Thursday, June 13, 2013

American "Christian" Animism

If anyone actually reads this, it may stir up some pretty strong feelings. When Americans think of animism, we generally think of African traditional religions or the voodoo of the Caribbean. We don't generally associate animism with "normal" Americans. However....

I'm always a bit uncomfortable when I hear someone say something like, "Claim God's promises for you." It's not that I don't believe God is gracious; it's not that I don't believe that God has made and will fulfill his promises. I do believe both of those, but I also believe that often promises are taken out of context and applied to situations that God never intended. A colleague expresses it well when he says, "All the Bible was not written to me but all the Bible was written for me."

Several years ago, I taught a class on discipleship to a group of Kenyan pastors. When we talked about prayer, I used this phrase over and over, "Maombi si uchawi" (Swahili: Prayer is not witchcraft), to try to communicate that prayer is not a formula or ritual that we use to manipulate God into doing what we want. So, these paragraphs caught my attention.
Animistic salvation is utilitarian, selfish, human-directed, and this-worldly. An animist is chiefly concerned with self: He seeks power to fulfill his own earthly needs. Conversely, Christian salvation is a response to grace, altruistic and self-giving, God-focused, and includes the immediate as well as the eternal. A Christian, unlike the earthly focused animist, seeks to fulfill the purposes of God.
Such utilitarianism has also invaded the church. Prayer has frequently become a magical potion to extract human wants from God. When Christians order God to fulfill his promises, as "We claim the promises which you, God, have already granted us," they superimpose their own will upon God's sovereign will. Such prayers demand that God fulfill human desires. However, prayer should give homage and praise to God and plead with him to act while acknowledging his sovereignty.
(pp. 13-14 in Conclusion of Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, Gailyn Van Rheenen)
Often, not always, that kind of praying takes God's promises out of context. Any time we seek to manipulate God to do what we want rather than humbly bowing before Him, waiting to obey and receive what He wants, we're practicing animism rather than faith.

Running is a metaphor for a life of faith and obedience. Right now, I hope the metaphor doesn't describe my life — I rolled my ankle on Tuesday, so, my running is on the shelf for a few days. That's the 4th time in about 16 months and it's not fun. Frustrating.

Run well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: "Outreach and the Artist"

God is the ultimate Artist, is the first sentence of Con Campbell's "Conclusion" of his book, Outreach and the Artist: Sharing the Gospel With the Arts. That sentence could easily be the thesis of the whole book. It summarizes well why Christian artists occupy a natural position from which to share the Gospel, why the arts should be seen as a legitimate avenue for sharing the Gospel, and why artists need the Gospel. Campbell does an excellent job as an apologist for all three positions.

The author is unapologetically Christian, so the book may not appeal to everyone. However, I come very close to saying that every pastor, every gospel strategist, and every Christian artist ought to read this book. I suspect that every church either has, among its congregation, gifted artists who sincerely desire to use their gifting in ministry or that the community around the church includes artists who need the Gospel. While Campbell doesn't give many how-tos in the book, he presents a solid understanding of why and how art can be used in ministry.

There are 4 key points that the book highlighted for me. Other readers will almost certainly find different points that speak to them:
  • The need for the church to understand, accept, nurture, and mentor artists instead of automatically writing them off because of their unique lifestyles and perspectives.
  • The difference between the message and the medium (art as an avenue for sharing the Gospel) and the medium and the message (the art contains the message). Both are valid, according to Campbell, but the latter is usually too subtle to be the only way art is used to share the Gospel.
  • The value in approaching the artistic community as an unreached people group with its own culture — common values, language, and focus. Christian artists are best placed to reach other artists because artists tend to assign influence based on "meritocracy".
  • The understanding that art becomes god for many artists. This idolatry needs to be addressed. The medium (art) is not the issue and does not need to be abandoned; one's perspective on art is the issue.
Each chapter is followed by an "Artist Profile" of a Christian artist in which Campbell asks the artist to describe his or her artistic interests, the struggles of being a Christian in the arts, the ministry the artist has through the arts, and what that artist sees as the single biggest barrier that hinders other artists from coming to Christ. He includes musicians, visual artists, thespians, and others to give a broad perspective of the arts. This personalizes the focus of the book.

There were some formatting issues in the Kindle version that I got from the publisher. There were several divided words like "ser vice" and a few odd words like "115Christian". The font size used for the "Artist Profiles" was larger than that used for the rest of the book and I found that a little distracting. I don't know if these items are just in the review copy or if these errors also exist in the commercial edition available from resellers. Those issues were minor distractions and did not take away from the messages of the book.

DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book through the publisher's blogger review program in exchange for a review of the book. I was free to write the review that I thought the book deserved.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Book Review — Intentional Walk: An Inside Look at the Faith That Drives the St. Louis Cardinals

I have never been a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I don't have anything against the Cards, but I'm a life-long Yankees fan and have also become a Braves fan in the past 30 years (yes, I'm old enough to have been a Yankee fan for much longer than I've been a Braves fan). Until this weekend, I probably could not have named a single Cardinals' player. So, when I saw this book, Intentional Walk: An Inside Look at the Faith That Drives the St. Louis Cardinals (Kindle edition), I didn't decide to read it because of the team. Frankly, I decided to read it because a good friend and my brother-in-law are rabid Cardinal fans and I wanted to know something about the team. Secondly, I decided to read it because I was intrigued that a baseball team would be known for its cadre of Christian players to the point that someone would write a book about that.

What I found is that this book is not really a book about baseball. You won’t find juicy tidbits of gossip about the players. There’s no recounting of deals gone sour. For the most part, there are no play-by-play retelling of games. Except for chapter 17, "The Postseason", about the Cards in the 2012 playoffs, this is really a book about baseball players and how their faith in Christ impacts their lives both on and off the field. I was disappointed at first and I really think the book would have benefited from a bit more baseball. In the end, though, I really enjoyed the book. I didn't find the book preachy but I recognize that I'm biased towards the perspective of this book.

With 2 exceptions, Rains uses a separate chapter to talk about the faith of each of 18 different members of the Cardinals' organization — almost mini-biographies. The 2 exceptions are one chapter in which he talks about 2 players and the 17th chapter in which he talks about the 2012 postseason.

There are several themes that run through the whole book, many of them in almost every chapter:
  • God has a plan that may not match our plan
  • God is not selecting the winners because he's more interested in the relationship (between Him and an individual and between individuals)
  • Baseball is a game based on errors - you fail most of the time
  • You have to understand that not every day is going to be a good day
  • A believer has to be excellent in everything he does, do his best, because he's working as unto the Lord
Manager Mike Matheny's quote near the end of the book sums it up well:
I believe in every aspect of my life that I am called to excellence. I believe, through my faith, that I am called to high expectations....
This was a good read and I recommend it. (A book has to really grab me to get a 5-star rating.)

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of Intentional Walk through the publisher's blogger review program, BookSneeze, in exchange for a review. I was free to write the review that I thought the book deserved.)

Run and read well, y'all,
Bob Allen
Nairobi, Kenya