Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 Books in Review

So, major clarification to start: This is not my favorite books that came out in 2012. In fact, I am pretty sure that none of them came out in 2012. These are my favorite books that I read in 2012. There you go.

Top 5 Fiction Books that I Read for the First Time
5. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This was not as good as This Side of Paradise or The Great Gatsby, but it still has some great stuff. Some people find Fitzgerald depressing, and I can understand that. I find him enthralling. He penetratingly searches for meaning as his characters struggle with vain pursuits. I thought Tender is the Night was worth the read.
4. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. His more famous book is The Kite Runner, and it is fantastic. This book, however, which follows the lives of two Muslim women in Afghanistan, is nearly as powerful. I think Hosseini writes in a way that is not flattering to Islam, but is also not full of vitriol. The story of very profound and his characters are very real.
3. The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. I know, not exactly a recent book, but I finally read it. It's great, as evidenced by its lasting impact on western culture. I especially thought Athos was a well-written character.
4. 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I kind of cheated here, but I thought these two books went together. I thought 1984 was better, but both were great dystopian novels. Both warn against excessive power by the government, but both foresee different dangers.
5. The Plague by Albert Camus. This is a dark, difficult, and profound book about mankind, brokenness, and death. Again, not a new novel, but one that I had been meaning to read for a long time. It is worthwhile, and would be a great one if you are going to read a book with a group of people and discuss it.

Top 5 Nonfiction Books that I Read for the First Time
5. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. Miller's book Searching for God Knows What is an all-time favorite for me. This was not quite as good, but still a great read. Miller tells the story of how he re-evaluated his life when screenwriters came to adapt his book Blue Like Jazz into a movie.
4. Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Of course, the book that follows the 2002 Oakland A's was made into a wonderful movie last year. The book is a great read for anyone who likes baseball (or underdogs).
3. Radical Womanhood: Feminine Fatih in a Feminist World by Carolyn McCulley. I did a lot of reading this year on the subject of biblical manhood and womanhood. This was a standout book from a former feminist on her struggle to embrace biblical femininity, and the freedom she experienced as she did so.
2. Genesis in Space and Time by Francis Schaeffer. This book is great for seeing the importance of history in the Bible and in Christianity. Schaeffer, in my opinion, does not major on the minors when it comes to the Genesis account, but instead shows the biblical and historical significance of the Genesis account.
1. The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller. This is one of the greatest books I have ever read on marriage. It is great for singles, for newlyweds, and for all married folks. The book walks through the significance of marriage, while not idolizing marriage in an unhealthy way.

Books I Keep on Reading (and that I reread in 2012)
The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton
The Reason for God by Tim Keller
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Experiencing the Trinity by Darrell Johnson

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dealing with Newtown

When I first heard about the shooting in Newtown Connecticut last week, I didn't have a strong reaction. I feel a little bit guilty even saying that. I think the reason is that, sadly, it felt to me like just another sad chapter in an old story. Kent State, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and now Newtown. A school shooting, sadly, is not something new.
This reality, however, does not make what happened last week any less tragic or horrific. And I have found myself feeling more and more saddened and sickened as the days go on. As a father of three sons, I can't imagine (nor do I want to imagine) the horror of those parents as they received the news that their children had been murdered. I can't imagine the trauma that will be experienced by the precious children who survived. I pray that it will not be lifelong and debilitating for them. The whole situation is sickening.
In the aftermath of a tragedy like this, everyone chimes in. I have read many wonderful articles, including ones from Jen Wilkin and Al Mohler. I have also read and heard many things that have made me shake my head. Everyone is searching for answers, and everyone is suggesting them.
This post is not meant to be exhaustive, but I hope it will be helpful in some way. Here are some truths that I think are important for us to keep in mind as we process this tragedy.

We Are Not Safe
Discussions about gun control and security are legitimate. I say that because some will claim that what I am about to say is fatalistic. I don't intend it to be this way. I think we should discuss safety and security and weapons. At the same time, I think a lot of us (especially those of us who are parents of young children) want to find a way to assure ourselves that we can keep our children safe. If we just get stricter gun control laws, if we just have better security, if we just diagnosed mental disorders, if we just. . .
Sure, let's consider doing those things. But let's also not deceive ourselves into thinking that we can really guarantee our own (or our children's) safety. If presidents and kings can be assassinated, do I really think that a deranged person cannot kill me or my family? I can't. I don't like this fact, but it is a fact.
The reason this is so important is that we must not place our hope and trust in our laws, or our policemen, or our guns. Psalm 20:7 says, "Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God." Psalm 146:3-5 says, "Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God."
Our hope is not that we can stave off death by our own efforts. Our hope is not even to avoid death. We can't. We trust in the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who gives us hope beyond the grave.

Mankkind's Problem Is Internal
For some, this shoot was about guns. For others, it was about mental illness. Both were involved, and both should be discussed. That said, we have had murders and genocide before guns were ever invented. And we have plenty of violence committed by people who do not have mental illnesses. Neither guns nor mental illness are mankind's chief problem.
In the end, we are all victims of mankind's brokenness. But we are not only victims, but also victimizers. I have never killed anyone, but people have been victimized by my harsh words, my selfish actions, and my neglect of the needy. We are all sinful. It is easy for us to agree with the Governor of Connecticut when he says, "Evil has visited this community today." He is right. It is harder for us to agree with the Bible when it tells us that we all are evil. We don't simply need someone to save us from the evil out there, we need someone to save us from the evil inside of us.
It is good and wise and loving to do what we can to minimize the evil out there. But let's never neglect the fact that evil and violence and murder have plagued every society in the history of mankind. Sadly, this will continue until Jesus returns. Only then will there be an end to death and mourning and pain (Revelation 21:3-4).

Death is the Greatest Enemy
The Newtown tragedy is so horrific because of the seeming finality to it. Those grieving parents don't get to see their children anymore. They don't get to hold them one more time. They don't get to have one last conversation. I can't imagine what they would trade for five more minutes with their children. The finality of death is what makes it so crushing.
But death doesn't have the last word. If it does, we are all doomed. We may not all die in a violent school shooting, but we will all die. Death is our enemy. It ends our lives, it separates us from one another. It ends our dreams and aspirations. Bur death does not win out. First Corinthians 15:26 says, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." Then later in verses 54-57, the Apostle Paul writes, "'Death has been swallowed up in victory.' 'Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting.' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Jesus himself said, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believe in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die." (John 11:24-25)
Death is the greatest (worst) enemy. This tragedy reminds us of this. But thank God that there is hope beyond the grave. Otherwise there could be no hope or resolution in the wake of such a tragedy.

We will all process this tragedy. Most of us will grieve, feel sick, feel scared, and ask why. In the midst of this, never lose sight of the fact that Jesus offers us the ultimate security. Through him, we can have life beyond the grave. Just as he rose, we will rise. While guns and mental illness and lack of security might exist, none of those are the core problem that we need solved. We need both ourselves and our society renewed and transformed. Jesus, and Jesus alone, can and will accomplish this.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Deborah: A Mother to Israel

This post is in a series of posts exploring biblical masculinity and femininity. The goal is not so much to explore the specific roles to which God has called us, but instead to look at the God-given differences between men and women so that we will better understand what informs the different roles to which we are called.

The Significance of Deborah
When discussing the debate about biblical masculinity and femininity, Deborah is often a pivotal figure. Those who are complementarian often point out the fact that in Israel's history, all the patriarchs were men, all twelve heads of the tribes were men, all the priests were men, and the vast majority of the prophets were men. Egalitarians, however, will often point out that Deborah judged Israel, right alongside Ehud, Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah.
It is a fair point. Does the presence of Deborah shoot a hole in the claim that men and women are substantively different, and that these differences lead to men taking the responsibility for leadership roles, while women come alongside to support servant-hearted male leaders?
Deborah's story is found in Judges 4-5. My goal in this post is not to give an exhaustive exegesis of these chapters, but rather to explore how they interface with biblical masculinity and femininity. In the end, what strikes me most about her story is not her similarities with the others judges, but her uniqueness among them.

The Uniqueness of Deborah
When the tale of Deborah begins, there is no doubt that she is to be counted among the judges. Judges 4:4-5 says, Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.
Deborah is not a sub-judge; she is the real deal. She is as much a judge as any man who judges Israel during this period of time. In fact, unlike Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah, nothing negative is said about Deborah. In some ways, she is a superior judge to the others.
That said, Deborah is not like any other judge. Every other judge led Israel into battle and delivered them from oppressors through military action. Deborah, however, was different. Judges 4:6-7 says, She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: 'Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his troops in the Kishon River and give him into your hands."
Instead of leading the troops into battle, Deborah calls upon Barak to do so. No other judge does this.

Is Fighting Manly?
Now, this unique situation begs the question, "Why?" Why didn't God simply have Deborah lead the troops into battle? Some of us might hesitate at the seemingly-obvious answer because we are afraid it might be sexist. Still, the obvious answer seems to be that Deborah was a woman. Men were the ones who went to battle in order to fight for and defend the nation.
But is this an archaic practice that needs to be cast off? Seemingly not, since God shows no sign of making it a priority to change this practice. God has no hesitation in raising up Deborah as a full-fledged judge, but he redirects the normal pattern when it comes time for battle.
All throughout Israel's history, the men went to battle. This was just an assumed reality. And this practice is certainly not unique to Israel in military history. Throughout the Bible the idea of courageously preparing for battle is tied to the idea of being a man. The Philistines reflect this in 1 Samuel 4:9 when they exhort each other, "Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!" The Apostle Paul reflects this reality in relation to spiritual warfare when he says in 1 Corinthians 16:13, "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong." The word that is here translated "be courageous" literally means, "be manly." The ESV and NASB both translate it, "act like men." It is a euphemism here, but it still clearly ties manliness to courage for battle.
So, in light of this, what does God call Deborah to do? He calls her to relate his calling to a worthy man, who would take responsibility to lead Israel into battle. Instead of usurping the role of the men, she reinforces it. She encourages it. By calling Barak to take the lead in this way, she is inviting him to be masculine; to be manly.

Worthy of Protection
The fact that men are called to this does not denigrate women; it reveres women. It says that women are precious enough that the men should take responsibility to protect them. For Barak to take responsibility for the battle is to do something manly. For Deborah to encourage him to take this responsibility, and to back him up, is to do something feminine. Instead of honoring Deborah by making her just like the men, God honors more by making her unique among the men.
Interestingly enough, Barak doesn't want to go to battle without Deborah. Deborah gladly obliges, but does so with a mild rebuke. Because he seems to lack the courage to take responsibility for this manly task, he won't be the one to take down Sisera. Instead a woman (Jael) ended up killing him. Barak lost out on an opportunity to be brave and manly because he was hesitant to take the responsibility that had been given to him.
This purpose of this post is not to explore the role of women in the military. At the same time, one can't help but make a connection. The reason to be hesitant to put women in dangerous military situations is less a result of the belief that women are not as competent (although men are biologically stronger than women), and more a result of the belief that women are worthy of male protection. This applies not only to military situations, but also to a number of other situations. If a husband and a wife are in bed and hear a noise, he should not ask her to go explore. He should never say, "I checked it out last time; it's your turn." It is appropriate for the husband to take responsibility to explore. Men should walk women to their cars or their houses late at night. Men should stand between women and suspicious-looking people while out of public. If a woman is being intimidated physically or verbally, it is right for a man to step in. It is not because women are unable to defend themselves; it is because they are worthy of protection. And it is because it is masculine to take responsibility to protect women.

Beyond Physical Protection
And the male protective instinct should go beyond just the physical. First Peter 3:7 is a curious and controversial verse. Peter writes, "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers."
The reason this verse is controversial is because it refers to women as "the weaker partner" or, in some translations, "the weaker vessel." Weaker in what sense? Some commentaries limit this only to the physical sense. On the whole women are not as physically strong as men. But the context seems to point to a broader sense of the term. After all, Peter's commands concern the wife's need to be understood and treated with respect and consideration. This seems to point to an overall fragility in women that is not present in men.
As we go through life, I think most of us can observe that women tend to be more emotionally impacted by events than men are. Women tend to cry more. They tend to empathize more. Men tend to have an easier time compartmentalizing things. The idea that women are "weaker" in the sense that they are more vulnerable and fragile is not meant to be a derisive statement. It is a strength, just as much as it can be a weakness. It is not always an advantage that men can be cold and detached, and it is wonderful that women tend to be more emotionally tied to people.
Peter here calls not simply for physical protection for women, but an overall protection for them. We men should be very considerate with our words in order to protect the women in our lives. It is not because they "can't take it." It is because they are worthy to be treated with care.

The Femininity of Deborah
If the masculine call is to take responsibility to lead and protect, what is the feminine calling? Powerfully enough, I believe that we see this reflected in Deborah. Barak is called to lead the battle. So what does Deborah do? She is charged with calling him to the task. Now, Deborah is a powerful woman. She is influential. She is wise. The idea of a wise, powerful, and influential woman walks up to a man and says, "You are the man to lead these people into battle," this is quite a compliment. It is quite a reinforcement of his masculinity and capability.
In the very beginning, Eve is called a helper for Adam. This is a powerful term, often used for God as he helps Israel. Eve is to come alongside Adam and help and support him as he takes on the daunting task of subduing the earth. Women are created for this wonderful and life-giving calling.
Just imagine the power of a woman to say to a man, "I believe in you. I believe that you are able to provide for our family. I believe that you are strong enough to protect us. I believe that God has empowered you to lead us. I will support you and help you as you take responsibility for these things." That is life-giving! It is a powerful and noble calling. In essence, this is what Deborah did with Barak. What a powerful calling for women, and what a beautiful dance it is when men are powerfully protecting and cherishing women, and women are supporting and helping them as they do so.

Wrapping Up
Once again, Judges 4-5 is by no means a manual on masculinity and femininity. But it is interesting how this story, far from blurring the distinctions between men and women, actually highlights those distinctions. It reflects the consistent biblical reality of men being called to sacrificial, servant-hearted leadership, and women being called to respectful, servant-hearted support and help. Deborah shows us a wonderful picture of biblical femininity in all its glory.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Music Behind the Dance Steps

Back when I was a youth pastor, the game Dance Dance Revolution was big. If you don't know, Dance Dance Revolution is a dance video game, in which the players step on appropriate squares when the screen tells them to. If you do the game correctly, it simply looks like the player is dancing to the music on the game.
One time I took a group of students to an arcade, and a number of them started playing the game. There was one student who had practiced the game regularly, so he got on the machine and got a great score. But while he was getting that high score, he looked wooden and awkward.
Then two other students took a turn. They had never played the game before, but they had good natural rhythm. While they didn't get as high score as the first student, their movements were fluid and natural. They actually looked like they were dancing.
The first student knew the steps. The next students knew the music.
For years this has served as an illustration to me for how we respond to God's commands. God's commands are the dance steps. He tells us to forgive one another, to be patient with one another, not to lie to one another, to reserve sex for marriage, and to do a number of other things that we often find difficult.
Sometimes we focus all of our attention on the dance steps. We obey God's commands in a way that looks wooden and awkward to people around us. Technically, we are getting the steps right, but it misses the bigger intention.
God doesn't give us commands that are arbitrary. He doesn't write out dance steps that make no sense and then demand that we follow them. There is a music, a bigger intention, behind the dance steps he gives us. When we grasp the bigger intention, the dance steps seem more natural to us. When we understand that bitterness leads us into slavery, then the dance step of forgiveness makes more sense. When we understand that lying is destructive, we naturally desire to be honest. When we see the destructive impact of casual sex outside of marriage, the idea of remaining celibate doesn't seem so burdensome.

On December 2nd, at Life Bible Fellowship Church, we held a special event that addressed biblical manhood and womanhood. It involved a formal teaching time that I did, and then a Q&A time with me, my wife Karina, and then Gary and Miriam Keith. You can watch the video of it here.
Instead of focusing on the dance steps of submission and headship, we looked to explore the music behind these dance steps. Commands that tell men and women to play different roles in the home and the church seem jarring to us because, in our culture, they seem like unnatural dance steps. But if we understand the beautiful music of the God-given differences that God has created into men and women, the dance steps will come more naturally to us.
This is an introduction to a series of upcoming posts on the subject of biblical manhood and womanhood. It is also an invitation to listen for the beautiful music of God's good intentions for us, not only when it come to this subject, but to all the life-giving commands that God gives us.