Showing posts with label Protestantism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Protestantism. Show all posts

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Books about Creation Care, 2008 - 2010

Grant Wood, "Fall Plowing," 1931
Last night I paged through the opening chapters of Jim Ball’s Global Warming and the Risen Lord. What, I asked myself, made this book stand out from the multitude of volumes on the environment from the pens of evangelical writers?

When I read Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man in the 1970s, I didn’t have to ask that question. In that decade, Schaeffer was a lone prophetic voice—a role that the eccentric, be-knickered apologist often adopted—calling evangelical Protestants to pay attention to their divine call to care for God’s creation and protect it from the ravages of pollution.

What made Schaeffer stand out in 1970 was the bare fact that he wrote about threats to the environment from a conservative Protestant perspective. If he had lived to see the first decade of the 21st century, I think he would have been amazed and pleased at the outpouring of volumes on environmental concerns from evangelical authors and evangelical presses. (When I have finished reading Ball's book, I'll let you know what makes it distinctive.)

One promising young voice, still near the beginning of his career, is our friend Ben Lowe. With a degree in environmental studies from Wheaton College, Ben has worked as director of outreach for A Rocha USA and as co-coordinator of Renewal, a grassroots network equipping students for creation care. After a brief run at politics, Ben is now director of young adult ministries at the Evangelical Environmental Network.

We asked Ben to give readers of The Neff Review a bibliography of current evangelical titles on the environment. Here is Ben's list of books published in the past three years—an abundant harvest from the seed Schaeffer planted just 40 years ago.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Like many teenagers, the adolescent Rick Warren wanted to be a rock star. Living in Mendocino County, California, in the sixties, he actually met some, working as a volunteer stagehand for the Golliwogs, a precursor to Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, whose lead singer was Janis Joplin. According to Jeffery L. Sheler's Prophet of Purpose: The Life of Rick Warren (Doubleday Religion), the future megachurch pastor and best-selling author looked the part: "tall and thin with long blond Beatle bangs swept across his forehead."

But the young Rick Warren never really fit in the drug-laced Mendocino rock scene. He was interested only in the music, and he also felt the call of politics and preaching.

Although he never got to be a rock star, he now gets to do rock-star things. He talks with Bono, gets invited to the Davos World Economic Forum, and meets with world leaders like Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Paul Kagame.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

THE HERETIC'S WIFE by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

Here's a page-turning historical novel that will appeal to women who like Tudor England, chaste romances, and a clear demarcation between good and evil, especially if they identify Protestantism with good and Catholicism with evil.

The setting of The Heretic's Wife is England under Henry VIII, mostly between 1528 and 1533, and Antwerp, a major trade center where heretics could live and work in relative safety. The underlying conflict is between England's chancellor, Thomas More, and proponents of the "new learning" - scholars intent on translating the Bible into English and reinterpreting the church's traditional theology. The protagonist is Kate, a bookseller whose great-grandmother owned a Wycliffe Bible, whose father died in a Lollard prison, and whose brother has been forced to abjure and abandon his bookshop. Not surprisingly, she soon finds herself part of a network of Lutherans including the famed Bible translator William Tyndale.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

THE SABBATH WORLD by Judith Shulevitz

"The Sabbath, I said, is not only an idea. It is also something you keep. With other people."
- Judith Shulevitz

If you read only one book about the Sabbath, it should be Abraham Joshua Heschel's 1951 classic. If you have time to read another one, I recommend a book that was published just last week: The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz. (If you don't have time to read either book, you need both of them more than you realize.)

I grew up keeping Sabbath. My parents were staunch Seventh-day Adventists, and every week by late Friday afternoon the house was clean, the next day's food was cooked, and baths were taken. Fridays were hell, but they ensured that for the next 24 hours we would have a total respite from paid work, house work, yard work, and school work. As a basically lazy person whose responsible behavior was motivated by guilt, I appreciated the weekly shift : every Sabbath, guilt attached itself not to sloth but to work.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Kevin Roose was a 19-year-old Brown University student when he decided to try a unique variation on the traditional semester abroad: he would go undercover at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp." Raised more or less Quaker by politically liberal parents, he took evangelical* lessons from a friend before signing up for classes: Contemporary Issues, History of Life (i.e., young-earth creationism), Evangelism 101, and survey courses in Old Testament, New Testament, and Christian theology.

He suffered instant culture shock, of course. He was amazed at his teachers' and fellow students' nearly obsessive concern with homosexuality. His parents and especially his lesbian aunts were terrified that he would go over to the dark side. And he feared his spontaneous reactions ("Holy shit!") would give him away--though he learned to admire Liberty students' creative alternatives ("son of a friggin' biscuit!").

Saturday, April 18, 2009

HOME by Marilynne Robinson

I confess: I did not especially enjoy Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 novel about the Ames and Boughton families. Maybe the build-up was too great: some of my friends thought it was life-changing, the best novel they'd ever read. I thought it dragged. I kept waiting for something to happen. And by the time it did, I had lost interest, though (because I was reading it for a book group) I plowed on to the very end.

So when, out of a sense of duty to Literature, I checked out Home, I waited until it was almost due to begin reading. And then, much to my surprise, I got hooked.

Both novels are set in the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa, in the mid 1950s. Gilead's narrator is the Reverend John Ames, a semi-retired Congregational minister; Home's narrator is Glory Boughton, the youngest child of the Reverend Robert Boughton, a retired Presbyterian minister and Ames's best friend. Both books focus on Jack Boughton, Robert's ne'er-do-well son, though Gilead takes care of a lot of Ames family business before finally getting around to Jack.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


This morning I finished reading Dissolution, and author C.J. Sansom is now high in my pantheon of mystery writers. You suspect a book is going to be good when it's blurbed by P.D. James and Colin Dexter--and this is only Sansom's debut novel.

The strongly characterized, intricately plotted, fast-paced story is set in 1537, the year England's Henry VIII moved against the larger monasteries. The king's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, sends hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate a murder at the Monastery of St. Donatus in the fictional Scarnsea. Shardlake's mission is not only to discover who killed the previous royal emissary, but also to unearth other unsavory goings-on that could justify closing the monastery.

He unearths plenty, and on both sides of the church-state conflict.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Howard Snyder will be speaking at October's Ancient-Evangelical Future conference. This year's topic is the church. And since Howard and his friend Daniel Runyon wrote a provocative book on the church in 2002, I thought I'd post my six-year-old review of the book. There's plenty here to chew on. But I'm confident that at the conference Howard will be giving us still more to digest.

Here's the book review, which originally appeared in the November 2002 issue of Christianity Today. The book is, unfortunately, out of print, but copies are still available at

Biology Class for the Church
Howard Snyder maps the genome of the body of Christ
By David Neff

Some radicals are unbalanced. Others help us regain our balance.

Howard Snyder—whose prior books include The Problem of Wineskins (1975) and The Radical Wesley (1980)—helps us maintain theological equilibrium by constantly testing the state of the church against the teaching of the Bible. He sounds radical because he thinks that somehow, in the power of the Spirit, we can live out that teaching.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Our rabbi gave Mr Neff a copy of Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson. It's a fine study of the resurrection of the body, particularly in the Hebrew Bible and subsequent rabbinic teachings.

Here are a couple of gems about the unity of the person as taught by Jews and Christians alike during the early centuries of the common era:

Whatever notions of the soul circulated in ancient Judaism, in rabbinic theology God was not thought to have fulfilled his promises until the whole person returned, body included. Like death, a disembodied existence was deemed to be other than the last word, for the person is not 'the ghost in the machine' (that is, the body) but rather a unity of body and soul. (204)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

BEYOND SMELLS AND BELLS by Mark Galli (LaVonne's review)

My sainted father--and I call him that without a trace of irony--once told me that there were two kinds of worship he simply couldn't identify with: charismatic and liturgical. This from a man who studied history and theology, taught worship in a seminary, and wrote a book called And Worship Him. Dad's favorite definition of worship was from Ilion T. Jones: "what a thinking man does as he approaches another thinking being called God."

"We must not seek a brand of worship that is purely aesthetic," my father wrote in 1967. "Worship must be orderly and beautiful, but . . . it should have the functional beauty of a jet airplane rather than the embellishment of a nineteenth-century railway coach." My father liked old-school Protestant services with stately hymns, long sermons, and immobile congregations.

I do not.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

BEYOND SMELLS AND BELLS by Mark Galli (David's review)

Here’s a new book to watch for. I just e-mailed Paraclete Press an endorsement for Mark Galli’s forthcoming book, Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy. According to the publisher’s website, the slim volume of short essays is “for those who find themselves attracted to liturgy but don’t quite know why.” The book is due to be out April 1.

Here’s what I sent to Paraclete:
Genuine worship raises our sights above ourselves. It sets us into a community—past, present, and future. It fits us for God's mission. Above all, it brings us face-to-face with Jesus and trains us to play our role in his story. Much that passes for worship these days misses all of this. But Galli gets it decidedly right.
And here’s what I have to say to you about my friend Mark Galli. He’s a learner. In this book he talks vulnerably (as we said in the 70s) about the lessons he needed to learn and how he learned them in the school of life. Those same lessons, he shows, are taught us on a regular basis in the liturgy.

Take, for example, chapter 4, where he writes about courting and marrying his wife—only to discover that what he thought was a shared passion for theology was only a passing interest on her part. How do we get to know “the intimate Other” in marriage and in worship? Abandon romantic illusions, says Mark, both about your spouse and about God. At least when it comes to God, the liturgy helps us to face reality—and the real God (like the real wife) turns out to be both more challenging and more satisfying than the imagined one.

When the book rolls off the presses, be sure to get a copy.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Every week my desk at Christianity Today is flooded with review copies of new books. Most look a bit too familiar, modeled on other books the way the house-brand raisin bran at your grocery store is modeled on the name-brand versions by Post and Kellogg. They’re probably serviceable, but they really don’t grab your attention.

Last Monday, a book caught my attention for its originality: The Rhythm of Doctrine by John E. Colwell. The book is subtitled A Liturgical Sketch of Christian Faith and Faithfulness.

The book caught my attention, first, because the author is trying to organize a systematic theology around the seasons of the church year. I don’t know of anyone else who has done this, and Colwell says it’s such an obvious idea that “someone must have adopted this approach previously.” Except that neither he nor I know of such attempts. Most systematic theologies are organized around the three major sections of the Creed: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

ONE FAITH by J.I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

Once a year, I take copies of the Christianity Today International statement of faith to the CT editors and ask them to sign it anew. I too sign a copy as a testimony to my own continuing commitment to the theological and biblical values on which this magazine was founded. (Our statement of faith was borrowed from Gordon Divinity School when the magazine was founded in 1956. Its language has been updated since then, but its content remains the same.)

The CT-Gordon statement of faith is one of hundreds of such declarations adopted by evangelical organizations to help them keep their commitments clear. The global evangelical movement also generates statements designed to frame and focus our efforts in spreading the gospel and living out its implications. One of the most significant of these broadly consensual statements was the Lausanne Covenant (1975). But major statements like this seem to be issued every few years, and the place names by which they are known reflect the global nature of evangelicalism: Amsterdam, Iguassu, Manila, Berlin, Chicago, Willowbank, Seoul.

I've just finished reading the unedited manuscript for a new book that surveys these many statements in an attempt to show the unity and theological coherence of global evangelicalism. In their introduction to One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus, authors J. I. Packer and Thomas C. Oden argue that despite all the variation that marks the landscape of vital, evangelistic, Jesus-centered religion, there is a clear consensus.

Saturday, November 1, 2003

THE CREED by Luke Timothy Johnson

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

Creeds are like seatbelts. They won't do you any good unless you use them. The recent folly of the Episcopal Church, USA (ECUSA) shows what happens when a group says a creed but doesn't hold itself accountable to it.

Think of Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed as a user's manual. It is not just an excellent commentary on the content of the Nicene Creed (more properly known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed). It is a handbook to faith, and its fundamental argument is that while faith is our very personal response to God, our response must be shaped by specific beliefs about God.

Johnson is a Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, and Protestants might not expect to hear a Catholic argue that faith is fundamentally a personal response to God. But Johnson, who teaches at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, was part of the wave of Catholic thinkers that, in the wake of Vatican II, rejected the church's old emphasis on faith as merely giving assent to propositions. They revived the personal and the communal, while de-emphasizing the priestly and institutional dimensions of faith.

Monday, September 1, 2003

MY GOD AND I by Lew Smedes

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

Sing Me to Heaven (see my review here) is an utterly honest memoir written by a theologian who takes comfort in God's sovereignty. The late Lewis Smedes's My God and I is its equal in astonishing honesty. But though he was a theologian trained in the Dutch Calvinist tradition, Smedes could take no comfort in its teachings about God's meticulous providence.

With characteristic economy, Smedes explains, "About four years into our [decade at Calvin College], Doris gave birth to a beautiful baby boy who died before he had lived the whole of a day. God's face has never looked the same to me since."

Although this tragic death moved Smedes to deny God's meticulous providence, he never formulated an alternative theory of how evil fits into the story of God. He emphatically rejected the Process Theology that was the fashion in those years. "I would rather have my problems with the God who created the world," he wrote, "than solve my problems by trading him in for a God who is being created by the world."

Friday, August 1, 2003

FOR THE GLORY OF GOD by Rodney Stark

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

God has gone missing. Over the past couple of decades, critics and parents have decried the way that school textbooks have been purged of references to the role of religious belief in the shaping of America's major social movements, from William Bradford's "errand in the wilderness" to Martin Luther King's Montgomery bus boycott—all in the name of "neutrality" toward religion.

Earlier this year, God went missing from the proposed wording for the European Union's constitution. There remains a veiled reference to Europe's "cultural, religious, and humanist heritage," but there is nothing to suggest that there ever was a European "Christendom" or that the continent's history was shaped by ideas derived from Christian theology.

And in newsrooms, reporters regularly ignore the religious commitments and understandings that explain why people take risks and make sacrifices for the causes they believe in.

God is also missing in certain sectors of academe. In For the Glory of God, University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark offers a corrective to the work of sociologists and historians who downplay, despise, or dispute the role that belief in God has played in shaping history.

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

AMAZING GRACE by Steve Turner

This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace" and "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," was remarkably thickheaded. If Calvinists believe in the "perseverance of the saints," this future Calvinist devoted himself to demonstrating the persistence of the sinner. The first few chapters of Steve Turner's engaging Amazing Grace chronicle Newton's dogged commitment to self-destructive vice to the point that this reader could not help scrawling in the margin of page 37, "This man was thick!"

Like many a seafaring man of the 18th century, Newton repeatedly engaged in physically and spiritually destructive behaviors. He deserted the Royal Navy, then was flogged for desertion and demoted. He made up disrespectful songs about his ship's captain and was demoted again. He frequently drowned himself in drink. He prided himself in creative profanity and sharp attacks on Christian belief.

Saturday, February 1, 2003


This review was originally published by Christianity Today online.

The Evangelical movement is in a moment of identity crisis. Not that the movement ever had a single clear identity, any more than I have a single identity. What I am depends on my purpose and context: I am father, husband-lover, son, editor, boss, employee, neighbor, music minister, small-group member, playmate (to my dog), and more.

Likewise, the Evangelical movement has had multiple overlapping identities, depending on which of its historic purposes is dominant in a given time and context. As reformers of the 16th-century European church, the evangelicals were polemical theologians devoted to the authority of the Scriptures and the pure gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. As renewers of Protestant orthodoxy, they were passionate lovers of Jesus who wrote great hymns and formed circles of the committed to foster warm-hearted faith. As reformers of British and American society, they applied revivalistic fervor to the eradication of slavery, of the exploitation of women, and of the evils symbolized by Demon Rum. As foes of modernism, they built institutions in exile.