Monday, March 30, 2009

Back...with reviews of 2 books on 2 movements

Thoroughly enjoyed going on a week-long student retreat, and then doing some children's work at my church family weekend away, but it's taken a lot out of me! So am still recovering...

But I thought I'll break my blog silence with a couple of quick, brief book reviews.

Post-charismatic? by Rob McAlpine

This is not a book for non-charismatics. Nor is this a book for ex-charismatics, despite the title. Those who fall into those categories can and will benefit from reading this. But ultimately, this is an insider's book. It is for those who wish to remain charismatic but are weary of being characterised as charismaniacs. It is for those who want to aim a flaming arrow at the next bigwig who pronounces imminent revival for our nation, or who want to force a dollop of petrol down the throat of the next releaser of "the anointing". And it is for those who don't want to be forced to retreat to a position of long-range sniping, nothing more.

I've been pretty interested in the history of charismaticism ever since I read Nigel Scotland's Charismatics and the New Millennium, especially as I find setting the charismatic movement in its historical context lend much needed perspective often lost in the heat of the next prophetic moment. That book, written by an Anglican charismatic, focused on the British side of things in particular. But I discovered that most books tended to focus on the health-and-wealth side of things or deal with second-blessing theology, which frustrated me. There wasn't much stuff that dealt with the apostolic and prophetic movement side of things (although there are a few biblical studies on prophecy, such as those by Wayne Grudem and Jack Deere), which seemed to me to be the kind of stuff that dominates Malaysian charismaticism. From what I know, there were quite a few books in the 80s critiquing this when it was especially promienent in America, and one or two more recent ones dealing specifically with the Toronto Blessing, but most of them are out of print and hard to get.

So I was quite pleased to discover Robbie McAlpine's material on the internet, but I didn't get much of a chance to plough through as he had secured a publishing contract and had to take it down. So I thought, I'll wait for the book! And here it is.

McAlpine works with YWAM, an organisation that I have personally found both a blessing and a source of exasperation. He wants to tackle charismatic disillusionment by tracing the origins of a lot of charismatic theology, and in doing so provide relief for those who have been wounded by charismatic hype and excess. He covers three areas, of which the first was of most interest to me. The other two are health-and-wealth, and the shepherding movement. The first, however, is the Latter Rain movement. Although the term Latter Rain will probably not be familiar to many, but a lot of today's underlying theology and terminology ("Overcomers", "Joshua/David Generation" etc.) originate here. McAlpine looks at the teachings of William Branham and George Warnock in particular.

But he also attempts to offer a constructive way forward, and so the last third of his book is an attempt to provide guidance on biblical spiritual formation, on doing community, on right expressions of authority, while remaining sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. You could say he leans in an "emerging" direction. Although I wouldn't myself put such a label on him.

McAlpine mostly achieves what he sets out to do, and that's a good thing, considering there aren't many books like his out there. There are a few things I could nitpick. He's actually quite hard on cessationists, which is a bit of a pity considering he is actually extremely gracious throughout the book (He's just as good at picking apart the critics of the charismatic movement!). He clearly didn't want to land firmly on the side of either the Calvinists or the Arminians, which meant that he indulged in a few generalisations which would not please either side. He assumes a bit of knowledge on the part of his audience, as I said at the beginning of this review, those who have never been part of the charismatic movement might be confused by some of his descriptions. And I wish he had done more in explicitly showing the reader how looking at the historical roots of the movement bear out today. Once or twice I was asking, "Yes, I see how that worked in the past, but how does heretical doctrine X/detour Y/etc. show up in the contemporary charismatic movement?"

But this is a much needed book, and I hope the Holy Spirit will use it to truly heal many.

Alternative review.

Don't Stop Believing by Michael Wittmer

So the emerging/ent movement has been around for a while now, and so has its critics. There was D.A Carson and his Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, which probably didn't achieve anything but tons of hate mail for poor Don. There was R. Scott Smith's Truth and the New Kind of Christian, which was decent (Tony Jones was happy to commend it) but too narrowly focused on philosophy and was always going to be unlikely to achieve any kind of mass appeal. There was John MacArthur's The Truth War, which, judging from some reviews I read, was abysmal.

Now you'll expect my next sentence to be either "and yet another critique of Emergent that misses the mark" or "at last! A worthy critique!". Well, to be honest, I feel like I'm being unfair to the book by framing it as a critique of the emerging church. It certainly is that, but I think it better to consider this as a more positive book that seeks to remind us that Christianity is both about right belief and right living. Mind, heart and hands, as it were.

Mike Wittmer has already written a superb book on living Christianly in every sphere of life (Heaven is a Place on Earth), so I was quite excited to see he was coming out with this book. What he does in this book is to tackle a series of questions which bring out the differences between traditional evangelicals and emergentish types. For example, must we believe something to be saved? Can you belong before you believe? Is it possible to know anything? In each case he shows the position of conservative evangelicals and "postmodern innovators" (his term), the pros and cons of both positions, and then a third way forward (or biblical, but then every Christian writer must claim that his position is biblical!).

And I think generally, he succeeds. Some chapters are particularly strong. His final three on whether we can know anything, whether the Bible is really God's word, and his concluding thoughts were spot-on, I thought. Wittmer has probably provided the most accessible explanation of Reformed epistemology! As was the chapter on the cross and how both penal substitution and Christus Victor are complementary. His endnotes - yes, I'm a geek, I read endnotes - show that he has definitely read widely in the emerging literature, another big plus.

There were other chapters where I thought he could have said more, and certainly a few where, while I agree with his conclusions and have no objections to his approach, I would have taken a different route, I think. I think I occasionally wanted more discussion of specific biblical texts, but that's just me. I think the one quibble I had was terminology. Are "conservatives" and "postmodern innovators" really the best phrases to use? I'm just afraid that some people who would otherwise be receptive to this book might be turned off by what they might perceive to be caricatures.

That would be a real pity, because this book has real value. I've only had a brief look at another book, Why We're Not Emergent, by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck, which seems to cover much of the same ground but is a bit more focused as a critique of Emergent. Don't Stop Believing is more of a book for fence-sitters, I think. It would be especially good for those who are ready to plunge in headlong into emerging stuff undiscerningly. It would also be great for those put off by fundamentalist/conservative style churches but aren't ready to go off in a completely new direction just yet. But as I indicated earlier, it need not only be for those who are acquainted with the emerging movement. I think us younger evangelicals would be helped as this book helps provide a few safeguards from going completely off-track in our zeal.

So, don't stop believing!

Alternative review.

N.B I use emergent/emerging interchangeably in the review, but I am referring more to the strain represented by the likes of Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, rather than to the wider emerging church, which in any case, has now largely abandoned the term and preferred "missional" instead.

P/S So much for being brief!

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Monday, March 09, 2009


Yes, am still really busy (panicky?) - and this is just to say you probably won't hear anything much from me this week and next, especially as I'm away on student conference all next week. Preaching seems to have gone well, and I might mention more about that in another post.

The most encouraging thing from last week? There's a lovely Japanese Christian couple in the evangelistic Bible study group I lead. Last Tuesday, the wife, whose English isn't very good, was asking me how I was doing, and then proceeded to say: "We pray for you everyday. We know that you care for us, and we want to care for you too".

Me :-O errrr....I think you give me far too much credit and yourselves too little...

It's little moments like that that makes it worth it, that keeps me going.

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