The Book That Wrote Me

Nearly two years ago, in a burst of unusual energy, I wrote the first few chapters of a book. At the time, God was working in my life in a number of ways, but He seemed to be continually convicting me of pride. Like many (most?) people, I struggle at times with the desire to be applauded and noticed.

As the Lord was shaping me, I wrote down the rough outline of a book on the subject of humility. It was definitely not a book about how humble I am, but just the opposite. I compared the example of Jesus — primarily using Philippians 2:5-11 as my text — with the self-promoting attitude of our culture. I recognized way too much of that attitude in myself, and still do at times.

After writing the first three chapters, I turned it into a book proposal, which is basically an executive summary of the book’s purpose and outline. I attached the first few chapters and emailed it to a number of Christian literary agents. To my surprise, one or two of them were actually interested in shopping the book to publishers for me. I signed a contract with a fantastic and well-regarded agent, and after he coached me a bit on my book’s format and content, he began to send my proposal to a variety of publishers.

To make a long story short, we never found a publisher for that particular book. For awhile I considered completing the project and selling it as an ebook, but other matters occupied my attention (for example, the emergence of my son into full-blown toddlerhood), and it never came to fruition. Perhaps someday.

Although the experience was disappointing, in many ways this book “wrote me” even as I worked on writing it. Among other lessons, I learned that God was asking me to practice what I had written about humility . Every rejection notice I received was a new opportunity to grow in that virtue.

In addition, I learned a great deal about trusting God’s timing. I found myself praying that God would speak the message of this book to His people through other messengers if I wasn’t the right person for the job. To my delight, I’ve seen several books on similar subjects in the past year or two.

Finally, God used the process to lead to the publication of the Ordinary Greatness Bible study series, which was just released this month. He paved the way for me to embark on a new phase of my ministry, and to help Grace Bible Church expand its reach across the world.

I want to share the first two chapters of that book with my blog readers. Frankly, I’d share more with you, but there isn’t much more of it to share. I think from these chapters you will have a good sense of the book’s key ideas and flow of thought, and how it centers around Christ’s wonderful example of humility.

So, without further ado, here it is: Beyond Fans and Followers Chapters

If anybody has time to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. 

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There is No Such Thing as “Just a Book”

Whenever I review popular books on this blog, I receive a few comments from people who feel that I shouldn’t attempt to read theological or philosophical concepts into works of fiction. They generally argue that books like The Hunger Games or Twilight are simply stories, meant for entertainment purposes.

There is no such thing as a book devoid of the author’s worldview, though. Every book, big or small, well-crafted or terrible, contains elements of the writer’s beliefs. Even if the author does not consciously intend to communicate philosophical ideas, such concepts have a way of creeping into the story nonetheless. Every book is written by a human being with particular ideas about the world, humanity, and God. Nobody is capable of writing “just a book” without including in it his personality and understanding of the world.

It’s possible, of course, that my understanding of a particular book is incorrect. It’s also possible that the author communicated poorly and left the wrong impression of his or her worldview. It is not possible, however, that the book is merely a story. As readers, we need to practice critical thinking. Those who argue that a book is “just a book” are no less influenced by the book’s worldview than anybody else. In fact, they’re more susceptible to being shaped by the worldview of the book, because they’re unaware that it’s there.

The Hunger Games trilogy is an interesting example of the point I’m making. The author, Suzanne Collins, has explicitly stated in interviews that her books are intended to make certain statements about war, violence, and government. Again, she may or may not have effectively accomplished that purpose, but there is no doubt that she intended to write more than mere entertainment.

Even books that appear on the surface to contain mere entertainment value contain more than that. For example, the astute reader of a John Grisham novel can pick up on Grisham’s personal beliefs about justice, poverty, and religion.

Past generations understood this concept better than we do, because they were accustomed to reading and evaluating books. Nobody truly believed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “just a story,” for example. In fact, Abraham Lincoln is said to have called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Books and words have power. Denying that power does not diminish it, but in fact increases it. Only by conscious awareness of what we are reading can we determine if the worldview of a book (or television show or website, for that matter) is consistent with Scripture.

That’s why I periodically discuss the relationship between popular literature and Christianity. As a Christian, I believe that every aspect of life ought to be subjected to the Lordship of Jesus. My thoughts about war, government, wealth, relationships, and everything else need to be viewed in light of God’s Word. The books I read and the media I consume will generally contain elements that either support or contradict God’s values. At the very least, we can be aware of those elements and make an attempt to frame our lives in light of those concepts that are consistent with Scripture.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think I’m being overly analytical when it comes to literature? Is there such a thing as “just a story” or does every story present elements of the author’s worldview? 

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C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 3)

This will be my final post in this little series. In his original question, Jordan asked how we are to respond to an author like C.S. Lewis, a brilliant man who happens to hold a view with which many evangelicals disagree.

I’m going to take the opportunity to briefly discuss how we ought to read in general, and how we ought to respond to points of disagreement.

First, read everything with discernment. Never assume that because an author is a Christian that you can therefore agree blindly with every point he or she makes. It’s extremely rare for me to find a book that I agree with in its entirety. The Bible is God’s Word; everything else is basically opinion, commentary, interpretation, or speculation on it. Whether the author is C.S. Lewis, John Piper, Francis Chan, or even Matt Morton (gasp!), read critically and compare everything to the Scripture.

Second, don’t be too afraid to read sources with conflicting theological views. One of the ways we grow is by reading and understanding the opinions of those who disagree with us as well as of those who agree. C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man and a wonderful writer. His books exalt the Person and character of Jesus and provide some excellent illustrations of the Gospel. I’ve learned a great deal from reading his works, even though I don’t agree with every point he makes. If you feel that reading a particular book will cause you to doubt God’s character or will lead you into sin, then of course don’t read it right now. But as you continue to grow in your faith, it helps to read from a wide variety of sources.

Third, recognize what is central to the faith and what is up for discussion. For example, the writings of Joseph Smith clearly deny the full deity of Christ — that’s heresy. A heretic is a person who holds beliefs that are outside the historical boundaries of Christianity. Usually that’s determined by looking at the universally accepted creeds, like the Nicene Creed, the Creed of Chalcedon, and the Apostle’s Creed. The deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the Trinity are good examples of non-negotiable articles of the Faith. On the other hand, the specific mechanism by which faith operates to bring a person to salvation has not traditionally been a point of separation between believers and unbelievers. So while I strongly disagree with the perspective of inclusivism, I don’t call Lewis a heretic for holding it. I can say I think he’s wrong, but not that he’s heretical in the way that word is usually defined.

Finally, don’t be afraid to draw firm conclusions from the Scripture. Always express your opinions with grace and tact, but don’t shy away from speaking the truth as you read it in the Bible. Inclusivism and exclusivism cannot both be correct — somebody is right and somebody is wrong. That shouldn’t trouble us too much, since no human being has a full understanding of God’s Word or His character. The existence of differing viewpoints does not call into question God’s character, but instead highlights the limited capacities we have as human beings. So do not be afraid to carefully research, land on a position, and teach it graciously and firmly. (Just remember the third point in this post as you do so).

Question: How do you deal with the issue of Christians who disagree with your theology? Do you have any other suggestions?

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Communication and Culture: How Do We Learn?

It goes without saying (almost) that the ways in which we communicate information have changed dramatically in the past 15-20 years. When I began college I still wrote letters to my friends using pen and paper; even though email was around, I had to wait in line at the computer lab in my dorm to use it. The internet was only just beginning to be widely available, and I didn’t have regular access to it until my second or third year of college. Virtually nobody had a cell phone — if somebody called while you were away from home, they had to leave a message and wait for you to call back.  Text messaging wasn’t even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye.

I wonder sometimes if all of this technological change has affected the ways in which our brains learn and process information.  I’ve always loved reading – even the look and feel of a brand new book makes me happy in a way I can’t quite describe. But I wonder if students and young adults still regularly assimilate information through books or if other media are beginning to take their place.

Online information is free, for the most part, which makes it harder to justify spending $15-$20 on a book. In addition, books take a long time to read and process; Wikipedia is a much shorter time commitment, even if the information is often sub-par.

Online audio files and podcasts make it easier for those with shorter attention spans to glean information from experts and talking heads without the commitment of interacting with a book. Fairly frequently I talk to young adults who listen to hours of religious podcasting each week, yet they have never read through the entire Bible. I don’t know if this is the norm or the exception, however.

So I’m wondering if those of you who read this blog can help me by thinking through the issue a bit (answer as few or as many of these questions as you like):

-What are the primary ways in which you learn and process new information (books, blogs, social media, podcasts, etc.)?

-If you do purchase and read books, how many do you buy each year (apart from the ones required for school)?

-What are the most common types of books you read (fiction, religion, self-help, academic, theology, etc.)?

-Do you think your peer group is more or less likely to learn from books than previous generations?

-Finally, how do you think churches and pastors can effectively communicate biblical truths in a technological age?

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