Review: The Reason for God DVD and Workbook

A review of Tim Keller, The Reason for God DVD and Workbook, Zondervan, 2010.

The DVD is available here from amazon.com. The accompanying workbook is available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. The DVD is not yet available from amazon.co.uk though when it is, it should be available here.

Tim Keller’s The Reason for God is a great introduction to the Christian faith that begins by tackling the common objections that people have to faith in Christ. It made top ten in the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list.

You’ve read the book, now you can watch the DVD. A DVD and workbook have just been released by Zondervan.

Except that this is not quite the book in DVD form. Keller has take a more creative approach. The six sessions are not monologues in which Keller presents the idea in the book. Instead he takes six common objections to Christianity and debates them with a group of unbelievers. Each session in about 18-20 minutes long. Keller gets perhaps a quarter of the air time. So these videos do not attempt to deliver knock-down arguments. The participants are not persuaded by the end of each session. Instead, each movie opens a discussion which includes a positive and engaging Christian perspective, but without this perspective dominating the debate. Keller does finish each session with a closing thought. This usually follows – as do many of his interventions – a presuppositional apologetic line. In other words, he turns the discussion back on the doubters to reveal the nature of their ‘faith’ and show the assumptions in their presuppositions.

So the movies are not designed to give to an unbelieving friend to watch on their own. I would suggest they can be used in two ways. First, with groups of Christians to give them the confidence to discuss the questions of their friends in a generous manner. Second, with groups of unbelievers as a way of opening up a discussion on their objections to Christianity. The introduction to the workbook says, ‘The guide and DVD are not about getting armed with arguments and answers so that they can be used as generic responses whenever anyone asks you about your faith. Rather you should start to become conversant with ways to sensitively, gently, humbly, and respectfully talk about the objections.’

The videos are beautifully produced. Each sessions is a 20-minute selection from a series of unscripted longer discussions supplemented by personal interviews with the participants. Sometimes the discussion is a little highbrow with terminology like ‘semantics,’ ‘reductionistic’ and ‘pluralism’ (though Keller’s contributions are always accessible). But I would not think this would get in the way unless someone has a chip about inaccessible vocabulary. Highly recommended.

Here is a trailer and the session titles …

1. Isn’t the Bible a Myth?
2. How Can You Say There Is Only One Way to God?
3. What Gives You the Right to Tell Me How to Live My Life?
4. Why Does God Allow Suffering?
5. Why Is the Church Responsible for So Much Injustice?
6. How Can God Be Full of Love and Wrath at the Same Time?

Here are my reviews of Keller’s The Prodigal God DVD and workbook and Gospel In Life DVD and Workbook – both also highly recommended.

The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 3: The Need for a Whole Gospel Approach

Here is final guest post from Dr Jonny Woodrow suggesting the need for a robust trinitarian theology to supplement an incarnational model of cultural engagement. This argument draws on reflections on Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. The first two posts in this series are here and here. Jonny  is a tutor with the Northern Training Institute and a church planter with The Crowded House.

I have benefited from the incarnational approach. I love the emphasis on contextualisation and cross-cultural mission. We practice this in our context with teams devoted to being part of the communities they seek to reach. It helps to bring culture to the fore in our strategising. But the more we seek to mobilise people for this kind of mission or try to pastor people through the inevitable personal and social battles this incarnational lifestyle forces to the surface, the more I find the concept of incarnation as a principle powerless to help. This is because it fails to address the real problem with humanity.

The Fall brought about relational brokenness between mankind, God and creation through man’s attempt to put a non-Trinitarian being (i.e. self) at the centre of the universe and crush difference. Post-Fall Adam wanted the death penalty to fall on Eve, removing the different one from the Garden, blaming God for creating her. The construction of the tower of Babel around the exaltation of man threatened to exchange God’s plan to fill the world with fruitful people for a monocultural existence. The key problem the gospel must over-come is not transcendence but every attempt mankind makes to define himself and the world by something other than relationship with the Trinitarian God. An incarnational approach does not address this problem. It simply wants to bring God down to earth. Having read Gunton, a truly relational approach to creation and redemption means we need the whole gospel to mobilise us and remake us as truly human and not just incarnational.

The incarnational approach has helped us to critique the mission of the church where we stay in our own cosy subculture. But it simply operates at the level of example. The Son of God became one of us so we become one of ‘them’. At this point we strategise our way into culture. Examples, devoid of life changing truth and grace in the end become sticks to beat people with. The incarnational approach alone fails to help people to missionally live out their identity in Christ.

Someone committed to incarnational theology might reply at this point that the incarnation enabled us to become truly human since God became man. Or they might say that the church is the body of Christ, therefore incarnation is a principle that directs our mission. But I want to suggest that this is category confusion. It is not the incarnation that makes us the body of Christ or that makes us truly human. Incarnation is the miracle of God taking on human flesh. What makes us truly human is putting on Christ and being remade in his image through baptism into his death and resurrection. Putting on Christ, being found in him at the right hand of the Father, and being remade in his image are not summarised by incarnation. Incarnation is not the correct term for this. Regeneration is the correct term.

Genesis 1 and 2 show that being in the image of God means being a community in fruitful, cultural engagement with creation. This, as we have seen, leads to a relational and Trinitarian view of being which the gospel affirms and enables. Therefore the basis for mobilising a culturally engaged church that takes particularity, diversity and creativity seriously is the call to become image bearers. This means we need to be reconciled to God through the whole Jesus story as he takes up humanity, kills us, resurrects us and brings us into the presence of the Father to receive the gift of the Spirit.  We don’t become image bearers through our own incarnational efforts. This is category confusion.  We become image bearers by being remade through death and resurrection into the image of God (e.g. Colossians 3:9).

Pastorally, I find it much more empowering to encourage Christians to live missionally by calling them to the death and resurrection of Jesus for them and to live in light of their new identity in Christ. It is helpful for a student entering the home of an alcoholic where many drug addicted and dangerous people hang out, to know that Jesus entered these kinds of places as well. But what really enables him to do it is the knowledge that he has died with Christ and now his life is hidden with the ascended Christ. Now his life is not found in the comfort and safety of socially acceptable company, he has died to these idols and he has been given new life in Christ.

It seems to me that relationship with the incarnate, resurrected and ascended Christ for our renewal in his image is the correct and most fruitful basis for missional contextualised theology. This relational approach reflects the mobilising categories of Scripture: in him, reconciled to God, adopted etc. It requires all moments of the gospel story to shape practice.

Without the incarnation there would be no true human to take humanity into the presence of God. Without the death of the true human, creation and humanity could not be brought through death to be renewed. Without the resurrection a new humanity would not be possible. Without the ascension renewed humanity would not be represented in the presence of God. We were made to live in the world in the presence of the Father. That was the Genesis 1 and 2 foundation for cultural engagement and now, through the Son, the new humanity again lives in the presence of the Father through Jesus’ ascension. If the ascension had not happened, the Spirit would not have been sent to begin the work of recalibrating the creation around the throne of Jesus. In other words, creation and culture are affirmed and renewed by every moment of the gospel story which brings us back into relationship with the Father, each other and creation.

We need the whole gospel to mobilise us for mission and to inform our missional practice. I want to suggest that to truly engage with culture, the missional church needs to become increasingly relational rather than incarnational. This will mean that the missional church needs to recover a robust Trinitarian and Biblical theology. For some, much of what they have packed into the incarnational category can be kept but it needs to be recategorized if we are to be able to let the biblical categories inform practice. We need to live in the whole Jesus story and not just one aspect of it if we truly want to engage culture for Christ and avoid worldly engagement with a Christian veneer.
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The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 2: Embodiment and Incarnation

Here is the second of three guest blogs from Dr Jonny Woodrow highlighting the limits of an incarnational model of mission by reflecting on Colin Gunton’s, The One, the Three and the Many purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. Jonny  is a tutor with the Northern Training Institute and a church planter with The Crowded House. The first post explored the question of the triumph of the many (embodied local realities) over the one (transcendental reality) in modern culture.

In his book, The One, The Three and the Many, Colin Gunton argues that the culture of modernity has failed to manage the tension between the one and the many. This tension operates on a number of levels. It can be seen wherever the concept of diversity threatens unity or vice versa. For instance; the state versus local government; the rights of the individual verses society; the objective truth verses the variety of many subjective opinions. Gunton shows how modernity has ostensibly wanted to champion the many over forms of the transcendent one. It has tried to do this by overcoming the transcendent God in order to find meaning in the particular and embodied.

While embodiment is central to Gunton’s theology he shows that it is the wrong solution to the tension between the one and the many. This is because transcendence is not the enemy of the local and the particular. Gunton argues that the problem is a non-Trinitarian and non-relational conception of the ‘oneness’ of the transcendent God. This non-relational view of God and his will presents God as anti-diversity.

Following on from the first blog, I want to unpack the idea that the Christian doctrine of the transcendent becoming embodied – the incarnation – can not help us critique and engage with modern and post-modern culture on its own. Too often, the incarnation becomes our key principle without setting it within a framework of the Trinitarian story of redemption. When this happens we are in danger of simply attempting modernist embodiment with a Christian veneer to overcome a misdiagnosed problem with culture.

Foundations for Particularity: Unitary or Relational Will

Gunton’s argument is complex and nuanced. It is presented here in outline only. Gunton contrasts two models or paradigms of the relationship between creation and the will of God. These contrasting models shape a different view of God’s will and the nature of will in general. These differing views of God’s will, in turn, lead to differing understandings of the place of the particular. Continue reading

The Limits of Incarnational Models Part 1: The Triumph of the Many over the One?

Here is the first of three guest blogs from Dr Jonny Woodrow. Jonny  is a tutor with the Northern Training Institute and a church planter with The Crowded House. His blog posts reflect on the lessons for missional and incarnational church from Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US. They question whether incarnational mission provides an adequate model for an engagement with cultural pluralism.

To recalibrate its activities around mission, the church has had to come to terms with cultural pluralism; the idea that here are many varied local cultures for the gospel to engage with. In the missional church literature there has been helpful analysis and enthusiasm for understanding the local and the particular in mission. Writers like Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost have helped us to find ways to enter cultures, listen for local stories, affirm local cultural difference, and avoid imposing models of church. They have challenged us to look for organic models of church that give the gospel expression through local culture.  The incarnation has been the mediating principle for much of this helpful insight. In the incarnation we see God affirming locality and difference by entering a culture. The gospel emerges in the world through a local culture and spreads as God’s people enter other cultures.

In his book, The One, The Three and the Many, Colin Gunton brings a robust Trinitarian theology to bear on the culture of modernity. Modernity has tried to take the local and particular seriously. It has opted for radical embodiment as its organising principle. This is the idea that meaning in the universe comes from the stuff of everyday life; bodies, language and culture, rather than transcendent universal principles. To some degree, modernity has its own ‘incarnational’ approach to local culture.

Gunton argues, however,  that modernity is built on paradox. Far from celebrating cultural diversity or providing a foundation for difference and particularity, modernity has in fact created new forms of homogeneous culture, often more oppressive than the ideologies it tried to throw off.

In this series of three blogs I want to suggest that Gunton’s critique of modernity’s approach to local culture might reveal some correctives for our incarnational approach.

Gunton argues that the worldview of antiquity was seen by modernists and postmodernists as privileging the ‘one’ above the ‘many.’ From Plato’s universal forms to Augustine’s God as a divine rational will, antiquity squashed cultural diversity under the weight of single unifying principles. Particularity, difference and materiality were not seen as fundamental to the nature of creation. Instead they were seen as departures from the purity of the unity of the divine one or universal forms. In such a worldview difference is bad. Modernity attempted to distinguish itself from antiquity by attempting to privilege the ‘many’, the local and diverse, above a transcendent ‘one’.

Modernity achieved this by emphasising the particular through displacing the divine ‘one’. Embodiment is essential to this displacement. This happened through William of Ockham and modernity’s obsession with materiality. William of Ockham, the champion of the particular, rejected the idea of a unifying will of God or transcendent universal principles as the foundation for meaning and coherence. Instead he made the rational will of humans the starting point of coherence and meaning-making. This paved the way for modernity’s move to embodiment because it made human experience the organising principle of the universe. Modernity’s emphasis on materiality supplied a number of theories for the mechanisms of human experience. Marxism, socio-biology and early psychology made economics, evolution, biology and neurology the basis of human experience. The concepts of mind and will, which were once considered transcendent and non-bodily entities, were now cemented to economics, biology and neurology.

So the transcendent one or divine will was replaced by many embodied wills as the organising principle of creation. This move to locate the organising principles of the universe in human embodied experience could be described as a modernist, secular incarnational move. It promised to make cultural diversity and the particular the starting place for accounts of being. Along with this shift, the idea that the cosmos held meaning was replaced by a view that time, space and materiality are meaningless. Truth and meaning are locally generated by the activities and sense-making of people as embodied wills. In order to enter truth one has to enter a local culture or worldview.

On a surface reading, modernity looks like the triumph of the many over the one in which the local and particular are celebrated. Gunton stresses that of all cultures modernity has achieved the most for the cause of cultural diversity. But modernity has also created the herding culture of consumerism, communism and fascism along with the attendant bloodshed, addiction and misery. Paradoxically, in each case, the many have been forced into forms of identity that are shaped by a new, all powerful one. Consumerism transforms us into the image of the market. Identity is worked out through the consumption of mass-produced products and logos, creating as much homogeneity as individuality. Communism erected the state as the transcendent one in the name of giving ownership of life and work back to the masses. Fascism similarly attempts to serve the many, but does so by making the many conform to the will and image of the head of state. Gunton’s point is that modernity has not escaped antiquity. It has repeated the same mistake; erecting a new one over the many. The only difference is that modernity has replaced transcendent oneness with more immanent and earthly forms: market, self, state, race.

These ‘false transcendentals’ are demonic, says Gunton. They are idols or God replacements. Like all idols they undermine our humanity and identity by drafting us into the service of their image, crushing God’s design for community and individuality. Modernity thought that the enemy of diversity was a transcendent one. But, by bringing the transcendent down to earth and making it immanent and human, modernity has not served the many. It has created new forms of homogeneity that undermine identity and that compete with each other (e.g. consumerism verses socialism). The move to embodiment and the down-playing of transcendence has failed to create both diversity and unity. Embodiment is not a mediating category that can successfully manage the relationship between the one and the many. If this is true, then maybe also ‘embodiment’ in a Christian guise as ‘incarnation’ cannot on its own be the basis for a theology of cultural diversity and engagement. In the next two blog reflections on Gunton I want to unpack this argument.
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Shaping culture by creating culture

Here’s the second instalment of the review of Andy Crouch’s Culture Making (IVP) by guest contributor, Jonny Woodrow, together reflections on how Jonny’s household church are living out the call to create and cultivate culture.

Too many churches stand outside culture looking in. Even churches that see themselves as culturally engaged are often merely responding to culture. Andy Crouch argues that we need to cultivate and produce cultural artefacts if we want to change culture.

Other people understand the relationship between culture creation and change. My local residents association campaigned for years to have a piece of scrub land turned into a park.  Now we have a community-wide picnic in the park with games each year. We are hoping to use the space for a multicultural festival of food and music, celebrating the ethnic diversity of our community.

Those who show themselves to be proficient culture makers earn a voice in the public square. The leaders of my residents association are consulted on town planning issues. They are invited to take part in further culture creation. On the BBC’s current affairs discussion programme, Question Time, authors and comedians sit on the panel. Why? Because they have shown proficiency in taking up the world and handing it back to us in new cultural forms (literature, comedy, art) that open up new horizons. They stand out as people who understand the world because they can shape it through cultivation and creativity. Crouch’s book challenges the church to recover this calling.

Crouch shows how God’s plan for the redemption of the world includes a cultural agenda from beginning to end. The gospel is the story of a God who, in reconciling all things to himself through the blood of his Son, is putting creation back in order. The Garden of Eden finishes up as a garden city whose architect is God incorporating the wealth of the nations (Revelation 21:24).

In Crouch’s view the new creation will be populated with redeemed cultural artefacts. All culture is potentially God honouring, both Christian and non-Christian, because it echoes God’s nature as a creator and cultivator. So we don’t need to avoid partnering with secular agencies attempting neighbourhood renewal and we don’t need to tack on an evangelistic message to make culture-creation legitimate for Christians.

Our church has tried to take Crouch’s call seriously through food. God’s future is a meal in the new creation.  That meal is prefigured in the meals of Jesus and the cultural life of the church in the world. Cooking and meal times are cultural events for celebrating and sustaining life. They bring people together.  We have Christians and non-Christians swapping recipes with friends from different nations and teaching each other to cook. On Sundays there is often food provided by Christians and non Christians from different cultural backgrounds. A Pakistani friend teaches people to cook pakoras. A Kurdish friend brings lentil soup.

By celebrating food, the church has opened up a new set of relationships and the potential for further cultural development. It has brought people into contact with God’s gospel agenda for culture and creation. In the context of those relationships we get to share the gospel. Where there is no united community into which to plant churches, we are attempting to create one through simple, everyday, culture creation with gospel intentionality.

Jonny is a church planter with The Crowded House and a tutor with the Northern Training Institute which I head up.

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Christians shaping culture

A guest post today from Jonny Woodrow, a church planter with The Crowded House and a tutor with the Northern Training Institute which I head up. He’s going to post a short series reviewing Culture Making by Andy Crouch (IVP) .

Discussion about how the gospel is relevant to culture tends to assume that churches stand outside of culture looking in. So says Andy Crouch in his book, Culture Making. This, says Crouch, has left the church with four ways to approach culture; we critique, condemn, copy or consume. Some churches enjoy cultural analysis and want to critique ‘worldviews’. Others want to withdraw from culture, condemning it as ungodly. Others produce their own version of mainstream culture. Finally, some churches throw themselves into secular culture, uncritically consuming it. When one or more of these four stances define our relationship to culture, we have misunderstood the relationship between creation, culture and our calling to be image bearers.

Crouch commends two alternative postures toward culture, derived from a biblical understanding of cultural artefacts and our relationship to them. He calls us back to creativity (making new) and cultivation (managing creation). He illustrates with an omelette.

Making an omelette is a moment when God’s creation (eggs and heat) is taken up and ordered into something useful. The ingredients in omelettes include not only eggs and mushrooms, but technologies (cookers and pans) and social practices (cookery and meal times). An omelette is one way we order the creation through cultivation and creativity. So the humble omelette opens up all sorts of new cultural possibilities. You can have cheese omelettes, Spanish omelettes, bacon omelettes. You can create new combinations – a chocolate omelette perhaps. In one cook book on my shelf thin omelettes make it possible for dieters to have a chicken wrap using eggs instead of a tortilla. Omelettes, like the pizza, allow new forms of creativity. They add new realities to the world: from faster meal times to increased heart disease! Cultural artefacts, like omelettes, hold our world in order in ways that channel relationships and open up new possibilities for interacting with creation.

Culture is all about making the creation usable and meaningful. For Crouch it is essential to our image bearing nature. Humans are made in the image of God who creates and sustains. In a similar way, we are to create and cultivate the world. God gave Adam the task of cultivating a Garden already filled with rich resources for cultural shaping. Crouch says that at the moment when Adam names the animals, God steps back and lets his image bearer add to, and develop, creation. Names, like all cultural artefacts, mediate our relationship to creation, making it meaningful. Creating and cultivating are the two ways in which we shape our world as we produce cultural artefacts.

Culture is the process in which technologies and social practices come together with creation to make a small part of the world usable. Culture can’t be reduced to a ‘worldview’ that we can opt in or out of, or a set of products that we avoid, copy, critique or consume. We continually and unavoidably inhabit a creation shaped by cultural processes that operate through cultural artefacts and activity. Culture is something we all do all of the time. When a mother potty trains her children, she is engaged in cultural activity, bringing order, nurturing and releasing children into new possibilities and new assumptions about the world. Meal times, table manners and cutlery all shape and order our interaction with each other and the creation.

So our proper posture, as Crouch calls it, towards culture should be as cultivators and creators. The gospel calls us back to our image bearing identity as the people of God. The missional church should be on the forefront of creativity and cultivation in our contexts, modelling restored humanity. On the right occasion critique, condemnation, consumption and copying all have their place as gestures within culture, but only in the context of our efforts to cultivate and create. They can’t become our defining posture. Where they have done, we have shown the world a God who is separate from culture through a church that is separate from culture. In so doing we fail to show God’s design for creation, culture and humanity.

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Life and faith from a Welsh perspective

Many years ago, I lived for a few years in Wales and became almost conversational in the Welsh language. Don’t try talking to be in Welsh now as I’m afraid it was twenty years ago and sadly I’ve lost whatever Welsh I once had. But I have retained a deep affection for the country and a concern for its spiritual state.

So I’m delighted to see Rhys Llwyd is has started an English language blog called A Voice in the Welsh Wilderness reflecting on life and faith from a Welsh language Christian perspective. Rhys is doing a PhD on R. Tudor Jones and Welsh Christian nationalism so he’s well placed to comment on such things.

Perhaps I can also take the opportunity to commend the work of Gobaith i Gymru (Hope for Wales): ‘gig seeks to be a means to help the churches share the good news of Jesus Christ with Welsh speaking people and encourage and enable young Christians that speak Welsh to serve Jesus and grow in their faith.’

I’m also glad to see Rhys commending my friends Dewi Hughes’ book, Castrating Culture, as the ‘textbook’ on understanding issues of culture, nationalism, language and the church.