Category Archives: Book Reviews

A “Must Read” Book for Pastors and Others in Ministry

dangerous-calling.jpgEvery once in a while, I come across a book that changes my life. Not very often, but every once in a while. “Dangerous Calling” by Paul David Tripp is just such a book. If you are a pastor or in full-time ministry work, buy it….TODAY and then make it the next book you read. I have put this in my personal list of the Top 5 most influential books I’ve read. It’s that good. In fact, it is this important a book for pastors. If you are a pastor and simply cannot afford to buy this $12 book, I will buy you a copy and send it to you. Just send me your snail mail address. (Limit 10 — I’m not rich, ya’ know. :-)) Seriously, if you can‘t afford it, I WANT you to have it — you just have to promise me you’ll read it.

It will save you a lot of stress, disillusionment, pain and wheel-spinning in future ministry, if you’ll read and heed it. I wish it had been around 20 years ago.

You can find the book on Amazon HERE.

Check Out “Trusting God”

I am honored to be a friend of Gwen Smith, one of the founders of “Girlfriends in God” — a ladies ministry of encouragement that has been a blessing to my own wife and many across the country.  She 000trusting-god-cover-higher-res.jpgis joined in this ministry with Mary Southerland (wife of Pastor Dan Southerland who wrote the book “Transitioning” and was the founding pastor of Flamingo Road Church in South Florida) and Sharon Jaynes.  Gwen’s husband, Brad, is one of the elders at our church, Life Fellowship, in the Lake Norman area of metropolitan Charlotte, NC.

Girlfriends in God” has just released their newest book, “Trusting God“.  As they decribe it, “Just trust me” are the words we often hear in movies just before something bad happens. And yet, we are told to trust God. In a culture where we tend to take control of our own lives, trusting God has become a religious platitude rather than a life-changing attitude. We say it, but do we really mean it? And what does trusting God really look like?  Each of these ladies has gone through life experiences when they simply had to hang on and trust God as life took wild turns and nerve-wracking bends.  The books has 12 Bible-study lessons and a place to journal as well.

gig-7277-better.jpegOf the three “Girlfriends”, I know Gwen best because we attend the same church and Brad and I work together in leadership at our church.  Gwen is one of those effervescent personalities that makes one want to charge hades with a water pistol when you hear about her passion for the Gospel and growing in grace.  At the same time, she’s known her share of tough times and personal challenges.  She’s a wife, mother of some super-great kids, worship leader for many conferences and helps with our teams at the church and still takes the time to nurture her own walk with the Lord and helps other ladies do the same.  That’s why I’m recommending her book.  She’s the real deal and I know enough about her partners in ministry to know that they are as well.  Gwen is also the author of “Broken into Beautiful.”

It’s Christmas time and this book would make a great present for your wife, mom, daughter, sister, friend or colleague.  You can pick up a paperback copy or a Kindle edition HERE.

Congratulations to our Free Give-Away Winners: Jason Pyles and Terry Pettigrew.  Your books are in the mail!

Book Review — The Shooting Salvationist

America’s history is punctuated, and at times littered, with the stories of religious leaders of every denomination, stripe norrisbook1.jpgand reputation. From Cotton Mather and Charles Wesley to Billy Sunday and D.L. Moody to Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell, a nation born out of a desire to worship God as we are inclined to do so has given rise to some interesting personalities.Among the most flamboyant, notorious and controversial of these was “Dr.” J. Frank Norris, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas. He was, inarguably, one of America’s first “megachurch” pastors, but he was much more than that. He was also a showman, muck-raking journalist, astute businessman and, in the minds of some, a murderer.

Pastor David Stokes,* a man who grew up in fundamentalism and one who was well-acquainted with the reputation of J. Frank Norris, has written a mesmerizing book about the sensational murder trial of the pastor from Fort Worth as he stood to account for the shooting of D. E. Chipps with a pistol from his desk—right in the pastor’s office. The Shooting Salvationist is impeccably researched from the archives of Ft. Worth and Austin, Texas newspapers, Norris’ own Searchlight tabloid and numerous other documents located in the archives of the local libraries, the University of Texas at Arlington and the Arlington Baptist College.

The book is not intended to be a treatise on southern fundamentalism, the gifts of Norris or the history of religion in Texas or elsewhere. Instead, it is clearly a historical work with nary a suggestion that it was being written by a minister—let alone one who can trace his spiritual heritage back to the doorstep of the infamous “Texas Hotel,” located very near Norris’ office. It is a work of history and fact that has the feel and vibe of a John Grisham novel about some sort of trial in a hot and humid southern town.

Every generation or so, Hollywood takes the story of some real or imagined colorful religious icon and makes a movie about it. Works like “Elmer Gantry,” “The Apostle” and “Leap of Faith” are examples. If ever there was a book that was ready to be turned into this generation’s “Elmer Gantry” it is The Shooting Salvationist. In fact, the book reads much like a movie script with a precise coverage of detail that can, at times, be almost mind-dulling. Stokes expertly captured the feel and atmosphere of American life during that era from his examination of the Scopes Monkey Trial to the heydays of Ft. Worth’s rise to prominence to the powerful influence of the tabloid style of journalism then practiced by the likes of William Randolph Hurst and Norris himself.

Norris’ story

The story begins with a look at Norris’ fascination with William Jennings Bryan, who was winding down his public career as the lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. Norris had a yearning for notoriety and attention that flew right past simply having a strong ego or excessive self-confidence. As such, he constantly looked for ways to find the limelight, to attach himself to others who would bring him acclaim and an attitude that gave little thought to representing the softer and more humble attributes of the gospel he thundered from his pulpit. Stokes gives the reader insight into Norris’ childhood and early days, which would later encourage inferences as to why he ended up shooting a man in what appeared to many to be cold blood. The author tracks and traces the meteoric rise of Norris’ career to assume the role as one of Texas’ most influential pulpiteers, as he took on the role of pastor of First Baptist Church of Ft. Worth.

norris.jpgNorris quickly made a name for himself by combining lead articles in his weekly periodical, The Searchlight, with sensationalist sermons that were promoted and then printed in it. He would foreshadow sermon topics and promise scandalous revelations about local politicians and businessmen that he called out by name from his pulpit. Accuracy of speech was not an encumbrance to Norris and innuendo and suggestion were tools he artfully deployed when speaking and writing. As a result, he made myriad enemies with people of influence across Texas.

Ultimately, one of the most pivotal experiences of his life, and the source of the topic for this book, occurred when Norris shot D. E. Chipps after Chipps allegedly threatened him and perhaps even made a move toward him with the intent to do the minister harm. Interestingly, not even twenty-four hours later, Norris was back in his pulpit—soon to face the charge of first degree murder and the possibility of the death penalty. Stokes masterfully reveals different facets of Norris’ complex personality. As the trial unfolds in Arlington—moved there to find a better venue—we see a man who was unrepentant and arrogant, charming and witty, and even at times frail and sickly. Indomitable, he took on the trial process and its tapestry of politics, law and theatrics and made his case through his attorneys. Truly, it was the O. J. Simpson trial of his day.

In the end, though Norris was acquitted, Stokes never quite answers the question of whether or not the flamboyant preacher indeed murdered the oft-drunk Chipps. Certainly, reasonable doubt existed and, at the same time, the specter of plausibility as the facts of the trial and the testimony of the witnesses played out.

Value for fundamentalists

So why is such a book featured in a fundamentalist website in the form of a review? I admit that the book was quite different from what I anticipated. This is a secular book—that does not even covertly defend or explain Norris’ theology. Nor does it give a rolled-eye or an up-turned nose toward Norris’ excesses and arrogance. The author simply lays out precisely what happened and lets the reader draw his own conclusion. The book reads like a crime novel, only it’s true. It is peppered with the earthy, and at times blasphemous, language of the unconverted. It doesn’t hold back on the details of hypocrisy, yet it doesn’t try to portray the story as a microcosm of a bigger movement. This book is simply about J. Frank Norris and his murder trial, nothing more or nothing less.

Yet, for those who might be familiar with Norris and the fundamentalist names of that era ranging from Jones, Rice, Vick, Sunday and others, the book offers fascinating insight into the cradle of modern fundamentalism—particularly of the Southern variety. We see ego and the KKK, cantankerous spirits and pragmatic methodology, raw ambition and yet, a concern for reaching others with the gospel. It’s hard at times to sift through the debris in search of the good elements, but it does help us understand the nature of many who lay claim to the title of “fundamentalism” today. Indeed, many of the same tactics, techniques, manipulation and even mannerisms still exist in some branches today.

Norris, post-trial

At the conclusion of the book, one is left slightly unsatisfied. Unsatisfied that we don’t have a sure conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of the “preacher.” Unsatisfied that we don’t have a lot of additional insight into Norris’ activities, or even accomplishments, after the trial. Unsatisfied with the lack of dogma or conclusions that would allow us to agree or disagree with the author. Obviously, that was his intent.

Norris went on to found a movement of Independent, fundamentalist Baptists. That movement split in the 1950’s and the Baptist Bible Fellowship based in Springfield, Missouri formed. The remaining movement became the World Baptist Fellowship and Arlington Baptist College became their flagship institution. Norris was the pastor and co-pastor of the Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan whose pulpit he shared with G. Beauchamp Vick—the eventual lead pastor and the first president of Baptist Bible College in Springfield. Today, that same church bears little resemblance to its famous pastor of years gone by and is known as Northridge Church, led by Pastor Brad Powell—himself the son-in-law of a firebrand fundamentalist icon—the late Wally Beebe. The roots of many in today’s fundamentalism and evangelicalism can be traced back to one J. Frank Norris, the shooting salvationist.

If you are into history of any sort, curious about the origins of today’s fundamentalism or simply interested in one of the most colorful and controversial characters in American religious history, read this book. It is not a brief tome, but it kept my attention from start to finish.

In an interesting twist of irony, the school founded by one of America’s most flamboyant and controversial religious leaders has just hired another one of America’s most flamboyant and controversial leaders to serve as its provost and vice-president—Ergun Caner. Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Notes

* David Stokes is a friend and colleague of mine. In addition, I was once active within the Baptist Bible Fellowship and served as the senior pastor of a Baptist Bible Fellowship affiliated church.

 

Need a Good Book to Counter Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”?

The Lead Pastor at the church where I work has just written a great little book that takes on Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”.  Published by Multnomah Press, this concise rebuttal will give you just enough information to answer Bell’s Universalist position and help you discern the Truth when you hear this topic discussed in the future.  For a limited time, it’s available early as an eBook on multiple formats including Kindle and eReader for only $4.99.

HERE‘S the link to it.  Get yours today.

Hell Yes, Hell No? A Conversation about “Love Wins”, Rob Bell and Why You Should Give a Rip

herald-hell-ad2.JPGOn April 10th, our church, Life Fellowship Bible Church, in Cornelius (Charlotte), North Carolina hosted an apologetic seminar to discuss RobBell’s book, “Love Wins” in which he calls into question the historic evangelical position on the existence of hell and who will ultimately end up there.  Our pastor, Dr. Bobby Conway begins with a 50-minute lecture on the issues (watch for his new book coming out in a couple of months on the topic from Multnomah Press) and it is followed by an hour-long question and answer session featuring Dr. Conway, Dr. Alex McFarland (one of America’s leading apologists) and Matt Hatfield (an elder of Life Fellowship).  It was my privilege to moderate the Q and A.

If you’d like to watch this seminar, you may now do so by clicking HERE.

Phil Johnson and the Rob Bell Kerfuffle

I’m having tons of people ask me about Rob Bell and the stuff floating around the internet about his perceived flirtation/endorsement of some sort of Universalism.  If you’ve been asleep lately, check out some of what has been said HERE, HERE and HERE.

I’m not particularly surprised to be in disagreement, yet again, with Rob Bell’s theology and philosophy.  I’ve struggled with years to see why he’s today’s sexy rock star equivalent for so many young seminarians and many of my young evangelical friends.  He and McClaren were never guys I found worthy of serious emulation and the few good points that they make do not, in my mind, make them someone that I can’t wait to hear from over and over again.  But we must admit, a lot of up-and-coming evangelical future leaders are quite enamored by him.  Thus, we need to examine what he is saying and subject it to Biblical scrutiny.  It’s part of the process of real scholarship and theological examination should be at least as rigorous as any other science and perhaps more so if indeed, as Spurgeon put it, Theology is the “queen of all the sciences.”

Phil Johnson takes a more insightful look at the whole controversy by scraping past the surface issue of heresy and looking at the complete lack of discernment being exercised by today’s generation of young evangelicals.  Wherever you stand on Rob Bell — take a moment and read THIS.

Good Resource — 26 Rules of Bible Study

My good friend and colleague in the ministry, Dr. Kent Haralson, Pastor of Grace Church in Osceola, Wisconsin has developed an important new resource that I’d like to recommend to the readers of “Whirled Views”.   Kent was on our pastoral team when I was the Senior Pastor at Berean Baptist Church (now Grace Fellowship) in West Palm Beach, FL during the 1980′s and 90′s.  He has since had successful pastorates in Montana and Wisconsin.

For several years, Kent has been teaching a class at his churches entitled “Rules of Bible study.” Over the years that study  has grown to include 26 basic rules that will enable one to “rightly divide the word of truth” and greatly enhance their ability to study the word. One of the last times he taught this class, he taped it and have now has professionally produced his six-hour lecture on three DVD’s.

There is also a 27-page student workbook that goes with the DVD series.  His church is now making that DVD series available to others for $25.

All proceeds for the sale of this DVD are put right back into their church budget. Let me encourage you to consider adding this resource to the tool bag that your church offers or your own personal library.

If you would rather not go through the hassle of cutting a check, you can pay for the materials using PayPal (his account is doc_haralson@centurytel.net).  Below you can find an abbreviated list of the 26 rules (although there is much more on the DVD and which also gives several examples for each rule) to whet your appetite.

If you want to mail a check or request more information, you can contact Kent at:

Dr. Kent Haralson
Grace Church

722 Seminole Ave.

Osceola, WI 54020

You can also locate information on this DVD and other books and DVD’s at their church website under the “resources” button at  www.gracechurchosceola.com

 The Rules of Bible Study

                                                                                                                 

  1. Before you ask what a verse means, determine the context.                                                           
  2. The Bible is written to three groups of people: Jews, Gentiles, and the Church.                          
  3. The Bible has proper divisions, and you must put those divisions in the right place.                     
  4. All scripture has three applications – doctrinal, historical and inspirational.                                   
  5. God chooses the exact words he wants to use and the events recorded to show you something.
  6. God has three distinct plans revealed in his word. He has a plan for the universe, for the earth and for your life.
  7. The invisible things of God can be seen by studying the things God made.                               
  8. The Bible is of no private interpretation. All “interpretations” must be done by comparing scripture with scripture.
  9. The individual words of the Bible are the key to the Bible.                                                            
  10.  Always give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.                                                                         
  11.  Never forget the consistency of the Bible.                                                                                 
  12.  Remember the law of first mention.                                                                                           
  13.  Always take a passage literally until it is impossible to take it literally.                                        
  14.  Always be prepared to change whatever you have been taught or you have believed when it goes contrary to the Bible. Never make the Bible line up with what you believe. Always line yourself up to what the Bible says.
  15.  Numbers are a major key in the Bible.                                                          
  16.  Never violate a clear passage when trying to understand an obscure passage.   
  17.  Never base a doctrine on a question.                                                               
  18.  Never base a doctrine on one verse or passage.                                                                                  
  19.  Pay attention to the “warnings” in the Bible.                                                                                          
  20.  Allegorical truths are of secondary importance.                                                                        
  21.  Let the Bible interpret its own symbols.                                                                                     
  22.  The survey principle – We must see the whole before becoming too immersed in its parts.        
  23.  Things that differ – we must make a difference where God makes a difference.                         
  24.  Interpret prophecies relative to the four Great Mountain Peaks of fulfillment.                            
  25.  The law of further mention – God has revealed truth progressively.                                            
  26.  Be sensitive to literary style

Book Review: “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church” by Warren Smith

Before I do this review, it’s important to do some “disclosure” caveats.  First, I am friends with Warren Smith.  I met him nearly a decade ago right after I moved to Charlotte and it was an instant connection.  We come from different branches of the “evangelical” tree – he is grafted “reformed” in his theology having moved away from this Southern Baptist stock.  I am what I prefer to call a “fundagelical” having been raised in a strident branch of fundamentalism with which I have since disassociated over matters ranging from “soteriology” (I reject the name it/claim it version of cheap salvation) to tone to raising issues of tradition to superseding doctrine.  At the same time, I do not identify with the squishy theology and associations that have plagued the “evangelical” movement for the better part of sixty years. Thus, I find myself somewhere in between the two as a “fundagelical”.   Also, it would be inaccurate to call me a full-blown “Calvinist”.  (I like to say that I’m a Calvinist to the extent that I accept about 2.7 of the five petals of the TULIP and I reserve the right to define the terms.)   In addition, I have worked with and for Smith over the years.  I wrote for the Evangelical New Services which he owns and I also wrote regularly for the Charlotte World and other newspapers that he has owned.  We have both taught for Southern Evangelical Seminary, have spoken together at conferences and have worked on projects together.  In addition, I was shocked to discover that I am even quoted in this book – something of which I was unaware until I actually read it.

loversquarrel.jpgHowever, this history with Warren may make me a tad bit more critical than I might otherwise be, just to demonstrate that I can write an even-handed review of this work.  I might simply skip this exercise, except that I find the book too important to simply relegate to the stack of “read books” that clutters my offices.  Having been asked to review it, I shall.

Over the years, I have grown increasingly frustrated and at times disenfranchised from my conservative Christian heritage because of some of the trends and practices which seem to dominate evangelicalism and fundamentalism on a regular basis.  There is a certain “lemming” mentality among Christians that I find disturbing, even though at times, I have found myself rushing headlong to the cliffs with my fellow evangelical friends.  This is the only world I know in terms of my theology.  Born and bred a Baptist, I have moved in the circles of Bible-believing Christianity my entire life.  And I’ve watched the silliness and trendiness from a front-row seat.

I remember trends like: week-long revivals, fighting the Southern Baptists, starting Christian schools, having a bus ministry, joining moral majority, opposing the World Council of Churches, prophecy conferences that assured us that Christ would return no later than 2007, Pastor’s schools, Willow Creek, Purpose-Driven Youth/Church, worship wars, small groups, Bill Gothard, cell groups, church planting, emergent, megachurches, church growth conferences, Gaither Homecomings, Catalyst, Passion, Prayer of Jabez, Purpose-Driven Life, Promisekeepers, Beth Moore, Toronto Blessing/Brownsville Revival, Christian Coalition, The Passion of the Christ, King James Only Movement and an armful more.  Most of these I simply observed and to my embarrassment some of them I joined.

Warren Smith’s book, “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church” looks at some of the most egregious trends in the evangelical church and in doing so, gives all of conservative Christianity – from the militant-to-strident fundamentalist to the sloppy agape evangelical – a well-deserved wrap on the knuckles.  What follows are my impressions…

Smith begins his work with the standard introductions and an explanation of his perspective and origins.  Then he immediately launches into bursting the bubble of what he labels the “Evangelical Myth”.  That is, that the evangelical movement would not simply be a religious movement, but would bring about cultural and societal revolution as well.

I was a little surprised that Warren took this on and so early in his book for two reasons.  First, he holds to a “Reformed” view of theology and many within the Reformed movement (though not all) subscribe to a “Kingdom” mentality (reconstructionism) that is consistent with their amillennial eschatology.  (I recognize that some Reformed folks are premillennialist, but many more are amillienial.)  Many believe that in order for Christ to establish His millennial reign, there must be the establishment of a theocratic form of governance that will recognize Christ as the Sovereign Leader He is.  Obviously, Smith does not hold this view.

warren_cole_smith.jpgThe other reason I was surprised was because during the 2006 elections, I caught some heat from Warren and many in the “Christian Right” over my decision to distance myself from politics in my role (then) as a Pastor.  I wrote several articles about it and as a result, the Charlotte Observer, my own legislator, Sue Myrick, several other media outlets and my good friend, Warren Smith either discussed it with me or took me to task in varying degrees.  Warren had me on a radio show he was doing at that time as a substitute for Stu Epperson called “Talkback Live” and we spent a lively hour or so debating the matter.
Warren’s conclusion is that whether we are talking about evangelical political movement, the evangelical “marketplace” of goods and services that has emerged or other examples of monolithic influence or impositions on our culture, there is more smoke than fire and beneath that smoke you are just as likely to find rather “unchristian” motivations like money and power than you are to find the Gospel of Christ at the heart.

In his next chapter, Smith labels the attitude that has emerged in evangelicalism as a “new provincialism” in which we ignore our heritage and traditions founded on sacred scholarship and we fail to pause about where we are heading with our illusions of wealth, power, influence and what is all-together a rather worldly methodology and scale of evaluation.  In this chapter, Warren provides the readers with a brief, but vital overview of the First and Second Great Awakenings in American History and leads the reader to a damning conclusion that the Second Great Awakening was more of a myth than a miracle and he lays the evidence and the blame of the emotionalism and manipulation that sprang from the techniques of men like Charles G. Finney – a man who is often exalted like an apostle of his era.  I won’t go into the full case, but this chapter alone is important enough to know to justify the purchase price of the book.  In the ministry of Finney, we see much of the seed sown for the excesses and unbiblical conduct of today’s evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

I will note that in this chapter, Smith takes on premillenialism which is more than likely a reflection of his Reformed Theology.  As premillenialist myself, I found myself disagreeing with a rather “broad-brushed” approach to defining the history and the impact of this eschatological belief.  At the same time, I am not such a premillenialist that I will not even entertain the criticisms and the challenges to that position.  I certainly do not elevate one’s eschatological beliefs to be equal to other core theological stands and so in this, I listened thoughtfully to the arguments without completely buying into them.  At the same time, Smith is thought provoking in how he deals with the topic and he also points out some tendencies and fallacies that have risen from those who practice a loose eschatological position without regard to other important doctrines and practical philosophy that emerges from a Biblical worldview.

With Chapter Three, Smith approaches, in rapid-fire order, some of the major “quarrels” that he and thinking believers should share with where evangelicalism is as a movement.  He first targets “Sentimentality” which reduces the sovereignty and the very definition of God.  Smith takes a courageous poke at some of the “stars” of the Sentimentality gurus including Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, leaders of emergent churches and the megachurch celebrities.

Catch this quote, “We have lost, for example, the ability to look at a book by megachurch pastor Joel Osteen and see that its very title offers the same promise as the Serpent offered Even in the garden of Eden: “Your Best Life Now!”  That Osteen could title his book thus, completely without irony, and that much of evangelicalism could accept it without criticism, are proof enough that these ideas are not irrelevant to modern evangelicalism.” (I apologize for not having the exact page in Chapter three for this quote as I read it on a Kindle and it does not have the exact pages.)

In his next chapter, Smith takes on what he describes as the “Christian Industrial Complex” with a  scathing examination of the Christian Contemporary Music, Entertainment, Publishing and other industries.  He upsets some serious tables in this sacred mall and in doing so, he will cause even the most ardent “free-market” purveyor of “Christian” wares to take a second look at this industry and ask whether or not it a part of the solution or a part of the problem when it comes to what evangelical Christianity has become.  If the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil, then Smith squarely sounds a warning call to any who buys or sells the wares in this industry.  Of course, some would point out the irony in that Smith has, for years, benefitted from this “complex” whether by selling them advertising in his newspapers or publishing this very book.  That said, he makes a point that is worthy of discussion.  With the skill that a journalist brings to a book such as this, Smith also shines the light on some unsavory techniques that high-profile “ministries” bring to the market place of Christian consumerism that will make most of us squirm a bit in our seats.

One of the most controversial, but important chapters comes next and is entitled, “Body-Count Evangelism”.  In this section, he takes on no less of a national icon than Billy Graham and others, like Rick Warren” who seem to have evangelism statistics that are “too good to be true” and asks the importunate question “where’s the fruit?”  He goes so far as to boldly “call out” some of the practices of body-counting “decisions” as opposed to those who are experiencing genuine Biblical “conversion”.  He also takes a rather insightful look at the “parachurch” phenomenon from a historical perspective and as a modern institution.  In this chapter again, Smith’s Reformed leanings factor into his conclusions and he makes some valid points.  My concern is that again he over-simplifies what he describes as Armenianism and at the same time, there needs to be additional discussion of why evangelicalism is filled with a soteriology that is more about sentimentality and cheap grace than repentance and conversion.  This chapter includes some great history of the “camp” and “brush arbor” movements of the 1800’s and also makes some interesting connections to men like Graham and Jerry Falwell.  I should note here that this is the chapter in which Smith lifts a rather embarrassingly transparent admission I made in one of my Evangelical Press News commentaries regarding my own involvement in the “Passion of the Christ” fiasco.  My article was entitled, “Pimping for Hollywood” and actually does not cast me in a very good light.  Smith goes on to discuss in a subsequent chapter the “Great Stereopticon” which is a fascinating critique of the Christian media and its impact on how we “do church.

Finally Smith closes his book with a call of action of sorts that is somewhat of a criticism of short-term missions and a challenge to plant churches.  It’s in these chapters that I find myself in sharpest disagreement with his thoughts.  Warren seems to miss the impact of short-term missions trips on the “go’er” by focusing almost exclusively on the mission field.  Yes, short-term missions involves a lot of people, spending lots of money, to have a mission-field “experience.  But that’s a little cynical.  What he fails to realize is that when one gets out of the materialistic Western/American culture, for even a few days, and sees what God is going elsewhere, it invariably impacts them dramatically and permanently.  Many young people who are preparing to go to the mission field themselves today would point back to a short-term missions trip.

The irony is that in conclusion, Smith himself shares the consequences of a short-term missions trip he made to India a few years ago where he observed K.P. Yohannan’s ministry and how that has forever changed his perspective on church-planting and foreign evangelism.  Now, he himself, has experienced the way God works through short-term missions trips and he is spreading that influence to those with whom he comes into contact around the world today.  While he calls the reader to the ministry of planting small, indigenous churches around the globe, he does so like it is a new phenomenon.  For many of us who have been doing this work for the better part of a quarter of a century, we’re glad to see others discovering it, but it’s hardly a new innovation.

In the end, like a good movie, I wanted more from Smith.  I think he was just getting started on many of the fallibles within the evangelical movement.  And in the end, I don’t know if Smith offered any tangible or practical solutions.  Maybe there’s another book in there for him on that topic.  I hope so.

How important do I think this book is?  Well, I’m ordering a case.  Half of those I’m giving to some friends of mine that are dabbling with the Emergent Movement and other things that Smith hits on in this book.  The other half will be used in a college class I’m teaching in Boston in January – a class of young church planters who are being regularly seduced and approached by much of what is wrong in evangelicalism today.  I hope they’ll read this.  More importantly, I hope they’ll learn from it.  Before it is too late. If you are going to buy a book this week, put this one at the top of your list.

To order your copy, click HERE.

Facing the Giants – A Review

I had been seeing the advertisement and reading stories about the movie, “Facing the Giants” for several months. I’m a fan of football movies of just about any genre, so I gave the articles and ads more than a passing glance. In addition, the story of how this movie came to be was intriguing to me as well.

In short, a member of a Baptist church in Georgia had a dream of producing a Christian movie that would get play in regular theaters. His first attempt went straight to video. But his second try, Facing the Giants, was picked up by a distributor and started appearing in mainstream theatres in October — mostly in the South and Southeast areas of the so-called Bible-belt. The movie was funded as a missions project by the church to the tune of $100K. They’ll now be reaping millions of dollars in profits and they’ve said they plan on using it to fund more positive family and spiritually-positive movies.

I read several reviews by multiple Christian movie reviewers and frankly, the reviews were as I expected. Negative, critical — at times, almost dismissive and mocking. Filmed on a tiny budget of $100,000, the movie has no special effects, no professional actors and none of the traditional trappings that make Hollywood movies popular and expensive.

Now, let me just interject here that I’ve come to expect some pretty unsatisfying movies springing from the imaginations of well-intentioned believers who fancy themselves breakthrough or breakoutartists in one of the most corrupt industries in the world today. In addition, there’s the whole sad library of Christian movies that were shown in church basements on New Year’s eve throughout the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s. Some of the worst were “The Burning Hell” (you aren’t really a true fundy unless you’ve seen an Estes Perkle film replete with maggots and the most AWFUL acting in the history of theatre including “Jews” with terrifyingly Southern accents.), “A Distant Thunder/Thief in the Night” (Rapture scare movies that made the Left Behind movies look like Shakespeare.) and the ridiculous “If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?” which asked the burning question “Will you survive as a genuine believer when the communists take over America?”. Somewhat better, but so over-shown they became cliche’ jokes were the movies by “Unusual Films” (from Bob Jones University) like “Flame in the Wind” (starring BJII), “Wine of Morning” and my all-time favorite — “SHEFFY” which I saw at every watchnight service I attended for about 10 years straight. The recent LaHaye/Jenkins/Cloud10 movies based on the “Left Behind” series were so laughable and ridiculous (from the theology to the special effects) that they were the cinematic equivalent of a Jack Chick comic.

I don’t really consider “The Passion” a Christian film, though I saw it and it moved me. It was truly a Hollywood production like the 10 Commandments, Ben Hurand The Robe and other Hollywood religious-themed movies.

So, let’s just say that my expectations were pretty low. I almost skipped going to see “Facing the Giants” completely, but I kept hearing people who had gone say that a) they really enjoyed it and b) they thought magazines like “World” and “CT” that trashed it were way off base.

So last week I took my gang to see it. I’m glad that I did.

Let me say up front, this is not Lord of the Rings or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. To the professional critic and the artistic elitist, there is plenty to “diss” on this, I’m sure. But I didn’t go in as a critic. I was just wanting to spend an evening with my family.

In a nutshell, this is the story of a Christian high school football coach who faces multiple professional and personal obstacles and through prayer and character, sees God provide amazing reversals and ends up victorious.

Let me say up front, this movie is Christian idealism plain and simple and unapologetic. It is completely formulaic in the finest of “Rocky” traditions. The acting is by amateurs, but I will also say that as the movie goes on, the acting gets progressively better as the actors find their feet and relax. It goes right up to the brink of being schmaltzy, but never quite crosses it. There’s “preachiness“, there’s humor, there’s contrived drama and there’s just loads of idealism.

But here’s what I noticed and experienced. Everyone in the theatre that was nearly 3/4rds full, really got “into” the movie. Throughout, people laughed, cried, clapped, cheered, hooted and at the end applauded soundly. (Something I’ve never quite experienced before in a movie of any kind.) It made it fun. And this cynical old coot found himself with a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye several times during the movie as some of the experiences of the coach (both personal and professional) hit just a little too close to home to my own life experiences.

I expected to hate the movie and I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. In fact, I’ve recommended it to multiple people and I’m recommending it to the readers of this blog. Go see it. Have an open mind. Relax and just enjoy it.

Here’s why I think I liked it so much. First, the characters were totally relatable to believers. I KNEW the people in this movie — not personally, but because I’ve worked, worshipped and walked beside these folks all my life. These fresh-faced kids on the football teams have been in my classes for the last two decades. The slightly eccentric prayer warrior has been in every church I’ve attended or pastored. The coach — he’s worked for me before and sometimes he’s BEEN me. Even the fickle fans and player parentsI’ve seen in church pews and bleachers all my life. Unbelievers might mock these folks, but I’ve loved and ministered to and with people like them for years.

Secondly, it was idealistic and I like idealism. Christianity is all about idealism. We all know that life always falls short of utopia and the ideal, but the message of the Gospel and Heaven and Salvation IS an ideal. I’m OK with that.

Thirdly, I liked the messages. Perseverance, faith, worship, character, integrity — they were portrayed positively and upfront. Simplistic? Yes. Accurate and important? Yes and yes. I didn’t have to see a hypocrite or a failure or a realistic depiction of negative outcomes in order to make the movie more realistic. Life does that for me every day. I liked the fact that everything turned out positive in the end. I mean, it’s JUST a movie. It’s OK if the good guys come out on top.

I’m more than a little irritated at the artistic snobbishness that trashed this movie in many Christian magazines and websites. You know, I don’t particularly care of the schlocky paintings of Thomas Kinkaide or the cheap porcelian collectibles of the “Precious Moments” collections. But I sure know a LOT of people who do like them. They represent values and messages and memories that mean something to a lot of people. So what’s the harm in letting them enjoy it. Of course they aren’t Rembrandt’s. They aren’t the equivalent of timeless hymns or sculptures by Michelangelo. But not everything has to be worthy of the Louvre or Academy Award-worthy to be an OK evening out with the kids.

I also really like the fact that this Georgia church took a leap of faith and invested $100K in a project that will become an inspiration to millions of believers in this country. We sent our junior high kids to see it as did several other Christian schools in the area. I told our head football coach to go see it and he did and I believe he’ll now be using this to teach some values to future teams.

So, here’s my recommendation. Take a look at the trailer by clicking HERE. Then, if it comes to your town in the theater and if you go to movies, then load up the fam, get the large popcorn with extra butter and sit back and enjoy it. It’s worth it. Oh, and take a couple of extra kleenexes. You might just need them.