The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight

The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnightThis started off as a review of Scot McKnight’s book “The King Jesus Gospel”, but somewhere in there it also turned into an opinion piece on the topics brought up in the book. If you want the short, one-line version… : Very good. McKnight argues his case well and is understandable, but more importantly he’s right in what he’s saying and it’s important that we listen.

Scot McKnight came to the Irish Bible Institute in 2010 to give a series of lectures, which I attended, entitled “In the Beginning was the Gospel”. The lectures were brilliant, and they were turned into the book “The King Jesus Gospel”. You’d think, being such a fan of the lectures I’d have bought and devoured the book as soon as I could, but no. Through one thing or another it’s taken me this long to read “The King Jesus Gospel”. I shouldn’t have waited.

McKnight opens the book with a problem. The modern evangelical church has traded in discipleship for decisions and traded in the gospel for the personal plan of salvation. Jesus told us to make disciples and that means more than mere ritual and more than getting people to agree with us and make a decision. McKnight provocatively sums the situation up:

Our system is broken and our so-called gospel broke it.

We have a salvation culture in the evangelical church today. What we need is a gospel culture.

McKnight introduces four categories in his discussion of what the gospel is:

1. The Story of Israel
2. The Story of Jesus
3. The Plan of Salvation
4. The Method of Persuasion

He says that in Evangelical circles we have equated the gospel with the Plan of Salvation (which is tied closely to the Method of Persuasion), this is what has led to our current situation – a church that is better at decision-making than disciple-making.

According to McKnight, the only category that is fit to be called gospel is the Story of Jesus. The Story of Jesus is the climax of the Story of Israel, contains the beautiful truth of salvation and causes and supplies the method of persuasion. What we have done is take one aspect of the gospel and declared that aspect to be the gospel. As beautiful and true as the plan of salvation is (and I do not deny for one moment that Jesus saves by grace alone through faith alone in his atoning sacrifice), it is not the gospel. It is part of what the gospel entails, but it is not the gospel.

The gospel is the saving story of Jesus as the fulfilment of the story of Israel.

That’s why the books Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles are called gospel – because they are the story of Jesus told as the completion of Israel’s story. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah – the one Israel was waiting for, the one the world was waiting for.

In “de-storifying” the gospel we have made it abstract, transformed it into an argument or proposition that one must agree with in order to be saved. Thus we are seeing many more instances of the “sinner’s prayer” being said than we are seeing of the disciple’s life being lived. Christians, the ones we are making with our decision-based, de-storified, so-called gospel, are in fact living lives that are not so different from anyone else.

McKnight borrows a great term from Dallas Willard to describe the kind of gospel that focusses on getting people to subscribe to the plan of salvation instead of the story of Jesus: “the gospel of sin management”. And here’s what the gospel of sin management does:

Gospels of Sin Management” presume a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind … [and] they foster “vampire Christians,” who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven.

[McKnight quoting Willard]

We end up demoting Jesus from Lord, Messiah, Son of God to the role of a ticket-vendor to whom we go to receive our ticket for heaven.

Sarah and I went to see Paul Simon in concert during the summer. It was the first night of his 25th anniversary tour for his Graceland album. It was an amazing concert! We had a fantastic time. Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo were in top form, full of energy. We sang and danced along to some of our favourite songs. I took a few bad pictures on my phone, before realising how stupid that was. But one thing we didn’t do was celebrate Ticketmaster or even give them a moment’s thought, because the ticket-vendor doesn’t matter nearly as much as the event. If we reduce Jesus to a ticket-vendor then he will be used and forgotten about.

McKnight contends that over the centuries, the church has shifted focus and changed our gospel so that it is no gospel at all. We need to look at the gospel as it is found in the early creeds of the church, the gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Paul’s letters and the preaching of Peter and Paul in Acts. McKnight provides a fairly strong argument with extensive biblical evidence, and, as you can see, I’m sold.

So, the first part of this book describes our problem, the second part points to our solution – the real big-picture gospel preached by Jesus, preached by the apostles and preached by the early church – the third and final part  (chapters 9 and 10) deals with how to witness to that gospel today. How do we shift from a salvation culture to a true gospel culture?

Maybe it’s my negative personality rearing it’s ugly head, but in both Scot McKnight’s IBI lectures and in reading this book I thought his criticisms were far better than his proposed modern-day solutions. That’s what I thought at first at least. Before I realised I was being stupid.

The solutions aren’t simple. There’s no new diagram for us to draw on a napkin. There is no “gospel in a nutshell”. I don’t know why, but I think deep down, unconsciously, this nutshell stuff is exactly what I was looking for, and was the reason I was initially disappointed. I wanted something easy. Something that could be agreed to quickly. Something that gave fast results. Although he does give a beautiful example of modern gospeling in chapter 10, McKnight doesn’t do sales pitches, thank God.

Making disciples takes longer than getting people to make decisions, but disciple-making is what we are called to do. Perhaps we should stop trying to pare down, distort and squash the dynamite of God into a nutshell.

This is an excellent book, McKnight is a great communicator, an accomplished scholar and passionate disciple of Jesus Christ. Read it.

Walking a Book

A Guide to the Sheep's Head Way - Eastern RoutesSarah and I are blessed to be living for the moment in one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland – West Cork. We’re planning to make the most of this and complete St. Finbarr’s Pilgrimage  (a 37km, two-day walk from Drimoleague to Gugane Barra by way of Kealkill) this summer. The Pilgrimage is a combination of five smaller walks contained in the book “A Guide to the Sheep’s Head Way – Eastern Routes” produced in 2009 by David Ross and the Drimolegue Heritage Walkways Committee. We tried out the first one of those walks yesterday – The Drimoleague Heritage Loop a beautiful 3.5km walk around Drimoleague, full of history and the legacy of people who have lived in and loved the area.

The Loop takes you up from the old former railway station in Drimoleague to the Top of The Rock, then takes you along fields and a beautiful riverside walk dotted with signs containing poetry and Scripture and benches commemorating the people who loved this place, then it’s back through farmland and the town of Drimoleague to the place where you started. The book was a wonderful companion to the walk telling us the stories of the land and its people and making the journey rich with life and history, even though Sarah and I were walking alone.

Of course a book like this one cannot be just read. However without this book Sarah and I wouldn’t have even known about the walk, nor would our experience of the walk have been as full of meaning and depth and enjoyment. The two went hand in hand, the book and the walk, one enhancing and interpreting and bringing to life the other. The book was brought to life by walking and the walk was given life as we read.

Walkers on RoadThis is the story of my life following Jesus, a life where I am constantly being drawn to (or drawn back to) the word of God. God’s word will not let me stay with my head in a book, filled with theology (and believe me, I am very tempted to settle for the head-in-the-Book life at times) it pushes me out into the world which was created by God’s words, the story that he has written. God’s Book forces me to walk the pilgrimage it describes, to see for myself how it is true, how I can depend on Him and how beautiful and full of wonder this world is. The Book demands a walk and the walk is guided and brought to life by the Book.

David Ross, a farmer and one of the authors of “A Guide to the Sheep’s Head Way – Eastern Routes” is also the pastor of Bantry Christian Fellowship, a lovely church where I have had the blessing of preaching God’s word. At one stage on our walk Sarah and I discovered that we had missed one thing that we wanted to see – a well, known as “The Christening Well”, we decided to backtrack for a little bit and I said that we should ask David about it some time. A car pulled up.

David RossIt was David.

I find in my life pilgrimage, when I admit that it is God that I need, the Author of the Book shows up.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead by Marilynne RobinsonLook, this isn’t a review. I don’t want to call it that, I expect to be doing some more musing on this  book as I digest it and come to terms with what I’ve read. I bought my paperback copy of Gilead back in 2009, so says the receipt left inside it. I remember starting it a couple of times and something must have distracted me because since 2009 Gilead has been lying around on a bookshelf or in a box somewhere, unread. I confess, that’s a terrible sin.

I was going to be staying at Coolnagreina YWCA in Greystones for two weeks while I helped to lead at a World Harvest Mission thing called Encounter, so I took Gilead along and decided I’d read it. I don’t know what was different this time, but I haven’t been so absorbed in a book for a while.

I really don’t know how a person can write like Marilynne Robinson. How does she have such insight? How does she know? I’m certainly no Rev. John Ames (the book’s protagonist) – I have a long long way to go – but I identified with the character and was very moved by his words.

People have criticised this book because it is slow-paced and not much actually happens. Robinson herself admits that the book might be called “unpublishable”: there’s an elderly Congregational minister in rural Iowa, he’s dying and he writes a long letter to his only son – that’s the book. John Ames is a thoroughly good and kind character, deeply religious, full of integrity, piety and love – and the book is still interesting. Gilead is full of theology, but has been successful as a mainstream novel.

Reading Gilead you get to look into the soul of a man who has walked long with the Lord, that’s what made it so moving for me. That’s also what astonishes me about Marilynne Robinson’s writing – how is this character, this soul, only fictional? How does she write like that? How does anyone create something like this book?

One of my favourite things about Gilead is the way it describes the beauty of ordinary life:

“The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”

First G.K. Chesterton and now Marilynne Robinson – my eyes are being opened to the beauty of this life.

It’s possible I’m forgetting great classics and I’m sure many people might just say I haven’t read enough yet, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a more beautiful book.

Overheard in Bantry

Overheard in a Bantry bookshop: A middle-aged West Cork woman asking staff about book she had forgotten the name of.

– It’s just one word, a bestseller.
-… Er…
– In the same vein as The DaVinci Code, but just one word.
-… Um…
– Worldwide bestseller.
– 50 Shades of Grey?
– That’s the one!

His Name is Tozer

Tozer the Cat

I’ve been away for a while. I was teaching and mentor-ing at a course in Greystones called “Encounter” for World Harvest Mission. I turned 30. And Sarah and I have a kitten now. We call him Tozer. He likes to climb, which is all right for a cat I suppose. Normal blogging service shall resume shortly, my wife is hungry for dinner now though, so I must go.

“Introverts in the Church” by Adam S. McHugh

"Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture" by Adam S. McHughI finished reading Introverts in the Church just after midnight. This will be a short review because I’ve already written about this book as I read it and it has also kicked off a couple of posts on the topic of introversion.

Adam S. McHugh is an ordained Presbyterian minister and a hospice chaplain (he’s also an excellent writer), he blogs at Introverted Church (unfortunately he’s just about to stop posting there to focus on his next book) and he’s also been published by several journals, magazines and newspapers as well as a guest blog on iMonk. Adam’s, first book “Introverts in the Church: Finding Our place in an Extroverted Culture” was published in 2009. He has two more books on the way with “The Listening Life” due to be published by IVP next year.

“Introverts in the Church” is brilliant and I feel very blessed and refreshed after reading it. This is a well put together, well researched and well written book. As an introvert, I felt identified with and defended, but not coddled. McHugh was also very encouraging in practical ways regarding day-to-day spirituality as well as evangelism, an area of dread and even guilt for many introverts.

The book is quite packed, which is understandable – “church” encompasses many topics and areas. I did not, however, find it heavy or hard-going. Some of the chapters could be expanded into whole books, I particularly would like to see more from Adam on the topic of Introverted Spirituality and Introverted Evangelism.

I would recommend this book to every introverted Christian I know, to my extroverted loved ones and especially to everyone working in, or thinking of, ordained ministry.

An Introverted Pastor

This started as a paragraph for my review of Adam S. McHugh’s “Introverts in the Church”, but I’ve taken it out and given it its own post.

As an introvert, a preacher and a candidate for ordained ministry people sometimes bring up my introversion in relation to my ministry. It has always  been brought up as a problem. They wonder how I’ll survive as a pastor when I eventually do have my own church to pastor. During the interviews for the candidacy at Presby HQ in Belfast, I had to defend my introversion. I recently preached as a guest preacher at a church where, while I was introducing myself and sharing some thoughts on the subject of prayer, I mentioned that I was an introvert. After the service I stood at the door (which is a thing that preachers are expected to do) and a nice lady came up to me smiling and telling me that my sermon was very good. What she said was “I’m not so sure you’re an introvert – that was very good!” I’ve even had a dear friend say to me once that they didn’t think that I was actually an introvert because I “really love people”. The assumption is that it is an unfortunate thing to be an introvert, especially in ministry.

I do really love people (I’m a total softy and therefore a terrible book critic) and I am a capable preacher. This is not in spite of my introversion. God has used my introversion and has led me to be more contemplative, which has made me a better preacher and has given me a greater love for my neighbour. I have been blessed to be someone that people come to when they have deep questions and really want someone to listen to them and give them a thoughtful answer one-to-one. In quiet I have prayed with and counselled those who are hurting and confused. God has used my quietness to be a blessing to other people.

On Sundays I stand up and give my carefully prepared sermon, my thoughts on what God is saying and what that means for people today. I write it all out, I wrestle with the text, I pray and I think long and hard over what to say because I handle the word of God. Because I put so much into preparing the words that I will speak I can tell you the approximate speed of my preaching – about 150 words per minute.

My preaching and my pastoring is not hindered by my introversion, it is helped by it. What has hindered me is attitudes to introversion within a church that does not always seem to value listening and stillness as much as it values speaking and busyness. Dear church, please encourage and use your introverts as introverts, not as poor excuses for extroverts.