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Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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book reviews

The Faith of Christopher HitchensThe Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton. Thomas Nelson. 224 pages. 2016

The attraction of this fascinating book is not so much that it is a biography of one of the “New Atheists”, Christopher Hitchens – though the author, an Evangelical Christian and Founder of the Fixed Point Foundation, does provide us with a biographical sketch of Hitchens – but rather it is the author’s personal recollections of their unlikely friendship. Taunton paints Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer in 2011, as a man of contradictions, who kept “two sets of books” – one being his private life and the other his public life. In his private book, which Taunton was privileged to know, Hitchens was open to discussing spiritual issues with him, including studying the Gospel of John on two road trips they took late in Hitchens’ life. They were unlikely friends who respected each other.

The author tells us that Hitchens had little respect for his father, and a contentious relationship with his brother, Peter, who left atheism for Christianity. His mother had abortions both before and after Christopher was born, and eventually committed suicide with a boyfriend.

He writes of Hitchens being a man of contradictions.  On the one hand, being a socialist, having homosexual encounters and protesting against the Vietnam War, but undergoing significant changes after the 9/11 attacks in which he recognized real evil. He would then be supportive of President Bush’s “War on Terror” and invasion of Iran and Afghanistan, and also become pro-life.  He became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

The publication of his 2007 book God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything, would ironically start Hitchens on a type of spiritual journey, as he offered to debate anyone taking an opposing view as a way to promote the book. He would debate Christians such as Doug Wilson and John Lennox. This is how the author came to know Hitchens, as he would coordinate the debates and eventually the two would debate each other.

The author writes of their friendship, and by far the best part of the book is his recounting of their two road trips – one through the Shenandoah Valley and the other through Montana and Yellowstone Park. Both of the trips took place after Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer and he knew he was dying. It was on these trips that the two would read and study the Gospel of John together. Hitchens was attracted to Marcionism (accepting some parts of the New Testament but denying Christ’s corporality and humanity and condemning the Creator God of the Old Testament).

Taunton writes that Hitchens was counting the cost, was looking at half measures and would have had to negotiate down the cost of discipleship; he didn’t want to have to discount the majority of his life.  As the author states, “Did he have to fling himself headlong into the abyss rather than give up his pride…. Or did he?  His courage failed him in renouncing his hatred of God.”  During their last trip together they reached the John 11:25-26 passage in the King James Bible they were reading from:

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

Larry Taunton turned to Christopher Hitchens and said, “Do you believest thou this?”  Hitchens replied, “It’s not without appeal to a dying man”.

Although Christians would like to believe that Hitchens surrendered his life to Christ (and atheists just the opposite), there is no evidence that Hitchens ever became a Christian, although as the author writes, we don’t know for sure.  This is a fascinating book about friendship and evangelism.

Unashamed by LecraeUnashamed by Lecrae. B&H Books. 256 pages. 2016

I first heard about Lecrae when he was mentioned by John Piper and blogger Tim Challies several years ago. He is one of my favorite artists, and I have seen him in concert three times. I was very excited about his first book which has a theme of him being an outsider, never fitting in. He is an introvert, and writes about a life-long struggle for acceptance, and a lot about identity and calling as well.

The autobiography starts with the 2014 Grammys, where Lecrae was a nominee, but still an outsider on the red carpet and at the Grammy parties. As a “Gospel” or “Christian” rapper, he wasn’t respected. He is an unashamed believer, but doesn’t like the “Christian” or “Gospel” tag added to what he does.

He doesn’t fit in the music industry today and writes that he never has. In fact, he states that as Christians, we don’t fit in, whether it is at work, in our neighborhood, etc.

Lecrae’s Mom got pregnant with him and married Lecrae’s father, who had anger and addiction problems. She would raise Lecrae on her own. This led to pain and anger for Lecrae as he longed for his father, thinking that he must not be worthy of his love. Uncles and cousins filled some of the gap, but it was hip-hop that he turned to. Rappers became his heroes.

At age six, he began being sexually abused by his seventeen year old female babysitter. That led to a pattern of being sexually active. He went through sexual, physical (from his mother’s boyfriend) and verbal abuse.

His grandmother “Big Momma” (to whom the book is dedicated) was a good influence and took him to church. On the other hand, his uncle Chris a bad influence, introduced him to guns, gangs and trouble. Growing up, Lecrae lived in Houston, San Diego, Denver and Dallas.

Lecrae smoked weed, stole, drank and was a hoodlum.  He tried to find satisfaction in sex, resulting in getting and passing on an STD. He writes of searching for God by checking out a number of different religions. He repeatedly ran away from home and one time threatened to kill himself, but somehow had hope if he could just hold on. Later, he actually did try to commit suicide.

His Mom gave him a Bible, but he angrily ripped out pages from it as she looked on.  She told him, “only God can help you now”.

He would attend and graduate from the University of North Texas. Although he looked on this as a fresh start, he soon was back to his pattern of drinking doing (and selling) drugs, and sexual activity.

He was invited to attend the Impact conference in Atlanta and surrendered his life to Christ at age 19.  After a spiritual high of a few months, he became two people – the legalistic Lecrae with his Christian friends, and the life of the party Lecrae with his non-believing friends.

Lecrae sadly writes about convincing a girlfriend to have an abortion. He continued to battle with anger and rage, drugs, sex and depression, eventually checking himself into rehab before he either killed someone or himself. It was here that he read the Bible intensely, specifically focusing on Romans 6.

Lecrae had been trying to earn God’s favor. Having been abandoned by his early father, he worried whether his heavenly Father would also abandon him. He writes about the difference between a contract with conditions and a covenant. He honestly writes about his self-righteousness.

He briefly mentions the start of Reach Records, something that I would have liked to hear a lot more about.

At 25, he went into hip-hop music full-time. He married Darragh, whom he had known for seven years. They moved to Memphis, did ministry and lived in an area of the city with much crime.  He began performing at churches and conferences and took several missions trips. He writes that he didn’t devote the time he should have to his marriage and displayed a self-righteous attitude. The couple sought marriage counseling.

When challenged that he didn’t have a biblical worldview, he read books by Nancy Pearcy (Total Truth) and Andy Crouch (Culture Making).  At that time, he primarily made music for Christians, but as he discerned his calling, he realized that he was not intended to just make music for believers. Early on, he writes that he was often the hero of his songs. He was focused on behavior modification, rather than worldview transformation.

He and Darragh would move to Atlanta. With the album Rehab, his writing began to change, to become more authentic, real and deeper. As he began to make friends and collaborate with non-believing rappers, the criticism began, with Christians saying he had sold out and perhaps wasn’t even a Christian any longer. That criticism continued with the first of his now three Church Clothes mixtapes, which introduced him to a larger audience, leading the success of the Gravity and Anomaly albums.

He writes that greater opportunities and mainstream success has also led to greater temptations. (1 John 2:16), and that he still battles the desire for acceptance, needing to daily deal with that.  There is pressure to conform.

In discussing his identity, he states that he is unconditionally loved by and rescued by God.

He ends the book by encouraging us to engage with our culture, to use our gifts in whatever jobs we are in, not breaking it down into a sacred/secular distinction, as there is not anything on this planet that God is not ruler over.

Each chapter of the book begins with a Lecrae song. In the audiobook version of the book, which Lecrae reads with passion, the actual song is played or he raps it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I hope it is the first of many from Lecrae as he is true salt and light in the hip-hop culture today.

book news

BOOK CLUBS – Won’t you read along with us?

Tim Keller's New Book on PrayerPrayer BOOK CLUB

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller

Christians are taught in their churches and schools that prayer is the most powerful way to experience God. But few receive instruction or guidance in how to make prayer genuinely meaningful. In Prayer, renowned pastor Timothy Keller delves into the many facets of this everyday act. Won’t you read along with Tammy and me? This week we look at

Chapter 14: Struggle: Asking His Help Strenuous Petition

  • The third form of prayer is supplication—asking God for things for yourself, for others, and for the world.
  • Prayer is not merely a way to get inward peace—it is also a way to look outward and participate with God in his work in the world. It consists not merely in reflection on the promises of God but in taking hold of these promises”
  • Why call this a “practical” mystery? The teaching is that our prayers matter—“we have not because we ask not”—and yet God’s wise plan is sovereign and infallible. These two facts are true at once, and how that is possible is a mystery to us.
  • The Westminster Shorter Catechism question 98: What is prayer? Answer: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.
  • We are to ask God for things that fulfill both our desires and his will and wisdom
  • When we petition God, “we should lay before God, as part of our prayer, the reasons why we think that what we ask for is the best thing.”
  • By “arguing” they meant “telling God why what we have asked for seems to us to be for the best, in light of what we know God’s own goals to be.” This means embedding theological reasoning in all our prayers.
  • Another implication of the catechism’s guideline, according to J.I. Packer, is that when we make our needs known, we will explicitly tell God “that if he wills something different [than what we are asking] we know it will be better and it is that (rather than the best we could think of) that we really want him to do.”
  • If we find we cannot say something along these lines, it is a signal that we are dealing with one of Augustine’s “disordered loves,” a heart idol, a rival for God himself in our inmost being.
  • God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knew.
  • “For though all things fail us, yet God will never forsake us, who cannot disappoint . . . since all good things are contained in him and he will reveal them to us . . . when his Kingdom will be plainly manifested.”
  • We can be sure that, if we ask for something that wouldn’t be best for us, God won’t give it to us.
  • When you struggle in prayer, you can come before God with the confidence that he is going to give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
  • We must ask ourselves “what we ourselves might need to do to implement answers to our prayers.”
  • We should also ask ourselves what our petition tells us about our own motives, our own loves, and even our own sins and weaknesses.
  • Packer is concerned about how many Christians tend to pray from long “prayer lists.” The theological thinking and self-reflection that should accompany supplication takes time.
  • Prayer lists and other such methods may lead us to very speedily move through names and needs with a cursory statement “if it is your will” without the discipline of backing up our requests with thoughtful reasoning.
  • We are seeing the necessary balance of two purposes of petitionary prayer—to put the world right (“thy kingdom come”) and to align our hearts with God (“thy will be done”).
  • We must make our desires known—and also rest in his wisdom.
  • One is external. Through our petitions, God effects the circumstances of history (James 5:16b–18). We have a God who runs the universe and is also our heavenly Father. Therefore, Jesus says we should pray with “shameless audacity” (Luke 11:8).
  • On the other hand, we see that the second goal of petitionary prayer is internal. Through our petitions, we receive peace and rest.
  • We must pray not only with shameless assertiveness but, at the same time, with a restful submissiveness, a confidence that God is wiser than we are and wants the best for us.
  • From biblical examples we see three sorts of petitions: asking, complaining, and waiting.
  • There are ordinary prayers for our own needs and those of others. Praying for our “daily bread,” for ourselves, should cover the full range of what we need spiritually, emotionally, and materially.
  • Prayer for others and for the world has been called intercessory prayer. This includes the needs of family members and friends as well as opponents and even enemies. Be sure to remember to pray for individuals you meet during the day who are suffering or in difficulty.
  • Another category of petitionary prayer that looms large in the Bible has traditionally been called a lament when it appears in the Psalms. This is the prayer of someone in suffering and difficulty, who is wrestling with God’s will, perhaps questioning his ways, and seeking help to understand and endure. Packer comes right out and calls this kind of petition “complaining.” He admits that no one likes people who whine and complain, but he points out that in the Bible, when “bad things happen to good people . . . they complain with great freedom and at considerable length to their God. And Scripture does not seem to regard these complaining prayers as anything other than wisdom.”
  • Most people in Western societies today who believe in God see him as obliged to arrange things for our benefit if we live a good enough life according to our own chosen standards.
  • We are to offer and submit both our thoughts and our feelings in prayer to God.
  • A third and last broad category for petitionary prayer is often called “waiting on God.”
  • We should be confident that God will hear us, but we should also be extremely patient with God’s timing. We should be willing to pray with temerity and perseverance, waiting months or years for God to answer some things.
  • God has good reasons for making us wait a long time to see some prayers answered.
  • Jesus was the only human being in history who deserved to have all his prayers answered because of his perfect life. Yet he was turned down as if he cherished iniquity in his heart. Why? The answer, of course, is in the gospel. God treated Jesus as we deserve—he took our penalty—so that, when we believe in him, God can then treat us as Jesus deserved (2 Cor 5:21). More specifically, Jesus’ prayers were given the rejection that we sinners merit so that our prayers could have the reception that he merits. That is why, when Christians pray, they have the confidence that they will be heard by God and answered in the wisest way.
  • We should ask God for things with boldness and specificity, with ardor, honesty, and diligence, yet with patient submission to God’s will and wise love. All because of Jesus, and all in his name.

Studies in the Sermon on the MountStudies in the Sermon on the Mount BOOK CLUB

Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

This book made a significant impact on my wife Tammy when she read and discussed it with friends thirty years ago. When I picked up my diploma the day after graduation ceremonies from Covenant Seminary last year I was given a copy of this book. After enjoying Lloyd-Jones book Spiritual Depression (and the sermons the book was taken from), I couldn’t wait to read this book, which is the printed form of sermons preached for the most part on successive Sunday mornings at Westminster Chapel in London.  This week we look at

 Chapter 30: What Do Ye More Than Others?

  • His desire has been that they should understand and grasp who they are and how they are to live. And here He sums it all up in this amazing statement that comes right at the very end: `Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ That is to be the quality of life we are to live.
  • The gospel of Jesus Christ, though I object to much modern use of the term, is essentially paradoxical; there is an apparent contradiction in it from the beginning to the very end.
  • The Christian is essentially a unique and special kind of person. Our Lord tells us here that this special characteristic, this uniqueness, is twofold. First of all it is a uniqueness that separates him from everybody who is not a Christian. The Christian, you see, is a man who is different from others. He does what other people do, yes; but he does more than they do.
  • The Christian is a man who is above, and goes beyond, the natural man at his very best and highest.
  • The second aspect of this uniqueness of the Christian is that he is not only unlike others, but he is meant to be positively like God and like Christ.
  • The question which we must ask ourselves, then, if we want to know for certain whether we are truly Christian or not, is this: Is there that about me which cannot be explained in natural terms? Is there something special and unique about me and my life which is never to be found in the non-Christian?
  • First of all, the Christian is different from the natural man, and goes beyond the natural man in his thinking.
  • Or look at it in terms of morality. The natural man’s attitude towards morality is generally negative. His concern is that he should not do certain things. He does not want to be dishonest, unjust or immoral. The Christian’s attitude towards morality is always positive; he hungers and thirsts after a positive righteousness like that of God Himself.
  • Or again, consider it in terms of sin. The natural man always thinks of sin in terms of actions, things that are done or not done. The Christian is interested in the heart.
  • Then what about the attitude of these two men towards other people? Your natural man may regard others with tolerance; he may bring himself to be sorry for them and say that we must not be too hard on others. But the Christian goes beyond that. He sees them as sinners, and as the dupes of Satan; he sees them as the terrible victims of sin.
  • The same is true of their respective views of God. The natural man thinks of God primarily as Someone who is to be obeyed, and Someone whom he fears. That is not the essential view of the Christian. The Christian loves God because he has come to know Him as Father.
  • Then in the matter of living, the way in which the Christian does everything is different. The great motive to Christian living is love.
  • Look at these two men as they react to what happens to them in this life and world. What about the trials and tribulations that come, as they must come, such as sickness or war? The Christian rejoices in tribulations for he sees a hidden meaning in them. He can wrestle with the storm, he can rejoice in the midst of his tribulation. The other man never rises to that.
  • Our Lord puts it here finally in the matter of injuries and injustice. How does your natural man behave when he suffers these?
  • There has never been a natural man who has been able to love his enemy, to do good to them that hate him, to bless them that curse him, and to pray for them that despitefully use him and persecute him. The Christian is a man who positively loves his enemy, and goes out of his way to do good to them that hate him, and to pray for them that use him despitefully and malign him.
  • But finally let us look at these two men as they die. The natural man, maintains the same general attitude to death as he had to life, and he goes out with stoical calm and resignation. That is not the Christian’s way of facing death. The Christian is one who should be able to face death as Paul faced it, and he should be able to say: `To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’, and: `having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better.’ He is entering into his eternal home, going into the presence of’ God. Even more, the Christian not only dies gloriously and triumphantly; he knows where he is going. He is not only not afraid; there is a sense of anticipation.
  • What is it that thus makes the Christian a special person? What is it that accounts for this uniqueness? What makes him do more than others? It is his whole outlook on sin. The Christian man has seen himself as utterly hopeless and condemned; he has seen himself as a man who is utterly guilty before God and who has no claim whatsoever on His love. He has seen himself as an enemy of God and an outsider. And then he has seen and understood something about the free grace of God in Jesus Christ.
  • Not only that, he has an entirely new outlook towards life in this world. He comes to see that it is only an antechamber to real life and that he himself is a sojourner and a pilgrim.
  • The Christian is a man who believes he is going to look into the face of Christ. He loves his enemies and does good to them that hate him, because he is conscious of what has been done for him, what is coming to him, and of the glory that remains.
  • I end, then, with this searching question. It is the most profound question a man can ever face in this life and world. Is there anything special about you?
  • God grant that as we examine ourselves we may discover something of the uniqueness and the separateness that not only divides us from others, but which proclaims that we are children of our Father which is in heaven.

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Author: Bill Pence

I’m Bill Pence – married to my best friend Tammy, a graduate of Covenant Seminary, St. Louis Cardinals fan, formerly a manager at a Fortune 50 organization, and in leadership at my local church. I am a life-long learner and have a passion to help people develop, and to use their strengths to their fullest potential. I am an INTJ on Myers-Briggs, 3 on the Enneagram, my top five Strengthsfinder themes are: Belief, Responsibility, Learner, Harmony, and Achiever, and my two StandOut strength roles are Creator and Equalizer. My favorite book is the Bible, with Romans my favorite book of the Bible, and Colossians 3:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 being my favorite verses. Some of my other favorite books are The Holiness of God and Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul, and Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. I enjoy music in a variety of genres, including modern hymns, Christian hip-hop and classic rock. My book Called to Lead: Living and Leading for Jesus in the Workplace and Tammy’s book Study, Savor and Share Scripture: Becoming What We Behold are available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.

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