Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Wisdom We Need

My favorite books are written by older, wiser Christians reflecting on their lives as followers of Christ. Some of the best books on how to follow Christ in the 21st century have been written by John Stott, rector emeritus of All Souls Church in England. His latest book, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (InterVarsity), is both a personal memoir of the development of his deepest convictions, and solid, important advice to today’s Body of Christ.

This book is full of pastoral wisdom we desperately need to hear. Of course, if you are going to talk about today’s church, you need to say something about worship. Stott suggests, “Young people tend to be impatient with the inherited structures of the church. Understandably so, for some churches are too conservative, too resistant to change… We must of course listen to young people. But the Holy Spirit’s way with the institution of the church is more the way of patient reform than impatient rejection. So don’t let’s polarize between structured and unstructured.”

But there is more to “church” than worship services. Stott explains that the church needs to be a learning, caring, worshipping and evangelizing community that is more concerned with those outside of its walls than those on the inside. Here’s vintage Stott: “If society becomes corrupt, there is no sense in blaming society for its corruption. That is what happens when human evil is unchecked and unrestrained. The question to ask is: Where is the church? Where is the salt and light of Jesus?”

We need voices like Stott’s to wake us from our complacency and remind us of what is most important. This book needs to be read by everyone who truly desires to see the church be the church in the midst of a hurting world. It is not formulaic or cliché, but solid wisdom from someone who cares deeply about the state of contemporary Christianity.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Roger Steer Interview: The Inside Story of John Stott

CPYU is a big fan of John Stott. His theology continues to undergird much of our approach to issues of faith and culture. British biographer, Roger Steer, has recently written an engaging and inspiring biography of Dr. Stott. Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott (IVP) takes readers on an adventure into the life of one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century. What follows is an interview with Mr. Steer (RS) about his new book:

CPYU: What motivated you to write a biography of John Stott? Were you friends with him before you began the project?

RS: I first got to know John when he spent just one afternoon in the mid 1990s helping me with my book about evangelicalism which was published in the USA by Baker Book House under the title Guarding the Holy Fire (1998). Previously I had heard him preach at All Souls in the 1960s but not known him as a friend.

CPYU: Our hope is that this interview leads people to read the book for themselves, but, if you would, briefly explain who Dr. Stott is and how he has so profoundly influenced the church, especially evangelicals.

RS: John Stott became Rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London in 1950 at the age of twenty-nine and Chaplain to the Queen in 1959. He chaired the British National Evangelical Anglican Congresses in 1967 and 1977, shaped the Lausanne Covenant in 1974 (advocating a new balance between evangelism and social action), founded both the Langham Partnership (to equip Christian leaders and pastors throughout the world) and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (encouraging Christians to listen both to the Word and the world – “double listening”). He is known for his writing (51 books translated into nearly 70 languages), preaching and bird-watching. He led fifty university missions worldwide. My book attempts to reveal the man behind John’s public persona, and weave his timeless insights into the story of his remarkable life.

CPYU: What surprised you the most as you dug deeper into Dr. Stott’s story?

RS: The roundedness of his personality: his gift for friendship, his sense of humor, his stamina, his humility, the absence of a ‘dark side’ and his total, selfless commitment to Christ. That is not to say that John has no faults: and honoring his instruction to tell his story ‘warts and all’ I have allowed both his friends to make their intimate comments and his critics to have their say.

CPYU: Many of our readers are young youth pastors. What do you think they would gain from reading your biography of Dr. Stott?

RS: They should read about John’s relationship with a succession of young men (and they were only men I’m afraid!), mostly Americans, who worked for him as study assistants. They will discover what John taught his young study assistants and what they taught John! They will read about what John said in personal interviews with university and college students in missions throughout the world. They should note the comments of those who have known John for many years and who think of him more as a gentle pastor and friend than as a famous preacher and writer.

CPYU: For people new to the writing of Dr. Stott, where do you suggest they begin reading? Do you have a favorite Stott book?

RS: An immediate answer would be John’s The Cross of Christ (first published 1986) about which he told me, “More of my own heart and mind went into it than into anything else I have written”. But, less predictably perhaps, I am especially interested in a little book he wrote which arose out of the Presidential address he gave in 1972 to the annual conference of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship at Swanwick, Britain, on the place of the mind in the Christian life. “Nobody wants a cold, joyless, intellectual Christianity,” he said. “But does that mean we should avoid ‘intellectualism’ at all costs? Is it experience, rather than doctrine, that really matters? Many students close their minds with their textbooks, satisfied that the intellect should play little, if any, part in the Christian life. How far are they right? For the Christian, enlightened by the Spirit, just what is the place of the mind?”

He made no secret of the fact that partly in his sights were “Pentecostal Christians, many of whom make experience the major criterion of truth”. His argument was that the great doctrines of creation, revelation, redemption and judgment all imply that we have an inescapable duty both to think and act upon what we think and know. We are created to think. The fact that humanity’s mind is fallen is no excuse to retreat from thought into emotion, for the emotional side of our nature is equally fallen. In spite of the fallenness of our minds, commands to think, to use the mind, are still addressed to us as human beings. God invited rebellious Israel, “‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).

John insisted that the fact that God is a self-revealing God and has revealed himself to humanity indicates the importance of our minds. Redemption carries with it the renewal of the divine image in us, which was distorted by the fall. This includes the mind. Paul described converts from paganism as having “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10) and as being “made new in the attitude of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23).

What is faith? John asked. It is neither credulity nor optimism but reasoning trust. Faith and thought go together, and believing is impossible without thinking. He argued that the battle for holiness is nearly always won in the mind. It is by the renewal of our mind that our character and behaviour are transformed (Romans 12:2). “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). We certainly shouldn’t think of the mind as being against the things of the Spirit: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:5–6). In order to combat the risk of the use of the mind resulting in a barren intellectualism, he concluded his talk with a powerful section showing how knowledge should lead to worship, faith, holiness and love. The text of the lecture was published by IVP as an influential booklet, Your Mind Matters.

If they could get hold of it, I think your readers would love this booklet. If not, of course, The Cross of Christ, Basic Christianity and I Believe in Preaching are all classics which have become international bestsellers.


Click here to visit Roger Steer’s website

Click here to purchase The Contemporary Christian by John Stott (named as one of Walt Mueller’s “Top Ten Most Influential Books”)

Click here to read Derek Melleby’s review of Stott’s The Living Church

Click here to learn more about Stott’s latest (and final) book The Radical Disciple (IVP)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Walt's Top Ten Most Influential Books

So Derek has issued the challenge. . . . the 10 books that have had the greatest influence on my life. I’ll add this clarifier. . . “besides the Bible.” This is a tough one. How do you narrow it down? I estimate that I’ve got about 2200 books on the shelves in my office. Several hundred more are at home. Others are sitting on the shelves in the libraries where I checked them out, and still more are books that I sold. . . . which means they probably weren’t that influential, or I just flat-out needed some money.

I established some parameters to help me narrow it down. The books have to be books that I look at and say, “Yep, that book has shaped who I am, what I value, and how I live my life.” A really influential book has the power not only to shape, but to be read again and to leave you re-shaped. I chose 10 books that I would call “marker books.” In other words, they were so influential that they stand out as catalysts for or part of watershed moments in my life.

The first book I remember is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. When I retreat into my memory and travel back to third and fourth grade at Cedar Road Elementary School, I can see myself standing in the library. Right there in the middle shelf on the outside front wall, about halfway up. . . that’s where this one sat. I remember checking it out several times. My name was on that card more than once. I can still feel and hear the crinkle of the cellophane jacket as I escaped into this fabulous story. My academic career was one marked by frustration. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t have some kind of learning disability or ADD. My only success came in reading. I was always in the highest-level reading group and even skipped up a grade once to read with the older kids. I loved reading for that and several other reasons. I’m not sure how A Wrinkle in Time shaped my life other than it was the first thick book I ever read. And, I loved it enough to keep going back.

A strange addition from my childhood would be the Book of Common Prayer, specifically the edition used in the Reformed Episcopal Church. My dad was an R.E. pastor way back then. When I was in 6th grade I went through Confirmation Class, an experience which culminated with my public profession of faith. I think there was a reception after the ceremony. But what I remember most was being handed a brand new red-covered copy of the Book of Common Prayer that was personalized with my name – “Walter Mueller” – in gold stamping right there on the front cover. That little book nurtured me into an appreciation for the beauty and order of well-thought-out liturgy, and it shaped the way I pray today.

Fast-forward to college. I was a sociology major. The text for Sociology 201 was written by the professor, Dr. Russell Heddendorf. The book was titled In The World: An Introduction To Sociology. It wasn’t published at the time and it still hasn’t been published. The text was on mimeographed sheets that were copies of Doc Heddendorf’s own typed manuscript. It was in a cardboard loose-leaf notebook. Built on the foundation of Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17, that book steered my worldview in a new direction that I’ve been going in ever since. I still pull it off the shelf from time to time.

During those same years I took a little one-credit discussion class on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I learned a little bit about reading the classics, a little bit about reading good literature, and a lot about my faith. I need to go back and read it again.

Shortly thereafter I graduated and went into campus ministry with the Coalition for Christian Outreach. It was during my time with the CCO that I was exposed to the next two books on my list. Number Five is John White’s The Fight. My copy of this then-popular book on discipleship shaped my thinking on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I led numerous student groups through a study of The Fight.

Without my CCO years I don’t think I would have ever discovered Albert Wolters’ Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. This book is serendipitous and transformative for all who read it. Not only is it a great intro to the life-giving and incredibly liberating theological system known as Dutch Neo-Calvinism (the foundation beneath our theology of faith and culture here at CPYU), but it lays out redemptive history in amazing ways. Anyone who is a follower of Jesus Christ needs to give this book a shot. You will quickly learn that the Gospel encompasses much, much more than the message of how to personally get saved.

My time at Gordon-Conwell Seminary was filled with books. Surprise, surprise. Several thousands of pages from books too numerous to count for each and every course I took. I narrowed my seminary time down to one book: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee, two of my GCTS profs. I think it's now out in its third edition. This book is the antidote to so much of what ails the church in terms of Bible study, interpretation, and application.

Next up is John Stott’s Contemporary Christian. I’ve read it several times. I’ve marked it up. I’ve quoted it endlessly and will keep on doing so. I’ve assigned it as required reading to students. Again, this one is an antidote to much of what ails me and serves the same purpose for the contemporary church.

Because I study youth culture, I have to add a book to my list that opened my eyes to the stuff kids face. David Elkind’s All Grown Up and No Place to Go was dead-on when it was written 25 years ago. It was also prophetic. Why? Because it’s dead-on for today. I had the thrill of talking to Elkind when he spoke at a National Youthworkers Convention back in the 1980s. He autographed my book. His mark is also on my life. I study culture because kids hurt. Elkind help me to understand hurting kids.

Finally, there’s a book that I pull off my shelf from time to time as a prescriptive remedy to difficulty. My dad turned me on to it, which means that it has a special place in my heart. It’s from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure has served me well over the years. Enough said.

That’s it. Ten. I wonder if my list will look any different ten years from now. Maybe I’d better get around to reading The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Top-Ten Most Influential Books

John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, has been encouraging readers to list the top-ten books that have influence their view of the world. It’s a fun but tough question, of course. This morning I grabbed a sheet of paper, glanced at my bookshelf, reflected on my life as a reader, and jotted down the books that came to mind. I wanted to do this quickly. I didn’t want to overanalyze my list or try to list the books I liked the most. What I was looking for were books that have really influenced the way I see, understand, and live in the world. Influence is not easy to define, but I do think that the following list reflects books that have influenced me deeply over the years. I return to them often to discover even more ways that these books have shaped me:

1. The Bible. If the Bible does anything, it certainly influences one’s view of the world! It’s the starting point. It’s where a view of the world comes from, for Christians. For me, the books of the Bible that have been most meaningful, at different times of my life, for different reasons: Genesis, John, and Ephesians. I’ve written an extensive study on Genesis that also tells more about my story and how it relates to the influence of the Bible: In the Beginning of the Beginning: A Study of Four Great Events in Genesis.

2. Hatchet, Gary Paulsen. Most of my reading as a child was to earn points to get free pizza at Pizza Hut. Paulsen’s classic put this thought in my head: maybe reading a book can be as good as watching a movie. Who knew? But seriously, because of Hatchet, I gave reading a chance!

3. A Time to Kill, John Grisham. I read this book in high school to impress a girl and now we are married. That’s influence. I’ve told this story elsewhere: Falling in Love, One Book at a Time.

4. A Walk Through the Bible, Lesslie Newbigin. I can still remember where I was sitting when I read it. It was a major ah-ha moment. In a brief 85 pages, Newbigin tells the biblical story from start to finish, showing readers how it holds together in Christ. Before I read this book I was reading the Bible mainly for nuggets of wisdom, or for proof-texts to make a point. Not any more! Newbigin taught me most fundamentally that the Bible is a story that shapes a community. The implications for this central idea greatly influenced chapter 4 of my coauthored book, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness.

5. Creation Regained, Albert Wolters. This book expands on the major themes of the grand-narrative of scripture: Creation, Fall and Redemption. Wolters’ distinction between structure (the goodness of creation) and direction (moving either toward or away from God) was life-changing. I explain this in greater detail in the Genesis study mentioned above.

6. The Fabric of Faithfulness, Steven Garber. How do you connect what you believe about the world with how you live in the world? Why are the years between 18-25 so crucial for wrestling with that question? Not only did this book help me in my own discipleship, but it also helped to shape my paradigm for college ministry. A must read for those concerned with reaching every generation with the Gospel!

7. The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis. For me, Lewis, the person, has probably been more influential than his books. As an undergraduate, I needed models to show me that it was possible to think and be a Christian at the same time. But The Screwtape Letters revealed something else to me as well: it is possible to be creative and a Christian at the same time.

8. The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright. Currently, Wright is somewhat of a controversial figure in some Christian circles, but this book was written nearly 20 years ago, before his now public debates about Paul and the doctrine of justification. Here Wright focuses on three major questions: How do we do history? Who was Jesus in his historical context? What difference did and does Jesus make? In my humble opinion, this is Wright’s best and most important book.

9. To End All Wars, Ernest Gordon. I often say that this is my favorite book of all time. The first time I read it I was wrestling with this question: What difference does being a Christian make, really? Gordon’s story of being a P.O.W. in Southeast Asia in WWII illustrates the transformational power of the Gospel. Not only was Gordon’s life changed by following Jesus, but the entire P.O.W. camp was transformed. I dare you to read it!

10. Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry. Berry is my favorite writer. Part of me wants to qualify that. The other part, more influenced by Berry, perhaps, says I don’t have to! Let’s put it this way: my wife and I live in the same town where we grew up, on purpose. This is due, to a large extent, to the writings of this farmer from Kentucky. I wanted to name our first son Jayber, but my wife has not been as influenced by Berry as I have been! For what it’s worth, I love Berry’s novels, enjoy his poetry and tolerate his essays. For most Berry fans, I’m learning, that list is reversed.

As I look at my list, I notice something surprising: a few of my favorite writers are not listed! People who know me well, know that I am constantly reading or re-reading something by Eugene Peterson, Os Guinness, or Tim Keller. The person who I often say most embodies my theology is John Stott. But I don’t have a single book listed by any of those writers. Interesting.

The second thing I notice is that all of the books are written by white men. Ephesians being the exception. (That was a joke! Please, please, please, do not quote me on that. I was trying to be funny!) I’m not sure what to do about that, except to make sure that I continue to read more diverse writers.

And there you have it… my list of top ten most influential books. Anyone else want to join in on the fun?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Gary A. Parrett Interview: Grounded in the Gospel

Grounded in the Gospel seeks to recover an ancient practice for modern evangelicals.

Historically, the church's ministry of grounding new believers in the essentials of the faith has been known as catechesis--systematic instruction in faith foundations, including what we believe, how we pray and worship, and how we conduct our lives. For most evangelicals today, however, this very idea is an alien concept. Packer and Parrett, concerned for the state of the church, seek to inspire a much needed evangelical course correction. This new book makes the case for a recovery of significant catechesis as a nonnegotiable practice, urging evangelical churches to undertake this biblical ministry for the sake of their spiritual health and vitality.

CPYU President, Walt Mueller, on Grounded in the Gospel: "J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett offer a diagnosis and prescription to remedy our shallow faith and practice. While the prescription might not be popular in our individualistic, do-it-yourself contemporary church culture, it's precisely the remedy needed to reverse the pandemic of narcissistic spirituality and lethargy plaguing the church."

What follows is an interview with one of the authors, Dr. Gary Parrett (GP). Dr. Parrett is professor of educational ministries and worship at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

CPYU: Grounded in the Gospel is dedicated to David Wells with this inscription: “To David Wells, who diagnoses so clearly the malaise for which catechesis is the remedy.” Would you briefly describe the cultural malaise that you are referring to?

GP: David has decried the encroachment of the forces of secularism and consumerism (and much more) upon the life and vitality of the evangelical church. We have let the surrounding cultural forces shape us rather than allowing God, by His Spirit and through His word, shape us into the likeness of Christ so that we may have a Gospel impact upon the cultures in which we live. To use the titles of a couple of David’s books, too often we evangelicals seem to have No Place for Truth and have long been Losing our Virtue. Catechesis is, we believe, a critical piece of the answer to David’s lament.

CPYU: What is catechesis and why do you think some evangelicals are skeptical of using it for instruction in the faith?

GP: Catechesis is, to use the definition we propose in the book, “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty and delight.” It is a biblically based and historically affirmed ministry of ensuring that the people of God have a grasp on the essentials of the Faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. This, we believe, includes: clarity about the Gospel, a sense of foundational theology (doctrine), a sense of how to commune with the living God in worship and prayer (devotion), a sense of how to love God and neighbor in daily living (duty) and, over and above all, a sense of delighting in the God who has so profoundly loved us in Jesus Christ (delight). One of the key reasons contributing to evangelical skepticism about catechesis is that for nearly two centuries, most evangelicals have simply not used this language or approached teaching and formation in this way. We have heard the term, if at all, chiefly from our Roman Catholic friends, and most evangelical Protestants are wary of whatever they perceive to be “Catholic” practices.

CPYU: Who is your target audience for the book?

GP: We have chiefly written the book with evangelical pastors in mind, as well as church leaders of various types, especially those charged with ministries of teaching and formation in their churches. A secondary audience would be seminary classrooms where pastors and educators are being trained. I would say that it really is the senior pastor of churches that we most hope to speak to in this book. For too long, too many evangelical pastors have not seen teaching and formation as a critical part of their responsibility (though there always are, of course, many wonderful exceptions). We sense and hope the tide may be turning in this respect and hope the book may be part of this turning and that it may, also, become a help for pastors who will be looking for guidance as they renew their commitment to be the primary teachers of their flocks.

CPYU: What advice would you give young parents who desire to raise their children in the Christian faith, especially as it relates to the themes in your book?

GP: A few quick points of emphasis would be: 1) please take up your biblically appointed calling to raise their children in the Faith, and do this in partnership with our servants in the church, including pastors and teachers; 2) please believe in your children’s capacities to learn the deep things of the Faith, even as you believe that they are capable of great achievement in other areas—academics, athletics, the arts, etc.; 3) please teach the Faith with a concern for biblical holism—that is, teaching not only their minds, but aiming to shape their hearts and their habits as well; 4) please be concerned not only for the ‘content’ of the Faith you would teach your children, but also of your example in living out the Faith with your children, and of the family ethos and culture in which you teach them. And finally, pray that all your efforts at Faith training are joyous and Jesus-focused.

CPYU: What advice would you give to people from “free church” backgrounds that might want to begin to integrate catechesis into their church’s discipleship and educational ministries?

GP: Really, the entire book is an attempt to answer this question, so it’s hard to give a brief answer, except to encourage them to carefully read and consider the book’s arguments and suggestions for first taking first steps in this direction.

CPYU: Has anything surprised you about the way Grounded in the Gospel has been received?

GP: I have long suspected that the time was ripe for catechetical renewal in evangelical churches, and the response to the book thus far has been affirming that sense. The book, we hope, can spur further discussion and help to stimulate new efforts and proposals. I am so grateful that the early evidence suggests that these things are already beginning to occur.