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EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

Questioning Evangelism - Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did
Randy Newman, Kregel Publications: 2004

When I became a new Christian I was taught to memorise a gospel presentation that I could share with my friends to explain the Christian message to them. I was enthusiastic and followed the advice …….and proceeded to spoil a few good friendships through my eagerness to convert them! In every conversation when there was the slightest hint of spiritual openness, I tried to ‘get them over the line’ and to pray ‘the sinners prayer’. There was nothing wrong with my motivation nor with my learning a gospel presentation but there was a good reason why it didn’t ‘work’ with most of my friends.

You see, we no longer live in a time or culture where a simple proposition of gospel truth will convince most people. The plausibility structures required to assent to the truth of the gospel: an acceptance of absolute truth, of reliable historical record, of trust in institutions like the church, of the existence of God - these have been dismantled. This means that our presentation isn’t immediately ‘plausible’ to them. In most cases, we need to do a lot more groundwork before we can present an invitation to faith. The summary style gospel presentation is ideal when a person is receptive and ready for it, but most people simply aren’t.  (Think of the ENGELS scale (see below) – it probably doesn’t go low enough in its scale when describing someone far from God but it still has lots to teach us about pitching our message and manner appropriately for where a person is at spiritually.)

Part of our ground work involves helping people to see that the ideas upon which they are building their lives are wrong. Ideas such as ‘I decide what’s true’, ‘all religions are the same’, ‘religion poisons everything’, ‘there’s no such thing as sin’, ‘God is dead’, ‘anything is ok as long as its not harmful’ – these are the ideas we need to dismantle to pave the way for genuine gospel conversations.

How do we do that? Well first we need to listen to our friends, to find out what they believe and to start to question why they believe what they do. Armed with simple questions such as ‘really?’, “why do you believe that?”, “Can you explain that for me? I don’t see how that can be true…” will help us to do this.
The next time you have a conversation with a friend, try to hold back from telling them what you think. Really. (I know this is hard for most of us!) Instead, listen well, reflect back what they are saying, ask probing questions and be happy to have gotten to know them a bit better and to have left the door open for another conversation the next time you meet with them. This way, sooner rather than later we may find that we are able to question what they think and at some point that they ask us what we believe and why….

The greatest encouragement for this approach comes from Jesus who so often used questions to nudge people further along towards the kingdom. Check out Mark 10:17-22 and ask yourself why Jesus didn’t simply tell the rich young ruler to put his faith in him or to follow him.

These ideas all come from a great book that explains how to ask probing questions in conversation with our friends. It’s called “Questioning Evangelism” by Randy Newman. Kregel Publications: 2004. It would be a great book to use in your parish in training people in personal evangelism using a questioning approach. Newman points out that questions aren’t everything, i.e. we still need to be able to explain our faith and to answer questions and to live out our faith visibly…but questions are a necessary and underused tool for evangelism.
Tracy Lauersen

Living the Secular Life
New Answers to Old Questions
Phil Zuckerman
Penguin Press, New York, 2014.

 

Phil Zuckerman is an American sociologist who 5 years ago founded the Department of Secular Studies at Pitzer College, California. His principal interest is in studying secular people, those who profess no religion, and he is an enthusiastically secular person himself. He is also an apologist for the secular way of life, who engages with the strongly religious elements of his US culture, who might be mistrustful of atheists and unbelievers, and seeks to turn aside their criticisms.

Indeed the chapters of Living the Secular Life can be seen as meeting common suspicions religious people might have about secular people. Chapter 2, ‘Morality’, seeks to counter the thought that atheists have no reason to be moral, and so probably won’t be. Chapter 3, ‘The Good Society’ tries to upend the related idea that a secular society will be a dysfunctional society. Chapter 4 ‘Irreligion Rising’ takes on the notion that religion is natural to human beings and irreligion is unnatural. Chapter 6, ‘Trying Times’ tests the claim that secular people have no true resources to help them face tragedy and suffering; chapter 7, ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ challenges the conception that death as final extinction leaves life meaningless and full of dread, and chapter 8 ‘Aweism’ seeks to debunk the feeling that atheism cannot admit a positive sense of wonder, joy and mystery into life and living. So just as the early Christian apologists had to defend themselves against the accusations of the world of Late Antiquity that they were atheists, cannibals or seditious, so Phil Zuckerman, secular apologist, seeks to defend the irreligious from the slurs of the religious.

The Gospel of the Kingdom
Jesus’ Revolutionary Message
David Seccombe
Whitefield Publications, 2016

Do we really need another book on the Gospel of the Kingdom of God? One would have thought the market is flooded. Many of us think we know Gospel back to front. Many of us think we are well aware of the foundations our faith and believe that to re-examine the basics of the Christian message is useful reminder but no more than that.

I defy anyone to maintain this widespread view after reading the latest book by David Seccombe.

In C.S. Lewis’ classic “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” when the resurrected Aslan is asked what his rising from the dead means, Aslan replies, ‘It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is magic deeper still that she did not know.’ This book entitled “The Gospel of the Kingdom”, is about the deeper magic.

Redeeming Law
Christian Calling and the
Legal Profession
Michael Schutt
IVP, 2007.

In his book “Reedeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession”, Michael Schutt asks whether (and, if so, how) Christians can serve God in the legal profession. His examination of the state of the legal profession and the Christians who work within it focuses on America and is bleak at best. Thankfully it doesn’t (yet) describe the situation the Australian lawyer finds him or herself practicing in, as the picture he paints is far from what he (rightly) attributes as the Chrisitian orthodox foundation of our legal system.

Schutt discusses vocation and the Christian calling in a general manner, which is thought provoking and perhaps even slightly countercultural. He then addresses how the Christian should think and practice as a lawyer with integrity in the ruthless profession that he describes the American legal profession as being; intertwining theoretical concepts with some practical ideas both for those studying and for those practicing the law as a daily pursuit.

At the very least, reading this book will get you thinking about whether the way that you work and relate to others in your profession is integrated with your Christian faith.

The Plausibility Problem – the church and same-sex attraction,
by Ed Shaw, IVP 2015.
Review by Ian Hore-Lacy

This book answers a question I have been worrying about for several years as evangelical brethren have been grappling intellectually with discourse on gay marriage in relation to the church. They seem not to address the question of what positive things can be said to a strongly same-sex attracted (SSA) Christian beyond “just say ‘no’!”. How should they live as full members of the church?

The answer here is not with increasingly-accepted rationalisation, nor in covenanted relationships, but in full celibacy and warm acceptance. But the author, who is in this position himself and pastor of a congregation in Bristol, puts the heat on the church to make some significant changes so as to enable SSA celibacy rather than hinder it or degrade its proper upbeat character. He expounds nine missteps that the church has made which exacerbate the challenges for SSA evangelicals, and which drive most of them from the church altogether or into ‘affirming’ congregations. The book rings true in most respects to me, in the light of conversations I have had over the last 15 years.

As Vaughan Roberts says in the Foreword: The author’s “sights are not set on the predictable target – compromising liberals – but on those who belong to his own evangelical tribe.” Few will be convinced of the rightness of the orthodox Christian position on homosexuality unless they are persuaded of its plausibility. This is what the book addresses, uncomfortably. Both Vaughan and the author are part of http://www.livingout.org

The author suggests that even with some staple biblical teaching, the church is much more shaped by the world and the spirit of the age than by the gospel, and it is this which makes SSA faithfulness (more than anything else) implausible and unreasonable today.

The nine missteps he addresses are matters of church teaching, emphasis and culture, as follows: Where there is undue emphasis on us being sinners rather than saints, depraved and rebellious rather than permanently-adopted children, then how does an SSA person avoid understanding their sexuality as their identity, and being desperate?  And how do we understand family?  A mum, dad and 2.4 children, or in practice - not just empty rhetoric - the local church? Marriage is temporary, for this age, union with Christ is eternal. And if a person is ‘gay’, surely in this postmodern era it is natural and OK for them to express it sexually? This ignores the fact that we are all born with the innate ability and desire to sin, by nature, and there is no area of sin where we are not all held accountable – SSA folk and the rest of us in ubiquitous solidarity.

And surely God wants us to be happy? What’s the point otherwise? So we respond to the circumstances of life accordingly. “Today’s ruling authority is our short-term happiness – both outside and inside the church.” Shaw says that evangelicals have been more subtle than liberals in reconfiguring God to fit in with this, but real happiness in God’s purposes is through all of us being countercultural in many respects, not just SSA people being the odd ones out.

Arguably his central chapter is on intimacy, with both biblical example and current experience showing this is not merely sexual, even if our culture focuses it there. The church needs to witness to relationships which are so much more than sex, and thus minimise any sense of sexual deprivation by our SSA members. “Intimate relationships … are often closed off to me by our society and sexualized culture.” “But what’s been hardest is how the church often discourages non-sexual intimacy too,” by unduly glorifying sexual intimacy in marriage. Proper intimacy outside the marital unit will strengthen marriages, and churches must promote it, not simply for SSA celibates.

The complementarity of male and female is basic to God’s creation and sexual difference is designed to help us grasp the passionate love of God for his people. “God has put sex on this planet to make us want to go to heaven” – sex as heartfelt longing, not just the practice. “Our view on the morality of same-sex unions needs to rest on this sort of solid biblical anthropology.” “But in the evangelical church, godliness is heterosexuality,” which is a very dangerous attitude, and “spiritually life-threatening for people like me.” Churches are hypocritical in seeing homosexual sex as worse than heterosexual adultery, and Shaw rightly says that SSA Christians should not be held to a higher standard than anyone else in the church.  But celibacy has an image problem, and nowhere more so than in the church today. Which is plainly irrational, given that both Jesus and Paul were single, as have been some of the most wonderfully influential Christians in recent decades.

Finally, and as a counterpoint to happiness, suffering is to be avoided. “Our Christian lives are more about self-gratification – seemingly denying the existence of Jesus’ words” in Mark 8: 31-34. “Our contemporary Christian lives of comfort are not the Jesus way. He couldn’t make that any clearer in these verses.” So the real suffering of sex-deprived SSA Christians is actually used by God “for my good rather than as a bad thing he has cruelly afflicted me with.”

In conclusion, Shaw says that “we should begin to see both the people who experience [SSA] and the controversy that it brings as a gift to the church. As a divine gift, because it’s just what we needed at this time in our history to help us see the whole series of tragic missteps we have taken to the detriment of us all, as well as to the world we are trying to reach.”

An 18-page Appendix on the plausibility of the traditional interpretation of scripture in understanding creation, rebellion, redemption and perfection in relation to SSA earths the book exegetically, and a 10-page Appendix on the implausibility of the new interpretation of scripture complements it.
This is a book of great pastoral merit and timeliness. He makes a strong case for the church needing to be more biblical and more countercultural in some key respects, with the need to avoid driving out SSA members and those sympathetic to them – arguably a high proportion of those under 30 years old - highlighting the priority of this. Not incidentally, the church will then more readily be blessed by the great gifts of both SSA people and others who choose celibacy to serve it. They are a humbling inspiration, as I said to one in his 30s recently.

May 2016

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