes or papers I was working on. A lot of them were free on kindle and so were kind of hit or miss. Others I knew I wanted and went ahead and shelled out the money for them. In this post I want to breakdown what I read. This year I hope to be a little more intentional about my reading but I also wanted to take a look back at what I read this past year.

I was pleased overall with the consistency of reading. For 50 books you need to average just about 4 books per month. I started out well with 5 books for the first couple months. I never finished more than 6 and my lowest month (May) I finished just one book. I find that I often have more than one book going at a time. This is one of the major advantages of an e-reader. Based on a situation I can snag a few minutes of a novel when I might not be ready to dig into a more difficult book. It is interesting how many times throughout the year I would finish 2 or 3 or even 4 books within a few days of each other.

What books do I read? Well here is the list broken down by genre. I didn’t divide up my fiction, the majority of it was action/mystery with a few historical fiction novels thrown in. Sometimes it was difficult to differentiate between Christian Living and Theology. I’m out of grad school now and am no longer wading through theological treatise or systematic books so some were apologetics or more devotional commentaries but I felt they could be classified as theology rather than Christian Living.

I was also interested in breaking down my reading in a little bit different way. I wanted to see how my reading corresponded with the four topics I thought I’d end up blogging about here: Culture, Theology, History and Politics. I’ll admit that I probably am using the categories fairly broadly here but that’s my prerogative.

When broken down by topic they came out fairly evenly. With a slight advantage going to theology and politics and then history and culture. I tried to keep a balance of different types of books going at the same time and from a rather cursory overview it looks like I did a good job.

Best of the Books

Here are my top picks of the books I read by topic:

Theology:

First Prize: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

The biography to read about one of the most interesting figures of the mid-1900s. Gives you a window into life leading up to and through World War 2 in Germany, not just the political realm but also the civil and religious events. Is also a great introduction to a Christian who truly strove to understand what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus, no matter the costs.

Read my full review here: Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas←

Runner-up: One God One Message by P.D. Bramsen

This is a journey that takes the reader from beginning to end through the story of the world’s all time best-selling book, the Bible. It is one part apologetics, one part biblical theology and one part story-telling. It is primarily aimed at monotheists who are interested in learning what the Bible itself really teaches. It is based on the author’s long experience in the Middle East and other Muslim majority countries and also from online interactions email correspondences.

Read my full review here: One God One Message by P.D. Bramsen←

Politics:

First Prize: God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics by Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Shah

Does religion matter in global politics? Don’t we live in the secular, modern world? Well then why are we talking about religion? This book argues and then responds to the fact that religion does matter in politics. Going beyond just if people are religious this book looks at how religion influences their actions in ways from terrorism and civil war to peace brokering and transitional justice. They look at two factors that largely help to explain why religious actors do what they do – 1) political theology 2) relation to the state structure. Really enjoyable and compelling book.

Runner-up: The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left by Ed Husain

This is the autobiographical story of a British Muslim growing up into the world of Islamist organizations, becoming a mover and shaker in that world, before ultimately seeing the emptiness of it and looking for something more. I would highly recommend this book.

Read my full review here: The Islamist by Ed Husain←


History: 

First Prize: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

An epic true story of the limits to which a man can be pushed and still retain his will to survive. This is a story of Louie Zamperini, someone who if you have not heard about you should, and this is the place to do it. From a world class athlete to a bombardier in the Pacific theater in WWII to a castaway  to a POW to a struggling Veteran Louie  – and others who shared his experiences – were pushed to unbelievable lengths. Many of them did not survive, for those who did none were the same. This is a great book and well deserving of the many accolades it has received.

Runner-up: The Island of the World by Michael O’Brien

This is a book about one man’s life. It is a fascinating read that will open your eyes to the highs and lows that one can experience in life. It is all about his story and through that it offers plenty of food to consider your own story. It will draw you in – and draw your mind to think about this life – and the One who created this world.

Read my full review here: Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien←

Culture:

First Prize: How Should We Then Live? (: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by Francis Schaeffer

An insightful book from one of the premier Christian thinkers of the 20th century. In this book Schaeffer traces the rise and fall of western thought and culture. It is a massive undertaking and on the whole he handles it well. In this book he argues how the truth of scripture is relevant for every aspect of life. It is one of the books for Christians looking to answer the question for how they should live and it remains extremely relevant even 35 years after it was first published.

Runner-up: The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion by Tim Challies

Impossible to accurately summarize this in just a few sentences. This book is a must read for Christians who are beginning to navigate this new digital world. Really analyzes how technology affects us, our world and our faith. That decision “iPhone or keep my old talking only” is much more than simple addition to your life. It has far reaching affects that The Next Story helps you see and consider.

Honorable Mentions: Think by John Piper, Reset by Stephen Kinzer, Day of War by Cliff Graham, Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef, The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, Crazy Love by Francis Chan, and all the books by Steven James.

Here’s a link to a list of all the books: Reading and Reviews

Extraordinary by John Bevere←

Extraordinary

by John Bevere

My Review

I had mixed feelings on this book. On one hand there were moments when I was loving this book and felt he was right on. At other moments it felt like there was just something that didn’t quite set right with me. This book is about how life is supposed to be. This book wants to open people’s eyes to the fact that “extraordinary” is how we were created to live. It was God’s plan from the beginning (loc 126). But this seems to be far from reality for many people, many Christians. It is to confront this reality that John writes this book.

I think the central premise of his book could be wrapped up in this quotation

The truth is, God not only desires you to live extraordinarily but also has equipped you to do so. (loc 148)

For those who have come to faith in Christ. They have been made alive. They are being shaped into the image of his Son (Romans 8:28-30). The message of the Gospel is not only about redemption from the penalty as a result from our sins against God, but it includes the aftermath of that as well. Being alive to God and living in a way that brings glory to Him (Gal. 2:20). The gift of salvation is all of God’s grace. It isn’t something man can boast in. It includes being made alive to God, going from enemies to sons, and as his children there are good works that he has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:7-10). This is huge. It is easy to stop at simply explaining that the Gospel is the way that people can be saved from the penalty of their sins. That is huge. There is no denying that. But that also creates the potential of leading people to think life after that is up to them. They are saved by grace but life by effort. This is the error Paul is confronting in Galatians. He wants them to see that life after salvation is the same as life at salvation – all of God (Gal 2:15-3:5).

In relation to these ideas I was hugely grateful for the book. It was very helpful in this sense. What I think the underlying tension was came in the application he makes. It wasn’t prevalent throughout the book, but I just had a feeling it was coming and it showed up towards the end. There were two major things that I struggled with: first, It is the idea that when something you want to be doesn’t come to fruition that it is because in the “critical belief period” your faith wasn’t strong enough (loc 2580). It is the idea that is often abused that comes down to “if it is to be it is up to me.” While there are some elements of truth and the abuse in the other direction is real, this can be crippling and I don’t think squares with the overall message from scripture. The second major disagreement came in some of the areas of application. His emphasis on grace as God’s gift for salvation but also the empowering to live a life that pleases him is helpful. However, the idea that because you are a Christian you should be the most creative architect, the most exciting musician, the most successful businessman I don’t think quite squares with scripture either. Some of his applications for grace’s empowering us to live a holy life as a new creation were great (loc 1661). But others I disagreed with.

Overall, the book was interesting. I greatly enjoyed it. It was thought provoking and entertaining. So for those who are looking for a book to challenge their thinking on what life as a Christian should be this is an interesting one. It would not come as the highest recommended book on the topic but for a critical reader it might be worth engaging with.

Product Description

Isn’t it true that we long to see the extraordinary, experience the extraordinary, do the extraordinary? Yet, so often we settle for mediocrity when greatness is within our grasp.

Why are we drawn to stories of heroic triumph over seemingly impossible circumstances? In our fascination with adventure movies, superheroes, and tales of incredible human feats, do we reveal an inherent desire for something larger and greater in life? Maybe what we think is a need to escape or be entertained is actually a God inspired longing…for the extraordinary.

Best-selling author John Bevere reveals how all of us were “meant for more,” extraordinarily created and intended for a life that is anything but ordinary. Here is the roadmap for your journey of transformation. You are marked for a life that far surpasses the usual definitions of success or fulfillment.

Isn’t it time to pursue your extraordinary life?

DISCLAIMER: I received a free evaluation copy of this book from Waterbrook Multnomah. I did not receive any monetary payment nor was I required to write a positive review. I hope my comments about the book will help you evaluate whether or not the book is worth purchasing and reading.

Dissent Denied↓

Ambiguities of Apostasy and the Repression of Muslim Dissent by Abdullah Saeed

The fifth article from the Summer edition of The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

Saeed, Abdullah. “Ambiguities of Apostasy and the Repression of Muslim Dissent.” The Review of Faith and International Affairs (Vol. 9 No. 2, Summer 2011): 31-38.

This article begins with a sketch of the historical background and the practice of Muhammad and some of the early followers in relation to those of other faiths. Saeed comes to the conclusion that though with a few exceptions

religious freedom came to be regarded as a fundamental principle of classical Islamic law and theology, particularly in relation to non-Muslims. (31)

The majority of the article deals not with the freedoms of non-Muslims in Muslim majority contexts but for Muslims within Muslim majority contexts. Saeed points that laws dealing with this topic emerged during a period of “imperial expansion and internal competition” (32). These laws were used to silence opponents in order to consolidate power. They were prone to abuse then and now.

Saeed breaks “dissent” down under five different headings: Apostasy, Blasphemy, Heresy, Hypocrisy, and Unbelief.

Apostasy: After having previously accepted Islam turns away and rejects it
Blasphemy: Foul language with regard initially to the prophet Muhammad and then extended to include God, angels, and other prophets.
Heresy: Teaching that becomes a danger to the state, freethinking, outward faithfulness while in practice remaining loyal to a former non-Islamic religion.
Hypocrisy: Outward profession to Islam while continuing inward devotion to non-Islamic beliefs. 
Unbelief: One who does not believe in core beliefs (oneness of God, prophethood of Muhammad) of Islam.

These categories cover the vast majority of the laws relating to division within the Muslim community. In the second and third centuries of the Islamic era lists began to be constructed. Today there are dozens of “apostasy lists” There is no consensus on which list is correct. Depending on the location and circumstances one list gains prominence over another. These become useful in silencing dissent especially when three conditions are present:

1. The laws are worded ambiguously and are therefore easily applied in a wide range of cases;

2. there is a dominant local orthodoxy and an overbearing religious establishment to oversee its implementation; and,

3.  there is a political elite willing to support the religious establishment. (Saeed 33)

The majority of the remaining pages of the article expands on each of these conditions. It is easy to see how when these three things come together there is no room for critical thinking. The author cites a number of cases in various countries that demonstrate what this looks like. At times it takes the form of academic censure, or eliminating a political challenger. Other times these laws have led to imprisonment or execution. Sometimes the suppression takes place through official channels, the police or military, legal proceedings, etc. Other times individuals are provoked to take action against someone who a leader feels is divisive or a challenge to their authority.

What are the most significant losses from this denial of dissent?

Obviously, when physical violence or execution is a major loss. Beyond that, it hinders an individuals personal expression of their faith. If they differ at all from the dominant orthodoxy they may face opposition. It forces minority religious groups into the background. Academics and intellectuals are denied the freedom to seriously study and share their findings with society. This is why a large number of the prominent voices calling for reform in Islamic thought live outside of Muslim majority countries. Within their home countries the academic freedom does not exist to seriously engage on topics that might be seen as a challenge to the existing structures.

Whenever religious freedom is suppressed something significant is lost. Not just when one religion silences another but within the same religion. The freedom to think and question and work towards greater understanding is a valuable freedom.

For Islamic thought to move forward, Muslims in Muslim-majority states need to rethink these laws that criminalize dissent and that suppress thought and debate. (37)