"The More You Love, The Harder You Fight!" - a Review of Rachael Denhollander's Book "What Is A Girl Worth?"

In 2016 after the IndyStar ran an exposé on USA Gymnastics (USAG) and how the organization turned a blind eye to sexual abuse perpetrated by coaches for years, a young woman in Louisville, Kentucky responded. She sent an email to the writer of the story stating that it was not just coaches, but one of the premier doctors for USAG who was also an abuser. When this email arrived at the IndyStar, it was soon answered by the reporter responsible for the story. It was at that moment Rachael Denhollander stepped out of private life and began the journey to become whom BBC News called "the five-star general in the army of survivors."

Rachael Denhollander, a wife, mother, attorney, former gymnast, and survivor of sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar stepped into the public eye and became the voice for hundreds of women who had been victimized sexually. In many cases, these women felt they had no voice. Sadly, some felt they were to blame for that which was done to them.

The last few years have been a whirlwind for Denhollander, her family, and the other survivors. After a long, tedious, painful, and revealing journey of testimonies, interviews, and trial dates, the battle against a culture that often protects and enables abusers continues.

Yet, there has been victory–great victory. In January 2018, Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison for his crimes. The victory is that the voices of these victims survivors were eventually heard.

The battle continues because the reality of systematic, ignored, and enabled sexual abuse continues in our nation. It continues in organizations (businesses, schools, churches, etc.) where protecting the brand is more important than protecting people. It continues in states where laws designed to bring abusers to justice often do not have enough teeth to actually provide help for the abused. It continues in communities where subtle statements such as "Well, did you see what she was wearing?" and other heinous statements point the blame at the victims rather than the victimizers. It continues in a world where the depravity of sin remains and the only hope for true healing is through repentance and total surrender to Christ.

I was given a copies of Rachael's soon-to-be-released books for review.

Denhollander's books
Rachael Denhollander's books

How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?

One book is written for parents to read to their little girls. How Much Is a Little Girl Worth? is a beautifully illustrated (by Morgan Huff) storybook showing images alongside a poem written by Rachael. I haven't read books written for little girls in a very long time (my daughter is now in her mid-twenties) but as I read this I could clearly sense a mother's love for her daughter throughout. I shared this with the preschool and children's ministry leaders in our church and they stated that every parent of little girls should have this. It declares clear messages intended to be preemptive strikes against the enemy's attack on a girl's identity. The world is a dangerous and a girl's identity is often attacked early, and continually. This portion on page 23 is a great example of the focus...

Your value is found not in what you can do

Or the things you accomplish and win.

It is found in how you were made, precious girl–

Created and cherished by Him.

What Is a Girl Worth?

What Is a Girl Worth? is the autobiographical account by Denhollander giving insight into her upbringing in Michigan, her desire to become a gymnast, and her eventual meeting with Dr. Larry Nassar at his Michigan State University clinic following an injury. Rachael's writing is clear, and narrative. The reader is quickly brought into her world and can begin to see how she transitioned from an innocent young teenager just wanting to become a gymnast to a young woman who, by no desire of her own, had to become the voice of silenced ones who have suffered abuse. 

The reader gets a first-hand view of the fear, frustration, risks, and reality of life that Rachael and her husband Jacob faced. For those who followed the story once it became a media firestorm, there really is no spoiler. Just as those who watched the film "Titanic" knew the ship eventually sunk, the readers know that Larry Nassar was eventually convicted. Yet, while reading (even knowing the outcome) there is a sense of nervousness and a need to turn the page to get to the next portion just to see how the next phase of the account plays out.

It is almost as if you want to read the book as quickly as you can just so you can be assured that Nassar gets convicted. You know he does, but Rachael's writing makes her story personal for the reader and suddenly, even if you never have personally been victimized sexually, you begin to hurt with those who have and want their voices to be heard.

I believe Rachael begins her book with the very best opening line she could have. 

Why didn't you say something sooner? (p. 1)

In this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, I have heard many say similar things. Every accusatory statement made for those bold enough to speak about their victimization is referenced in Rachael's book. Suddenly, you discover how easily (maybe unknowingly) people accuse the accuser rather than believe the harmed. 

I have highlighted many portions of the book. There are numerous statements that stood out and made me think more clearly on the issue of sexual abuse and victimization. Here are just a few:

I couldn't choose what had happened, but I could choose how I responded. (p. 87)

Church wasn't safe. Nowhere was safe. (Related to how her Bible teacher chose to teach the David & Bathsheba story plus bringing up an abuse issue in her life that occurred in her church. p. 90)

I noticed that fellow Christians pretty much talked only about our need to understand the wrong things we'd done. No one talked about God's supposed hatred for the wrongs done against us. (p. 99)

Doing good didn't erase the bad. (p. 101)

I care about the survivors. I care about the church. I care about the integrity of the gospel. When we get this wrong, it does terrible damage. (p. 147)

The dynamics survivors have to navigate just to be heard are no-win situations. (p. 157)

"Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world." - Kyle Stephens, abused as a little girl by Larry Nassar while addressing him. (p. 298)

The book is filled with such nuggets of truth and clarity.

The phrase that Rachael puts in the book numerous times, as a reminder of her upbringing, her faith, and her resolve is "The more you love, the harder you fight." This is why she persevered and why she was called the "Five star general" of this army of survivors. 

This book is a systematic account of how God brought Rachael through her pain to be used by Him for His glory and the very good of many other women. It is also the story of how her own wounds found healing as God brought her husband Jacob into her life. I told my wife that the book is a combination of a legal thriller, a sports story, a battle between good and evil, with just a little Hallmark movie in the middle (Chapters 11 & 12).

Denhollander is a Christian and her book is replete with messages related to biblical truths such as sin, grace, forgiveness, true love, and justice. While Christians will connect well with these stories, even non-believers will be able to relate. In other words, while What Is A Girl Worth? is not a "Christian book" (I'm not sure books can become Christians) it is a book written by a Christian and since one's Christianity is not something that can be turned on or off, biblical truths resonate throughout. 

In addition to the pointed story regarding USAG and Larry Nassar, there is a subtext related to the Denhollanders church and how sexual abuse among God's children is often addressed wrongly. Sadly, this was their experience, but as stated in the final chapters, God has brought healing there as well.

I highly recommend Rachael Denhollander's books. For those with little girls, the storybook is a must buy. The autobiographical account in the adult book is for all who have been victimized, know someone who has, or is part of an organization or institution (church, team, business, etc.) that could easily be positioned to protect the "image" of the organization rather than the image-bearers of God within. It is a must read. It will challenge you. It will grieve you. Hopefully and prayerfully, it will be used as a catalyst for change so that other little girls don't find themselves taking the blame for horrendous acts perpetrated on them. 

How much is a girl worth? They are infinitely worthy. 


Grieving For and Reaching the Lost Person in Your Family and Church

I recently purchased and just completed reading the new book by Pastor Dean Inserra (who, by the way, when I talk about his new book to people outside Florida or pastor's groups, am asked "Dean and Sarah who?" This is apparently common.) Dean is the founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida.

Unsaved christianHis book The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel has proven to be very popular among evangelical pastors and church members. This is due, in my opinion, to the fact that Dean has put to paper many of the thoughts and experiences that pastors and church leaders have faced over the past few decades. In some cases, the frustrations have left church leaders wondering what to do next. Dean's book is a primer for next steps of engaging and reaching the American Christian who has unknowingly traded (or never had) the true gospel for the accepted version in our culture.

Many people think they're Christians but have no concept of the severity of sin, necesity of repentance, message of grace, or the overall message of the gospel.1

The struggle is real and for any pastor who laments the latent lostness of church members and attenders, this book provides more than just details on the current state of Christianity in America, but steps for engaging gracefully and strategically with those in need of salvation. 

Over the past couple of decades, I have experienced just about every example of lost "saved" people evidenced in the book. Each evangelical pastor I know echoes this reality. It is heart-breaking, but also very difficult to address. For these reasons, I am thankful for Dean's concise explanations and descriptive steps for evangelizing those who think they're already saved.

This is a slippery slope for some, mainly due to the strategies used by some traveling evangelists over the years that sow seeds of doubt simply to gain presumed decisions at camps, crusades, and revival services. These same strategies have even been used on mission trips or Vacation Bible School to elicit "results." While the numbers of decisions may increase, the numbers of truly saved individuals does not. 

Lightstock_183410_small_david_tarkington

Grieving Over Lostness

For the cultural Christian (that term refers to the one who is good by cultural worldview standards, may attend church a few times, probably a member of a church, is the neighbor you want, very nice and friendly...but not actually a Christian because he/she has never surrendered to Christ and been redeemed) lostness is not thought of much, if at all. Church is a place, not a people. Deeds are weighed highly. Political beliefs, tolerance, and good citizenship are viewed as the most desired characteristics. 

Yet, for the born again follower of Jesus Christ the lostness of friends and family members remains a constant burden and focus for prayer. To claim to be a Christian and care not for the lives of others is to sinfully ignore the Great Commission and greatest commandment.

It is this burden that motivates Christians to not simply sit idly by while others falsely hold to a "faith" that requires no faith at all. 

When Christians no longer grieve over the lostness of friends and family members, they no longer recognize the urgency of evangelism and of speaking truth. The teaching, falsely attributed to Augustine that states "preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words" has become a theme for those hoping their loved ones come to Christ, but ignoring the command to make disciples. J.D. Greear states it this way...

You cannot preach the gospel without words. The gospel is and explanation about an act that occurred in history once and for all. We testify through words that Jesus did for uw what we could never do for ourselves by living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, in our place, so that others can believe the message and trust in it. Saying, "Preach the gospel; if necessary use words," is like me saying, "Tell me your phone number; if necessary, use digits." Apart from digits, there is no phone number. Apart from words, there is no gospel.2

May we never cease to grieve over the lostness of others. Once we stop grieving, we stop sharing.

Barriers to Truth

I'm convinced that most all evangelical pastors and believers believe in the necessity of salvation through Jesus Christ. In the evangelical world of what is termed conservative Christianity, the concept is loudly affirmed. Those who hold to biblical inerrancy and seek to have a biblical worldview get this.

Yet, we know that cultural Christianity exists. We know that family members, friends, and even some (not all) church members have never truly surrendered their lives to Christ. It's evident in their words, their stated beliefs, ignoring of sin, tolerance of wrong, and their elevation of deeds over faith. It is seen in the devotion to church only when it does not interfere with other events or activities. It is not new as some active members of the church are more committed to the Rotary, the Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, or their lodge than the community of faith. It is inferred or voiced in eulogies at funerals where universal salvation, and particularly the salvation of the recently deceased, is inferred if not clearly stated as the dead person is declared to be in a "better place." 

Well-intentioned Christian leaders desire to see change. They hope for transformation among their congregants. Pastors preach clarity. They refuse to apologize for calling sin what it is. In their desperation they are said to be entertaining at first, but eventually may be accused of being negative, angry, or lacking grace. Church members shift to another congregation to avoid the weekly diatribes. A seeking of positive-worded, deistic therapy is sought and many "churches" offer such.

The fear of offending often keeps Christians from sharing. The fear of losing members can keep good pastors from preaching the fullness of the Word.

When fear wins, people lose (or remain lost.)

When truth is compromised, lostness goes unaddressed.

Comparative Analysis 

Well-intentioned adults may actually live their entire lives believing they have everything in order. It may be because they repeated a prayer at one time, but never surrendered to the lordship of Christ in their lives. It may be because they vote a certain way, are faithful to their spouse, raise their children with good manners, provide financially for their family, and maybe give to charity regularly. All are good, but without Christ, they are worthless.

Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." - Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)

Sometimes the largest barrier to surrender to Christ becomes the religiosity of deeds that leaves our friends and family members doing comparative analysis with others. From any equation used, they likely are better people than others. However, compared to Christ, they fall short...just as all of us do.

They need a Savior. They need rescuing. They need redemption. That is only found in Christ. The surrender may be initiated through prayer. It likely will be, but it is more than just repeating words. 

May we never let fear keep us from sharing the truth. 

May we never presume that our loved one or friend is a child of God simply because they are better than the next person. To ask a believer if they are a Christian and have them tell you about their faith journey will not offend a true Christian. So...ask.

Then, be prepared to tell.

May we see a decline in the number of cultural Christians in our communities and an increase in children of God.

________________

    1Dean Inserra, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019), 12.

    2J.D. Greear, Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 123.


Girl...Christianity Is Not What You're Making It

One of the most popular sections in Christian bookstores (whether brick and mortar or online) today remains the women's Christian living section. There seems to be new books filling the shelves daily. Many are written by authors with sound theology and practical points about living as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the hectic, Americanized version of church we have today.

Intermingled with the good books are some that slide into the best-sellers list due to the intriguing, self-actualized messages promoted. All of these books sit side-by-side on the shelves begging for customers to purchase them. 

As has been the case for generations, some readers have taken issue with the messages promoted by certain authors. In today's world, a category of Christians known as discernment bloggers have taken it upon themselves to read, review, and provide insight into the growing number of books. In some cases, the discerning reviewers are helpful. In other cases, the discerners slide into a legalistic narrowness (not to be equated with biblical fidelity) that leaves no author as "approved." Eventually there will be discernment blogs written about discernment blogs (there probably already are, actually.)

Nevertheless, discernment is something that many well-intentioned and God-loving Christians seem to lack. This is not something I believe intentionally is sought, but in a culture featuring many voices and an over-abundance of books, videos, and websites, not to mention the saturation of information, many struggle to see where some "Christian" teachings fall short of biblical truth. 

As I wrote previously (READ MORE HERE), many in our church are now taking a second or third look at the books they read that would be classified as "Christian." When asked by church members regarding the viability of a certain book or author, my answer is that rather than lean fully into any human teacher of biblical truth, it would be wise to begin and center one's study on the Scriptures. Other books, commentaries, devotionals, etc. are helpful, but should not be primary. 

With the Bible as the primary source of study, other teachings that contradict will stand out. 

Rachel Hollis

One author who continues to grow in popularity and has increased book sales is Rachel Hollis. Her books are located on the "Women's Christian Living" shelf at the book stores. She is a 2018  New York Times best-selling author, motivational speaker, television personality, podcast host, and more. Her books have taken off, as has her lifestyle podcasts and other teachings.

Rachel seems to be a fun, hilarious, down-to-earth person that anyone would love to have as a neighbor. Her most popular book is Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be and she has just announced the soon-to-be-released Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals.

Hollis
Hollis Co./Rachel Hollis

Many women in the church are buying, reading, and sharing quotes online from Hollis. Initially, it seems harmless, but I have discovered that some of the women in our church family (and my family members personally) have read some of her writings and have noticed some things that just don't set well.

I am not the target market for the book. Therefore, I have found others who have read and reviewed Rachel Hollis's works well. These women were taken aback by some of the messages promoted in this "Christian" best-seller. These discerning women are not the legalistic modern-day Pharisees who often speak loudest from their discernment blogs, but are Christian women standing firm on biblical truth, writing with grace and love.

Thoughts about Hollis's series of "Girl..." books and teachings.

Jen Oshman - a wife and mom to four daughters. She has served as a missionary for almost two decades on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado, where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women into a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes about that at www.jenoshman.com. Her first book, Enough About Me: Find Lasting Joy in the Age of Self, is forthcoming with Crossway

Oshman wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition about Hollis's newest book (full article here). Some of the points Jen made are...

For Hollis, salvation is found in ourselves:

The real you is destined for something more . . . your version of more. This is who you were made to be, and the first step to making that vision a reality is to stop apologizing for having the dream in the first place. Like Lady Gaga says, baby, you were born this way . . . it’s time to become who you were made to be. (209)

To get there, Hollis says: “First learn to love yourself well and give yourself credit; then reach for more” (62) She encourages readers to pick 10 goals, write them out every day, and meditate on the future vision we have of ourselves in order to get our subconscious involved. An example of one of her goals is, “I only fly first class” (101).

On staying home with her kids, Hollis says:

It’s not my spiritual gifting. It’s not in my wheelhouse. You know what is in my wheelhouse? Building a successful business, managing a team, writing books, giving keynote speeches, crushing it on social media, strategizing, branding, PR, and planning live events where a thousand women fly in from all over the world to be inspired. (80)

Lest you think I’m passing judgment on Hollis for being a working mom, I assure you that I’m not. I’ve been a working mom for all of my children’s days. But taking up your cross, sacrificially serving others, and staying home with hard, messy, needy children who don’t say thank you isn’t in anyone’s wheelhouse. I fear Hollis’s instructions will be happily heeded and lead to the emboldened absence of wives, moms, daughters, sisters, and friends who enjoy pursuing their dreams more than loving the least of these.

It is absolutely possible to be a passionate and hard-working Christian businesswoman who pursues her dreams without losing her soul. I have witnessed many myself. I’ve seen them daily confess their need for their Maker and Savior. I’ve marveled at their hard work on behalf of the kingdom, and praised God for their acknowledgment that all they have and do is by and for Jesus (Col. 1:16). It is indeed possible to build a business, a career, maybe even a global empire in a way that loves God and neighbor.

But the methods taught in Girl, Stop Apologizing aren’t the way to do it.

In following her, you are instructed to follow only yourself. Hollis says, in fact, you should follow yourself so wholeheartedly that, if you sense any guilt, you will label it as

holy crap. No, seriously. [Guilt is] a load of crap wrapped up and pretending to be holy. I don’t care what religion you were raised in. You weren’t taught guilt and shame by your creator. You were taught guilt and shame by people. (49)

Follow yourself. No apologies.

Lastly, Oshman urges readers to turn from the self-focused religious teachings propagated in these books. She states...

Girl, let’s start with an apology. Let’s turn from a self-focused way of life to a Jesus-focused way of life—and therein find true life. For it’s in him, not in ourselves, that we find the path of life, the fullness of joy, and pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).

Alisa Childers - A lifelong church-goer, follower of Jesus, and former CCM recording artist with the group ZOEgirl. Childers has an incredible story of personal doubt, crises of belief, and finding answers to the questions that come from being raised in a Christian sub-culture. She is currently an artist in residence at Whitewater Crossing Christian Church in Cleves, Ohio, and when not there, attends Station Hill Church in Spring Hill, TN with her family. 

Childers also has been asked by many women in the church about the writings of Hollis. Her full article and review is found here. Here are some of the points she highlights...

It's no shocker that Hollis connects deeply with her audience. Having survived a difficult childhood and the suicide of her brother when she was still in her early teens, the advice she gives has not come cheap or easy.  

There was that time her boyfriend continually treated her poorly. After dumping her and smashing her heart into pieces, he called to see how she was doing. When she calmly said, "Hey. I am done with this. I am done with you. Don't ever call me again," and shut off her phone, I was sending high-fives and a hearty, "You go girl!" Sadly, she didn't attribute this wisdom to knowing who she is in Christ. She credits self-love.

​You see, someone can hold to false premises and still land on truth from time to time. Should we take care of our bodies and our hearts? Should we set goals and work hard to accomplish them? Of course. But as Christians, the why and the how are crucial. I find that Hollis has bought into five common lies that seem to be the starting point for all her advice.

Make no mistake, sisters. This book is all about YOU. In chapter one, she writes, "You are meant to be the hero of your own story,” and “You, and only you are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.” She plainly states, "You should be the very first of your priorities." The book is littered with references to "self-love" and "self-care." In fact, this theme is so pervasive that it forms the infrastructure for how she responds to everything from hardship to trauma to parenting to working out.

Your happiness, your success, your everything— it's all up to you, ladies. I don't know about you, but I don't think that's very good news. Jesus offers us true joy and peace, but only after we realize that we are not the center of our own lives and we are no longer in charge.  He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

Assuming you have a big dream to not give up on, Hollis spills quite a bit of ink trying to convince you that no matter what it is. . .you should never let it go. 

​What is Rachel Hollis' dream? I felt actual sadness when I read it: 

I’m a big fan of displaying visuals inside my closet door to remind me every single day of what my aim is. Currently taped to my door: the cover of Forbes featuring self-made female CEOs, a vacation house in Hawaii . . . and a picture of Beyoncé, obvi.

Religious Pluralism is basically the idea that all roads lead to God. There is no right way or wrong way to think about God, and my religion is no better or more "right" than yours. This is a message Hollis shouts from the proverbial rooftops. The only problem? It's a worldview. It's an actual religious belief about God that claims to trump all others.

What do I mean? If you claim that all religions are equally valid and true, then you are excluding all religions that don't affirm that.

Hollis writes,

... Just because you believe it doesn't mean it's true for everyone ... Faith is one of the most abused instance of this. We decide that our religion is right; therefore, every other religion must be wrong.

Logically, this sentiment can't be true – because all religions contradict each other at some point. And Christianity is, by nature, exclusive. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me." (John 14:6)

Religious pluralism is a dogmatic belief – and it contradicts Christianity.

Just Because Something Is Packaged as Christian Does Not Make It Biblical

To be clear, if something is not biblical, it is not truly Christian. This is where discernment is needed. The counterfeit teachings that sell well, are promoted professionally online and on social media, and tend to make people (men and women alike) feel as if they're the center of their own story are nothing more than a false gospels, repackaged and reworked for a new audience.

When it comes to the works of Rachel Hollis, I will leave you with the wise words from a young woman in our church.

Ashley O'Brien - She grew up in church. Married a worship leader. She reads much. She owns a husky. She writes well and blogs on her Facebook and Instagram under the by-line of "Ball Caps and Husky Ears." Oh, and she's my daughter. Smart woman - takes after her mother.

Girl, you can wash your face all you want. You can read every boss-girl, girl-power, hustle, self-help book you want. You can take all the credit, be that women who does it all and does it with as much grace as possible. But without Christ at the center, without the truth of His words, what is it worth? Clean your soul! Read the books about everyday struggles but get the "how to" of how to get through it and conquer it from Christ and His words, not from the words of someone writing about how the world can do it, because that will eventually fail.

Then you’ll wonder, "Why didn't it work?"

Leaning too much on yourself or any human (because we are all flawed) is going to fail. Yes girl, wash your face, brush your hair, and put that go get 'em smile and face on, but don’t get wrapped up in the thoughts that you can do this alone, or even with your girl power community. Without Christ, it means nothing.

 

Is This a Good Book?

Every Wednesday morning at our church we host a mid-week preaching/teaching time. A good number of retirees and those who do not work during the day outside the home attend. Over the years we have studied numerous books of the Bible and most recently finished a series on historical heresies that developed over the centuries and still wreak havoc in many churches. 

Today we changed our format just a bit. Rather than a time of preaching or teaching from me, we began a public showing (after purchasing the license to do so legally) of the new documentary "American Gospel: Christ Alone" (available for purchase to stream here.) The film is 2 hours and 19 minutes long, so we are showing it in three parts over the next three weeks. Attendance was great as many were interested in what the film had to say regarding the gospel. The film reveals how many in America have been fooled over the years with a false prosperity and "me-first" gospel.

Following the showing, I opened the floor up for questions. 

One question had to do with books. She was pulling out of her purse a small sample of a large book that is sold on Christian websites and in almost all bookstores. It is a book about heaven. She had read her Bible, but found this book and was sheepishly asking me, in front of the crowd, "How do you know a book categorized as a Christian book is good or right?" She referenced the book she had seen, while holding the sample version in her hand. I began to answer, but first said, after recognizing the book she was referencing, that I believed her book was good and valuable. She was so relieved.

Yet, the question was clear and needed.

For any pastor who sees their church members tweeting and posting articles and segments from books that claim to be Christian, but are opposed to the true gospel and the doctrines preached and taught weekly, it can be overwhelming. 

Can I get an "amen" from every pastor who exhales loudly and sadly drops his head every time a church member shares something from Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Norman Vincent Peale, or any other of the host of false teachers propagating a teaching that morphs Scripture to say what it does not? 

Variation-of-books-in-library-1
Photo on VisualHunt.com

How do you know if a book is good? How do you know if it's worth purchasing, checking out of the library, reading, and recommending?

The question is one of discernment. I had mentioned prior to starting our film that we live in an age of information overload. There is more information available to us today, especially in our culture, than in any era in history. What we lack is not information, but discernment.

This is especially true when determining if a Bible teacher, preacher, pastor, or one of the various titles used such as prophet, prophetess, apostle, etc. are valid.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. - 1 John 4:1 (ESV)

Our time was coming to a close, but I shared some things I check to determine if a book is worth reading for spiritual health or growth. This is not a comprehensive or complete list, but things that I have done for years and continue to do.

Things I Check

  1. THE AUTHOR'S CREDENTIALS

    Not every author of a Christian book needs to be a pastor. However, many are. For those who are not, there should be some things revealed in their biography related to their faith, place of service, home church, doctrinal beliefs, etc. If the author has a title like "Dr." I want to know if it was earned or honorary. It may be a pet peeve, but I struggle when a pastor or Christian leader uses the title Doctor when it was not precipitated by study at a respectable, and in most cases, accredited school, university, or seminary. Diploma mill doctorates reek of falsehoods. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to a person receiving an honorary degree for their work and influence in the church or society, but the use of the title that is not earned causes me to question. I like to know what church they serve or attend. Churches have doctrines and ordinances they hold to as biblical. The writer will line up with his/her church's teachings (well, at least they should.) If they have schooling, I also look at where they received their degrees. In some cases, it may have nothing to do with their theology. For instance, I know of one pastor who leads a solid, evangelical church, but he graduated from an LDS university. He attended there to play football and does not now hold to the theological teachings of the school.
  2. THE FOREWORD OR INTRODUCTION

    In many cases, I am unfamiliar with the author. Publishers know when an author does not have a large platform or wide base of familiarity. Therefore, many will have a known author/pastor/teacher write the foreword or introduction to the book. In these cases, this person's name is often listed on the cover as well. The renown of these individuals in the Christian world regarding teachings, writings, church life, etc. will help to discern viability of the book as well. I then ask the same questions regarding these people as I do the authors I listed in number 1.
  3. THE PUBLISHER

    In most cases, unless the author has self-published his/her book, the publisher will be widely known regarding the types of material produced under its name. In some cases, the publisher used will lead me to put the book aside and not read it. In others, the publisher will help me discern if this new author is one to consider. Some Christian publishers are just subsidiaries of larger non-religious publishing houses. In these cases, the doctrinal beliefs are very wide. Therefore, one book published by X publisher may not be solid while another may. In other cases, the publisher may be owned by a church or denomination. In those cases, the doctrines published will line up with said denomination's teachings. Some publishers are known more for academic religious books while others are more popular as producers of devotions or what could be called "light reading" in the religious genre. Neither category discredits my recommending a book. However, if a publisher is known to primarily promote and produce heresies and false gospel ideology, I will not read or recommend their books.
  4. REVIEWS

    I check reviews online regarding the book in question as well. In addition to Amazon, Christian Book Distributors, and Goodreads, there are reviews often offered by Christian leaders and Christian websites. I will check to see if pastors, Christian leaders, or Christian websites have any reviews listed. I'll check Tim Challies, Albert Mohler, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, Crosswalk.com, and more.

I know there are more things to check...many more, but this is a start. I would encourage Christians to run questionable books by their pastors for help in knowing how to discern best. While any number of books may have a sentence or two that sounds good and helpful, if the gospel message that is promoted within the remainder of the writings are outside the biblical worldview, these writings should be avoided.

One Other Thing...

A friend told me years ago that he would not buy a Christian book that had the author on the cover, unless it was a biography. I laughed, but then I checked the book rack at some local stores and while this is not 100 percent true, there may be something there. At least ask your pastor what he thinks.

Happy reading.

___________________

*I do read books by authors with whom I disagree. I even read books that are not Christian in nature and are not written by believers in Christ. This post, however, is focused on those books that would be categorized as "Christian books" and purport to be written by Christians.


What Is Holy Sexuality? - A Review of Christopher Yuan's Latest Book

Years ago I met Dr. Christopher Yuan for the first time. I was at a denominational convention where he and his mother had a booth set up to promote their ministry and book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God. At the time, I was intrigued by the brief introduction to them and their story. Little did I know that my wife and I would be experiencing similar circumstances when our son expressed to us that he identified as gay. It was during this time I contacted Christopher and invited him to speak at our church. All in our family were encouraged by his message of hope. Christopher shared his personal story along with his parents during our morning worship service. That evening he led two seminars related to Christianity, the church, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It was during his presentations that I first heard Christopher use the term "holy sexuality." He used the term in his first book as well. This term is more than just another evangelical buzzword. As Rosaria Butterfield has said, this term is "a concept that changed the paradigm of what it means to live out God's best for us."

Yuan book

Just a few weeks ago, I received an advanced readers copy (ARC) of Christopher's newly released book Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God's Grand Story. I began reading and found myself highlighting phrases and paragraphs on almost every page. Dr. Yuan unpacks so much related to sexuality. While he addresses LGBTQ+ identifiers, his book is not focused solely on these. Sexual sin, whether homosexual or heterosexual is sin. Yuan states...

We cannot properly understand human sexuality unless we begin with theological anthropology. Anthropology, in general terms, is the study of humanity. Essentially, it's the human search to answer the important question Who am I?

All our thoughts and actions are influenced at some level by how we answer the question Who am I? This suggests a closer relationship between essence and ethics than many realize. The two inform each other. Who we are (essence) determines how we live (ethics), and how we live determines who we are.1

Dr. Yuan's solid emphasis on the gospel and identity as bestowed by God presents a firm foundation for the book. As an HIV+ man who had for years lived sexually promiscuous as a gay man, was a self-described partier and drug user, and eventually went to prison for dealing drugs, Yuan does not speak as one who views sin as superficial or overly-simplified. He writes and speaks as one who has been in the pit, experienced an undeserved rescue, and continues to live amazed at the grace and mercy offered from God. The main character in Dr. Yuan's story is not himself, but God. 

Some have declared Yuan's perspective on anthropology or ontology to be flawed. I have read declarations that he misuses data and scientific proof. Others who identify as LGBTQ+ see Dr. Yuan as a sell-out or a betrayer. The negative reviews of his books mostly feign to be intellectual analyses, but often reveal a personal vitriol against Dr. Yuan based on his current message and lifestyle.

Yet, for those who have actually read Yuan's writings (not just the two books here, but also his second book Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: A Qualitative Study of Reducing Marginalization of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Same-Sex Attracted Students at Christian Colleges and Universities) or heard him speak, it is clear that Dr. Yuan is not playing fast and loose with science, research, or historical aspects of biblical Christianity and sexual ethics. His revealed research and intelligent insight debunks any theory that he simply bases his beliefs on conservative, biblical talking points or Twitter-size hot-button phrasing. Does Dr. Yuan have a personal agenda? Absolutely. Every author does. Every Christian does. Dr. Yuan's agenda is not to harm others at all. His agenda is revealed in his writings clearly. It is simply to declare the message of the gospel well, unapologetically, without compromise, and fully in love. 

On a practical level, Dr. Yuan's latest book on holy sexuality should be read by any evangelical pastor seeking to minister well to those in the church or community desiring to better understand their LGBTQ+ friends and relatives without abandoning biblical fidelity. He addresses the reality of loving without affirming. For those who do not believe their friends or church families are impacted by this reality of culture, it is time to wake up. Many pastors would rather just not address these issues. Some who have done so end up doing more harm than good, that is certain. For pastors seeking to ignore the very real questions being asked by those self-identifying as gender fluid or any one of the many letters being expressed by the common LGBTQ+ identifier (or their loved ones) the fact is clear - you cannot remain silent. Your silence speaks loudly. 

Dr. Yuan's book is not only informational related to the biblical understanding of sexuality, but relatable, insightful, and practical. The included study guide provides real-life questions that can be addressed in small group studies. These all point to biblical answers and are firmly rooted in the gospel and a biblical worldview.

I agree with Rosaria Butterfield who stated in her review that this book is the "most important humanly composed book about biblical sexuality and godly living for our times."

I encourage every Christian with a loved one identifying as LGBTQ+ to read this book. I encourage every single adult Christian (heterosexual or same-sex attracted) to read this book to better understand the very real concept of holy singleness and holy sexuality. In addition to Dr. Yuan's clear and correct take on holy sexuality, his focus on the value and role of those whom God has called to singleness within the body of Christ is powerful and needed. He addresses head-on the idolatry that has overtaken some within the Christian church regarding the false elevation of marriage as essential for spiritual maturity.

Read This Book

There's more to unpack here, but for sake of space, I will end with "Read this book! It is needed and valuable."

The book is available at these sites and more: Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  CBD.

_________

1Christopher Yuan, Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, (New York: Multnomah, 2018), 9.


When Villains Become Heroes

Each month, I gather with a group of friends, some Christians, others not, at a local comic book shop to discuss the connection between stories, theology, and culture. We call our gatherings CHAT (Costumed Heroes and Theology) and the open discussions have been healthy and thought-provoking.

Last Sunday evening, I threw a concept out to the group to discuss. The concept centered on forgiveness, redemption, and how a comic villain could become a hero (and ultimately, how that could happen in real life.)

The Avengers films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful that even those who did not grow up reading comic books or care about the narratives are at least familiar with characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, etc.

The original Avengers comic book was printed in 1963 and featured the following characters (now famous from film): Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. Some other minor characters like Voyager, Rick Jones, and Willie appeared as well, but the core was made up of the now famous heroes.

By issue 16 (May 1965) it was time for the team line-up to change. Over the decades this has happened often. What makes issue 16 so interesting (well, for comic readers at least) is that the new team would feature the following characters joining Captain America:

  • Hawkeye
  • Quicksilver
  • Scarlet Witch

Eventually, even Black Widow would join.

Avengers_Vol_1_16

Original team members like Thor, Hulk, Giant-Man (previously Ant-Man), the Wasp, and Iron Man would leave the team.

What is so significant about the addition of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Black Widow? Each of these characters began as a villain in the comics. 

There was much talk in our gathering about this, about forgiveness, redemption, how one can shift from one side of the aisle to the other, how a villain can become a hero, etc.

Professor Mark White states, "In the universe of comic books, unlike the real world, it's possible to change the past. Sometimes heroes or villains go back in time to change or preserve the course of history. More often, writers decide that something happened in the past that they failed to mention or that their characters did not know about, so they fill in the gaps, not changing history as much as completing it (after the fact.)"1

I have never read the actual Avengers comic where this introduction to new members happened, but I have looked it up online. I talked with some who did read it and it seems that a significant event took place to allow these former "bad guys and ladies" to be admitted into the club known as "Earth's Mightiest Heroes." 

They had been redeemed.

They had an advocate.

Each characterization was unique, but by and large, Captain America vouched for the new team of heroes. 

Cap, the image of virtue and morality (at least prior to the weird short-lived recent storyline where he revealed he was a Hydra/Nazi sleeper agent) basically stated "These people are with me."

And, that was enough.

Our Advocate

It reminded me of an actual story of real people expressed in Scripture. Paul (aka Saul,) the Christian killer and enemy of the church was converted by Christ on the road to Damascus. His conversion story is covered in Acts 9.

He truly was transformed, but it would not be easy for all the current Christians (the ones previously sought by Paul for destruction) to accept him into their group.

Yet, there was a man. A righteous man who stood beside Paul an advocated for his admission to the church.

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. Acts 9:26-28 (ESV)

Barnabas advocated for the former villain to join the ranks of the Christians in the church, as an apostle.

I'm sure some in the church still gave Paul the side-eye on occasion, but the change was real, not orchestrated by an author trying to sell another magazine, and time would prove this.

This is what happens for each person who surrenders to Christ as Lord. In fact, apart from Christ, we all stand as enemies to God. Yet, through his grace and mercy, we are invited into his story, not as extras or unimportant characters, but as sons and daughters. 

Our advocate isn't Barnabas. It surely isn't Captain America.

Our advocate is Jesus Christ. He has taken upon himself the entirety of humanity's sin debt. Through our repentance and surrender to him, we have the privilege of stepping away from a title of "enemy of God" to something much greater than getting to join the Avengers. We attain the rights of children and friends of God. Through Christ, we belong, not because of our righteousness, but due to his.

It's amazing how a comic book can lead to deeper conversations.

___________

1Mark D. White The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth's Mightiest Thinkers (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012), 84.


BOOK REVIEW: What Does The Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He is a prominent blogger and author. Many of his articles can be found on The Gospel Coalition's website. His books are well-known and available on our church's online bookstore and at Amazon, as well as numerous other places where books are sold. 

His latest book delves into a topic that not that long ago seemed to be far on the back burner of church and cultural life and now has become an issue not to be ignored. The culture shift in the west, especially in the United States, on the subject of homosexuality, LGBT lifestyles and same-sex marriage has been dramatic, to say the least. Those on both sides (and in the fuzzy grey areas in the middle) of the debate on Christianity and homosexuality and all that comes with that agree that the culture shift is real.

DeYoung's book What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? (Crossway Books, 2015) seeks to speak into the issues with a winsomeness and truthfulness without just echoing the words and arguments that are little more than reactionary.

In all candor, I land with DeYoung in his assertion of homosexuality and the Gospel. I found myself highlighting numerous sentences and paragraphs, to the point of realizing that if I highlight everything, it does no good to highlight anything.

DeYoung's introductory section that backs up from the question presented in the title, gives foundational footing for a discussion much deeper than the subject of gender and attraction. The title of the Introduction is "What Does the Bible Teach About Everything?" It is wise to read the Introduction, for in these thirteen pages, there is value and substance that gives strength to the subject at hand throughout the remainder of the book. I share this because I know there are many who skip Forewords and Introductions to get to the "meat" of a book. I caution you to not do that in this case.

There are numerous books flooding the online and physical stores about the subject of Christianity, the Bible and those who identify as LGBT. Many are what have been categorized by DeYoung and others as "revisionist theology." The title is self-explanatory. Yet, these writers have influence and make strong points in their books, blogs and speeches. The audience in America is clamoring for these versions of truth. DeYoung references numerous revisionist writers and even some self-declared LGBT writers in a way that is not dehumanizing and actually is complimentary of writing style and research. In fact, there are occasions when DeYoung agrees with some of the revisionist theories.

Furthermore, there is nothing ambiguous about the biblical witness concerning homosexual behavior. Even many revisionist scholars acknowledge that the Bible is uniformly negative toward same-sex activity. The gay Dutch scholar Pim Pronk, after admitting that many Christians are eager to see homosexuality supported by the Bible, states plainly, "In this case that support is lacking." (page 73)

Of course, there are far more instances where DeYoung disagrees with the revisionists and he answers the objections clearly and concisely in this book.

As is the case with many books like DeYoung's the reader comes in with a preconceived idea of what he/she already believes about the subject at hand. This is true for me. I cannot say that I was opinion-less on this subject.

However, if a reader is truly seeking for answers, not ammunition, DeYoung's book gives clear biblical account and heart-felt answers. This book is written by a pastor and while his convictions are clear regarding the veracity of the Word of God and the power of the Gospel, there is a clear passion for God, His Truth and a love for people to know Him that permeates the book. 

This book is not an easy read, in that the subject is so polarizing. Yet, it is a clearly understandable read, for those of all walks of life. 

I believe DeYoung's book is a good companion to others on the subject, such as Christopher Yuan's biography Out of a Far Country and Ann Mobley's story of loving her son through this journey in If I Tell You I'm Gay, Will You Still Love Me?

DeYoung addresses the most common arguments used to discount biblical teachings and historic doctrine that define homosexuality as sinful. He speaks to the revisionist platforms on the type of sin referenced in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the pedo-sexuality only argument, the giftedness of chastity, the gluttony, divorce, greed, etc. vs. homosexuality debate that often arises and the language questions that many use to state that what is written in the Word is not what was meant. 

He addresses these as a theologian and one who understands language nuances. The footnotes and research reveal a studied, intellectual approach.

I would caution the Christian reader who is just looking for "ammunition" to use against their co-workers, children or other acquaintances living proudly as LGBT. I would, nevertheless, encourage Christians to be well-versed in the details and the arguments offered, so that answers in love may be offered. 

The story of LGBT and the church is not going away. Some churches, as has already been seen, will shift their theology and doctrines to allow for the open practice and acceptance of LGBT members. This will be most evident in the hosting of same-sex marriages, most likely. Other churches will stand firmly on their convictions, not wavering in their doctrines and theology. They'll be accused of "being on the wrong side of history" (which, by the way, is addressed in DeYoung's book.) The churches that stand on the narrowness of God's Word will ultimately have broad influence for the Kingdom. It should be noted, that a narrow stand is needed, but must be done in love. 

Love and acceptance are not the same. Love and affirmation of sin are not the same. To be Christian is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This is the First and Greatest Commandment. . .and we weren't asked to vote on whether to accept it. It was commanded to the church and we are to live it out. Yet, it must be known that "loving our neighbor as self" is not an affirmation of ungodliness. It is an affirmation of selflessness.

"Every Christian should read this book." - Dr. Russell D. Moore, President The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, SBC

Here are some powerful quotes, in no particular order of importance from DeYoung's book:

"In the Old Testament, not all uncleanness was sin, but all sin made you unclean." (page 46)

"Homosexual practice is an example on a horizontal plane of our vertical rebellion against God." (page 52)

"Homosexual behavior is a sin, not according to who practices it or by what motivation they seek it, but because that act itself, as a truth-suppressing exchange, is contrary to God's good design." (page 53)

"According to Paul's logic, men and women who engage in same-sex sexual behavior - even if they are being true to their own feelings and desires - have suppressed God's truth in unrighteousness." (page 55)

"It is no little mistake in God's eyes to encourage and support what harms our fellow creatures and dishonors our Creator." (page 56)

"Context is king." (page 63)

"Talking is not the problem. The problem is when incessant talking becomes a cover for indecision or even cowardice." (page 76)

"When we tolerate the doctrine which affirms homosexual behavior, we are tolerating a doctrine which leads people further from God." (page 77)

"The biblical teaching is consistent and unambiguous: homosexual activity is not God's will for his people." (page 77)

"Regret is common enough; repentance is rare." (page 99)

"We don't get to pick the age we will live in, and we don't get to choose all the struggles we will face. Faithfulness is ours to choose; the shape of that faithfulness is God's to determine." (page 129)

 


What Churches Commonly Fail To Do

Earlier this week I was asked to lead a Breakout Session at one of our state's denominational regional evangelism conference. I was asked to speak on how churches can stay engaged to reach those in their communities.

1114372_19748099I struggled with a title for the session and was glad I was given the opportunity to explain what it was about prior to beginning. We know in the western church, especially in the United States, there is a definite trend away from being connected to a local church and attending regularly. Carey Nieuwhof recently posted on his blog an article titled "10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders are Attending Church Less Often." He touched on an issue  just about every pastor I know is having to address. Those who aren't addressing it may just be living with blinders on, or could possibly be the anomaly in the church-world.

The title I ended up using for this session was "Reaching the People Near You Who Actually Exist." Honestly, I don't like the title but I couldn't fit "Be Sure You Know Your Community and Stay Up-To-Date On Changes and Open Your Eyes Every Now and Then Or You May Be Closing the Doors of Your Church In the Near Future."

Subtle, huh?

This session was primarily about neighborhood mapping. Though I didn't have enough time to cover all of the info, here's the gist. Church leaders should take this to heart.

An oft-quoted question has been asked over the past few years by pastors and church leaders seeking to live missionally and direct their churches to do so as well  - "If your church ceased to exist today, would your community notice?" - Pastor Rick McKinnley, Imago Dei, Portland, OR.

Button-tweet-this "If your church ceased to exist today, would your community notice?" - Pastor Rick McKinnley, Imago Dei, Portland, OR

The Relevant Church

Relevance in ministry is sometimes scoffed upon. It’s a word that causes people to bristle and push back. Some pastors and leaders will say things like “The Gospel is always relevant” as if that justifies a poorly organized and weak strategy within the local church to fulfill the Great Commission. No one is saying that the Gospel is not relevant (at least not here) but we must come to grips with the reality that sometimes we seek to reach people who simply do not exist. If your church is not making a dent in the culture nor reaching those in the area of your footprint, the sad reality is that you, as well as those reaching many, are perfectly organized and positioned to reach those you are reaching. In other words, while the Gospel is always relevant, your strategies may not be.

Button-tweet-thisWe must come to grips with the reality that sometimes we seek to reach people who simply do not exist.

In Dr. John Fuder's book Neighborhood Mapping he states "In a world that is constantly moving and changing, it is imperative that the church not only know how to interpret the Bible but also how to engage with and and adapt to those for whom the gospel message is addressed."

He speaks of the necessity to continually exegete the community where one serves. Otherwise, we become stagnant and continue to produce events, programs and mission engagement for the people who used to live there, rather than those who now do.

The longer you are in a certain place, the less you see.

As has been stated in various venues, the world is coming here, to the United States. In a sense it always have, but the numbers are quite staggering in today's culture. Our neighborhoods are in a continual state of change. In many cases, the local church is overwhelmed and unable, if not unwilling to respond.

This is why mapping one's community on a regular basis is vital.

Button-tweet-this"A map is the fieldwork out of which strategies can be formed." - Caleb Crider, IMB & Co-Author of Tradecraft.

Here are some basics on mapping one's community (more details may be found in the book Tradecraft: For the Church On Mission.)

A Theology of Mapping

In the 1960s urban planner Kevin A. Lynch conducted an extensive study and developed the five elements of a city or community, which are still vital for mapping today. These elements are:

  1. Paths
  2. Nodes
  3. Districts
  4. Edges
  5. Landmarks

I'll break these down briefly here.

Paths

 

Paths are important because they limit an individual’s experience of the city and shape his perspective of it. If you want to relate to someone, follow his paths. People tend to only know the areas along their paths. This shapes his understanding of the community. Church leaders may travel the route from home to church often and therefore, miss the community between. Over time, the community may shift unknowingly to the established church. This is why church plants often attract people where established churches are, simply because they hit what others miss or cannot see.

The paths one travels leads people to believe a city or community is a certain way or demographic, but that may be skewed to reflect only the areas around the paths.

Alternate routes can reveal a new-ness to a community previously unseen.

Button-tweet-thisTo know your community, you must know the paths people travel.

These can be streets, sidewalks, trails, subways, bus routes, etc. 

Nodes

 

Nodes develop where paths cross.

These are strategic spots in a community where people may enter and allows for interaction. It is a place of intermingling, but it is not intimate and people are often guarded (holding onto their purses or belongings tightly, looking straight ahead, not communicating with others, etc.)

Nodes are important for gaining cultural insight because they provide the opportunity to observe how people interact or avoid interacting (mall watching.)

Businesses use these places – billboards are placed here, signs, people spinning signs,  news stands, etc. These tend to be busy places. This is where flyers can be distributed, but normally no good one-to-one communication will occur. Prior to social networking, these were the promotional spots. These areas are not good for long conversations, but good for information distribution.

Districts 

Most community dwellers develop a sense of identity around the district in which they live, play or work. Each district has a reputation in the larger community. Jacksonville is a city of districts. The surrounding bedroom communities are as well. Districts are perceived differently based on your audience.

You may live in Jacksonville, but that's not descriptive enough. Where in Jacksonville? Are you in the Southside, Westside, Riverside, Beaches, Northside? If you're in a suburb, where exactly? St Johns, Fleming Island, Middleburg, Yulee, etc.?

Then within each area are sub-districts that have their own identities. This is the first place I have ever lived where people are actually very proud and identify themselves not only by city, town, or community but by sub-division. It seems strange to celebrate a builder's planned community, but you'll see license plates and bumper stickers identifying such.

Button-tweet-thisEach population segment has its own subculture, language and rules that present barriers and bridges to the spread of the Gospel.

Edges

These may be the most disregarded elements by churches. Edges create barriers that are not impossible to cross, but improbable. These may be any of the following. . .

  • Boundaries of a District (sub-division exit)
  • Streets
  • Divided Highways
  • Gates
  • Interstates
  • Bridges
  • Bodies of Water
  • Tunnels
  • Railroad Tracks

Until I acknowledged this, I could not understand why people near where I live had no understanding of where my church is located and mostly, would not visit. Then, I looked at these elements and realized that there are at least three divided highways, a railroad track, a body of water and a bridge between my house and my church. Edges. Not impossible to cross, but for those with no reason to do so, improbable.

Landmarks

 

When in your town, what do you use to tell people how to get from point A to point B? What about on how to get to your church? In many cases, our verbal directions do not include all the street names and compass directions, but do include landmarks. You know, "Turn by the donut shop." and the like.

Landmarks may be anything that the community knows.

In Orange Park, where I live, it was the Dunkin’ Donuts. I’d tell people to "Turn at the Dunkin’ Donuts, drive a mile or so, go over the railroad tracks, past the park on the right and turn left by the Animal Hospital." 

We all use landmarks.

Use yours to your advantage.

Most Important

Spiritual mapping is vital and most important. Prior to you planting or serving in your community, God has been at work.

Button-tweet-this

To effectively evangelize your mission field is to first acknowledge that God has tilled the soil. 

Follow His map and work where he has already done the heavy lifting.

Recommended Resources

Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission by McCrary, Crider, Stephens & Calfee

Neighborhood Mapping: How to Make Your Church Invaluable to the Community by Dr. John Fuder

 

 

 


Mainstreaming Porn: A Strategy That's Working, Unfortunately

The Book

The top selling book in 2012 was Fifty Shades of Grey. No doubt you have heard of this multi-million seller, but in case you haven't, here's Amazon's description:

When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms.
 
Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires.

This book is intended for mature audiences.

"Intended for mature audiences" is a subtle way to say "This is a really dirty book with a bunch of sex in it." Funny, I know some really mature people who would say this book is nothing more than mental porn.

Why do I bother writing a post about a book that I've never read? Some would say that must read it in order to give an honest account of the material. I guess that would be true if I were writing a review based on the character development, writing style or flow of the story. I am not. In those cases, the book may very well be good. I'm more concerned with what the runaway success of this and other books in the "erotica fiction" category say about our community and culture.

What truly baffles me is how women (the primary target audience of the book) who post their daily devotional thoughts, attend their weekly Beth Moore studies and serve in the body of Christians have simply added this book and others like it to their regular reading regimens. 

While it is no secret that pornography has a foothold in the lives of many men, evidenced by the vast number of websites dedicated to the subject, the best-selling status of erotica fiction reveals that women are not immune to this attack.

Tim Challies shared recently on his blog about the realities that Fifty Shades unveils about our culture. He lists them as. . .

  1. Erotica is in
  2. Sex isn't just for men
  3. Erotica is dangerous
  4. Erotica is among Christians
  5. Erotica wounds our walk
  6. Erotica harms us all
  7. Erotica shows we need Jesus

Click here for the link to Tim's full article.

The Movie

Why is Fifty Shades of Grey back in the news? Because on Valentine's Day the film will be released. This film will likely make millions and some are predicting it will push American Sniper out of the number one spot, which is likely since Sniper has been showing for weeks.

 

50-shades-of-grey-movie-trailer-screengrab-universal
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' (Universal/YouTube)

 

 

However, the pushback against this film is not just latest effort from Christians who like to boycott everything and preach about how much they hate everything. In this case, there is a heightened effort by groups such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE) developing campaigns against this and other like films. They state this. . .

"Hollywood is advertising the Fifty Shades story as an erotic love affair, but it is really about sexual abuse and violence against women," said Dawn Hawkins, executive director of National Center on Sexual Exploitation. Hawkins noted that the public sees too much sexual abuse and violence against women in real life and urged Hollywood to take this into consideration when setting the entertainment agenda.

"The porn industry has poised men and women to receive the message that sexual violence is enjoyable. Fifty Shades models this porn message and Hollywood cashes the check," said Hawkins.

I know, I know, it's just a movie (or book) but the wise person will see it for its fullness.

As Michael Medved said years ago, and I paraphrase, "There are no accidental messages portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters. There's too much money involved for unintentional messages to be prominent." That means that under the guise of entertainment and artistic creativity, the bottom line is the bottom line. This is about money and Hollywood knows "erotica sells." 

And, here's a reality as well. The fact that I'm even blogging about this often creates more interest than otherwise would be shown. You know the old adage - "There's no such thing as bad publicity." This happens all the time in the film industry. Just look at how trending the film The Interview was based on the North Korean threats, and from all accounts, it wasn't even a very good movie. . . but almost everyone was talking about it.

The Real Story

I'm not declaring the need for an organized boycott. I don't think there's value in Christians picketing movie theaters. I do think there is value and need for Christ-followers to be aware of how the Enemy attacks. We live in a culture that celebrates sex, as long as it's outside the bounds of biblical marriage. Even Christians struggle with overt justification of sin and fall into the lies of "It's just a movie, or book." It's much more. It's a window into a culture that has heard the lies for so long, they sound like truth.

So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Ephesians 4:14 (ESV)


"Unbroken" Is Broken Without the Epilogue

As has become a bit of tradition in my household, the family went to a movie on Christmas Day. After apologizing to the young ladies selling tickets and concessions for making them work on Christmas, we entered into the theater designated for the 8pm showing of "Unbroken." 

This film had been promoted for weeks. The biography by Laura Hillenbrand had been a NY Times Bestseller for months. The buzz about Angelina Jolie's directorial debut was strong and with such negative press about the Sony comedy "The Interview" and the only other real opening day competition being "Into the Woods" it was no surprise to see the theater packed for this film.

"Unbroken" is the amazing story of survival and life-change of American Olympic track star and World War II POW Louis Zamperini. For sports and military historians, as well as those who follow the history of the Billy Graham Crusades, Zamperini's story is well-known. However, for most people, Louis Zamperini's story is being heard for the very first time.

In the late 1950s, Universal Studios secured to the rights to Zamperini's story. They intended to produce a film with Tony Curtis portraying Louis. The film was never made, but Universal held onto the rights. When Hillenbrand's book hit shelves and shot up the NY Times list, it was inevitable that a film would be made.

There are numerous reviews of the film online now. The reviews swing from "Loved it!" to "Disappointed" and every level between. 

Some pan the Angelina Jolie direction of the film, but most likely due to a distaste for Jolie rather than actual dissatisfaction with her direction. 

Others dislike the portrayal of "The Bird" by Japanese pop-star Takamasa Ishihara. It is Ishihara's first feature film and with that taken into consideration, he performance was definitely above average.

The celebrated Coen brothers are credited with the script and while there are some great lines in the film, the dialogue was not excellent. 

10387292_697866970284464_9113511582935429008_nI have not yet read the book, but did receive it for Christmas. Therefore, I did something that I wish I hadn't - viewed the film before reading the book.

I'm not a film critic (I just pretend to be on my blog) but overall, I enjoyed the film. I admit that I entered the theater wanting to enjoy the film, and no doubt that led me to like it more than others may. However, since I'm now a pretend critic, here are some thoughts I had during the viewing (SPOILER ALERT):

  • The back-story of Louis as a child was good, but seemed choppy. I know the film had to hurry and get to the POW camp, but there just seemed to be more to his upbringing and entrance into the track & field world that should have been told.
  • The Olympic scene in Berlin was great. The Jesse Owens cameo was nice, as a reminder of the times and the biggest story of the 1936 Olympics.
  • Loved the line about running in the Tokyo Olympics being the true goal for Louis. I knew this would come full-circle.
  • The time in the life-boats with Louis, Phil and Mac seemed to take forever. Maybe that was the point, but that portion of the film seemed much longer than it needed to be. On a side note, while watching this part of the film, I could not help but think of my friend Edgar Harrell and his account of beging stranded at sea with others from the USS Indianapolis upon its sinking. His story is incredible and has been put in book form (and should be a movie as well) under the title "Out of the Depths."
  • When Louis and the boys catch the shark and beat it to death in the liferaft, I chuckled a little. This really happened, I'm sure, but it just seemed over the top.
  • When the shark jumped up to attack the men, my daughter and just about half the audience jumped out of their seats. That was worth the price of admission.
  • Jack O'Connell's portrayel of Zamperini was great. I believe we may have a new silver-screen superstar revealed in this film.
  • Watching life in a POW camp, as portrayed on film, is always heart-wrenching for me. As those I know who experienced this personally can attest, the despair and challenges just cannot be presented fully in a movie. However, I applaud the filmmakers for how they protrayed this.
  • The statements "If you can take it, you can make it" and others seemed overdone and a little too much like the motivational posters seen in some offices. 
  • The movie ended and the images and statements during the end credits were nice, but as many have stated, there is so much more to Zamperini's story left untold that I left the theater feeling that I was able to eat the appetizers and a few parts of the main dish, but didn't get the full meal and definitely missed dessert.

The average rating for the film on IMDB is 6.7 out of 10. That's about right, I'd say.

As for some of the criticisms I'm reading and hearing, here's my take:

Angelina Jolie does not claim to be a follower of Christ. She appears to be a big fan and friend to the late Louis Zamperini. Apparently, she desired to make this film as an homage to him and sought his approval along the way. Louis was a Christian. His life was forever transformed by Jesus Christ. There are definitely large portions of his story that are covered in the book by Hillenbrand, but omitted from the film. Some are offended that Jolie didn't cover these aspects. I'm not offended because I would never expect her to understand fully the impact of Christ upon a life, having not (based on her own faith statements) never experiencing this personally. It's hard to convincingly portray that which you do not know.

Therefore, I believe she did a fine job of telling a portion of Zamperini's story. Louis' family apparently approves as well.

Nevertheless, there is a "rest of the story" that reveals the depths of transformation and life-change in Louis Zamperini's life. My friend, Rick Wheeler, recently shared this on his Facebook page. Here is a portion of his posting:

The story of Louis Zamperini is about the enduring and resilient human spirit. His triumph over everything life threw at him is unquestionably one of the most inspiring stories of modern history.

But there is a bigger and deeper story that the book presents that the screenwriters and the director of the movie missed: When Louis came back from the war, he was deeply wounded - not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. His hate for his captors and for "the Bird" prison guard in particular created a new prison in his life. One he could not escape from or endure by his resilient spirit. He was so tormented by his inner demons and nightmares of his captivity that he turned to alcohol and violence. Before PTSD was something doctors knew about, Louis' life was out of control and headed toward a destructive end.

Then, as a last ditch effort, his wife invited him to a Billy Graham event in 1949 in Los Angeles. That night, Louis acknowledged that he was broken and gave his heart to Christ. According to his own interviews, he had been experiencing nightmares every night since returning from his imprisonment. The night he was transformed by the gospel, he was freed from this torment and the nightmares immediately ceased. His faith was not just a crutch to get him through, it became his pathway to healing that would take Louis back to Japan on a mission of forgiveness. Louis wanted to free his former captors from the prison of guilt and shame he knew they were experiencing. The human will does not lead you to this kind of compassion, surviving a tortuous war and beating the odds does not transform a life in this way. The most incredible element of Louis' life was omitted from the movie. The pathway to redemption is not survival and resilience (if I can take it, I can make it) it is forgiveness that only comes from acknowledging that we are broken. The movie leaves the viewer with this false hope that extraordinary human effort is sufficient to overcome the internal and external conflicts of life.

I know that Louis and his family are pleased with how the movie portrays his faith and I would never want the movie to be presented as a religious film - on the contrary, I want the full truth of Louis' story to be told....because it was the part about surrender to Christ and forgiveness that met me at a broken place and brought healing.

The movie leaves this part of the story to text pages during the final credits. Camille (Rick's wife) and I could not believe that part of the story was left on the editing room floor. Overcoming adversity is always a great story. But the end of the war was not Louis' salvation as the movie depicts - in fact, the end of the war sent Louis careening out of control. Only Jesus can transform a life that has been so brutally tortured and change it into a force of forgiveness and healing. Resilience is not enough - only the gospel story will get you through your worst day. 

I agree with Rick in his assessment. He says more about the film and the book in his posting on Facebook. While I enjoyed the film, it did feel incomplete. I have told people that it is a good film. I believe it is. However, I wouldn't say that it's a great film. 

Here's why I believe this film is good. It will lead many to want to know more. Sure, many  will watch the film, leave the theater and say "Hmm, pretty good movie. Now let's go see another." However, others will be intrigued by Louis Zamperini's story and they'll want to know more. Some will read Hillenbrand's book. Others may read Zamperini's autobiography or perhaps watch the documentary produced by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Louis Zamperini's story is incredible. It's inspirational. It's challenging. Yet, until one knows the full story, it will always remain incomplete. 

Ultimately, until Zamperini realized he was "broken" he could never discover completion. He surrendered to Christ, was made whole at that moment and now is home. His story continues to be used by God to draw others to Himself.

And that is good.

______________________________________

Books & Documentaries referenced & recommended:

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

After Unbroken: The Rest of the Louis Zamperini Story by the BGEA

Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japanese POW in World War II by Louis Zamperini & David Rensin

Don't Give Up, Don't Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life by Louis Zamperini & David Rensin

Out of the Depths: An Unforgettable WWII Story of Survival,  Courage & the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis by Edgar Harrell & David Harrell