Category Archives: book review

Review of “J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir” by Ned B. Stonehouse

Stonehouse, Ned B.  J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987.

Machen bio book cover

I first learned about J. Gresham Machen in church history class during my initial year as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1980s.  This fact is wrapped in irony: Machen had been part of the “old guard” at Princeton who were forced out or resigned when the seminary was reorganized by the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America General Assembly in the late 1920s.  Princeton had been the last bastion of theological orthodoxy in that historic Presbyterian denomination, and several scholars there were engaged in a valiant fight against the rising tide of liberal theology, or “modernism.”  Machen was at the center of this controversy.  The Princeton Seminary I attended in the late ’80s was, of course, the post-reorganization Princeton, where we studied Machen as an artifact of history.  His seminal work, “Christianity and Liberalism,” was required reading as an example of the “fundamentalist” viewpoint of the early 20th century (and no doubt as an example of “old Princeton,” too). Yet for me the book became a lifeline to help sort through the theological morass I found myself in at modern-day Princeton.

Ned Stonehouse had studied under Machen at Princeton in the ’20s and then became one of the founding members of the faculty at Westminster Seminary, the school Machen and several colleagues started in 1929 after leaving Princeton.  Stonehouse was also one of the constituting members of the Presbyterian Church of America (later known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) founded by Machen and others in 1936 after being suspended from ministry in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. for having started an Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  Therefore the author of this biography knew Machen personally as a mentor and friend during the last 10 years of Machen’s life, and the tone of the book is indeed that of an admiring protege.

Stonehouse’s narrative of Machen’s life is extremely thorough.  The book is 516 pages of small print with narrow margins.  The author provides a detailed account of every portion of his subject’s life, including his family background.  The most interesting part of Machen’s journey has to do with his involvement in the battle against theological liberalism in the 1920s and ’30s.  The first 300 pages of the book tell of his life prior to that time.  Sometimes the story of these early years is detailed to the point of tedium.  However, Machen’s fans will no doubt appreciate the care the author has taken in telling his life story.

Stonehouse relies heavily on Machen’s correspondence, which was quite voluminous.  At one point Stonehouse speaks of “thirty drawers of filing cabinets” that housed Machen’s letters, papers, and memoranda!  Gresham was very close to his mother and, according to Stonehouse, during his lifetime Machen exchanged over 1000 letters with her.   Machen’s correspondence with his mother, father, and other friends provide a unique and personal window into his private thoughts.  With these plus information drawn from contemporary magazine and newspaper articles and reviews; Machen’s books, articles, sermons, and pamphlets; as well as seminary and denominational records; the author constructs the portrait of Machen’s life.

Because the author relies so heavily on Machen’s own writings, the book concentrates chiefly on his inner life.  Machen’s outer accomplishments were many and impressive, but Stonehouse doesn’t focus on these; rather, they are alluded to more as incidental aspects of the larger story.  The weakness of this approach is that at times the greatness of the man is obscured by the stresses, anxieties, and struggles recorded in his private thoughts.  However, the other side of the coin is that an important figure is made more accessible through this revelation of his humanity.

Machen’s father was a lawyer, and though he struggled financially early in his career, by the end of his life he had done very well for himself.  In adulthood Machen inherited some modest funds from ancestors on both sides of his family.  Because of this and some other sources of income he wasn’t dependent solely on his meager salary as a professor.  Machen never married and during his 23 years on the Princeton faculty he lived in the dorm.  This frugal choice no doubt also reduced his expenses as well.  Machen was generous with his resources, using them to help others in times of difficulty, including a derelict he took under his wing during his Princeton years.  In the theological crises Machen’s financial situation likely made it easier for him to follow his conscience than perhaps some of his colleagues when time came to decide whether to leave or stay at Princeton after the reorganization in 1929.  Machen also invested a great deal of his own money in the fledgling Westminster Seminary.

Gresham received a classical education.  He attended Johns Hopkins University, where he merited an academic scholarship.  He excelled in his studies.  After college he spent a summer in Europe, then enrolled in Princeton Seminary in the fall.  The faculty there saw in Machen a promising student, and after graduation they asked him to consider staying on as an instructor in New Testament.

At this point Machen had not yet fully resolved his own faith convictions.  He was raised in the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (the “southern church”), but toward the end of seminary he spent a year studying in Europe, where he encountered theological liberalism for the first time.  This shook his nascent faith, a fact he was honest about in his letters to his parents.  For a time Machen wrestled with liberalism but eventually repudiated it.  This shows that Machen’s eventual embrace of Christian orthodoxy was not untested but had been proved in the fires of the European theological schools.

At the end of his time in Europe Machen accepted the teaching position at Princeton and returned there in 1906.  His initial commitment of one year eventually turned into 23 years.  Needless to say, he found his work with students in the New Testament department, as well as his scholarly pursuits, rewarding and enjoyable.

In the early years of his teaching career Gresham was still sorting out his personal faith, trying to discern his life’s calling.  Initially he balked at the idea of becoming an ordained minister.  It’s ironic to think that originally Machen merely accepted the job at Princeton because he didn’t know what else to do.  He really sort of backed into his career as a New Testament scholar; but he definitely had the gifts for it, and he was loved by his students.

Doing a little more research into Machen’s life, I came across this website at which a one-time student of Machen’s at Princeton and Westminster described his former teacher: https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2002/henry-w-coray-on-j-gresham-machen/.   The article’s author describes Machen as a fun-loving, extroverted cut-up who lived in the dorm and who enjoyed fraternizing with the students on weekends.  We don’t see much of this Machen in Stonehouse’s biography.  Rather, the picture we get in Stonehouse is of an earnest, studious, sometimes-perplexed individual–so much so, that I mistakenly took Machen for an introvert when, based on the description offered by Coray above, it sounds like he was anything but.

Machen seems to have finally resolved the question of his life’s direction by 1913, at which time he sought ordination in the Presbyterian Church.  He was ordained in 1915.  From this point on Machen provided much fruitful labor for and in the church.  In addition to his seminary work he began writing Sunday School lessons for the denomination.  Over time he became a sought-after speaker in churches throughout the northeast; in his later years this extended to the entire country, and even the world.  Professor Machen became a tireless advocate for orthodox theology in his denomination, and for the fundamentalist movement in general.  (At this point I should explain that back in those days, the word “fundamentalist” wasn’t the pejorative term it is today; in Machen’s day a “fundamentalist” was simply someone who stood for the core or “fundamental” doctrines of Christianity, such as the infallibility of Scripture, the virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection, the truthfulness of biblical miracles, and the future bodily return of Christ.)  At one point Machen also filled the pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, until certain prominent members began complaining about his bold defense of biblical orthodoxy from the pulpit.

During the 1920s, Machen’s public stand for biblical, supernatural Christianity and against liberalism brought him into increasing conflict with certain high profile leaders in the Presbyterian Church, some of whom were among his colleagues in the faculty and administration at Princeton.  The majority of the faculty were on Machen’s side; however, the president of the seminary and a few professors who had served as moderators of the General Assembly did not see eye to eye with Machen and his allies.  The seminary Board of Directors also sided with the conservatives but the Board of Trustees was dominated by a faction who were loyal to the seminary president.  A power struggle ensued in which the liberal sympathizers sought to eliminate the Board of Directors and consolidate their authority under the more sympathetic Trustees.

Until the mid-1920s orthodox Christianity still had the upper hand in the Presbyterian denomination, but through the ’20s Machen saw modernism gaining ground with each subsequent meeting of the General Assembly.  While the Assembly of 1923 had re-affirmed the fundamentals of the Christian faith (outlined above), in 1924, 1300 Presbyterian ministers signed the Auburn Affirmation, which claimed that requiring ministers to subscribe to specific fundamental points of doctrine went against the Presbyterian denominational constitution.  This development, along with the failure of subsequent General Assemblies to discipline the signers of the Affirmation, was seen by Machen as a watershed moment in which the modernists had prevailed.

Machen continued to fight against liberalism but with each passing year it seemed more and more like a losing battle.  Finally in 1929 the president and Board of Trustees at Princeton succeeded in maneuvering the General Assembly to reorganize Princeton Seminary to include liberal professors on the faculty.

Machen believed that to remain at Princeton any longer would be a capitulation to, and tacit approval of, modernism–something his conscience wouldn’t let him do.  He submitted his resignation and began working toward the establishment of a new seminary that would carry on the old Princeton tradition of solid Calvinistic orthodox Christianity.

Machen was saddened to learn that several of his stalwart conservative allies at Princeton did not share his conviction that the liberal reorganization of the seminary required them to resign.  Machen had already been disappointed by his denomination, and by the liberal element at Princeton.  Now he was let down by some of his closest friends who had fought modernism in the trenches with him.  Fortunately there were others, including many supportive laymen, who came to his aid in starting the new Westminster seminary.  He also found allies among some in the conservative Christian Reformed denomination, most notably Cornelius Van Til, who had been a colleague at Princeton, and whom Machen was eventually able to persuade to join the faculty at Westminster.

Machen’s disappointments weren’t over, though, and neither were his battles in the Presbyterian Church.  In the early ’30s it became increasingly apparent that the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions had embraced modernism.  A new book entitled “Rethinking Missions” questioned the evangelistic purpose of missionary work and instead called for a dialogue with other religions in which adherents of Christianity and other religions would work together to seek truth.  It became apparent that this kind of thinking was being promoted by some on the Presbyterian Mission Board.  Machen brought an overture before his presbytery calling for the Mission Board to repudiate liberalism and reaffirm its evangelistic purpose.  The overture was defeated.  Though it was eventually passed by some other presbyteries, it was rejected by the General Assembly.

When Machen saw that the Assembly wasn’t going to take any action against the Board of Foreign Missions, he worked with others in the denomination to start a new Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions.  The General Assembly and its judicial commission eventually responded that the Independent Mission Board violated the Presbyterian constitution and demanded that Machen and his cohorts dissolve the new board and pledge their loyalty to the official Mission Board.  When Machen and others refused, their ordination was suspended.

Machen decided it was time to leave the Presbyterian Church in the USA and form a new Presbyterian body founded on an orthodox interpretation of Scripture and a strict reading of the Westminster Confession.  This decision was also accompanied by disappointment as some of his dearest colleagues and friends chose not to leave the PCUSA with him.  The new denomination was originally called the Presbyterian Church of America, but the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America sued them to change their name and won, so the new denomination was renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  (Ironically, in 1973, when a group of conservative churches and ministers decided to break away from the Presbyterian Church in the United States, they chose as the name for their new denomination the “Presbyterian Church in America” (PCA)–very similar to the original name of Machen’s conservative denomination.  In a note of further irony, the PCA and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are so similar doctrinally that the two denominations considered union for some years, but ultimately decided against it. )  The Orthodox Presbyterian church was formed in 1936; J. Gresham Machen died the following year, in 1937.

This biography has a sad ending.  The final years of Machen’s life were full of struggle, difficulty, and disappointment.  From about 1924 on, Machen experienced setback after setback in his fight against modernism in both the seminary and his denomination.  The triumph of liberalism in both the PCUSA and Princeton Seminary was a bitter disappointment which was compounded by the seeming defections from the cause by some of his closest friends and allies.  While the formation of the new seminary brought a welcome relief from the constant battles Machen had known at Princeton, the new school also struggled to acquire the faculty and financial resources needed to become a respected theological institution–a struggle which Machen himself bore the brunt of.  The increasingly bitter and more strident battles in the Presbyterian Church no doubt also took their toll on his frame of mind.

Though I’m sure Machen found joy in starting Westminster despite the stresses involved, the formation of the new denomination was a concession.  I imagine he would have much preferred his beloved PCUSA to have remained faithful to orthodox belief, and the suspension of his ordination was no doubt a major disappointment.  The founding of the new denomination must have been bittersweet for him.

Little medical explanation is given for the deterioration of Machen’s health in his final years.  He was only 56 when he died, which is young by today’s standards (it’s my present age), though the life expectancy wasn’t as long back in those days.  Medicine being what it was back then, they may not have known what caused his physical deterioration and death.  However, as I read about Machen’s last few years, I couldn’t help thinking that the strain of all the disappointments he experienced, plus the pressures of his ever-increasing responsibilities with the new seminary and denomination, may have been what did him in.

The ending of the book is sad because Machen had just begun two important new endeavors which he had in some sense worked toward all his life, and he didn’t live to see them through.  However, both Westminster Seminary and the denomination he helped found have continued to this day, 85 years later, as part of his important legacy.  His writings also live on, and while most of them have fallen into obscurity, Christianity and Liberalism still instructs Christians today.

In reading this biography I realized that what distinguished Machen from a lot of his contemporaries at Princeton and in the Presbyterian denomination was his firm unwillingness to compromise in any fashion with modernist Christianity or its supporters.  Perhaps more perceptively than his colleagues, Machen saw that liberal Christianity was not merely a different form of Christianity; it was in fact not Christianity at all, but an entirely different religion.  Machen saw modernist Christianity as a counterfeit unworthy of the name “Christian.”

This conviction informed all Machen’s actions.  Because theological liberalism was not Christianity but a fake, Machen strongly believed there could be no compromise with it on any level. 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 comes to mind:

14 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said,

“I will dwell in them and walk among them;
And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord.
“And do not touch what is unclean;
And I will welcome you.
18 “And I will be a father to you,
And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,”
Says the Lord Almighty.

7 Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

To put it in biblical terms, Machen felt that a compromise between orthodox Christianity and theological liberalism was an unequal yoking, a mixture of light and darkness, trying to bind together two incompatible religions.  Such a compromise would dilute Christian doctrine until it ceased to be Christian at all.  This was something Machen felt should not be allowed in any measure.  Therefore he felt it was impossible to compromise with those in the Presbyterian Church who failed to subscribe clearly to fundamental Christianity.

For this reason, Machen repeatedly called upon Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian Church to repudiate modernism and to fully embrace the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.  The hope was that ministers and seminary professors who professed liberal views would either leave the denomination of their own accord or, failing to do so, would be properly discipline by the church.  However, after 1923 every effort Machen and the other fundamentalists made to this effect failed.  The liberals had gained the upper hand.

Eventually Machen was faced with a dilemma: Do I stay at Princeton and in the Presbyterian Church even though they no longer require assent to the fundamentals of the faith, or do I leave and start a new group which will adhere to orthodox Christianity?  Machen felt constrained to choose the latter, while a number of his friends chose to continue their ministry in the now-ambiguous Presbyterian Church in the USA.  Machen’s unwillingness to compromise on the essentials of the faith is what set him apart.

As I read about Machen’s life, I felt I could identify with him in some small ways.  I can relate to his turn of mind pertaining to the Bible and theology.  I attended Princeton Seminary, and as I read about his life there it brought back my own memories of Princeton, though in a very different time.

And like Machen, I’ve also never married.  Gresham was incredibly close to his mother through his entire life.  The kindness and admiration they expressed for one another in their letters is remarkable.  They expressed their affection in flowery language which seems quaint today; and yet is also touching.  I’ve wondered if the reason Machen never married is because of his extreme closeness to his mother.

Something else that struck me about the book was the writing style, both of the book itself, and of the letters therein.  Machen, his friends, and his family expressed themselves with a politeness and courtesy which seems formal today.  They didn’t write in the casual language we use.  And yet there’s also a warmth and mutual respect in their letters.  Even though Stonehouse wrote his biography a little less than 70 years ago, his writing conveys something of the same felicity found in the writings of his subjects.

One slight criticism I have is that this biography suffers from the same problem true of many older biographies of Christian figures: It’s prone to hagiography; that is, a tendency to idealize the person and minimize or not acknowledge their shortcomings or faults.  Stonehouse was no doubt an admirer of Machen’s and that comes through in his writing.

Though the author knew Machen personally, he doesn’t include many of his own recollections.  Perhaps he wanted to make sure he didn’t intrude into the story.  Nevertheless, I think a chapter in which the author shared his own reminiscences of Machen would’ve made a nice conclusion to the book.

That said, Stonehouse has performed a wonderful service by providing such a thorough and well-researched account of Machen’s life.  I highly recommend it to those who are interested in learning more about this important man.

A Brief Review of “Safe People” by Cloud and Townsend

I just finished reading the book “Safe People” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend (the same authors who wrote “Boundaries”) and thought I would share a brief review.

Safe People Book Cover

I confess the title led me to believe it was going to be about how to get rid of all the unsafe people in your life. And I think the authors titled it that way intentionally; even the tag line of the book gives that impression.

As I read the book, though, and the descriptions of unsafe people at the beginning, I realized that a few of those traits even describe me. 😳 I think that’s the authors’ point: the line between “safe” and “unsafe” people isn’t so black and white. Because we’re all sinners, any of us might be “unsafe” or fall into “unsafe” behavior patterns from time to time. You can fall into them without even realizing it.

After describing the characteristics of unsafe people in part 1, the authors go on to examine the reasons we may be drawn to unsafe people in part 2. I found this section very revealing as well, for I saw a number of the tendencies they described in that section in myself. The last chapter of part 2 asks why we isolate ourselves, which is one of the tendencies that makes us more vulnerable to unsafe relationships. That chapter hit me right between the eyes. I do tend to isolate myself. They said some people isolate because they’ve lost the ability to feel their hunger for relationships. Ouch. That describes me more than I wanted to admit.

The final section of the book, part 3, describes the characteristics of safe people, and why we need them in our lives. They bring home the point that if we tend to isolate ourselves this really isn’t what we need; it’s a self-protection mechanism (my words) but it keeps us from getting what we really need, which is relationships with safe people. The book then goes on to look at how we can find safe people, and how we can become safe people ourselves.

In the last chapter of the book the authors ask the question: So what about the unsafe relationships in your life? Do you need to get them completely out of your life, or should you instead try to repair and rebuild those relationships? I started the book just wanting to get the unsafe people out of my life, but the authors make a strong case that this is never the ideal. They talk about how God is so much about relationships and how God goes out of His way to pursue relationships with broken, hurtful people, and the authors admonish us to follow God’s example.

The authors recommend ways to try to repair unsafe relationships. The main thing they advocate is: instead of simply abandoning the unsafe person, we should take a stand for our needs and values in the relationship. They say that often the person who’s being mistreated in a relationship can bring change to the way the other person treats them by standing up for themselves. So the authors recommend that ending a relationship is a last resort and should only be chosen as the solution when every effort has been made to stand up for oneself and hold the other person accountable, and still there is no change. They also recommend trying this for some amount of time rather than giving up at the first sign that it’s not working. They talk about how longsuffering God is toward us and say that we should be longsuffering toward one another as well.

In conclusion, “Safe People” is not an easy read. If you read it prayerfully with an open mind and heart, it will prod you to look more at yourself than at the people in your life who are causing you problems. It has definitely given me a lot of food for thought and prayer.

Book Summary – “Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling” by Richard F. Hall

Hall, Richard F. Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling. Englewood, CO: Exchanged Life Ministries, 1998.

Hall, Richard F. Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling. Englewood, CO: Exchanged Life Ministries, 1998.

This is the third of three book summaries I had to write for a class on Discipleship Counseling I’m taking through my church.  The first summary can be found here, the second right here.  The third book we had to read has the captivating title Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling by Richard F. Hall.  It is somewhat of a brief textbook for the type of biblical counseling in which we’re being trained.

Explained briefly, the term “exchanged life” refers to the idea that when we place our trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, he takes our sin, death, and selfishness and in exchange gives us forgiveness, life, and a loving heart.  Hall says the exchanged life involves exchanging our self-centered approach to living for a new approach in which we live for Christ.

Here is my brief summary of the book.  I’ve included a few explanatory comments in [brackets].

  1. Each person is made up of three parts: the spiritual (i.e., spirit), the psychological (i.e., soul) and the physical (i.e., body).  An unsaved person operates out of the psychological part of themselves. For a Christian, the spiritual aspect is the essence of who they are.
  2.  [This “tri-partite” view of the person is based on the following Scriptures: 1 Thessalonians 5:23 ~ “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.   And Hebrews 4:12 ~ “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”]
  3. The primary cause of problems in people’s lives is living life out of their own resources rather than in dependence on God.  [This way of living is known in the Bible as “living by the flesh.”  The apostle Paul uses the term “flesh” in a unique way, not to refer to our physical bodies but rather to speak of that part of us that is drawn to sin and opposes God. Key passages in which Paul uses the term “flesh” this way are Romans 7:14-8:17 and Galatians 5:16-25.]  Sin and the flesh are the source of people’s problems.  Living out of the flesh is a self-centered approach to life and ultimately detrimental.
  4. There are certain qualification a person needs to meet in order to be an exchanged life counselor.  First and foremost, they must have a personal experience of salvation through Jesus Christ.  They also need to be totally surrendered to the Lordship of Christ.  The exchanged life counselor needs a good overall knowledge and understanding of Scripture, as well as training in communication skills.  Finally, he or she should meet the qualifications for Christian leadership outlined in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
  5. As with most counseling methods, exchanged life counseling begins with the client’s presenting problem–their stated reason for seeking counseling. The counselor then takes the client’s personal history.  This helps the counselor get to know the client. It also helps both counselor and client identify unhelpful patterns the client follows to deal with life.
  6. After the client’s problem is presented and a personal history is taken, the first step in the actual counseling process is a presentation of the salvation message if necessary, for this is the foundation of the entire method. The second step is to acquaint the client with their former identity “in Adam”–that is, the way they were as a fallen, sinful, and unredeemed person when they were born into this world. The third step is to help the client understand his or her new identity in Christ.  [The assumption is that we are all born “in Adam” but when we accept Christ we are born again, or “born from above” (see John 1:12-13 and John 3:1-21).  From that moment on we are no longer in Adam, but we are now in Christ.]
  7. The counseling method presented in the book has six steps: A) Assess the problem. B) Learn the client’s social history. C) The connection needs to be drawn between the presenting problem and the client’s past living patterns. D) The client is taught about his/her identification with Christ. E) The client is led to appropriate his or her identity in Christ. F) Further areas need to be dealt with that relate to the issue at hand.
  8. Exchanged life counseling techniques include: A) Preparation – through prayer, reviewing previous counseling sessions, and relaxation. B) Attentive communication skills, listening. C) Observation, concreteness, respect, and empathy. D) Confrontation, self-disclosure, and immediacy. E) Genuineness. F) Use of visual aids such as charts or diagrams which illustrate the truths being taught. G) Appropriate use of Scripture. H) Homework tailored to the client’s needs.
  9. The primary goal of exchanged life counseling is that the client come to understand and experience his or her identity in Christ and apply this understanding to life’s problems. Sub-goals to this primary goal include: A) Helping the client grow in Christ-like-ness. B) Helping the client grow to spiritual maturity. C) Seeing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) start to emerge in the client’s life. D) Helping the client experience freedom in Christ’s life.
  10. Exchanged life counseling is founded on certain theological concepts: A) The Bible as the infallible source of authority. B) The doctrine of man and sin. C) The doctrine of salvation. D) The doctrine of sanctification.

In conclusion, Foundations of Exchanged Life Counseling serves as a good summary and explanation of what exchanged life counseling is all about. As such it serves as a good resource to consult over and over again.  My one criticism of the book is that it’s very conceptual and therefore mostly abstract.  The author doesn’t take time to illustrate the concepts.  It would be very helpful if the author would release a later edition in which illustrative material is added to flesh out the concepts.  However, the book does include a number of drawings which could be used in counseling sessions to help explain concepts to the client.  All in all the book is a good beginning resource for exchanged life counseling.

 

“The Naked Gospel” by Andrew Farley – Summary and Response

Farley, Andrew.  The Naked Gospel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Farley, Andrew. The Naked Gospel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a training class for lay counselors through my church. As part of the class we were required to read three books and submit book reports on each one.  (You can read the first book report here.) The second book we read had the intriguing title The Naked Gospel, by a pastor named Andrew Farley.  It’s a present-day explanation of what is often called “The Exchanged Life” view of the Christian life. I had not heard of Farley before, so I was interested to see what he had to say. Here is my summary and response to the book.

Farley begins by telling his own story, saying he started out his Christian life by, one might say, “busting his tail for Jesus.” He says he burned out trying to do this and eventually realized he simply couldn’t live the Christian life by his own strength. He talks about how he had to unlearn a lot of his misconceptions about Christianity in order to learn what the Bible really teaches.

Farley then explains carefully and systematically how Christians are no longer under the Old Testament law or good works as a means to secure God’s favor. He points out what both the apostles Paul and James taught, that if you try to keep the Law, you’re responsible for keeping the whole thing, and if you fail to keep even one part of it, you’ve broken the Law (see Galatians 3:10 and 5:3 and James 2:10). Since no one can keep the Law perfectly then we are incapable of keeping it at all, which is why God provided salvation by a different means—by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Farley says this is also the means by which we are to live the daily Christian life as well – by grace through faith in Christ.

Farley even extends this to the Ten Commandments. He points out that Paul says “the letter kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6, meaning the letter of the law) and calls the law a “ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:7). Farley says this is no less true for the Ten Commandments; even trying to live by the Ten Commandments will bring death to us rather than life, because the Law incites sin (see Paul’s discussion of how the Law evokes sin in Romans 7:5-13 and also Romans 3:20 and 1 Corinthians 15:56). Grace is the only means to be free from sin.

Farley goes on to demonstrate in various ways how the New Covenant (Testament) sets us free from the Law. He gives the example discussed in Hebrews 5-7 that the priesthood of Jesus is of the order of Melchizedek, while the Law prescribes a priesthood descended from Levi and Aaron. Moreover, Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, not Levi, so His priesthood does not conform to the Law.

Farley offers more examples of how the Law has been superseded in the New Testament. He sees both the tithe and the Sabbath as Old Testament concepts no longer in force under the New Covenant. The author shows that the Old Testament Sabbath was a picture or precursor of the true Sabbath rest of God spoken about in Hebrews 3-4, in which we are able to rest from our striving for good works because of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.

Farley talks about how in the New Covenant, instead of trying to keep the Law, we rely on the Holy Spirit, who produces fruit in us that leads to a way of life that satisfies the requirements of the Old Testament law. He shows that through faith in Christ, believers are made truly and actually righteous before God, not just positionally righteous. He talks about how we were born in Adam, but through salvation we are taken out of Adam and placed in Christ. Farley makes much of our identification with Christ. This is the key by which we actually live the Christian life – by Christ living through us.

Farley spends a good bit of time trying to show that the forgiveness we have through Christ is once-for-all, that when we are saved, all our sins–past, present, and future—are forgiven for all time. Therefore we don’t have to ask for forgiveness every time we sin because we already have forgiveness once and for all. He even goes to pains to show that 1 John 1:9, which says “If we confess our sins God is faithful…to forgive us…” is for unbelievers, not believers.

This was the part of the book I found least convincing. To begin with I question his exegesis of 1 John 1, though he did help me to see certain aspects of it in a different light. But also there are other passages of Scripture which imply that walking in blatant unrepentant sin hinders our relationship with God, or at least our experience of that relationship. (1 Corinthians 5 comes to mind as an example, in which Paul deals with a case of gross sexual immorality in the Corinthian church.) Even for the Christian, ongoing repentance seems vital for walking in an intimate experience of relationship with God.

Farley claims people are suspicious of grace because they fear an emphasis on grace will give people a license to sin. Therefore Farley emphasizes over and over again that grace does not lead us to sin more, but is actually the only true means to overcome sin. We think the Law will deter us from sinning, but actually Scripture says the Law provokes us to sin (see Romans 7:5-13 as mentioned above). It’s grace then, not law, that helps us master sin. This overcoming of sin is entirely dependent on Christ living in us and through us.

There is much more I could say about The Naked Gospel. While there are some parts of it I question, overall I found it to be a very helpful and very Scriptural explanation of the life that is lived by grace through faith in the indwelling Christ.

Book Summary of “The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee

Normal Christian Life

Nee, Watchman. The Normal Christian Life. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1978.

I’m taking a training class for lay counselors through my church, and as part of the class we were required to read The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee and then produce a summary of the book.  Its concepts are very dense so the book bears repeated readings.  This was my second time through it and I got a lot more out of it this go-round.

(For those who don’t know, Watchman Nee was a leader in the Chinese church during the first half of the 20th century.  When the communists took over in China Nee was imprisoned for his faith, where he remained for the next two decades until his death in 1972.)

Here, then, is my summary:

1. The blood of Christ is God’s remedy for man’s sins – plural. – chapter 1

2. The cross of Christ is God’s remedy for man’s sin – singular. Every person is born “in Adam” and as such has sin working within us as a principle that causes us to sin. We are not sinners merely because we sin, but instead we sin because we are born sinners. But when we are baptized into Christ’s death (born again) we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son. The old man died with Christ and the new man rises to new life in Christ. Therefore now those who are in Christ are no longer “sinners” but “saints.” – chapter 2

3. We can know that we have died with Christ and that the sin principle within us has been overcome and rendered powerless through our identification with Christ’s death – chapter 3

4. Therefore likewise we are to “reckon” ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. It is an accomplished fact, which we appropriate by reckoning–that is, making a conscious choice to consider–ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. – chapter 4

5. We are no longer “in Adam” but we have passed from death to life and are now “in Christ.” These are totally different realities, and never the twain shall meet. Baptism is the clear line of demarcation that we are no longer in Adam but instead in Christ. What was true of us “in Adam” is no longer true of us “in Christ.” We are new creatures in Christ. – chapter 5

6. Now that we know we’ve died and risen with Christ and therefore reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, the proper response is for us to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness, for His service. Nee refers to presenting ourselves to God in this way as “consecration.” – chapter 6

7. God’s purpose in all this goes beyond mere redemption. Man’s sin and redemption was actually a detour in God’s eternal plan for man and the world. God’s eternal purpose is to have many sons who are conformed to the image of Christ, and to bring these many sons to glory. – chapter 7

8. We fulfill the righteous requirements of the law not by trying to keep the law, but through walking by the Spirit. Acts 2 shows us that the Holy Spirit was poured out on all the people of God as a result of Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God. Therefore, just as we can know we have died and risen with Christ, we can also know that if we have trusted in Christ then we have received the gift of His Spirit. It is not a matter of feelings but of trust in the finished work of Christ and belief in the promise and Word of God. – chapter 8

9. Not only have we been delivered from sin through the death of Christ, but we have also been delivered from the Law. We are now dead to the Law and alive to God. – chapter 9

10. The Law is not fulfilled in us by trying to keep the law, but by walking in the Spirit. Not only are we in Christ, but Christ is also in us through His Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law. Walking in the Spirit does not equate to effort on our part, but simply to recognizing that our flesh has been crucified and allowing the Holy Spirit to do His work in and through us. – chapter 10

11. Another part of Christ’s eternal purpose is that He would have a Body to express his life (p. 210). This purpose of God shows us that redemption was not God’s original intent for man, because sin was not part of God’s original intent for man. Instead, redemption was a restorative measure to bring humanity back in line with God’s original purpose, which was to have a glorious church, a body, through which to express His life. – chapter 11

12. Because Adam chose the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil rather than the Tree of Life, man developed an independent self-life which caused the human soul to become more developed than God ever intended. God never meant for man to live independent of Him. Therefore sinful man has the capacity to live life on his own and to depend on the power of the soul rather than on the power of God. Even a Christian has to guard against relying on the over-developed power of his soul to serve God rather than relying on the power of the Spirit. A Christian’s task is to walk by the Spirit, not live and work in the power of his soul. Therefore the believer has to choose to take up his cross daily, which consists of making a conscious decision in every situation to live and move in the power of the Spirit rather than relying on his soul power. Instead he must allow the soul to be crucified by resisting the temptation to rely on his soul and instead relying on the Spirit. – chapters 12 and 13

13. We may be tempted to think that time and energy spent ministering to God is a “waste.” We may think we should not “waste” precious time and energy in “idle” tasks like prayer, worship, and Bible reading. But ministering to God is more important than ministering to people. It is not a waste for us to pour out ourselves at the feet of God. Martha’s busy service is contrasted with Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet. The author invites us to “waste” ourselves in ministry to God. – chapter 14

The Normal Christian Life is not an easy read, but it’s a very worthwhile one. I recommend you take the time to read and digest this significant work from one of the great saints and church leaders of the 20th century.

Review of “‘The World’s Last Night’ and Other Essays” by C.S. Lewis

My personal copy. I bought it used some years ago. Yes, that is a library sticker on the binding.

My personal copy. I bought it used some years ago. Yes, that is a library sticker on the binding.  It was a library discard.

Lewis, C.S. “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1960.

It’s been a couple weeks since I last posted so I want to get “back on the stick” as we say here in the south.

Recently I decided to begin reading the rest of the unread books in my C.S. Lewis library (which is fairly extensive).  I’ve read all his fiction but not much of his non-fiction.  “The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays was the first book I came to on my shelf so I decided to start there.

This particular publication has been out of print for some years.  I stumbled on the hardback copy pictured above at a local used bookstore over twenty years ago, and since then it has sat on my shelf gathering dust.  Until now.

“The World’s Last Night” and Other Essays is a collection of six magazine articles and one address.   All the material is non-fiction save one piece: “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which is sort of a brief sequel to Lewis’ popular book The Screwtape Letters.  This is the most accessible and enjoyable piece of them all, and probably the most well-known at the time of publication.  The non-fiction pieces fit mostly in the genre we would call “apologetics,” which is the attempt to answer challenges to Christian faith using rational arguments.

The 1960 publishing date for the book is three years before Lewis died.  So unlike some other collections of his writings, this one was released during his lifetime.

Now that I’ve read it I can see why this book is no longer in print.  To begin with, the reading level is very high-brow.  The text is replete with cryptic literary allusions and untranslated quotations in Latin, Greek, and other languages-that-are-not-English.  Since our American education is no longer a classical one, these quotes are lost on most of us, including me.  The only thing I had any hope of translating was a word in Greek, and while I was able to transliterate it, I didn’t recognize the word or its meaning, since it was a classical reference and my training is only in koine, the colloquial Greek of the Bible.

However, I was not to be deterred: I expected the internet to be filled with resources that would help me crack the meanings of these quotes, and I was not disappointed.  In fact, to my delight I found a web page devoted exclusively to a book study of “The World’s Last NIght” and Other Essays, which provided not only translations of every foreign-language quote but also helpful historical and literary background to the various articles and allusions.  The page I’m referring to can be found here: http://cslbookclub.com/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=59&Itemid=81

A second reason I’m not surprised this book is no longer in print, though, is that the subject matter seems pretty dated.  Where the topics themselves aren’t dated, in many cases the treatment of them is.  Or so I thought anyway.  This is not a book that would speak very well to twenty-first century postmodern readers.  While it is aimed at the highly-educated elite, I suspect its arguments would seem outmoded to that very elite today.

Really the book is an odd collection, too.  The intended audience from piece to piece ranges widely.  Chapters 1 and 7 deal with devotional and theological matters that would most likely be of interest to Christians or at least those with a penchant for theology.  Chapters 2 and 3 are addressed more to skeptical scholarly types.  Chapter 4, the only work of fiction, would have a wider appeal because of its entertainment value.  Chapter 5 is a work of social commentary.  Chapter 6 is aimed at those interested in science and science fiction.  So I can easily see how each essay might not be of interest to every reader.  Those most likely to enjoy the book as a whole would be people of wide-ranging interests, and those like me who are interested simply because it was written by C.S. Lewis.

Nevertheless, throughout, the book reveals a man with an intimate relationship with God and a deep understanding of the Christian life, and for that aspect alone it is a worthwhile and encouraging read.

The book’s first essay, entitled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” initially appeared in a January 1959 edition of The Atlantic Monthly.  For the present-day reader this is probably one of the more interesting and appealing chapters.  Most of its explanation is applicable today.  Yet even here the decidedly modern tone of the book (as opposed to postmodern) is evident.

Lewis begins by addressing in rational terms the question “Why can’t we prove prayer works?” which is not exactly the kind of question people are asking today.  Most people today aren’t interested in scientific proof for prayer–they either believe in it or they don’t, based on their experiences, and are not looking to be convinced by rational arguments.  For good or ill, folk today rely more on feelings than on intellectual evidence.  So Lewis’ meticulous arguments, while well-stated, seem a bit quaint.

Granted, there might be a point in someone’s life in which they begin to ask the kinds of questions Lewis deals with here, in which case it would be of great value to them.  But otherwise it may not seem to have much applicability.  That said, the piece is still valuable, for in it Lewis addresses a number of common questions about the nature of prayer and does a good job with it.  Most importantly, he points out that prayer is founded on a personal relationship with God, and it must be understood in that light.

Essay #2, titled “On Obstinacy in Belief,” is a paper Lewis read to the Socratic Club at Oxford University, where he was a professor.  This shows the extent to which Lewis sought to engage secular and unbelieving culture, for this was not a Christian group but an academic one.

In the address Lewis responds to a question he infers from the writings of skeptics: “Why do Christians hold on so obstinately to their beliefs when all evidence seems to point to the contrary?”  At first I felt the question itself wasn’t all that relevant today, but as I read on I finally concluded that Lewis makes some very good points.  In the end I concluded this is actually one of the most relevant essays in the whole volume.

Lewis claims most people, Christian or not, choose their beliefs based on factors that seem like good evidence to them at the time.  Likewise, people choose to become Christians because the evidence seems to point in that direction.  Moreover, the evidence for unbelief is not as immune to subjectivity as some would like to believe.

Lewis says Christians don’t place blind faith in God as is sometimes claimed, and that no one expects people to accept Christian faith without reasonable evidence.  However, once a person becomes a Christian they may be very determined in their beliefs, even when there might appear to be a lot of supposed evidence to the contrary (bad circumstances, etc.).  This obstinacy of Christian belief is because at this point the person has already trusted in God based on the evidence before them.  I agree with Lewis on this point.  I won’t explain any more of what he says but instead encourage you to read the article if you are interested.

I found the third essay, “Lilies That Fester,” to be one of the least interesting pieces in the book.  This was because I wasn’t really taken with the topic.  In it Lewis is reacting to those who make being “cultured” an end in itself and look down their noses at those not sufficiently educated in the latest fads of high society.  Along the way he does make some interesting arguments as to why a Christian theocracy would be an undesirable form of government, how modern education is geared toward fostering certain opinions rather than teaching students to think critically, and why artists serve the public and not vice versa.  But I found the main emphasis of the article a bit tiresome, although I am completely sympathetic with the point he is making.

Chapter 4, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” which originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in December 1959, is certainly the highlight of the book.  It’s a follow-up to The Screwtape Letters, probably Lewis’ most famous work.  Of course, Screwtape is a piece of fiction in which the author supposedly stumbles on a correspondence between a senior devil and his nephew, a tempter-in-training.  Lewis uses the story as a vehicle for exploring the nature of evil and temptation.

Rather than more letters, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” takes the form of an address given by Screwtape to the Tempters Training College for young Devils.  Here Screwtape waxes more political than religious, and this time Lewis uses the address as a vehicle to examine the pitfalls of democracy (yes, there are some) as well as disturbing trends in education. On both points Lewis is uncannily prescient, predicting pretty much where our society has wound up half a century later.

In the 5th essay, “Good Work and Good Works,” Lewis is disturbingly prophetic again, this time foreseeing the perils of consumerism. Once more he pretty much describes where America in particular has wound up 50+ years later.  Lewis differentiates between gainful employment which serves a useful end and those careers whose sole purpose is the making of money, without providing a worthwhile product or service.  He says this is what happens in a society based on consumerism.  This accounts for “built-in obsolescence” among other problems (and if Lewis already thought it was bad in his day, he would be horrified with the situation now).

Essay #6 carries the intriguing title “Religion and Rocketry.”  This is an interesting piece because it deals more directly with some of the themes that were likely in Lewis’ mind when he wrote his celebrated “space trilogy,” an early and respected work of science fiction.  In this essay he addresses various objections to Christianity supposedly raised by scientific speculation about space travel and life on other planets. Lewis does a good job of revealing the flaws in these criticisms.  However, once again I felt Lewis was answering objections no longer being made today, or at least not being made on the same grounds.

However, his main point is worth considering, which is that space travel and the possibility of life on other planets don’t negate the story of Christ coming on earth.  The words of Christian singer Larry Norman in his song “U.F.O.” from the 1970s capture pretty well the point Lewis makes in the essay:

If there’s life on other planets
Then I’m sure that He must know
And He’s been there once already
And has died to save their souls….

In the final chapter, from which the book draws its name, Lewis shares some reflections on the second coming of Christ.  Once again he is in apologetics mode, as his stated purpose is “to deal with some of the thoughts that may deter modern men from a firm belief in, or due attention to, the return or Second Coming of the Saviour”–a worthwhile goal for sure.  However, I am uncertain whether the specific objections Lewis attempts to address are necessarily the same ones that would be raised by skeptics today.  Maybe they are, I don’t know, since I’m not a skeptic.

The objections Lewis addresses are two: First, Jesus and his disciples believed his return was imminent, and so the fact that he did not return in the first century calls the belief itself into question.  Lewis does well in answering this objection, and if you’re interested in knowing his argument I encourage you to read the book.

Secondly, Lewis claims that modern people shy away from the idea of Christ’s sudden return because it doesn’t seem to square with evolutionary theory.  I’ve never heard anyone raise that specific criticism.  Rather I perceive modern people have a much bigger hurdle to overcome: a worldview which excludes any heaven or afterlife from which Jesus might come back to begin with.

Well, that is a brief summary of the topics covered in the book.  In places Lewis is nothing less than prophetic regarding the times in which we live, but in other sections the book seems dated by a modernistic perspective that has been replaced today with postmodernism.  Nevertheless, I think spiritual seekers in our day might still find ideas here that will address some of their questions.  And I have no doubt Lewis fans and aficionados will find the book an enjoyable and profitable read.

My Reaction to the “Hunger Games” Trilogy

(This is not a review, nor is it a plot summary.  There are plenty of those to be found all over the internet, I’m sure.  This is just my unadulterated response to reading the Hunger Games trilogy [The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins].  This will probably only make sense if you’ve read the books, or at least seen the movies.  [Warning, if you haven’t read all three books, there will be some spoilers below.])

Hunger GamesAfter seeing Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games movie that just came out, I became interested in the story of Panem and decided to read the books. I just finished the trilogy. Yes, I know.  As usual, I am way late to the party.  As I recently posted on Facebook, I tend to live my life on the trailing edge.  But that’s a topic for another blog post.  At any rate, my initial reaction after reading this trilogy was: That’s $25 and multiple hours of my time (not to mention my sense of emotional well-being) I’ll never get back.

Actually, my response is mixed. It is a gripping, page-turning story. I could hardly stop reading until I had finished the whole thing. However, it’s also very unsatisfying. The only resolution comes in the all-too-brief Epilogue. The only hints of redemption in the story are there and are merely alluded to in passing. The overall message of the book seems to be that there’s no real, unquestionable good in the world, and hope is elusive.

However, I read (on Wikipedia) that one of the themes Collins’ writes about in her works is the effects of war on children, and if the story is seen from that perspective then maybe it’s a little more understandable. Nevertheless, the outlook of the trilogy as a whole is very bleak.

I found the telling of the story entirely from Katniss’ perspective to be frustrating as well. You don’t get a more objective sense of what’s happening. Everything’s filtered through her viewpoint, which is incredibly subjective and uncertain. So at the end of Mockingjay (book three) we never know for sure whether Coin really ordered the destruction of the Capitol children (including Prim) or if Snow was just playing with Katniss’ head one more time when he told her that.  In this and many other ways The Hunger Games is a very post-modern story, since the perspective is so subjective and cynical.

I have to admit overall Collins does a great job with the characters, especially that of Katniss.  She is very believable as an impulsive, complex teen heroine.  Yet I found Katniss’ untethered impulsiveness to be maddening after a while. She’s completely at the mercy of her current whim and never able to step back and see a larger perspective. Maybe that’s just the life of a teenage girl, especially one who’s been emotionally scarred beyond reason. But it makes for a very chaotic story in the end. I’m sure Collins had her reasons for sticking to this approach. But the ending was so random that it almost made me wonder if the author grew tired of writing and just wrapped up the ending quickly in order to be done with it.

Newsflash: I find it disturbing that this story was targeted for teenagers. The violence and evil in it are so unrelenting, and there is so little of any redemptive nature, that I find myself wondering what Collins hoped to gain by telling this story in this way for a teen audience.

The first book is largely the story of all the mayhem, horror, and death in the arena, ending with the Capital’s anger toward Katniss for defying them. The Hunger Games (book 1)  was the first book I ever read where my stomach was literally tied up in knots at the end–a truly unpleasant feeling.  There is no resolution at all, and no break from the tension.  The sheer terror of the mutts and Cato’s gory end remove any sense of relief or satisfaction over Katniss and Peeta’s survival in the arena, especially since we know the Capitol is infuriated with Katniss’ defiance and that her life is still in danger.  I almost didn’t read any further, since I already knew how Catching Fire turns out from seeing the movie.  But in the end my curiosity about how the story ends won out.

The second book is a lot more of the same (more mayhem, horror, and death in the arena), with only the growing rebellion to offer any sense of satisfaction for the reader–at least the good guys are getting so sick of being oppressed that they begin to fight back. But in Mockingjay (book 3) even this is thwarted by–you guessed it–more mayhem, horror, and death, and by Katniss’ refusal or inability to see any convincing good in what the Rebels are trying to do. Everyone is evil, everyone’s motives are questionable, no one can be trusted, so it’s every man for himself, you are always at the mercy of evil.

Honestly I didn’t feel president Coin and her Rebels were portrayed as being so terribly evil in comparison to Snow, unless it’s true that Coin ordered the destruction of Prim and the children to bring a speedy end to the war (it occurs to me now that maybe this is intended to call to mind the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought a speedy end to WW2?). However, it’s never clear that this is what happened, since we only have Snow’s word on it. Yet in spite of this vagueness Katniss (again impulsively) kills Coin and allows Snow to live, who somehow still inexplicably dies (what a lame, unsatisfying, and random turn of events). I guess Coin’s supposed bombing of the children and the proposal of one last Hunger Games are intended to convey the idea that even the good guys get tainted by the very evil they are trying to fight.  But because we don’t really know for sure what happened, we’re just left to wonder.

Throughout the story Katniss has trouble really holding onto the idea that Snow is truly evil. In spite of all he’s done against her and everyone else, she continues to be tempted to mollify him. I guess this could be seen as a depiction of how someone would think when all they’ve known is an evil totalitarian government.

I found it interesting to think about the story from a Christian perspective.  The books make no mention of God or any sort of religion or spirituality, so in a sense Panem is a godless society.  As I read the story I found myself feeling thankful that I know God and would have Him and His people to look to if I ever had to go through something as terrible as that.  I also thought about the comfort the Christian has in the face of death, which these characters don’t have.

Also, the nation-state of Panem (which Collins reveals is Latin for “bread”) could represent our world, with the Capitol being the U.S., and the districts being other nations, especially the developing world.  Seen in this light, then, the books would be a commentary on America’s perceived injustice toward the developing world. However, if that’s the case then it’s a way overblown caricature because the U.S. is hardly a totalitarian state like Panem that rules the rest of the world with an iron fist.  Nevertheless the outlandish shallowness and triviality of the lives of Capital dwellers over against the poverty of most of the districts does bring to mind the difference between “First World” and “Third World” living in our world.

While I don’t like the unrelenting violence and terror of the Hunger Games books, I’m reminded there are situations in our own world that are equally harrowing.  Africa’s Joseph Kony, who leads a genocidal guerrilla force chillingly named “the Lord’s Resistance Army,” comes to mind.  Kony and his cronies’ M.O. is to capture families and force the children at gunpoint to murder their own parents and siblings and then conscript the children as unwilling soldiers in his army–more frightening than the hunger games, and entirely real.  While Collins’ “muttations” are scarier and more loathsome than any real threat we could encounter in this world, the idea that these killing machines are the invention of humans is not beyond the pale at all in a world which has known the likes of not only Kony, but Hitler and Stalin as well.

I am always looking for clues as to where someone stands spiritually, not in order to judge them, but just to try and understand how they see the world, and what their influences are.  The Wikipedia article on Mockingjay, the third book in the series, says the official promo event for the book’s release in New York City, which was attended by Collins (though it doesn’t say it was planned by her), featured, among other things, tarot card readings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mockingjay).  This is revealing, for the tarot is an occult practice, and occult practices are antithetical to Christianity.

The Bible forbids the practice of the occult in any form.  One of the key texts on this is Deuteronomy 8: 9-15.  While it doesn’t mention the tarot by name, it does forbid the interpreting of omens, a relatively broad category under which the tarot would fall  This is not merely an ancient arbitrary prohibition either.  The reason is because all forms of the occult originate with satan, the adversary of God.  The occult might actually have some power and the ability to reveal things to people, but its power is rooted in evil, and it enslaves those who dabble in it.

The mention of the tarot readings at the Mockingjay release party doesn’t necessarily mean Collins herself practices the tarot of other forms of the occult, but apparently she at least approves of it if she allowed it at her party.  This is spiritually dangerous stuff and allows satan to gain power over those who get involved with it.

As I read The Hunger Games trilogy I felt it has a certain dark power to it.  The series unrelentingly conveys fear, anxiety, terror, violence, endless nightmares, hatred, hopelessness, and trauma.  Yes, we also see some positive things, like the way in which many of the characters care for one another and sacrifice for each other.  But even Katniss, who is ostensibly a “good” character, has moments when she nonchalantly contemplates killing another character just because the person irritates her (I’m thinking of Johanna in the third book, for example), or takes satisfaction in the death of tributes she despises.  Whatever good there is in The Hunger Games is overshadowed by fear, hatred, evil, and darkness.  Even in the hopeful epilogue we are led to believe that Katniss will live the rest of her life in terror that her children’s safe and idyllic existence will one day be swallowed up in evil once more.

Contrast this to The Lord of the Rings, which seems confident that good is stronger than evil, and that good will eventually overcome evil.  But at the end of The Hunger Games trilogy I was left with a feeling of uneasiness and unrest, as though some dark pallor had been cast over my life.  I just wanted to put the story out of my mind as quickly as possible, because it was all just so horrible.  It left me with a mindset I don’t normally live in as a Christian, and which I don’t want to carry around with me.  That’s not because I don’t have problems and trials in my life, but because I know there is good in the universe, and that in the end good will overcome evil.

I felt like the ultimate impact of The Hunger Games is negative in many ways, and yet the negativity is conveyed with a great deal of power.  This does make me wonder what spiritual well Collins is drawing from, and honestly does make me wonder if she is involved in the occult.  Not only that, but it really floors me that a story so filled with violence, murder, and horror is aimed at teens.  I have to wonder what effect reading something like this has on their impressionable hearts and minds.

To conclude with something positive I saw in the storyline, purely from an imaginative perspective: I am intrigued by the notion of Panem being the last remains of Western society in North America hundreds, if not a couple thousands, of years in the future (although you get the idea this is all that’s left of humanity, period), and how some things are more primitive than today due to technologies having been lost or destroyed, and yet other things are more advanced.

I also thought the nomenclature of Panem was interesting, how a lot of names and terms are slightly different than ours, just as they would be with the evolution of a language over several centuries; though other names are the same.  For examples morphine has “morphed” into morphling, mutations have become “muttations,” and I assume “Peeta” is a futuristic version of the name we know as Peter.

To conclude, even though the trilogy brings up a number of themes that seem to relate directly to our world, I ultimately found it just too disturbing.  I admit it would be interesting to see more stories set in the world of Panem. But if they’re going to be as unsatisfying as the Hunger Games, then I guess I would pass.

So what’s your reaction to the Hunger Games trilogy or to the movies?

Review of “The Latent Power of the Soul” by Watchman Nee

The Latent Power of the SoulNee, Watchman. The Latent Power of the Soul. New York: Christian Fellowship Publishers, Inc., 1972. (According to Nee’s preface, the book was originally written in 1933.)

Watchman Nee (Chinese “Ni To-sheng”) was a leader in the Chinese church during the first half of the 20th century.  After the Communists came to power in China, Nee was imprisoned and spent the last 20 years of his life incarcerated for his faith.  (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchman_nee)

Nee only wrote a few books himself, The Latent Power of the Soul being one of them.  However, notes from many of his lectures were also compiled and translated into English to comprise quite a few more books that have been published in his name.

I’ve read several books by Watchman Nee that were really good.  In particular, The Normal Christian Life, an explication of Romans 5-8, and Sit, Walk, Stand, based on Ephesians, are outstanding.

However, The Latent Power of the Soul is not on par with Nee’s best work.  The reasons are as follows: 1) Nee’s exegesis (that is, his reading and explanation of Scripture) is very weak. 2) His explanation of his argument is unclear. 3) Much of Nee’s case is based on his own subjective experiences rather than on hard biblical evidence, and these experiences aren’t described clearly enough in many cases for the reader to even be sure Nee’s meaning is understood.

Nevertheless, I do see some good in the book, which I will share toward the end of this review.

Spirit, Soul, and Body

The central concept in The Latent Power of the Soul is built on Nee’s earlier book The Spiritual Man, in which he explores the tripartite nature of humanity (i.e., man as spirit, soul, and body). 1 Thessalonians 5:23 reads, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, in Hebrews 4:12 we read “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (emphasis added).

Based on these verses, in The Spiritual Man Nee argues that the terms “spirit” and “soul” are not interchangeable but instead in the Bible each is used distinctly to refer to a different part of the human make-up.  As Nee explains in The Latent Power of the Soul, “the soul is our personality” (p. 11), while the spirit is “that which makes us conscious of God and relates us to God (p. 13).”  I haven’t read all of The Spiritual Man, but what I have read of it seems accurate from both a biblical and experiential point of view.

Superhuman Power Before the Fall?

However, Nee’s main argument in The Latent Power of the Soul seems less well-founded biblically.  His premise is that human beings as originally created prior to the fall were endued with incredible, even supernatural, power, and this power resided in our souls.

Nee bases this claim on the fact that in Genesis God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the earth. Nee takes God’s command to Adam to subdue the earth quite literally and assumes it was incumbent on Adam and Eve all by themselves to fulfill it. Nee’s assumption is that our first parents, as the only two humans on earth at the time, must have had incredible powers in order to be able to fulfill this command, in light of the sheer size of the earth and the scope of plant and animal life that covered the planet at that time.

In my opinion, however, it’s better to interpret God’s command to Adam and Eve as intended not only for them but also their descendants–i.e., that the command is given to the entire human race.  It’s unnecessary to assume God expected Adam and Eve to take dominion over the earth all by themselves.  (The question of whether Adam and Eve were the only humans on earth arises later in the story when their sons Cain and Seth marry, for one must ask, where did their wives come from?? But that is a topic for another blog post.)

To back up his argument, Nee makes this claim: The fact that sweat and toil in labor were effects of the fall and not of the original creation (see Genesis 3:17-19) means that prior to the fall Adam must have had limitless physical strength to labor and not grow tired.  However, this is also a misinterpretation, because a careful reading of these verses shows that the increased difficulty in manual labor after the fall is not due to a decrease in Adam’s strength, but to an increase in the difficulty associated with work. In the fall the ground is cursed and produces thorns and thistles (weeds) and so plants which can be eaten now have to be cultivated and the ground worked in order for it to produce food. Man’s labor is likewise cursed with an increase in the obstacles he must overcome in order to achieve his goals.

Because of the fall, humanity has to work a lot harder to produce the same results.  So Nee’s claim that prior to the fall Adam must have had superhuman stamina is unfounded.

Nee also claims that in order to name all the animals (see Genesis 2:19-20), Adam must have had an incredible power of memory and thought in order to accomplish this task.  Here as elsewhere, Nee’s argument is based on conjecture that cannot be supported by the text itself.

Likewise, Nee argues that the Garden of Eden must have been very large because it was bounded by four rivers (based on Genesis 2:10-14), and therefore Adam must have had superhuman powers in order to be able to manage the garden.  However, once again we have a faulty interpretation, for the text actually says that “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters,” (emphasis added).  So the four rivers were not part of Eden but flowed from the river that came out of Eden.  Even if Nee’s interpretation were accurate, his argument about the size of the garden is based solely on conjecture, and such arguments are not a good basis on which to found an entire teaching.

Finally, Nee claims that the fact that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-27) also means they had powers that would seem supernatural to us today.

Now, I don’t have a problem with the idea that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve had greater abilities than we currently know.  Science has shown that we only use about 10 percent of our brain power.  I believe it was C.S. Lewis who proposed that prior to the fall we used 100% of our brain capacity and pondered what wonders we’d be capable of if this power were restored.  But the biblical basis on which Nee makes his assertions about Adam’s prowess before the fall seems flawed to me.

Latent Power in the Soul

Nee goes on to say that when Adam and Eve sinned against God their spirits died, causing these incredible powers that resided in their souls to be “frozen” and immobilized due to sin. Nee tries to explain this biblically but in my opinion his argument here is not just bad, it’s unintelligible.

The major premise of Nee’s book, then, which is referenced in the title, is that this vast soul power which was frozen in the human soul lies latent and unused.  The central biblical passage on which he bases this idea is Revelation 18:11-13:

11 “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men.” (emphasis added)

From this passage Nee surmises that in the last days Satan’s goal is tap into this latent power in human souls in order to accomplish his diabolical deceptions again humanity and the church.  How he comes to this conclusion from these verses is, quite honestly, beyond me.  It seems like a complete stretch in terms of interpreting the passage, especially in light of its context, which speaks of judgment against Babylon in the last days.

Satan Wants Your Soul Power!

Nee’s main point, then, is that in our souls we humans have enough hidden power to perform supernatural wonders. However, he says, as Christians we are not to make use of this power because it is forbidden, due to the fall.  Instead, Christians are to rely solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, working through our spirit (as opposed to the soul) to do God’s work.

Moreover, Satan is trying to tap into the latent power in the human soul in order to deceive the world in the last days through false signs and wonders he would perform using humanity’s soul power.  For millennia Satan’s attempts to harness this power failed, but in recent centuries he has found success and has been building up steam toward the climax of the last days when the antichrist will unleash the full power hidden in man’s soul and take over the world.

Now, the idea that we should rely on the Holy Spirit’s power instead of the power of our own souls in order to live the Christian life is exactly right.  It’s Nee’s claim that we have supernatural powers bound up in our souls which Satan is trying to release that I see as unfounded from a scriptural standpoint.

Nee makes much of Anton Mesmer’s discovery of hypnotism in 1778, and claims this was the turning point at which Satan began to have more success in releasing humanity’s latent soul power.  Since that time, claims Nee, man has been learning more and more about parapsychology, through which Satan has been gaining ever greater control over human soul power.  Nee believes that parapsychology and all paranormal activity is a product of man’s latent soul power, and says that this is going to increase in the last days until the antichrist finally emerges and gains control of the world.  It seems to me that Nee’s thesis betrays a 20th century Western preoccupation with paranormal activity.

A More Biblical Approach

Now what strikes me as odd about this is, I think there’s a way in which Nee could’ve easily made a similar argument from a much more biblically sound perspective.

Nee’s position is that Satan needs man’s soul power in order to be able to do anything of a supernatural nature or perform the false miracles with which he will bring the antichrist to power in the last days. Strangely, Nee completely overlooks what the Bible has to say about the occult.  Several passages in the Bible (notably Deuteronomy 18:9-14) make it clear that occult practices like witchcraft, spiritism, necromancy, and the like were forbidden by God, and the implication is that these are activities which convey genuine supernatural power and originate with Satan.  (Paranormal activity like Nee describes would fall under the category of occult power as well, by the way.)

So the Bible would seem to indicate that Satan is capable of supernatural activity without having to use man’s soul power.  Therefore Nee’s claim that Satan needs human soul power to do his dirty work simply doesn’t seem necessary (or biblical).  I’m sure it’s true that when the human soul is separated from God and HIs Spirit, this can become a means through which Satan can work; but it doesn’t follow that this is the only means by which Satan can work.  At any rate, it seems strange to me that Nee ignores such a clear scriptural connection to his topic, and instead comes at it in such a roundabout way.

Soulish or Spiritual?

In the last of the three chapters in the book, Nee focuses on the difference between living the Christian life, or conducting ministry, out of one’s soul power versus doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is a helpful distinction.  However, I found the practical examples Nee gives to be singularly unhelpful.  They are very subjective, often based on Nee’s own personal intuitions and perceptions, so that his reasons for believing a certain experience or manifestation was soulish rather than Holy-Spirit-led are hard to see or understand.  And in fact some of his claims seem pretty strange to a modern reader.

For example, Nee says that too much singing in worship services is soulish rather than led by the Holy Spirit; too much reflection on a Bible text will lead to a soulish interpretation rather than a spiritual one; all holy laughter (yes, they knew of it in his day) is soulish; if you desire for God to speak to you through dreams or visions, and especially if you have a lot of dreams or visions, then these are likely from the soul rather than the Holy Spirit; if you experience strong feelings, especially good feelings, in worship or prayer then these are likely from the soul rather than from the Holy Spirit; too much praying in tongues, or an inordinate desire to speak or pray in tongues, is soulish; and that many supernatural healings are wrought through soul power rather than Holy Spirit power.

Fear of Spiritual Deception

After reading Nee’s final chapter I felt like the ultimate effect of it, and indeed of the entire book, might be to instill in the reader a fear of being deceived.  Nee comes across as though he believes most spiritual phenomena and manifestations in church or Christian meetings are soulish and demonic rather than from the Holy Spirit, especially if they are accompanied by very nice feelings.  Nee seems to believe that the Holy Spirit’s work is accompanied by very little feeling at all, almost as if the Holy Spirit works impassively in human beings.  Therefore, a lack of strong feelings is a sign of a work that is authentically of the Holy Spirit, while the presence of strong feelings renders an experience suspect as being possibly soulish and demonic rather of God.

If what Nee says is true, then a lot of what goes on in today’s charismatic church (not to mention the rest of the church) originates in the soul and is of demonic origin, rather than from God!

Throughout The Latent Power of the Soul Nee refers to a book called Soul and Spirit by Jessie Penn-Lewis, an evangelist famous for her role in the Welsh revival in the first decade of the 20th century.  Penn-Lewis is also known for her controversial book War on the Saints in which she concluded that some of the spiritual manifestations which occurred in the Welsh revival were from Satan rather than God.

Though I haven’t read War on the Saints in its entirety, nor have I read Soul and Spirit, I have studied Penn-Lewis and can sense her influence on Nee in The Latent Power of the Soul.  Penn-Lewis became very suspicious of spiritual manifestations and is accused by some of being too quick to label certain manifestations as being demonic in origin rather than divine.  The Latent Power of the Soul strikes me as having this same tendency.  And since Penn-Lewis’ book is about the only source Nee consistently references in this book besides the Bible, I think it’s pretty safe to assume Soul and Spirit had a lot of influence on The Latent Power of the Soul.

I will be the first to admit that discernment is needed with regard to spiritual experiences and manifestations.  The apostle John warned us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).  However, in my opinion Nee’s approach in this book is erroneous in itself.  It seems based more on Penn-Lewis’ book and on certain assumptions of Western society (which is ironic from a Chinese author) than on the Bible.

Reading this book helped me understand something about my own life and background.  My mother was always very afraid of being deceived in the way Nee describes in this book.  In fact, the copy of the book I read belonged to my mom, and contained all her underlining and notes.  From these I could tell that she really agreed with or was greatly influenced by the teachings in this book.  I also know that my mother was highly influenced by Jessie Penn-Lewis’ book War On the Saints which also goes into great detail in describing what the author believed were demonically inspired manifestations in the Welsh revival and warning her readers to be on guard against them.

It seems my mother was highly influenced by these two books, and that her deep fears of being spiritually deceived may have been founded on them.  My mother’s fears in this regard had a very profound (and I would say negative) effect on our relationship and also on my perception of God and His trustworthiness with regard to spiritual phenomena.

The Value of This Book

Having described all the problems I see with The Latent Power of the Soul I will go on to say, however, that it’s not all bad. I did benefit from reading it.  Nee’s clear and careful distinction between the human soul and spirit is helpful, as is his delineation between the ways they operate.  Nee also makes a valid point that there is an important difference between what we conjure up by our own power and what is the true work of the Holy Spirit.  He rightly points out that some of what goes on in Christian church services and meetings is more the use of psychological means and human effort rather than relying on the Spirit.

Nee’s words made me ask myself: when I lead worship or speak, how much of what I do is my own efforts, and how much is reliance on the Spirit?  How often to I employ persuasion or manipulation, rather than simply looking to the Spirit to do his work?  It is a sobering question, worth considering.

Nee’s book also made me take a fresh look at some of the ways we do things in church today.  For example, if church leaders work very hard to sport the latest hip fashion, and if our desire in worship is to have the latest cool music in order to attract new people (or retain the ones we have), are we using psychological manipulation?  Is our very approach, and our motive, soulish in origin?

Reading this book also spurred me to begin a study of how the Greek word for soul, psuche, is used in the Bible. Psuche is the word from which we get the English term “psyche,” another word for soul.  In fact, “psyche” is really just a transliteration of psuche.  “Psychology” is the study of the soul.

In my word study I learned something new about the following verse (or was reminded of it, because I think I had heard it before): 1 Cor 2:14 says “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  In the Greek (the language in which the New Testament was originally written) the word translated “natural” is psuchikos–literally “soulish” (or, as the English translation of Nee’s book quaintly says, “soulical”).  So a paraphrase of the verse using this idea would be “The person operating only in the realm of the soul does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  Here is another place in Scripture where we see the distinction Nee has rightly pointed out between operating from the soul, and operating from the spirit.  It shows the importance of the distinction.

I hope no one reading this will leave with a bad impression of Watchman Nee.  He was a great man, a truly courageous Christian.  No doubt he received a great reward when he met his heavenly Father after leaving this life.  Some of his books are classics.  The Latent Power of the Soul is just not one of his better works.  This reminds us that even the greatest of Christian leaders is still a human being and fallible like the rest of us.  But I’m grateful I took the time to read this book.  It gave me greater insight into one of my spiritual heroes and helped me to see his more human side.