Archive for September, 2016


America at the Crossroads

barnaIt’s no mystery that America is rapidly changing.  Things that would have been completely unimaginable just 20 years ago are now the law of the land. While many celebrate the changes that we have seen, others are distraught that America is so quickly throwing off her (at least nominal) Christian heritage.  Where is our nation heading and is there any hope of changing the course?

This is where George Barna steps in, with America at the Crossroads: Explosive Trends Shaping America’s Future and What You Can Do About It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).  Barna is working through statistics comparing the attitudes of Christians today with Christians from even just 10 years ago, and doing the same with those outside of Christianity.  What he found should not be a surprise.

Christians are timid and withdrawn these days, afraid of engaging the culture (because their church is not willing to engage on serious cultural issues) and being content to live in a Christian sub-culture.  In the meantime, American culture has drifted far from any Christian roots it could once claim and when you look at the statistical trends, there is little reason for optimism that the culture is going to get better.

I recommend pastors read this book.  First, it will give you a bunch of compelling statistics that you can use as sermon illustrations.  But second, and perhaps more importantly, it shows where culture is heading and the pace at which it is doing so.  Living in the insulated environment of the local church, it’s very easy for a pastor to assume that these are problems elsewhere — not in my town, not in my church.

Some of Barna’s stats are very convicting (like only a third of evanglical Christians share their faith with an outsider in a given year).  Other stats seem frankly hard to believe. According to Barna (page 59), 29% of atheists/agnostics pray to God in a typical week and 17% read the Bible in a typical week.  Really?  3 out of 10 people are praying to a God they don’t believe in every week?  Almost as unbelievable on the same page is the claim that 100% of evangelical Christians pray in a typical week and 88% read their Bibles; I think those numbers are likely much higher than actual.

The book is crammed with statistics but Barna does a nice job of making the book more than just a long list of numbers. At the end of each short chapter, he gives his assessment of where the culture is heading.  Spoiler:  it’s continuing on the trajectory we’ve seen in recent years.

Probably the best part of the book was his closing chapter on “what you can do.”  His answer revolves around Christians living an authentic Christian life, fully broken before a mighty God, and fully committed to engagement with the people of our nation.  Surely that is the right track and I thought this discussion (much longer than the other chapters of the book) was right on.

My biggest complaint in this book is that Barna seems to have no grid for understanding the sovereignty of God in the moral demise of America.  He does not hold out divine initiative as a hope for transformation of the nation, spurring us on to prayer.  Nor does he consider the possibility that our godless drift might be the result of God’s judgment on America.  I appreciate his call for Christians to realize their place in helping to stem the decay of our nation, but I would have liked to have seen a greater emphasis on God’s role in this too.

Overall, this was a very interesting read and worth one’s time if you are a thinking Christian in America who wants to engage with his or her culture.


Unlocking the Bible

unlockingthebibleAs in every age, there is a lot of interest in the Bible.  Ask the average Christian and they will tell you that they know they should be reading the Bible more.  People who are curious about Christianity understand that this is the book on which the faith is based.  But for many people, wading into the Bible is a deep mystery.  Where do you even start?  Why are the different books in the Bible so different?  What is the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?

For people who ask these questions, Jeff Lasseigne has written Unlocking the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016).  This book aims to give you an overview of the Bible, illustrating how the pieces fit together and giving some tools for how to understand where the Bible came from, where a given book fits into the Bible’s story, how to study a passage and get as much as you can out of it, and even how to effectively teach the Bible to others.  It’s an ambitious target, and the results are hit-and-miss.

It should be stated right up front that this is a book for somebody who is fairly new to the topic.  There are nuggets in here that are helpful, but if you are generally familiar with the Bible, you would probably do better looking at a book that specializes in the area that interests you.  The material is good, but it is definitely a beginner’s level. There is only so much you can cover.

Lasseigne writes from an unabashedly evangelical perspective (specifically dispensational premillennial, if those terms mean anything to you.)  He is absolutely convinced that this is the word of God and he wants you to love it like he does.  He does a solid job of bringing all of these ideas like where we got the Bible and can we trust that it has been transmitted through history accurately very well.  His overview of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the often overlooked time between Malachi and Matthew is solid, but simple.

Fully half of the book is giving an overview of each of the books of the Bible, including its theme, a dozen or so interesting facts about the book, and some famous quotes from people who have appreciated the book.  It’s a little different from the overview you get in a good study Bible … this is more little nuggets designed to make you curious about the book, or little details you can bring up while you are teaching the book.

This brings up one of my two major complaints about the book.  Of the seven regular chapters of the book, one of them is dedicated to how to teach the Bible.  What he says is true and good, but in general this book is a lot more basic than I would hope somebody who is looking to be a Bible teacher would be reading.  That chapter felt a little out of place for the overall target audience of the book.

My second complaint is the humor and stories included throughout.  Now, I don’t mind humor at all … for example, I think Matt Chandler and Alistair Begg are brilliant in including reverent humor in their messages.  I think that is where Lasseigne is trying to go, but it misses.  It’s just trying to be funny for the sake of being funny.  He has a two page illustration of funny quotes by flight attendants which was genuinely funny, but it served no purpose.  This happens a lot in the book.  It’s a shame because he says himself:

When it comes to using stories and illustrations as seasonings, we don’t want to overdo it by substituting stories for sermons or illustrations for illumination!  Too much seasoning spoils the meal.  I’ve heard messages made up of stories and silly jokes and very little Bible study.  That dishonoring to the Lord and is a dereliction of duty (140).

I don’t think his stories go to the extent of replacing content, but it was clear after a while that he was simply including these stories to lighten to the tone of the book rather than to advance the material, for the most part.  After a while I was groaning as I came to another.

Overall, I think this is a valuable book to somebody who is a new believer and who is trying to get an understanding of what all of these books in the Bible are.  I think for that audience, this book succeeds very well.   If you already have a basic understanding of that, I would suggest looking at other book that deal with the topics in more depth.