Archive for December, 2010

The Gospel in Parentheses December 30, 2010

One of the most prevalent trends I’ve noticed in the written word these days is the proliferation of parenthetical remarks, clauses, qualifiers, and asides of all types. I see this a lot in my own work as well. It leads me to wonder what happened to our collective ability to speak straight and say what we mean in plain English. If everything we say has to be crafted in such a way as to require explanation, are we saying anything at all?

The use of parentheses, commas, dashes, colons, and the like to set off related yet distinct thoughts is nothing but proper grammar, but these markers can easily be used to shade the meaning of sentences just enough to make a writer’s thoughts impossible to pin down.  When one says, “The  Church in America has no interest in community outreach,” he is making a bold statement that is open to criticism and refutation. It is the opening salvo of an argument in the classical style. When he says, however, “The Church in America, by most counts, has little to no interest in community outreach,” he has maintained just enough give to take the edge off his statement and preemptively parry any attempt to take issue with it. His meaning is blunted, but he still gets in his punches without actually stepping into the ring.

Often, this style is employed not to attack, but to ward off the unjustified attacks of politcal correctness. We gut whatever we are trying to say in order to avoid the ever-present criticism of honesty that our society now accepts as normal. An example of this phenomenon might be a sentence such as this. A direct sentence might read, “The Bible clearly teaches that marriage between a man and a woman is designed by God and that homosexual relationships are both unnatural and sinful.” In effort to make this statement less of a bitter pill of truth to those who would disagree with it, it gets transmogrified into, “Most conservative scholars agree that Scripture holds up marriage between one man and one woman as the ideal (though many polygamists, such as David & Solomon,  rank among the Bible’s praiseworthy characters), and that homosexuality was to be avoided.” The second statement, though factually correct, lacks the force and completeness of the first, but would assuredly not raise the red flag of controversy for most groups.

The danger in this habit is this: in our efforts to shift blame, avoid declarative statements that might offend some, or subtly attack and undercut opponents, I fear we may compromise our own ability to stand firm in the proclamation of the Gospel. If we qualify everything we say to make it unassailable and palatable to all comers, then we will necessarily remove or cover over the stumbling block of the cross (1 Cor. 1:23). The Gospel is unequivocal. We do not preach “grace, but” or “atonement, if” when we proclaim “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); to skirt His name or even  tuck its power  in  behind the lessons of His earthly actions is to misrepresent the whole truth in a fundamental way.

As Christians, we are to be a people of truth and love. Our “yes” is to be “yes”, and our “no”, “no”. To shade the truth  undercuts our love, for “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14) in proclaiming the truth. What kind of love is there in a Gospel without redemption or a faith without hope? Preach the Gospel, “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2); let the pure truth of Christ’s immeasurable love for lost sinners shine forth, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Posted by Justin Lonas

My Top Seven Books of 2010 December 16, 2010

These days, it’s customary for writers of all stripes to take a moment in December to post their list of the best 5-10 books they’ve read over the year. Since I’m a sucker for tradition, and I love to read, I can’t help but follow suit.

Some of these are new, some are not, but all made some impact on my life and thought this year and are worth a read. Here they are, in no particular rank:

A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir
Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge, 2010, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich., ISBN 9780310327035, 187 pages, hardcover.

Hansen and Woodbridge shatter the notion that the Western Church is in decline by recounting our shared history of revival. This book encouraged me greatly both in its content–the power of the Spirit to pierce the hearts of men should never cease to amaze us–and in its approach–teaching a new generation of believers to marinate themselves in the history of the Lord’s work among His people. History of all sorts is a passion of mine, and we undercut so much of our faith and practice by assuming the present somehow supersedes the past and preempts the future.

Home Economics
Wendell Berry, 1987, NorthPoint Press, New York, ISBN 9780865472754, 192 pages, softcover.

I’ve long been a fan of Berry’s essays on life, culture, agriculture, marriage, etc. This is yet another collection that I recently discovered, and it has all the hallmarks of his style and substance. I never thought there was much of a spiritual significance to farming, topsoil conservation, and self-sufficient living until I read Berry. He is a master at showing that conservation (which is not, and never has been, a synonym for environmentalism) is as much about man as it is about the world he inhabits. Read any of his works (Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community is a favorite), and you’ll gain an appreciation for the wondrous order of God’s great creation that eludes too many of us, particularly city-dwellers.

John Adams
David McCullough, 2001, Simon and Schuster, New York,  ISBN 9781416575887, 751 pages, hardcover.

As I said, history is a passion,  so I’m sad to report that I left this fine volume on my shelf for years after my father gave it to me for Christmas. I was completely blown away by Adams resolute character and McCullough’s masterful storytelling. The story of America through Adams’ eyes rekindled my absolute  appreciation for this land, whatever troubles befall us today. Also, biography is a mirror of the soul, and I feel like I know myself and my motivations better for having encountered Adams. This book set the standard for popular history. I liked it so much I started in on McCullough’s Truman, which I would also recommend.

Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best: The Blandings Short Stories
P. G. Wodehouse, 2001 (stories written between 1920-1950), Penguin Classics, London, ISBN9780141185743, 182 pages, softcover.

One of the great temptations of life is to take oneself too seriously. Spicing your reading list with some of Wodehouse’s works will do wonders for your inflated ego. Often unfairly accused of being too frivolous, Woodhouse is quite a serious writer–by cutting the legs out from under the pretension and self-aggrandizement of his curious characters, he allows us to laugh at ourselves through their larger-than-life foibles. As a writer, I can’t help but to revel in his masterful use of the English language–very few others have attained the level of precision in description that his works overflow with.

On Writing Well
William Zinsser, 2001 (first edition published in 1976), Harper, New York, ISBN 9780060891541, 336 pages, softcover.

Speaking of writing, I picked up Zinsser’s classic this summer and was surprised to find that it wasn’t a textbook (who knew?). What I discovered was a patient, clear statement about the craft of putting words together for the benefit of others. I was humbled by the number of his “unforgivable sins” that I commit in each article, and I feel that my own style has begun to improve under his proxy tutelage. This makes the list because it reminded me that you can always learn more about your chosen discipline, and the moment you think you’ve arrived, you condemn yourself to failure and irrelevance.

Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience
M. David Sills, 2010, Moody Publishers, Chicago, ISBN 9780802450296, 227 pages, softcover.

Sills makes the case that the greatest need in the global missions enterprise today is for faithful teaching of Scripture and doctrine to new believers, specifically in the area of training indigenous pastors. He argues that the “completion” strategy (reaching the most people in the shortest timeframe) tends to be short-sighted (despite its focus on hastening the second coming of Christ) and ignores the realities of syncretism and shallow faith that can only be addressed through long-term teaching. Though a bit heavy handed at times, it’s hard to disagree with his premise that we have, in too many cases, left off the crucial follow-up side of missions. There is a cruel irony in the fact that the teaching side of ministry is so prevalent (and rightly seen as crucial) at home but  far less so on  the field–are those we desperately want to reach with the Gospel somehow undeserving of the same quality of teaching and training that produced the missionaries we sent them? The Great Commission is a call to constant replication–you can’t make and multiply  disciples without teaching.

The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, 2009, Matthias Media, Kingsford, Australia, ISBN 9781921441639, 183 pages, hardcover.

This one was on just about everyone’s list for 2009, but I was late to the party. The raves from those reviews are indeed true. Marshall & Payne have seized on a terrific metaphor for the goals and frustrations of ministry–the vine (that is, the growth of the Gospel through the Spirit in the life of the Church) vs. the trellis (the support structure that enables the vine to grow best). Their premise is simple: the vine is the raison d’etre for the trellis, and so an undue focus on the trellis will neglect the vine and ultimately undermine the entire effort. This is indeed the rare leadership, “how-to” style book that actually has something profound to say. I foresee it being part of the required reading for pastors and church leaders for a long time.

Posted by Justin Lonas

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