Friday, May 23, 2014

A legal thriller about Paul's trial before Caesar?

The Advocate. By Randy Singer. Tyndale House Publishers. pp. 496. 2014. (List Price $24.99 Hardback | $15.99 Kindle | $19.98 ChristianAudio)

In the Bible, Luke dedicates his Gospel and companion piece, Acts, to the “Most Excellent Theophilus.” Who is this person? Is it merely a reference to believers (the name means “Lover of God”), or is it a real person? Randy Singer’s fiction book The Advocate chronicles the life of Theophilus, imagining him as an Equestrian (wealthy, upper-class Roman) lawyer.

Singer has Theophilus advising Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus and later as a defense attorney for the Apostle Paul before Nero Caesar. But these incidents in the life of Theophilus do not make for the majority of the story. Much has to do with Theophilus’s upbringing, hazardous navigation of Roman politics, his love life, and more.

I must admit that I was a little disappointed with the two biggest draws of the book, the trial of Jesus and particularly the trial of Paul. Having a decent grasp of the themes of Luke-Acts and a better-than average understanding of 1st Century Roman society, I was expecting to see a powerful legal argument for why Christianity (the Way) should be viewed as a legitimate outgrowth of Judaism and thus granted the privileges and protections that Rome had granted the Jewish religion. Since this is a “legal thriller,” I thought some clever use of Roman law would come up during the trial, but it did not. The resolution of the trial came much too quickly and seemed rather odd, turning not on any matter of law, but on an uncharacteristic act mercy to satisfy a very characteristic pride of Nero.

Considering the historical matters, Singer does a decent job of relating Roman history and describing the depravity of Roman society and ideals. Unfortunately, probably to make readers more sympathetic to the main characters, he makes Theophilus and company opposed to these ideals, holding to a fairly Christian morality despite being pagan Romans. This distorts the true picture of Roman society and makes the main characters into outliers rather than fair representations of their time and culture. Having his upper-class, Roman citizen pupils carry cross beams to teach them about the immoral practice of crucifixion is almost as absurd as the crucifixion of Roman citizens later in the book. As wicked and sick as Nero was, there were certain rights of Roman citizens that could not be denied without undermining the whole distinction between citizen and non-citizen, a distinction that formed the whole backbone of Roman society. There’s a reason why tradition holds that Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified—one was a Roman citizen and one was not.

Additionally, at a few points in the book some characters explain to other characters the Latin roots of English words. This may be helpful to the reader, but it makes about as much sense in the novel as it does for me to explain that the word “houseboat” comes from the words “house” and “boat.”

The audio recording was well done, and I’ve appreciated David Cochran Heath’s cadence in other audio books I’ve heard him narrate.

In all, I’d say the book was “okay.” Not great, but not terrible either. The kind of reading you’d expect to find in an airport terminal.

Disclosure: I received this book from ChristianAudio in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Are we pursuing diversity through our worship music? Should we?

Many congregations have gone through the issue of traditional hymnody and contemporary worship when it comes to the issue of what music style(s) should be employed during the regular gathering of the church. Some prefer Psalms only, others hymns only, others contemporary only, and still more blend the ancient and the modern.

One issue I’ve not seen come to light much is the question of which cultural styles to employ during the weekly church gathering. Granted, there are certain cultural elements to hymns and contemporary styles that tend to fall on the lines of age and prior church experience, but matters of ethnic style are not usually discussed, owing in large part to the commonality of monochromatic church gatherings (i.e. churches that are almost exclusively of one race or ethnic group).

In many circumstances, this is merely a reflection of the racial and ethnic makeup in the church’s surrounding environment. I grew up in a small town that was upwards of 90% Caucasian, meaning that there was not likely going to be a large number of African American, Hispanic, Chinese, or Korean cultures present. However, where I live now in Indianapolis, Indiana, there are a plethora of races and ethnicities present, yet churches tend towards homogenous groups.

There are white churches, black churches, Korean-language churches, Spanish-language churches, and probably many more that I’ve not yet experienced. When attending one of these churches, there may be a question over whether you will hear hymns or modern songs, but for the most part, you expect certain music styles to be present in black churches that are not present in white churches, and vice versa. However, many churches, particularly white churches, do not consider themselves to be a “white” or “black” or otherwise church. We tend to be blind to our own cultural distinctives, particularly those of our worship styles.

There is a danger in seeing music as either rising above cultural distinctives or somehow adequately representing various cultural groups. Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God” may be sung in many languages and cultures, but we should not assume that by singing his songs we have a multi-cultural worship style. It is more likely that this song comes from the dominant, majority culture and has been adopted by minority cultures, not because it fully embodies those cultures, but because it is considered acceptable by those cultures. Being self-aware that is the first step towards becoming more inclusive.

Of course, the first question people ask is, How far should we go towards inclusivity? That’s a difficult question to answer. It’s going to take prayer, careful thought, and good exercise of discernment. In a community that is 90% white, I wouldn’t expect much use of minority culture music styles, although I still believe that it is good to expose people to other cultural expressions. However, a church that is 90% white in a community that has sizeable and diverse ethnic groups, should employ various music styles, not merely as an attractional tool, but as an effort to reflect the community in which the church is located and hopes to represent among its membership.

This is a challenge. Certainly songs like “How Great is our God” appeal to people across ethnic and cultural lines, yet it still originates in the majority culture. People of the majority culture should not be so ethnocentric as to suppose that only music from the majority culture is suitable for church gatherings. Minority groups produce music distinctive of their culture that gives God glory. As long as the lyrics are sound and the song is learnable by the congregation, majority culture churches should be willing and even desirous to include songs from outside the majority culture to reflect the true diversity of the church.

If the New Testament’s treatment of Jewish-Gentile relations is any indication, pursuing diversity within our churches will not be easy. As a matter of fact, it will be fraught with misunderstandings, criticisms, complaints, and opposition. But it can succeed because our unity is not founded on a cultural identity or ethnic heritage. Our unity is based solely on our reconciliation with God through Christ (see Ephesians 2:11-22).

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Reading the Bible and Popular Christian Books: A Paraphrasing of C.S. Lewis

Some year ago C.S. Lewis wrote an introduction to an English translation of Athanasius's On the Incarnation, a very, very old book. His introduction addresses old books and modern books, and makes a strong case for having a steady diet of older books. I've taken some liberties with Lewis's work to produce here an address on reading the Bible and reading popular Christian books. May it be a challenge and a blessing to you. 
There is a strange idea abroad that in the Bible should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with modern books in the Christian bookstore or the "Inspirational" section of other booksellers. Thus I have found as a Bible study teacher that if the average person wants to find out something about heaven, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of the Bible off the shelf and read Revelation. He would rather read some popular modern book ten times as long, all about a near death experience and subsequent visions and only once in twelve pages quoting something the Bible actually said, and then taken out of context or used as a proof text. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The person is half afraid to meet the God of the Bible face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, God, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest person will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what God said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on heaven. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge from the Bible is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in Bible study. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not Luke or Paul or Peter or James, but Rick Warren, Beth Moore, David Jeremiah, or, if no one exercises any discernment, the likes of Joel Osteen, Sarah Young, and Colin Burpo.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself aspire to be a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the Bible, I would advise him to read the Bible. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an uninformed and therefore much less protected than those who read and study the Bible against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the uninformed is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the Bible and compared to the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, biblical Christianity which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the Bible. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have spent an equal amount of time in the Bible. If that is too much for you, you should at least read the Bible on a daily basis and cumulatively more than you read other books.

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the Book that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the Bible. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those who seem most opposed to it. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the Spirit blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading the Bible. It will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing.

For my own part I find the Bible more helpful in devotion than devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that "nothing happens" when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of Paul's epistles with a prayer on their lips and a pencil in their hand.