Sundoulos - Fall 2010

Book Reviews

Jesus Mean and Wild:  The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God.  Mark Galli.  Baker, 2006.  207pp., $14.99.
Reviewed by Mark Saucy, Professor of Systematic Theology

Nearly a century ago Albert Schweitzer not so delicately closed the door on European Jesus-scholarship of his day with the colorful verdict that scholars, in their quest for the so-called Jesus of History, “had looked into the well of history and seen their own reflections.”   Jesus of the Church’s Gospel, Schweitzer said, had been tamed into a pussy cat image of the European intellectual complete with little goatee, breeches and Darwinian social moralism.  Mark Galli’s book, with its evocative title—Jesus Mean and Wild, in good Schweitzer-esque fashion probes the Jesus of American 21st century evangelicalism.  Here in elegant prose for all to see is unmasked a Jesus who is really nice–not all that demanding, loving and tolerant to a fault, welcoming and warm.  This Jesus, even if a little bland to taste, suits our ideals and more importantly, is just comfortable.  But is this the Jesus of the Gospel?  Is it the Jesus our heart really wants?  Is it the Jesus we need?

Using Mark’s Gospel as platform to seventeen brief chapters, Galli challenges his reader with a more “mean and wild” portrait of Jesus.  He’s done his homework with the text (but for a couple of minor quibblings of my own) to give us the Jesus whose love is profound yet fearsome, principled, separating, and utterly intolerant of all contenders no matter how cherished they are to us.  This Jesus is the one who sticks his thumb in the eye of our “wretched individualism” (title of chapter 7), who shuns clean and simple formulation, and who hates a clamor for “relevance” that is packaged with the faux-glory and pseudo-power notions of our age.

This is a penetrating and probing book, but it’s not a negative book.   Galli, an editor with Christianity Today, indeed writes as if from a perch high above the evangelical landscape where his eye seemingly catches all that moves below.  Mega-, Seeker-, Mainline-, Fundamentalist-, Emergent—he knows it all.  But more than that, with his many years of pastoral ministry Galli also knows us.  And the portrait of God that emerges from the Gospel of Mark in each chapter of Jesus Mean and Wild is the one our heart longs to possess and be possessed by.  What’s more, all along the way we are treated to generous portions of the Church’s reflection upon this Jesus we really want.  Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Anthony of Egypt, Calvin, Luther, and moderns like Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard and Martin Luther King Jr. all have cameos that enrich Galli’s corrective.

Jesus Mean and Wild is very accessibly yet intelligently written so as to not disappoint with cliché or verbal clutter.  The format lends itself to either individual or small group digestion with helpful discussion questions for each chapter.  Highest recommendation from this reviewer.

The Trellis and the Vine. Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.  Sydney, Australia: Matthias Media, 2009; 196 pages, $19.00.
Reviewed by David Talley, Professor and Chair, Department of Biblical and Theological Studies

The Trellis and the Vine is a repackaging of a long history of books aimed at restoring a proper focus to the church.  However, the fact that the book duplicates the thesis of many other books does not minimize the important contribution it makes to church ministry.  Maintaining proper focus in the church is a topic that cannot be belabored, especially in the church culture of today.  The hymn writer put it this way, “Tell me the old, old story; write on my heart every word.”  Marshall and Payne keep their message focused on the old, old words of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20, “…going, make disciples of all nations.”  Although they are seeking simply to keep ministry in line with the teaching of the Bible, their sub-title, “The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything,” will ring true to those who have not thought through the authors’ clear biblical teaching.  So be prepared for change.

The book’s purpose is clearly captured in its title, keeping it simple and to the point.  The local church is thought of as both a trellis and a vine.  The trellis provides an image of structural support, with each local church having varied structures which support the actual ministry of the people.  As a local church grows, this supporting structure has a tendency to grow.  The vine offers a biblical image emphasizing the true biblical focus of the universal church on people growth and the fruit produced as a result of that growth (John 15).  Whether a local church grows or not, the simple purpose of disciple-making remains unchanged.  The authors’ intent is to demonstrate how easily local churches can stray from the unchanging purpose of disciple-making (growth of the vine) because their energies become overly focused on maintaining and growing structures (building of the trellis).  Stating their purpose up front, the authors put it this way, “We will be arguing that structures don’t grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift—away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ” (17).  Summarizing their book, they later state, “We did this because Christian ministry is really not very complicated.  It is simply the making and nurturing of genuine followers of the Lord Jesus Christ through prayerful, Spirit-backed proclamation of the word of God.  It’s disciple-making” (151).  This focus is maintained throughout the book.

To achieve its purpose, the book focuses on 10 propositions:

  1. Our goal is to make disciples.
  2. Churches tend towards institutionalism as sparks fly upward.
  3. The heart of disciple-making is prayerful teaching.
  4. The goal of all ministry—not just one-to-one work—is to nurture disciples.
  5. To be a disciple is to be a disciple-maker.
  6. Disciple-makers need to be trained and equipped in conviction, character, and competence.
  7. There is only one class of disciples, regardless of different roles or responsibilities.
  8. The Great Commission, and its disciple-making imperative, needs to drive fresh thinking about our Sunday meetings and the place of training in congregational life.
  9. Training almost always starts small and grows by multiplying workers.
  10. We need to challenge and recruit the next generation of pastors, teachers and evangelists.

The authors advocate for a rigorous discipleship in light of two important biblical concepts, the plurality of leadership and the priesthood of all believers.  If you are a church leader who already values these two concepts, you will be enriched and further challenged by this book.   Additionally, this will be an excellent tool to help you pass this vision onto other leaders.   If you are a church leader who has not thought through these vital concepts and the necessary role they have in the life of a church, this book will cause you properly to rethink your ministry.  For you it might just be a “ministry mind-shift.”

The book encourages churches toward a more advanced discipleship model, especially as it relates to the development of leaders into disciple-makers.  The authors are not interested in creating the next new fad or hot technique for church growth.  They long for church ministries to be biblically-based in light of our increasingly pragmatic and faddish church culture.

Finally, the book comes with a DVD which points the reader to further resources from Matthias Media, a ministry focused clearly on gospel growth. A six-part discussion guide is also available on the website.  This is an excellent resource, which any leader will find valuable.  It is structured in a manner that makes leading a group discussion on various chapters both easy and extremely productive.

Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. T. David Gordon. Phillipsburg, PA: P. & R. Publishing, 2009; 188 pp., $9.99.
Reviewed by Edward W. “Mickey” Klink III, Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies

T. David Gordon wrote this book on preaching shortly after he had been diagnosed with cancer, with only a 25% chance of survival. His reason for writing was clear: “Having been concerned about the state of preaching for three decades, I believed that it would be irresponsible to leave the world without expressing my thoughts about the matter….” (9). He expressed his thoughts with such intensity that he offered a partial apology in his introduction. Interestingly, Gordon’s concern is not the message construction but the media culture: “I will suggest that societal changes that led to concerns expressed in the 1960’s to 1980’s in educational circles – societal changes reflected in a decline in the ability to read (texts) and write – have led to the natural cultural consequence that people cannot preach expositorily” (15).

Gordon posits that the cause of poor preaching is not the condition of our seminaries, but the “condition of the typical ministerial candidate when he arrives at seminary” (17).  Gordon argues that the shift in culture from language to image has had a direct effect on our ability to preach. How is a preacher supposed to preach, or a listener supposed to listen, when the average American reads fewer than nine books per year, and spends seventeen times as much time watching television as reading (including all reading – magazines, newspapers, etc.)? We are not merely confronted with the problem of illiteracy (the inability to read), but with the problem of aliteracy: an ability to read but the lack of desire.

The solution for Gordon: reading and writing. Gordon is convinced that we need to learn to read texts, with an emphasis on “text,” not the information in a text. An information-reading pastor preaches sermons that are about general Christian truth, and the particular text he reads ahead of time “serves merely as a reminder of what they already know” (47). This is at best; at worst they misunderstand the text. And if we cannot read texts, then we certainly cannot write them –the only “text” we know involves a cell phone. Our media culture, therefore, has the potential of stripping the preacher of his ability to think and reason, and to communicate reasonably. In an unavoidable way “We are swamped by the inconsequential, bombarded by images and sounds that rob us of the opportunity for reflection and contemplation that are necessary to reacquaint ourselves with what is significant” (58). In such an environment, biblical exposition becomes “virtually a lost art” (49). All that is left is moralistic, how-to, introspective, or social Gospel preaching; none of these, according to Gordon, “nourishes the soul” (88).

Our sensibilities are not hopeless, but they do need to be “cultivated.” With an awareness of media ecology, today’s preachers can do three things to encourage cultivation. First, they can request an annual review. This type of cultivation is rooted in self-criticism of the healthy sort. Second, they can cultivate the sensibility of reading texts closely. This type of cultivation is rooted in a regular practice of reading literature, maybe especially poetry. Third, they can cultivate the sensibility of composed communication. This type of cultivation moves away from emoticons to editorials, and maybe especially handwritten letters. The end result is not a different message, but a revived messenger.

Gordon offers a simple yet pointed mirror for the contemporary pastor. He challenges not our message content but our media culture; not the method of our sermon writing but the myopia of our soul-searching. By coming from the angle of context, Gordon reveals a problem that does not admit of a quick fix, and a problem that might be more threatening and pervasive than we would want to admit. Such a warning is worth hearing (or reading), if we have the patience (or guts) to put down the cell phone and iPod. Of course, by reading this book we have already begun his first suggestion, review, and may shortly be on our way to the next. In the end, we must take Gordon’s concern seriously, if for no other reason than we are “people of the book.”

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