I’ve just finished reading William P. Young’s The Shack. I’m reading it because it seems to be flavour of the month in popular christendom at the moment – which says nothing about its value, but something about its influence.

Respected Christian authors and commentators either love it (Eugene Peterson is quoted on the front cover “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!”) or hate it (Mark Driscoll decries its heresies on youtube). So what’s my take?

It’s a book that’s certainly well written. It evokes emotions and tells a story well. It is an allegory – or, perhaps more precisely, a narrative theology – as the main character, Mack, encounters personifications of a triune God. There are some gems in it, but in the end I would classify this book as dangerous.

It is an allegory – but an allegory of what? If the metaphor that Young spins is meant to be a word picture, a narrative that describes God-as-God-is then it is blatantly heretical. When God shows up at the end of the chapter 5 “he” shows up (in the midst of a straight-from-Narnia cliche of snow giving way to spring-time-flourishing grass) as three persons – “Papa” who is an African American woman meant to be God the Father (towards the end “she” does change and is portrayed as an older man as Mack grows through parent issues and comes to a place where he can handle that portrayal); Jesus who is a Jewish man (of course); and Sarayu a complex enigmatic hard-to-grasp woman who is meant to be the Holy Spirit.

If that’s the intended metaphor, it is not an accurate portrayal of trinitarian theology. For instance, Young runs straight into the error of modalism in which the diversity of the trinitry is reduced to being a number of “modes” of one being. And so Young’s “Papa,” as well as Jesus, bears the mark of the cross (an error known technically as patripassionism). All three persons appear as human (although Jesus is acknowledged to be “more so”), there is little explanation of the differences between the three persons and when a fourth “personification” in the form of a woman named Sophia (representing wisdom) comes along there is nothing but a throw-away sentence to indicate that she is any different to the three other persons. One of the inherent problems with modalism is that there is no need to have “three in one” but simply “multi-expressions-of-one” and the danger of portraying it the way Young does allows people to appeal to whatever image of God suits them (from an African-American woman who likes to cook, through to shimmering dancing spiritual gardener). Young mishandles the diversity of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is dangerous ground to go beyond “God reveals himself as…” to “this is what God looks like…” It borders on presumption. Even though the divine persons in this narrative state that they are self-limiting themselves in order to interact with Mack, and therefore provide theological wriggle room for the author, Young also mishandles the unity of the Trinity.

Because in reality when you see see Jesus you see the Father, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of the One who raised Christ from the dead. If you are going to put God into a story (and many have) then God can only have one face – the face of Christ. In God there is no unChristlikeness at all, as they say. If Young simply had Mack meet Jesus at the Shack then he would be on safer ground, because it’s through Christ that Mack (and we) can meet the Father by the Spirit. Never separated – such as when Mack talks to Papa while Jesus is off woodworking – but all life emanating by the Father in the Son reaching forward as empowering Spirit.

So Young mishandles the Trinity. It may seem like I’m being a theological pedant – nitpicking. But there are very good reasons as to why precision in this area is necessary. If you get this wrong, and walk along the erroneous road, you end up not with gospel and life, but death. If Jesus does not reveal the fullness of God then Jesus is not “God with us” and we are stuck in our sins and griefs and God has just pretended. If we come to the Jesus of this book we keep looking behind him to find the nice pretty dancing Spirit-girl or the homely Papa-woman, he is not enough for us. Ironically, even though Mack is constantly surprised and challenged by “God” in the narrative, this book gives permission for us to demand that God appear to us in times of need the way we think we need him to be (“submitted to” us and “self-limited” and thus conforming to us in some way) rather than as he is and as he came to us.

There are some “gems” and snippets that are intriguing and perhaps helpful. Some of the issues of theodicy (how can a just God be both all-powerful and good in an evil world) are dealt with well. But the problems are difficult to wade past. The Lordship of Christ is underplayed as is a sense of God’s justice and judgement. The metaphor, like all metaphors, extends into error and the boundaries are not strong enough to prevent the unwary from going there. It is a dangerous book.

If there is value, if we are to be generous, then we could state that Young is not spinning an allegory of God-as-God-is but a narrative describing the healing of someone from a painful loss. If the back cover is to believed – “William P. Young… suffered great loss as a child and young adult…” – then we are simply seeing a presentation, maybe, of Young’s own experience of healing and forgiveness. So perhaps the best way to read it is as an allegorised biography rather than an allegorised theology. There is some joy in seeing this story as something akin to a grown-up story about Wemmicks (a metaphorical world for children from Max Lucado – that, by the way, is not also without its dangers).

But in the end – it seems people are taking this book as theology. And they are building their spirituality around this book. That may not have been Young’s intention – but it makes this book dangerous nonetheless.

Eventually, when it comes to assessing these sorts of novels I have to ask the question “Having read it, have I been encouraged to seek God for myself in his Word by his Spirit.” And the answer for this book is “No.” There is little reference to the Bible in the narrative and when it is included it is as an illustration about (wrong) “preconceived ideas” not as words of life. Where then do I turn after reading this book?

Sadly, the message is this – “We invite you to continue your experience with The Shack at our website, theshackbook.com” – where it’s not about being encouraged to turn to God or the local church or come to Jesus in some way but rather simply to “share how you feel,” “share your insights,” “communicate with the author” and “purchase additional copies.” And of course you can contribute to “The Missy Project” to help spread this
book (not the Bible, or the gospel) further and wider and fund a possible movie version.

And so popular christendom gets caught up into another merchandising extravaganza and looks to the pantheon of WWJD and “The Prayer of Jabez” which now includes “The Shack.” Invest in other pursuits rather than this book.


A friend recently lent me Charles Stross’ novel Halting State to read. What a fantastic little book. I fell in love with its world.

Being set in the year 2017 and involving lots of technology many would say that this book would best placed on the “sci-fi” shelves. Really, though, the plot genre for this book would best be described as “whodunnit.” It’s a story that involves a computer programmer, a forensic accountant, a police sergeant, spies, criminals, money laundering, espionage, murder and intrigue. You get carried along on intertwining storylines slowly twisting, turning, interacting and opening up with false leads and deadends until its all finally collapsed in the last chapter.

But the plot isn’t the value of this book. The value of this book likes in the world that it envisions. Set only ten years in the future the use of technology and its sociological implications is nothing if not feasible but sufficiently “wow” to stir the imagination. Recently I’ve been working with some others on some scenario planning – imagining the world in twenty years time. This book does a better job of that sort of thing than our feeble attempts.

In this world the basic premise of technology is “augmented reality.” I don’t mean virtual reality (like what you see in The Matrix or Neuromancer) although there is a bit of that. Rather imagine an amalgamation of Next-G mobile phones, publicly accessible free mobile networking, and wearing glasses that “overlays” things over what you can see. Right now, in 2008, I can go to my mobile phone and it will give me a map of my current location and directions to where I want to go. In 2017 Stross imagines my phone telling my glasses to augment my reality so that arrows and markers appear “magically” on the actual landscape in front of me to assist me with my navigation. Information stores are placed, almost literally, into the real world in front of you. Googling interacts with real life. Imagine a world where when you meet someone again after an initial introduction that next to their face appears, “magically,” their name and perhaps something akin to their facebook profile. Imagine a world where virtual hairstyles and clothes etc. are overlaid on top of real people and online games take place as sidebars to life.

In the book, one of these augmented reality overlays is called “CopSpace” and is an information overlaid on reality for police purposes only. I’ll give you a sneak preview:

“CopSpace sheds some light on matters, of course. Blink and it descends in its full glory. Here’s the spiralling red diamond of a couple of ASBO cases on the footpath (orange jackets, blue probation service tags saying they’re collecting litter). There’s the green tree of signs sprouting over the doorway of number thirty-nine, each tag naming the legal tenants of a different flat. Get your dispatcher to drop you a ticket, and the signs open up to give you their full police and social services case files, where applicable. There’s a snowy blizzard of number plates sliding up and down Bruntsfield Place behind you, and the odd flashing green alert tag in the side roads. This is the twenty-first century, and all the terabytes of CopSpace have exploded out of the dusty manila files and into the real world, sprayed across it in a Technicolor mass of officious labelling and crime notices. If labelling the iniquities of the real world for all to see was enough to put an end to them, you could open CopSpace up as a public overlay and crime would vanish like a hang-over. (If only half the tags weren’t out-of-date, and the other half was free of errors…)” (p82)

Stross’ writing style is a bit quirky at times. The use of the second-person narrative throughout gets a bit of getting used to but it seems to be used as an ode to computer game plot-line scripts and works well, even when you find yourself having to constantly place yourself in a different character’s shoes. A good example of the second-person style is this – just note that the “he” in this snippet will be the “you” in a few pages time:

“There’s doubt in his voice, and suddenly you can see what’s going through his mind: lying awake at night, next to your sleeping form, thinking morbid thoughts about the future, self-doubt gnawing at him – it’s the mirror image of your own uncertainty, only he’s externalizing it, projecting it on the big picture rather than worrying about his own prospects. So you swallow your cutting response and instead nod at him, encouraging. Maybe you can salvage something more than memories if you help him get this out of his system first.” (p272)

And then there’s the occasional gem of geek-worthy word play that I simply admire:

“‘Come on, let’s get you patched up,’ she says, taking a step backwards, and breaking whatever information transfer it was that was going on via some kind of sub-verbal mammalian protocol layer.” (p190)

My friend said that in five years time this book will be out of date because the world will have proceeded along a path from which this world could never spring. I agree with him. Right now it portrays a world of the tantalising plausible impossible. It’s enjoyable, light, easy, fun and left a smile on my face.


Al Hsu’s The Single Issue should have been called “The Person Issue.” It is a book that is meant to be about singleness – it it certainly is that – but it so well-handles the issue that it provides an excellent insight into life itself, the place of relationships, community, marriage, celibacy and God-given identity. Without realising it, I think Al Hsu’s has provided an excellent work on the spiritual disciplines of life – no matter what your marital status.

I was lent the book by a friend of mine as a means of preparing for our current sermon series on “Money, Sex, Power.” There is plenty of material on sex and sexuality (consider my previous review of the book Sacred Sex) and its expression in married life. What material out there affirms both sex and singleness without seeing them as uncomfortable guests in an awkward conversation? A lot of writers are condescending at best and deluded at worst when it comes to commentary on sexuality and singleness. Al Hsu brings a contribution that is biblical, meaningful, applicable, and delightful.

Hsu recognises that there is an overemphasis on married life in the church and a misplaced ideal. The church’s response to the sexual liberation of the 20th century has meant an idealisation of the nuclear family – and the Christian single person comes under a significant amount of pressure and expectation to marry and fit into that ideal. But Hsu asks:

“Is there an alternative to all this? Can Christian singles find a positive view of singleness that moves beyond traditional expectations and stereotypes? However one might classify or categorize today’s singles, several things are clear. One is that singleness itself does not determine a particular lifestyle… More significant is our attitude towards being single and how we choose to live as singles.

“To that end, singles are asking many questions. ‘Am I to be single for ever, or will I eventually marry?’ ‘What is God’s will for my life as a single person?’ ‘How do I satisfy my needs for companionship and relationship?’ ‘What is my identity in a world of married couples?'” (p28-29)

And so Hsu does a fantastic job of unpacking singleness – it’s history (chapter 2) and biblical expression – and the many misconceptions concerning it. For instance, “the significance of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 is that it affirms that single persons are no less whole people for lack of marriage, in contrast to Jewish thought.” (p35) Later on he uncovers the incorrect Greek mythology of “soul partner” that lies behind the prevalent thought in Western culture that “each one of us is an incomplete half searching for the perfect other half who will make us whole. This belief runs completely counter to biblical teaching.” (p76)

He also does well to unpack the issue of God’s will when it comes to marriage – not just the general will of God but the particular will that causes people to perhaps even blame God for the lack of a partner. In this regard he gives an excellent exegetical exposition of the concept of the “gift of singleness.”

“… the ‘gift of singleness’ is not something that must be spiritually discerned or subjectively felt. Singles do not need to search their hearts to see if they are truly able to live as contented singles. It is not some supernatural empowerment for some function of ministry. Rather, the gift is a description of an objective status. If you are single, then you have the gift of singleness. If you are married, you don’t. If you marry, you exchange the gift of singleness for the gift of marriedness. Both are good. Simple as that.” (p61)

He then affirms how singleness is indeed a gift – providing freedoms and opportunities that are not available to the married person. And I love how he demonstrates how holy singleness expresses God’s love just as much as holy matrimony:

“By not having a spouse, a single person is free to build many relationships with many people. In this way, the single adult is an example of the fact that God loves all people, not just a few. While married Christians emulate God’s exclusive love, single Christians demonstrate God’s non-exclusive love.” (p98)

The two chapters of the book that have the most broad applicability are the chapters entitle “From loneliness to solitude” and “From aloneness to community.” These are chapters that unpack and help us not just with our marital status but with our humanity. There is much depth to these chapters and a constant drawing of a person to live their life for God in the kairos (time/opportunity) of the present. A summary seems trite, but it gives the broad idea – “Fellowship with God is the solution for loneliness. Companionship with fellow Christians is the cure for aloneness.” (p138)

Finally Hsu touches on the issue of sex and sexuality. He does not waiver from the biblical view of marriage being the only place for sexual intercourse. But he is never negative. Here we have pure sweetness of beautiful, counter-cultural truths. “Sex is a drive, not a need,” (p173) he asserts. “It is no higher calling for singles to be celibate than for married couples to be monogamous.” (p177) Celibacy is not a denying of sexuality, rather celibate people are “fully aware of themselves as sexual beings but who express their sexuality in a celibate way.” (p178)

Even here the application is not just for singles – but for all those who struggle to express sexuality in a godly way. The world cries out for us to express our every whim – whatever comes “naturally.” But as Hsu asserts:

“The answer to this point of view is to recognize that the Christian life is rarely ‘natural.’ Far from it. It is not natural to love your neighbour, or to turn the other cheek, or to forgive someone who has wronged you. In the same way, resisting sexual temptation – or any kind of temptation – is not the ‘natural’ thing to do.”(p183)

And applies:

“Instead of fighting an endless and losing battles against sexual temptations, a more constructive approach for Christian singles [and I would add married people as well] is to come to view sexual temptations as an affirmation of our identity as sexual beings – and also as a reminder of our dependence on God.” (p180)

This is an excellent book. I have a couple of small quibbles -I think he overemphasises advice for people to wait for a while before they get married – I can see his point, yet I cheer for young people in their early twenties (even late teens) who are willing to step up to the plate of commitment – for that is also counter-cultu
ral. But this book is a good read – especially for singles, and those who are struggling with their singleness – but this book would be a benefit for anyone seeking to engage with the deep things of life.


I was recently handed a copy of David Cook’s The Unheeded Christ a collection of sermons published in 2006 through the Sydney Missionary & Bible College (SMBC) of which David is the principal. The sermons, taken from a semester’s sermon series, revolve around the “tough” teachings of Jesus – the difficult sayings, and the things that often go “unheeded.” The series begins with the Sermon on the Mount and then moves throughout the Gospel of Matthew to end with Matthew 28 and the Great Commission. There are thirteen sermons all told.

The sermons are good technical homilies – well exegeted, well illustrated, and generally well applied. But, being sermons, the next question I ask of a book such as this is – “Was I impacted?” Did I learn something – but more than that – were these sermons the Word of God for me in the place I was in. Was I taught, rebuked, corrected, trained in righteousness etc.? (see 2 Tim 3:16).

In this case, I was impacted. The presentation of Christ in all his counter-cultural scandalous glory was a useful thing for me to encounter. And in particular I was impacted by Christ’s attitude towards opposition and persecution in the second talk “Do Not Resist (Matt 5:38-42).” I took to heart words such as:

“The only way to be detached from myself is to realise that now, I stand covered in the perfect righteousness of Christ. So if someone abuses me, if someone insults me, or slaps me, they are actually taking up arms against Christ himself. So the poise of my response will only come from trusting in the indwelling Christ, who has covered me with his righteousness.” (pp32-33)

A particular phrase Cook used to illustrate this point was “Eagles don’t catch flies.” Our eyes are on Christ and his purposes, not on petty retaliations or the distractions of this world. This impact is reiterated when the importance and method of conflict resolution is unpacked in “Resolving Tension (Matt 18:15-20).”

Something I wasn’t expecting was that together with a high view of the Bible there is within these sermons a high view of the church based on a solidarity with Christ. It is the basis for a number of his applications. Indeed, “… how we treat the disciples of Jesus is indicative of how we treat Jesus the Lord, himself.” (p182) I appreciated this emphasis.

These are sermons, preached at a Bible College. It would be interesting to see how a non-Christian or someone younger in the faith would be impacted by them. I don’t think that is of too greater concern however – it’s often the “older” Christians that have learned the bad habits of “dodging the bouncers” (p58) that are the difficult but life-giving words of Jesus, who often goes unheeded in our practice and purpose. It was good to get hit by a few when reading this book.


Money, Sex, Power by Richard Foster is an “oldy but a goody” book (I was only 10 years old when it was first published) that I’ve had on my bookshelf for years but have never got round to reading. Necessity breeds opportunity and so I dusted off the book to help prepare for a sermon series on “Power, Sex and Money.” I found it to be a not-too-heavy not-too-light introduction to these topics pushed forward by an evangelical and prophetic heart. Foster lists one of his reasons for writing a book on these topics:

“Historically it seems spiritual revivals have been accompanied by a clear, bold response to the issues of money, sex, and power… When these revivals occur in a culture, there is a renewal of both devotional experience and ethical life. We need a modern-day renewal of spiritual experience that is ethically potent.” (p3)

This intention echoes the beat of my own heart for the formation and transformation of the people of God’s church – a vision that I’m cogitating on publicly on my other blog in a couple of places). And, by and large, I appreciated how Foster goes about delivering his exhortation in this book.

One particular appreciation was his ability to bring each issue back to the core basis of a relationship with God – in terms of both positive and negative engagements with that relationship. And so, for instance, on the topic of money Foster writes:

“The farmers of ancient Israel had a keen sense of reality… They knew and understood on a very deep level that a good harvest was the gracious provision of a loving God… And so, as we learn to receive money and the things it buys as gracious gifts froma loving God, we discover how they enrich our relationship with God… Doxology becomes the posture of our experience.” (p40)

but only after he has shown us that

“The New Testament teaching on money makes sense only when we see it in the context of the “principalities and powers”… Money is one of these powers. When Jesus uses the Aramaic term mammon to refer to wealth, he is giving it a personal and spiritual character. When he declares, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24), he is personifying mammon as a rival god. In saying this, Jesus is making it unmistakeably clear that money is not some impersonal medium of exchange… Mammon is a power that seeks to dominate us.” (p25-26)


“This radical criticism of wealth makes no sense to us at all unless we see it in the context of its spiritual reality. It is one of the principalities and powers that must be conquered and redeemed through the blood of Jesus Christ before it can be useable for the greater good of the kingdom of God.” (p31)

The exploration of the topic of sex I found to be the least helpful of the three topics covered. This was mostly due to style and emphasis rather than theological content. And I remain thoughtful about whether this is because engagement with the topic of sex by the church has become bolder in the last two decades (consider for instance Mark Driscoll’s infamous sermon on the Song of Solomon) – or whether I’m simply having a personal reaction: The last two decades have been extremely formative for me and I have moved beyond some of the more “sex education” (a la James Dobson) aspects of Foster’s presentation.

Nevertheless there was some good gems on the topic of sex – I liked, for instance, his description of how sex in marriage is a “celebration in the bedroom”:

“Frankly, sex in marriage should be a voluptuous experience. It is a gift to celebrate, excellent in every way.” (p138)

The main problem was something of a utilitarian (albeit kingdom-motivated) approach to issues of sex and marriage. I agree with certain comments. The following quote, for instance, echoes my own (rather simplistic) adage often delivered to those searching for a mate – “know where you’re going before choosing who you go with”:

“The basis for getting married that conforms to the way of Christ is a regard for the well-being of ourselves and others and a regard for the advancement of the kingdom of God upon the earth.” (p135)

This ethical criteria, however, means that Foster sometimes avoids a substantial engagement with the inherent rights or wrongs of issues such as masturbation (p123ff) and even divorce where, without totally tying up the loose ends, he makes statements such as:

“The basis for divorce that conforms to the way of Christ is, therefore, precisely the same as the basis for marriage. When it is clear that the continuation of the marriage is substantially more destructive than a divorce, then the marriage should end.” (p145)


“Jesus therefore spoke of remarriage as adultery, not because there was anything inherently wrong with it, but because of the attitude of contempt with which the man lived with the woman.” (p148)

If he does err, however, he errs on the side of grace and avoids unhelpful legalism. This is also something to be appreciated.

The section on power is based heavily, and effectively, on Christ as the example of how power is to be used by Christians. It is summed up well by his reference to the “marks” of “spiritual power” – love, humility, self-limitation, joy, vulnerability, submission, and freedom (p201ff).

Foster recognises the clear reality of spiritual power – particularly over the demonic and “power and principalities” of the world. But emphasises this Christ-like marks as the basis for that power, for instance:

“… we defeat the powers by an inner renunciation of all things… we have nothing to lose; the powers have no control over us. Suppose the powers take our goods and possessions – no matter, our possessions are only on loan from God; protecting them is more his business than ours… reputation… fear of death… we belong to One who can lead us through death’s dark pathway into greater life… we simply have nothing to lose. We are positionless and possessionless, and this complete and total vulnerability is our greatest strength. You cannot take something from someone who has nothing.” (p191)

I particularly appreciated what basically amounts to advice given to those who find themselves in Christian leadership and must keep their eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus lest they become full of themselves. Some gems of advice include:

“Small things are genuinely big things in the kingdom of God. It is here we truly face the issues of obedience and discipleship. It is not hard to be a model disciple amid camera lights and press releases. But in the small corners of life, in those areas of service that will never be newsworthy or gain us any recognition, we must hammer out the meaning of obedience
. Amid the obscurity of family and friends, neighbors and work associates, we find God. And it is this finding of God, this intimacy with God, that is essential to the exercise of power. The ministry of small things must be prior to and more valued than the ministry of power. Without this perspective we will view power as a “big deal.” (p219)

“Those who exercise spiritual power mus be prepared for alonenes… I did not say loneliness… Aloneness means having to decide and act alone, for no others can share the burden or even understand the issues involved… Most poignant of all is the scne in the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus singled out the Three to watch and pray with him. On that holy night they abandoned their Master for sleep, and Jesus was forced to wrestle with the powers alone. We too must wrestle alone. We cannot even depend upon our husband or wife to understand what is occuring in the inner sanctuary of our soul… James Nayler wrote of the aloneness of divine intimacy and power, “I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who live in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.” Aloneness is the price of spiritual power.” (p220-221)

The book was written more than two decades ago. But some things never change – even specific things in the last twenty years such as debates on homosexuality (“…homosexuality is so volatile a matter right now in the Christian community…” (p106)) and use of military power (“Military strategists plot, not how to make the world more stable, but how to make it less stable. Terrorism and spy networks are the order of the day.” (p188)).

In the end, the usefulness of this book depends upon the readers willingness to be renewed – to be changed by God and convicted of error and disobedience in these heart-felt areas – to embrace the heart of the a re-engaged ethical “vow” that bring the areas of money, sex and power, under Christ’s authority in our lives. It is in these areas that Christians are often, in practical terms, atheistic in their actual conduct. Read this book, but especially if you think that if you’ve got it all sorted out – it may just wake you up.


I was trying to think of a short phrase that would describe David Biebel and Harold Koenig’s book New Light on Depression. It’s an overview, an introduction, but also a bit of a broad “howto.” Perhaps “Depression 101” would be an adequate description.

I read the book as one who has known depression (albeit not severe) and has in the past been stalked by what Winston Churchill referred to as his “black dog.” I have been close to others in my family and friends who have battled more greatly than I have ever had to do. And so my measure for this book, which claims the Christian Medical Assocation’s motto of “medically reliable, biblically sound” was to ask two questions – Does this book engage with my own experience of depression? and Does it do it helpfully?

The answer to both questions is “yes.” The book is split into three sections – the first part, broadly speaking, unpacks what depression looks like and the second part unpacks in broad terms various ways in which depression can be treated. These first two parts interact with my two questions well.

In terms of the first question – engagement with the reality of depression – the book is more than factual – it has deliberately arranged anecdotes, stories and examples. In my experience a depressed person (or their loved one) often has an “epiphany” moment when they come to the realisation that they are depressed and know it in themselves, rather than just being told by outsiders. (In fact without such an epiphany finding a path in and through depression is extremely difficult). I can imagine this book providing such an epiphany – the “How do they know what I’m thinking? They are talking about me” moment.

In terms of the second question – helpfulness – this book is simply a useful but helpful introduction. The subtitle suggests that the book contains “Help, Hope & Answers” – I would agree with the first two, but not necessarily the last. There are some answers for sure – the broad brushstrokes of various types of counselling and the various forms of antidepressant are useful bits of information. But I think the helpfulness lies in the fact that this book would help someone to start asking the right questions, and so to seek help more deliberately.

The third part of the book made this book distinctly Christian and was the part that I, standing on the other side of depression in the present, appreciated the most. It is the most “theological” of the book’s parts. Of particular meaning for me was the chapter entitled “Faith: Acknowledging God’s Gift” where there is an excellent unpacking of how God’s grace can be found even in the valley of the shadow of death.

“We do not mean to say that the psychic pain of depression feels good (that would be masochism) or that this pain is even good in itself. What we want to affirm is that in the lives of God’s children, his grace can transform even the most abject pain into good because he is greater than and his love for us stronger than anything the Evil One sends our way. Satan’s objective is our demise – spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and physically. God’s primary objective is our growth toward Christlikeness.” (pp257-258)

They quote a colleague, Stephen Mory – “Depression is an opportunity for grace unlike any other. I wish no one ever had to experience its peculiar power to devastate body, soul, and spirit. The person who has experienced the blackest depths of depression knows the cold power of death and fear that descends on the one who is still living but seems as though dead. He cries out like Paul, ‘What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Rom 7:24) The answer is in the next verse, ‘Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ In other words, ‘I have already been rescued.’ Depressed people know Christ as their deliverer, and rejoice in his coming more than most Christians because they know that no one else could have rescued them from that overwhelming darkness.” (pp264-265)

And finally, “…to equate something evil with the good that God can bring from it is to confuse cause and effect. Something very difficult may be the occasion for growth, and this is good, but the pivotal truth is that the grace of God is so powerful that he can transform even our suffering into something that advances his kingdom purposes in our pain-filled world.” (p265)

This book is an overview and an introduction. It will shed light, clear away some fog, and maybe lead to an epiphany that starts a healing road. If you are a friend or have a loved one who you think is depressed I wouldn’t recommend sticking it in the face of the one for whom you are concerned unless they are genuinely beginning to recognise a problem and are beginning to seek for handles to hold on to. Rather, read the book yourself, it has wisdom and advice – and pray and proceed with wisdom. Pave the way and use this book with love and gentleness.

[Update: An edited version of this review was published in the June 2008 edition of the Tasmanian Anglican]


Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson’s Reveal: Where are you? is a useful book – in the sense of having a person come in and tidy your house is “useful” – you know what needs to be done, you could do it yourself if you had the time and energy, but you are immensely grateful that someone has done it. In the same way I am grateful that these authors from Willow Creek have put this book together and have come up with a result that is useful – obvious, relevant, useful.

The book revolves around analysis of surveys done in and around the Willow Creek congregations in America and shows how some of Willow’s assumptions about church growth were challenged by the results. The conclusions that are drawn are what make this book useful.

For instance, we see their conclusion that church activities do not necessarily produce spiritual growth, rather “spiritual growth is all about increasing relational closeness to Christ” (p38). This is obvious, but useful because it reminds us of the prevalent tendency of churches to fit people to activities and to fill “holes in the program” rather than concentrate on things that would foster spiritual growth.

There is a useful identification of a “spiritual continuum” that seeks to place people on stages in a journey of spiritual growth – from “Exploring Christianity” and “Growing in Christ” in the early stages, through to “Close to Christ,” and “Christ-Centered” at the end. If the aim is to help people progress along this continuum, then how does the church do it? By promoting (“coaching” is a term used at one point) the “drivers” of personal spiritual practices, and helping individuals overcome the “barriers” of things such as addictions, inappropriate relationships, emotional issues, gossip/judgementalism, and “not prioritizing my spiritual growth.” The authors reflect:

“The church is most important in the early stages of spiritual growth. Its role then shifts from being the primary influence to a secondary influence.” (p41)

“So if the church isn’t the driving force behind the later stages of spiritual growth, what is? That’s where the second external element of spiritual growth comes into play: personal spiritual practices… prayer, journaling, solitude, studying Scripture – things that individuals do on their own to grow in their relationship with Christ.” (p43)

“We want to move people from dependence on the church to a growing interdependent partnership with the church… Our people need to learn to feed themselves through personal spiritual practices that allow them to deepen their relationship with Christ… We want to transition the role of the church from spiritual parent to spiritual coach.” (p65)

The most insightful consideration is the recognition of key groups along the spectrum that, while having journeyed in spiritual growth somewhat, have “stalled” or are “dissatisfied.” The “stalled” person is at an early stage of the spectrum and is usually caught up with difficulties overcoming the personal barriers to spiritual growth. The “dissatisfied” person tends to be well developed in personal spirituality but is dissatisfied with the (in)ability to participate, serve, or be mentored in some way. The key part of this analysis, and something that I want to take on board in my own context is this:

“At the heart of the unhappiness may be the fact that neither segment seems to realize that much of the responsibility for their spiritual growth belongs to them. This is the big “aha.”” (p54)

And so the conclusions of this book are, once again, useful – church needs to help people to spiritually grow by helping them to take on the responsibility for that growth. A good conclusion – obvious, useful.

This book was worth the read. I don’t know if it’s worth the money – $20 for 75 pages (the rest is appendices) seems a bit on the steep side for what is a self-confessedly incomplete book that’s more in the category of a report that would be useful to share by pdf than a book worthy of investment for later reference on your library bookshelf.

At times it was a bit too obvious – For instance – “In the end nothing was more predictive of a person’s spiritual growth – love of God and love for others – than his or her personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” In other words, spiritual growth and relationship with Jesus correlate – my response was an out-loud “well, duh.” Obvious, but useful.

And at other times it’s usefulness is outweighed by other resources – For instance the tool given in Appendix 4 and outlined on page 72 pales into comparison next to a tool such as Peter Bolt’s Mission-Minded, which is basically the same thing (and a lot cheaper).

This book will factor into my own thoughts and machinations about the purpose, place and practice of church. It usefully points out the obvious. If you see it, pick it up and read. It won’t take long.


One of the reviews on the back cover of Marva Dawn’s The Sense of the Call declares “What a holy oddity Marva Dawn is.” I would have to agree. I found this book intriguing, beguiling, annoying, insightful and stimulating – sometimes all at the same time.

The subtitle of the book is “A sabbath way of life for those who serve God, the church, and the world.” And so, on the front cover, you have these two key words – “call” and “sabbath” – which become the substance of the inside of the book.

The underlying link that Dawn wants to draw between “call” and “sabbath” is not always clear, but it rests in an understanding of the Kingdom of God. Sabbath pertains to the ultimate rest of our souls in Christ and so is integral to living life within the Kingdom of God to which and in which we are called to activity and purpose in life. Dawn unpacks her intention for the book:

“For us to experience the fullness of God’s well-being in the midst of the rigors of our work, we who seek to serve the Church and the world constantly need a profound sense of our call. In a nutshell, the sense of our call is that God’s Kingdom reclaims us, revitalizes us, and renews us and thus reigns through us before others, on behalf of others, sometimes in spite of others, and always with others… When we grasp this sense of our call, we are set free for a Sabbath way of life: a profound resting in the Kingdom’s grace instead of perpetual struggle to “do our work”; an endless ceasing, by grace, of those attitudes and actions and attachments that hinder the Kingdom’s reign; an exuberant feasting that radiates the Kingdom’s grace-full splendor; an ardent embracing of the Kingdom’s gracious purposes.” (pp13-14)

It is difficult to critique Marva’s basic framework – it is not only carefully thought-through and deliberately articulated, it is obviously contained within a gospel premise and the uniqueness of Christ for salvation. Sometimes she is hard to grasp – I still don’t quite know exactly what she means by even the four section headings of “resting,” “ceasing,” “feasting,” and “embracing.” Sometimes her opinions on various experiences in the world (particularly with regard to frustrations with technology etc.) reflects her own perspective more than universal truth. Yet this thoroughly experiential, practical, spiritual, liturgical, contemplative book is well grounded and useful.

Indeed, this book is immensely practical. I found reading it to be an experience that was full of little “convictions” prodding my attitudes and actions and routines with quiet whispers of “does this match what you believe?” When I read a book and something strikes me I often make a note of it inside the front cover – in this book my notes have spilled over on to the title page.

I would recommend this book to any Christian – although I would probably qualify that by saying any Chrsitian who is serious about serving God in “the church and the world.” Without that inner motivation this book would be some nice thoughts, with that inner motivation this book does a prophetic task – speaking truth in ways that bug you till you take stock and consider not just the truth, but its application in all of life.

Perhaps the best way to communicate an overview of this book is to share some of these gems and give you a taste of this well-rounded meal that Marva Dawn offers to Christians who wish to live like they are just that – Christians.

With regard to patience:

“That is why we need utmost patience – or perhaps we should resurrect the old rendering, “long-suffering.” It will cost us loads of long hours, myriads of conversations, scads of sorrow, masses of disappointment and frustrations to engage people in the instruction and mission of the Kingdom. The only thing that makes it worth the bother is that the Kingdom is the only treasure worth having.” (p18)

With regard to being spiritual (I recently stole this concept for use in a sermon series on Ephesians 1):

“I use the word spiritual… not as it is usually used in English to denote some nebulous entity, some obscure dimension of us beyond the material. If we think of every aspect in our connection to God who is Spirit, as the whole spiritual sweep of our lives, then the term spiritual encompasses everything, for all of us relates to God – intelligence, attitudes, talents, affections, body, actions, our whole being.” (p40)

With regard to our direction in life:

“It is a beautiful mystery that we never quite know in what directions we might be led as we embrace our call… Mother Teresa was once asked about her summons to care for the needy, and she responded that she was not called to serve the poor. She insisted that she was simply called to follow Jesus and that’s where He led her.” (p65)

The point of church:

“…it is crucial that we keep remembering that the Church’s true work is not therapy. We have trouble recalling that because our society’s excessive consumerism is rooted in the significant turn that Philip Rieff documented in his well-known aphorism, “Religious man was born to be saved, [contemporary] psychological man is born to be pleased.” In other words, culturally, we have turned away from knowing that we are sinners who need a Rescuer from beyond ourselves to believing that we should be made comfortable and happy. We can see the effects of this societal expectation in those who complain that a worship service did not “uplift them.” Wouldn’t it surprise them to be reminded that its purpose is to kill them so that they can be resurrected into an entirely new creation?” (p132)

About the joy of adversity:

“Somewhere I heard the quotation, “You can acquire anything in solitude except character.” We need the whole community to test us, to refine us, to enable us to develop aspects of character including strength, kindness, and wisdom that we cannot gain without trials. We all need critics and rebukers, malcontents and misfits – even if (especially if?) these cause us pain – so that our feasting is virtuous and honorable.” (p219)

About community as a vehicle of evangelism (a concept that we’ve considered a lot at Connections):

“…What if churches recognized that the major means for evangelism in the early Church was the remarkable unity existing among individual members in the community of saints and the harmony between what they believed and what they lived? In other words, they were a Body of people demonstrating an alternative/biblical manner of being.” (p236)

And finally, on the slowness of ministry (something all church planters should consider):

“Many people want to do ministry in a grand, glamorous way. But the work of spreading the gospel happens with continued, often hidden engagement over the long haul. We can’t nurture faith or live it in the world in one dramatic quick fix of heroism; it is more like a long pregnancy (sometimes years long
!) till Christ is birthed in others (see Gal. 4:19-20).” (p257)


One of the reasons, I have discovered, that I like blogging is the opportunity to express my thoughts about things that I otherwise wouldn’t, but should. One of the biggest examples of this is reviewing books that I read. So here is my first blogged book review. As I finish a book, I’ll hope to review it here, for my own edification if nothing else!

So here’s hoping this first review doesn’t cause my blog to be filtered by overzealous keyword filters!

Tim Alan Gardner’s Sacred Sex is one of the better Christian books on sexuality that I’ve read. It differs from the “stock standard” (and now somewhat outdated) Christian books on sex, such as Ed Wheat’s Intended for Pleasure, LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage, or Penner’s The Gift of Sex in that it’s consideration is not so much about sex education of the practical tips for newlyweds variety. There isn’t a single “diagram” in the book! Gardner’s emphasis is to consider the spirituality of the sexual (and thus, of course, marital) relationship.

The author’s intent is to help couples experience a joy and freedom and strength of relationship that is born out of a sense of God’s delight, God’s presence, and a unity that is precious and holistic. The point of the sexual relationship is about this unity. The subtitle says it all – “A spiritual celebration of oneness in marriage.”

This doesn’t mean that Gardner is afraid to confront the issues. He acknowledges the reality that sex is handled by the world in a destructive manner – he talks about the “horsemen” of sexual abuse, pornography, “casual” sex, and broken promises (including adultery). He is frank about the poor state of the sex lives of many ordinary marriages – differing appetites, mishandled communications, and resigned indifferences.

He is, as they say, “frank but not crass,” occasionally blunt, but never titillating. In short, he handles the subject well. I can see why those who have worked with people who have struggled with pornography or other sexual addictions have said that this is one of the few books on sex that they would recommend to people in such a situation.

A premise of the book is the inherent interplay of marriage covenant, sexual relationship, and intimacy and oneness. A definitive quote comes from page 196 of the book:

Since marriage has always been defined by God as two becoming one, the sexual union of a wife and husband is the perfect, God-intended oath sign that a marriage has been established. We speak an oath with our vows; we seal that oath with our bodies. Together, our words and our action form a covenant. And once again we see why God so forcefully opposes sex outside of marriage. It’s not because He is a kill-joy Creator who goes out of His way to steal our fun, but rather because He created sexual intimacy to be so much more than self-pleasure. Sex is not only part of the covenant of marriage, but it functions in the creation of the covenant. Sex is the divine seal.
Moreover, sexual intercourse reestablishes the covenant each time it is celebrated…
This covenant theology of marriage and sex ties together everything we’ve been discussing: the holiness of sex, the mystery of sexual oneness, and the worship that happens when we acknowledge God’s presence during our intimate celebration. All these aspects of sacred sex are protected by this elected relationship of obligation. The marriage covenant is what drives us towards each other in times of joy and in times of sadness. It’s what causes us to ache to be with each other when we’re apart… Each time we enter into the holy act of sex, we again pronounce our solemn declaration: “I do. I still do.”

This book isn’t for everyone. Unmarried persons, I suspect, would find little immediate application. Those who have a significant amount of brokenness in their sexuality and background would need more than this book to find healing and restoration.

In the end, this book serves as an affirmation of marriage and celebrates and promotes oneness and intimate celebration that cements a God-ordained covenant through whatever stages of life, situations or occurrences might come along. A recommended read for any couple.


Recently I posted an article on the facebook group Club Theo < and a member quoted me, writing:

Hi Will, I like what you said here:
“The resurrection can thus be seen the Father’s act to honour the son’s act of self-sacrifice – and to bring not only Christ, but all those he counts as “his” – into a place of new life and authority.”
What verses/ideas did this flow out of? I’d not heard it put this way before, but it rings true to me. (perhaps a new discussion is now born??)

Well, here’s some thoughts-on-the-fly and a bit of a biblical cherry-pick. I would like, at some point, to do this properly, dip into the greek etc., but for now I’ll do what time allows.

There’s two points to make:

  1. That the resurrection is primarily the act of the Father.
  2. The act of the Father is, at least to some degree, a response to Christ’s act on the cross.

If these two points are true then we have an insight into that wonderful phrase (hinted in an entry in my Connections blog): “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).

So here goes:

There are lots and lots of places where Jesus foretells the resurrection in the passive – e.g. “…until the Son of Man is raised” (Mt 17:9). See also Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:32; Mk 14:28; Lk 9:22. And also after the resurrection the simple descriptions are also in the passive – “He has been raised from the dead” (Mt 28:7). See also Mk 16:6; Lk 24:6; Jn 2:22; Jn 21:14. The implication is that the Father, or at least “God” is the active participant in the resurrection.

In Acts we have many similar simple descriptions – but we also start seeing some reason being ascribed. Consider:

Acts 2:23-24 – This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

Although the reason for the “impossibility” for the hold of death is not given, there is at least a sense that God’s action to raise Christ was a right thing to do, not an arbitrary thing to do. [For further consideration: implications of the quote from Psalm 16 in Acts 2:25-28, it is quoted again in Acts 13:34-35 where the “reason” for the resurrection is related to a fulfillment of covenantal promise]

The Pauline epistles, especially Romans, also use the passive “raised” and Paul is quick to apply the resurrection to us as part of the justification process:

Romans 6:4 – “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Romans 8 is probably my favourite chapter in Scripture and contains the wonderfully trinitarian reference to “the Spirit”, “the Spirit of God” “the Spirit of Christ” and “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom 8:9-11). Galatians 1:1 specifies, explicitly, that it is the Father who is the “raiser.”

In the letter to the Hebrews we, once again, see some reason/cause or purpose to the Father’s actions:

Hebrews 2:9 – “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

In the end (and I’ve probably missed a whole heap of passages – so feel free to point them out to me), I think this famous passage sums it up:

Philippians 2:8-9 – “… he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…”

In this well-known “hymn” the cross and it’s death is an act of the Son’s self-sacrifice and obedience – and the resurrection is an act of God – who “exalted” him and a response “therefore.” [For further consideration – exact nature of the “therefore” in the greek.]

Perhaps I can conclude with something of a blessing:

Heb 13:20-21 – May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleaseing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen