Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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BOOK REVIEWS and NEWS

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau. 354 pages. 2014.  
****

Lecrae is one of my favorite music artists. His new album All Things Work Together is brilliant, and one of the top releases of the year. Recently, he announced that he is “divorcing ‘white evangelicalism’”. Read John Piper’s response here. I was saddened when I read this, and reached out to Lecrae. He suggested a number of books I could read to help with understanding where he was coming from. From those books, my wife Tammy and I chose to start with Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. This well-written and powerful book weaves in some stunning statistics about the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S., while telling the heart-breaking story of Walter McMillian (and many others) from thirty years of his work.  It’s the best book I’ve read this year.
Bryan’s story began in 1983 as a 23-year old student at Harvard Law School working with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC). SPDC’s mission was to assist condemned people on death row in Georgia. When he finished his internship he was committed to helping the death row prisoners he had met. He returned to law school with an intense desire to understand the laws and doctrines that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments.
His time on death row revealed that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system. This is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
He writes that there are more than two million incarcerated people in the United States, with an additional six million people on probation or parole and an estimated sixty-eight million Americans with criminal records. Other statistics about the U.S. prison system that I highlighted from the book were:
• We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
• One in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.
• By the mid-1980s, nearly 20 percent of the people in jails and prisons had served in the military.
• Convincing empirical evidence that the race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty.
• By 2010, Florida had sentenced more than a hundred children to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses, several of whom were thirteen years old at the time of the crime. All of the youngest condemned children—thirteen or fourteen years of age—were black or Latino.
• Over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population. Nearly one in five prison and jail inmates has a serious mental illness. Continue reading

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BOOK REVIEWS and NEWS

Book Reviews

Trouble In Mind: Bob Dylan’s Gospel Years – What Really Happened by Clinton Heylin. Lesser Gods. 320 pages. 2017
****

The author writes that this book is very much about Dylan’s own response to both his newfound religious beliefs and the reaction it engendered by a cynical media. It serves as an excellent companion to Dylan’s recently released eight-disc edition of Trouble No More: The Gospel Years (The Bootleg Series Vol. 13). I enjoyed listening to the 102 songs on the box set as I read this book.
I had only been a Dylan fan for only a few years, and not yet a Christian, when Slow Training Coming was released in 1979. Dylan would follow that album with the poorly recorded Saved in 1979 and Shot of Love in 1981, in what has become known as his controversial “Gospel Period”. I saw two of the Midwest shows on his 1981 tour.
The author provides a detailed look at this fascinating period, detailing these three recordings, and the various other songs that Dylan wrote and recorded, many of which have just now been released. He also provides a very interesting look at Dylan in concert, from the early shows in which he only performed his new Christian songs and none of his older songs.
So, what really happened? The author states that Dylan, through the ministry of the Vineyard, accepted Christ as his Savior and was baptized. He then attended an intense three-and-a-half-month course studying about the life of Jesus and principles of the faith. Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth seems to have been a significant influential part of Dylan’s discipleship. This was a particularly prolific time of songwriting for Dylan.
The author tells us that the reaction from the fans and critics on the first night in San Francisco when he played only his Christian songs, would set the tone for six months of shows and define the likely critical reception when Slow Train Coming’s follow-up album, Saved, was released the following June. For that album, for the first time in his career, Dylan planned to go straight from the road to the studio. Although the album had some very good songs on it, the official release was poorly recorded, with little of the passion the songs had in concert. It was also a critical and commercial failure, and included cover art that Dylan’s label wasn’t happy with. The cover art was later replaced. Continue reading


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BOOK REVIEWS and NEWS

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas. Viking. 296 pages. 2017
****

The author is one of our best current biographers having written major works on Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, as well as shorter biographical works. In this book he aims to separate the facts from the myths about the great Reformer’s story, as he looks at Luther “warts and all”. Assuming that most are familiar with the main points of Luther’s life, I’ll focus on unique aspects of Luther’s story that this book offers.
The first myth he addresses is that Luther’s family were humble peasants. In reality, he writes, Luther’s father was a miner. Another myth that the author dispels is that Luther’s father was harsh, strict and severe.
The author writes that others (Wycliffe and Huss, for example), sought to reform the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church before Luther, though few remember much about those early Reformers, compared to what we know about Luther.
The author as is his custom, fully embraces his subject giving us a detailed life of Luther. However, much of what he dispels as myth, I’ve learned from Luther scholars such as R.C. Sproul, Stephen Nichols, Michael Reeves and Roland Bainton.
As a monk, Luther dealt with the issue of how are we to be forgiven of our sins. A 1,600-mile round-trip to Rome was key for Luther. There he wondered “Who knows if it is true?” There he saw the immorality of the priests, with them doing masses in as little as 9 minutes.
Metaxas gives us a different take on Luther’s famous breakthrough about justification by faith in Romans 1:17. Basing his speculation on Luther’s own words, the author speculates he may have had this breakthrough while sitting on the toilet.
The author also speculates that perhaps Luther actually didn’t nail his famous “95 Theses” to the Wittenberg Church door after all, but that this was posted by a custodian.
At the Diet of Worms Luther was asked to recant his writings. After asking for time to consider the request he delivered his response the following day in both German and Latin. His response included his famous “Here I stand” and appealed to his conscience. The author tells us that conscience in Luther’s time did not mean what it means today (appeal to our own truth). Instead, it meant appealing to God’s truth.
Another myth that the author dispels is Luther’s famous throwing of an inkwell at the Devil. The author indicates that event never happened.
Luther, a former priest and monk, would marry Katie, a former nun. The story of the escaped nuns being smuggled in fish barrels is a myth, according to the author. Luther grew to deeply love Katie, and would sadly lose two daughters to death. The author states that he valued women more than most men at that time.
The author highlights conscience, dissent and freedom as he discusses Luther’s legacy. The book includes some adult language; most, if not all, from Luther’s writings. The audiobook version is well-read by the author, who brings his characteristic wit to the task. Continue reading


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Why the Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester

Why the Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester. Crossway. 224 pages. 2016
****

The authors write that at the heart the Reformation was a dispute about how we know God and how we can be right with him. Our eternal future was at stake, a choice between heaven and hell. For the Reformers there was no need more pressing than assurance in the face of divine judgment, and there was no act more loving than to proclaim a message of grace that granted eternal life to those who responded with faith. Though many will tell you that the Reformation doesn’t matter or even was a bad idea, the authors tell us otherwise. They state that the Reformation still matters because eternal life still matters. In addition, the Reformation still matters because the debates between Catholics and Protestants have not gone away.

The authors outline some key emphases of the Reformation and explore their contemporary relevance. Subjects covered by the authors include the sacraments, the preaching of the Word, sin, grace, the cross, union with Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, vocation, Purgatory, indulgences, justification, and the authority of scripture in comparison with the authority of the church and tradition. Continue reading


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BOOK REVIEWS and NEWS

The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves.  B&H Publishing Group. 211 pages. 2013 
**** 

The author, who has written extensively on the Protestant Reformation, states that the Reformation was a revolution, and revolutions not only fight for something, they also fight against something, in the case of the Reformation, this was the old world of medieval Roman Catholicism.  He states that most Christians at the time were looking for the improvement, but not the overthrow, of their religion. They were not looking for radical change, only a clearing-up of acknowledged abuses.  He tells us that the Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome, but a positive movement about moving towards the gospel.
In this fast-moving history, the author, using his knowledge and wit to introduce us to John Wycliffe (who organized a translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into English), indulgences, Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church on All Saints’ Eve, Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, the Anabaptists, Mennonites, John Calvin and his ministry in Geneva, and William Tyndale, whose life’s work was translating the Bible from its original Greek and Hebrew into English.
He writes about John Knox, the history of the English Reformation, including the Puritans, who thought that the Reformation was a good thing that was not yet complete. We are introduced to the preacher Richard Sibbes, the Westminster Assembly and John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. And much, much more.
The author asks if the Reformation is over. He writes that Roman Catholicism continues its belief in purgatory and indulgences, sure signs that the traditional Catholic doctrine of justification is at work. He states that without doubt, there has been something of a change in Rome, but concerning those theological issues that caused the Reformation, no doctrine has been rescinded. As a result, while attempts to foster greater Christian unity must be applauded, it must also be recognized that, as things stand, the Reformation is anything but over. Continue reading


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BOOK REVIEWS and NEWS


God and the Transgender Debate: What does the Bible actually say about gender identity? by Andrew T. Walker. The Good Book Company. 145 pages. 2017
****

In the Foreword, Albert Mohler writes that the transgender revolution represents one of the most difficult pastoral challenges that churches in this generation will face. He states that the sexual revolution poses challenges that are not simply going to disappear. The church must be ready to meet these challenges with biblical fidelity and Christ-like compassion.
The author states that all of us need an answer to questions such as: Can a man become a woman? Can a woman become a man? How and when should children be confronted with the debates about gender? What are we to do with children who are a member of one biological sex but feel as though they were born in the wrong body? What do we say to someone experiencing these feelings and desires? How do we love and help those who are deeply hurting?  This short, but helpful, book is intended to help with those questions.
Making sure we understand the terms involved is important. The author defines gender identity as a person’s self-perception of whether they are male or female, masculine or feminine.  He states that when someone experiences distress, inner anguish, or discomfort from sensing a conflict between their gender identity and their biological sex, that person is experiencing gender dysphoria—a mismatch between the gender that matches their biological sex and the gender that they feel themselves to be. He writes that it is crucial to understand that this is a genuine and unchosen experience. It is never something that someone should just “get over”.
Is gender dysphoria sinful? He writes that to feel that your body is one sex and your self is a different gender is not sinful. However, deciding to let that feeling rule—to feed that feeling so that it becomes the way you see yourself and the way you identify yourself and the way you act—is sinful, because it is deciding that your feelings will have authority over you, and will define what is right and what is wrong.  He states that experiencing gender dysphoria does not mean you are not a Christian. Someone can embrace a transgender identity, or find their identity in Christ, but not both.
He writes that people who identify as transgender report disproportionately higher rates of mental-health problems than the rest of the general population, including depression, suicide, and thoughts of suicide. Continue reading


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13 Reformation Resources to Help You Prepare for the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation  

On Sunday, October 29, churches around the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, signaling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. To prepare you for Reformation Sunday, below are 13 Reformation-related resources:

What Reformation resources do you have to add to this list?