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No God But One – A Review

Nabeel Qureshi was raised in a strict conservative Muslim family in the United States. While in college and medical school, he began doubting Islam, testing its claims and finding them wanting. In his first book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (one of my favorite books I read in 2014), Qureshi tells readers this experience of converting to Christianity from Islam and the emotional toll it took. In his new book, No God But One: Allah or Jesus?, he provides readers with a look at the claims of both religions and what evidence caused him to convert.

Studying Islam and Christianity

In this book, Qureshi seeks to answer two major questions:

  • Are Islam and Christianity really all that different?
  • Can we know whether Islam or Christianity is True?

To do this, he provides a methodical look at the claims of Islam, comparing them to both the claims of Christianity and the historical record. His evaluation of Islam is thorough, covering Muhammad, the Quran, and sharia law.

For Christianity, he engages in discussions on the Trinity, the Crusades, Paul, the Bible, and several questions about Jesus, including his divinity, his claims of being God, and his death and resurrection.

Investigating the Claims of Islam

Qureshi presents the discussion like a seasoned investigator, weighing evidence and factual claims, and revealing when the claims do not hold up. While he is trying to be objective, he admits his own biases, as he is a former Muslim turned Christian.

That’s why it’s helpful that he frames the discussion in terms of his own conversion story, suggesting that these questions were the same ones he asked on his own journey, and here are the answers he found.

Qureshi has done his homework for this journey and this book; he regularly cites verses from the Quran, the Bible, and ancient sources from both traditions. His years of debating and discussing these topics along the speaking circuit pays off, as his arguments and counterpoints are sharp, incisive, and easy to understand. Overall, the book was a solid, fast-paced tour of the major historic tenants and beliefs of the world’s two largest religions.

One weakness I saw was in his criticism of oral traditions and exaltation of written traditions, all the while there are sizable portions of the Old Testament that went through an oral process. He rightly points out several areas where the oral tradition of the Quran is likely corrupted – like when Muhammad forgot verses. But his argument is weakened by the Old Testament being formed in a similar way. By being more precise in his discussion, highlighting the apparent discrepancies between the claims of the Quran and the Islamic tradition while not putting down all oral traditions, he would have made his argument stronger.

Who Is This Book For?

In some ways, this book is an excellent primer on Islam for Christians. As a former pastor, I’ve seen the ignorance most Christians have towards knowing what Islam teaches. This book will serve as a primer into the beliefs, teachings, and historical claims of Islam. It also allows for deeper study, with notes and citations to Quranic and other Islamic texts for further reading.

And, for those outside of Christianity, I think it is fair evaluation of both religions. While he is not unbiased, he carefully explains his findings and his beliefs, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. I think it will be a helpful guide for anyone either questioning the teachings of Islam, or looking to evaluate two of the most popular religions in the world.

Conclusion

In No God But One, Nabeel Qureshi has given us a closer look into his conversion story, in hopes that we too can learn more about these two great religions. Part memoir, part history of religion, and part systematic theology, this is a solid book that I would recommend to all and will give out to many.

Thanks to Zondervan for a review copy of the book!

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Qureshi book contest

Win a Free Book from Nabeel Qureshi

I recently read Nabeel Qureshi’s new book No God but One: Allah or Jesus? (releasing later this month).

Without giving away too much of my upcoming review (Spoiler Alert: I like the book), this book will be a beneficial read for Christian and Muslim alike. If you have wondered about how similar — or how different — two of the largest religions in the world are, this book will interest you.

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Pre-Order Nabel’s Book for Bonus Content

As part of a pre-order promotion from Zondervan, you can receive some great bonus content from Nabeel if you order a copy before it is released on August 30th. Bonus content includes workbooks, online videos, and audio content — all of which you can only get through this deal. To receive this free bonus content (valued at $140), order the book through your favorite online retailer (Amazon offers paperback, Kindle, and Audible audiobook). Then visit the pre-order page on Nabeel’s site and enter in your pre-order information.

nabeel-qureshi-book-bonus-content

 

Win a Free Book

Zondervan was kind enough to send me a few additional copies to send to readers of this blog — before it is released to the public!

To become one of the first people to get a copy of Nabeel’s new book, follow these 3 steps — the more steps you follow, the better your chances at winning one of the copies:
 

1. Sign up for my email newsletter

I don’t publish frequently, but when I do, it is with interesting content that’s similar to what you love here on this site. Visit the email signup page and submit you contact information.

2. Share on Social Media

We want to get word out about this book and contest. To do that, simply share this contest on Twitter or Facebook. I’ll make it easier; you can share my original tweet here:

3. Take a Bible Reading Survey

I’m working on some exciting future stuff that’s related to reading the Bible. By taking this survey, it will go a long way in helping me make this resource even more helpful. It will take you 5 minutes and one entrant will be selected to win Nabeel’s book.

And be sure to return to this post on Monday, August 22nd to find out if you are a winner.

Good luck with the contest! And whether you win a free copy here, or you pre-order Nabeel’s book, I hope it helps you gain a better, more nuanced understanding of the beliefs of Christianity and Islam.


Contest Details: For US residents only. Contest ends on Sunday, August 21. Thanks to Zondervan for the free books.

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Why Bother With Church? Book Review

For many people who have grown up in a Christian church, and most people outside of Christianity, the local church can seem like an odd, outdated institution that is long past its shelf life. And, in some ways, the critiques are true: churches are filled with

why-bother-with-church-sam-allberry-book-reviewBut this does not change the fact that the local church is a key method of God changing lives and bringing about his Kingdom. This is the argument of Sam Allberry in his new book Why Bother With Church: And Other Questions about Why You Need it and Why it Needs You. Allberry, an associate pastor in the UK, writes this book to those who have grown disillusioned from years within the church. In this short book, he answers common questions about the nature and purpose of church, including Why do I need church?, What makes a good church?, and Can I view my small group as a church?

In the last few years, I’ve been every single one of these questions by friends, family, and congregation members. And while I was able to cobble together a passable answer, I was neither so articulate nor concise in my answers as Sam is in this book. With a pastoral tone, the author is able to provide a compelling case for why church matters in the 21st century, and how, despite her flaws, is still having a tangible impact in local communities.

Allberry does a fine job of explaining the importance of corporate worship, accountability, leadership, and discipleship — all components of a healthy local church — to the spiritual formation of every Christian. He also spends time describing the role every Christian should play in his or her local church, including attending, involvement in, praying for, serving, giving to, and submitting to the local church.

Why Bother With Church? by Sam Allberry is a handy little book that provides a simple yet compelling defense of the local church. I think it would be a helpful gift to young adults who are disillusioned with the church they grew up with, giving them several reasons to stick with it.

Book Info

Thanks to Cross Focused Reviews for the review copy!

Pick up your copy from Amazon: Paperback | Kindle

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evernote and pastoral ministry

Organizing a Pastor’s Life in Evernote

evernote pastorBack in college, I remember taking a class that helped you with practical advice in ministry. One week, we were told to create a filing system for your office, something that was expandable, yet easy to navigate and search. The reason is simple: pastors need to collect and save a lot of info—from journal articles on a specific passage, quotes, and sermon illustrations. Our professor stressed the importance of having a filing system; otherwise you would collect all these pieces of information and never use them. He said this system would become your brain, storing all the info until you needed it.

For this class, I created a rudimentary filing system on my laptop. Using nested folders, I could separate categories and topics; inside each folder was a scanned picture or text document. This simple setup met my needs; as I added more ideas, I simply added folders. But in 2008, these folders were permanently replaced by Evernote, my new digital brain.

About Evernote

Evernote is a collection of apps that allows you to store, access, and search any type of file from any device. Their motto is simple—Remember Everything—and they succeed in helping users do that. What started as a desktop and web-based application has expanded rapidly to virtually all platforms, and has even developed an ecosystem of additional apps that can interact with your Evernote account.

How I Use Evernote

Since Evernote is such a flexible system, you can use it however you want to; there is no “right” way. Here’s some examples of how I use Evernote as a young pastor, in hopes it might help you think of a new way to store and access your information.

Collect Everything

First, I see Evernote as being a large bucket with which I can collect everything. From articles I find interesting, to youth group game ideas, to all my research on a particular passage, all of it goes into Evernote.

This is made easy by all the ways you can put info into Evernote. With browser extensions, I can clip any webpage with just a few clicks. If I download a PDF onto my desktop, I can easily drag the file into the desktop app, creating its own note. Several of my iOS apps can send info directly into Evernote, including my scratchpad (Drafts), my read-it-later app (Instapaper), and my RSS reader (Mr. Reader). If there is a tweet I like, I have set up an IFTTT recipe to copy that tweet and send it to Evernote. I can even forward emails into Evernote, using a personalized, secret Evernote email address all members are given.

Organize Everything

While the search functionality in Evernote is stellar, I still like to organize my notes. This is done by creating Notebooks (think categories), using Tags, and even creating a table of contents note. Here are a few ways I utilize these tools in my system.

Notebooks as Categories

I have created 38 notebooks in Evernote, divided into large categories. I view these as big buckets in which to dump all related notes. Categories like Old Testament, New Testament, Church & Ministry, Personal Stuff, and Culture are large notebooks, containing hundreds of diverse files—but all fitting under each general headline. I also have an @inbox notebook, which serves as a catch-all. It is the default notebook which all new notes first appear in, before I sort and move them into the proper bucket.

Receipts

In my Personal Stuff, I place all my tax-deductible receipts from ministry—whether they are forwarded from email or scanned in. But I need to distinguish between receipts from different years; this is where tags come in handy. I use descriptive tags—like TD 2013—to tell what tax year this receipt came from. So when I prepare to meet with my tax guy, I can simply go to the Personal Stuff notebook and search for all notes tagged with TD 2013. Super simple!

My Own Commentary

Warning: this might get really nerdy!

A few years ago I tried compiling all my notes and thoughts on biblical passages in Word documents—one document per book of the Bible. However, I found this to be clunky, hard to scan through, and annoying to maintain. Then I listened to a lecture by D.A. Carson on preaching, in which he gives a glimpse into his note-taking system, comprised of looseleaf notebook paper. It was then that I came up with the system in Evernote that I use now.

Template for a chapter of the Bible.
Template for a chapter of the Bible.

First, I created a template note for a biblical chapter, featuring room for an outline, verse by verse exposition, and a list of sources. Second, I duplicated the template enough to create a file for each chapter of each book of the Bible. Next, using the Copy Note Link feature, I created two large documents, sort of like a table of contents for each testament of the Bible. Now, whenever I am working on a passage, I can keep all my notes and thoughts in the Evernote note for that chapter.

Each chapter of the Bible is just a click away
Each chapter of the Bible is just a click away

Two advantages for this system: First, it is completely expandable. Each note can be as large or as small as it needs to be. Second, I can link other notes easily to the chapter note. So if I find a helpful journal article on a passage, I can add it to Evernote and link to it in the footer of the relevant chapter note. It may seem like this would take a long time, and let me assure you it will take 3x longer than you think! But having a system in place pays off immensely in the long run, especially if you plan on using your system frequently.

Recall Everything

The final strength of Evernote is the powerful searching feature. At the top right corner of the desktop app, there is a search bar. With this bar, you can search for any word or phrase found in your notes. But you can get even more specific: you can limit the search by Notebook, Tags, and even by when the note was created. And the real power comes in Evernote’s OCR technology, which means you can search through PDFs and other files (a Premium only feature). So if you are looking for that Word document you placed in Evernote two years ago, you don’t need to remember the title, or even the notebook, if you remember and can search for the subject of the document. This is immensely helpful to me; often I am pleasantly surprised by what a search returns to me, as I had forgotten about a file.

Conclusion

By now I have spend so much time and energy placing articles, thoughts, and ideas into Evernote, I can’t imagine ministry without it. If you are looking for a way to easily store and retrieve your myriad of files, articles, and illustrations, or if you are looking for a digital replacement for a paper-based system, I would encourage you to check out Evernote.

One word of advice for younger pastors or seminary students who are about to start with Evernote: be sure to stay on top of your organizing. You get what you put into your system. If you don’t spend the time, your system will not be as helpful as you hoped it would be. Take the time—like a free Saturday or a few open evenings—to develop and organize you system. Your future self will thank you.


 

organizing-pastors-life-evernote-screenshotFree eBook!

I have put together an eBook with additional tips on organizing a pastor’s life with Evernote. Click here to sign up for your free eBook.

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best-books-2015

Best Books 2015

This past year was eventful for me and my family. We now live in a new home, in a new state, and I have a brand new job. All of these changes have been for the good, even though they have significantly altered how and what I read.

Changes In My Reading Schedule

These changes included the nature and scope of my reading. No longer am I preparing for weekly sermons or Bible lessons. Instead I am honing my copywriting, marketing, and advertising skills. I still want to stay current on several theological issues that interest me (biblical theology, the first chapters of Genesis, and the relationship between science and religion), but I’ve had to significantly reduce this part of my reading plan the last 3 months.

In previous years I noticed a glaring lack of fiction in my reading diet; I remedied that this year by overloading on popular fiction works. This way I could ease my way into an unfamiliar genre, with the goal of reading older, classic works in the future.

Also, having a substantial commute has cut into my time to sit down and read a book. Instead, I have embraced the wonders of podcasts and audiobooks. I am still learning what constitutes a good audiobook, as I’ve had to stop listening to several because I couldn’t follow along as well in the audio format.

The Best Books I’ve Read in 2015

In no particular order, here are the top books I’ve read in the past calendar year. Unlike other top books lists, this one is not limited to books published in 2015, but rather book’s I’ve read this year.

The Martian by Andy Weir

This was the book I most enjoyed in 2015. I loved how the author, Andy Weir, crafted the perfect blend of science, storytelling, and humor into one book. With just the right amount of pacing, drama, and internal dialogue, The Martian was a thoroughly enjoyable read. The movie was a gorgeous, faithful depiction of the book, but sadly couldn’t include all the humor of the book.

Ready Player One: A Novel by Ernest Cline

Another popular sci-fi fiction book, this was a fun read over the summer. Filled with 80’s pop culture references, I enjoyed having flashbacks to my childhood, while also trying to pick up all the 80’s movies the author references.

This movie also provides an interesting commentary on technology, corporate greed, and the basic human need for friendship and companionship. Overall it was an enjoyable, quick read that I will pick up again soon.

The Complete Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

To my wife’s disbelief, I had not read any of the Harry Potter books when I was younger. She remedied that by watching the movies every year, but she kept encouraging me to read the books on my own. I finally had time to read them this summer, and I was sure glad she made me.

The Harry Potter series is a majestical, monumental work of great storytelling, focusing on the eternal truths of love, friendship, and sacrifice. It’s a brilliant move on J.K. Rowling’s part for shaping each book to stand on it’s own and tell it’s own story, yet be part of this grand narrative that’s moving to a conclusion.

And the demonstrations of self-sacrifice found in this series is the best example of Christ’s love in fiction — with perhaps the exception of Aslan. I look forward to reading this series again, this time with my daughter.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

This book is a hodgepodge of several ideas: one part oral history of Pixar Animation Studio, one part creativity journal, one part behind-the-scenes look at what works and doesn’t work at a creative juggernaut, and one part leadership management book. The resulting book is a wonderful mix of stories, leadership tips, and practical advice on nurturing creativity. While not as straightforward history as The Pixar Touch, this is a must read for any fan of Pixar, along with creatives and those managing creatives.

The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman

I was unsure of this book when I downloaded it from Audible; I thought the title seemed a bit sensationalist: the “Billion Dollar” spy? But as I listened to the book, I was blown away at the utterly fascinating story of the life and mission of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer-turned-spy. Like the fictional George Smiley, Tolkachev is an unassuming, unremarkable middle-aged man. But between 1978–1985, Tolkachev used his position as a senior radar engineer to smuggle thousands of documents, schematics, and engineering plans on Soviet radar and aviation technology advances to the United States. The value of these contributions is incalculable, but one conservative estimate sits at over $2 billion dollars in that day.

Another side of this book is the deep dive into the cat and mouse game that was the CIA missions within Moscow. The author provides a compelling look at several case workers who handled Tolkachev, describing their lives, how they conducted their missions, and the constant risks to their lives. Overall a brilliant book that I would recommend to anyone who loves history or thrillers.

Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters by Charles Halton

This is a great book that’s stuck with a poor name. Part of Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series, this book presents a written debate between three differing views on interpreting the first chapters of Genesis.

Why do I think the title is poor? Because it portrays this discussion as between three very different viewpoints. The literary equivalent of clickbait, the title would make you think the views are from far, opposing ends of the spectrum. The truth is that each view is much more nuanced, with overlap between each of the views. Each author carefully defines key terms like genre, fiction, and history, and shows how each term applies to Genesis 1–11.

It’s precisely because of these terms that a book like this is invaluable. Too many Christians can hear terms like fiction and history and assume they know what they mean with regards to the Bible. But these unchallenged assumptions serve as a roadblock to any productive discussions on Genesis, Ancient Near Eastern cultures, history, and origins. The three contributors provide balance to this debate, showing that you can be a Christian and have differing views on the nature of Genesis 1–11.

The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology by Charles H.H. Scobie

This massive book (over 1000 pages long) is a brilliant book that provides a comprehensive overview of every theme — both grand and small — found in the overarching biblical narrative. I imagine most pastors and Bible students would use this as a reference text, turning to the relevant section of their research. But as I gradually conquered this book by reading a few pages per day, I developed a deeper understanding of how portions of the Bible interact with the rest of the Bible.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

An account of the college rowing team that represented the United States in the 1936 Berlin Games, this book is well-written, presents a compelling story, and even provides an in-depth look at the rowing world in the 1920’s and 30’s. At times I felt the story slowed down a bit, but I am glad I pushed through and completed the book.

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The Church is Not a Social Club

Most cities in America have social clubs: an official location where a group of homogenous people can gather together. Sometimes these people share the same economic class or recreational activity (country club). Other times it is a shared life experience (VFW) or a desire to spend time with friends (Elks Lodge).

Millions of men and women find value in these social clubs. Sometimes it is the friendships they value, meeting people that share their perspective. For others it is the business or political connections; with apologies to Michael Scott, the golf course is where business happens. However, some of these same people view the church in the same light; it has become nothing more than a church social club.

Attributes of a Social Club

church social clubMost social clubs share the same three attributes:

  1. It is designed for insiders
  2. Members pay dues
  3. Membership receives benefits

Sound like some people in the church?

For some, the church will be nothing more than a social club. They will give their offerings (dues), expect ministries catering to their every (insider) need, and look to hold power by serving in leadership positions (benefits). These views give the church a false identity, harmful to the body of Christ.

Alternative to the Church Social Club

Here are three alternative attributes of a church that challenge the social club mentality:

1. Designed for Outsiders

The church cannot be a sealed-off club, only allowing members through the doors. It cannot be exclusivist, because Jesus Christ was not exclusivist! He dined with and died for sinners. God’s grace does not work differently for members in a church and the stranger outside; his love covers all.

In fact, the church exists to reach out to the outsiders! If we take Jesus’ commands seriously, then believers are charged to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and “Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The Great Commandment and the Great Commission are not optional; Christians in the church are to seek, love, and disciple those far away from Christ.

2. Free-will Offerings

God is our everything; He created us, continues to sustain us, and has poured out His grace and mercy upon us. He alone controls and owns all, including the contents of our bank account. As believers, our response to all God has lavished upon us is not dues paid to an organization; it is a natural overflow of our worship to Him.

In the early church, people were selling possessions and bringing what they had to the apostles. They weren’t giving with strings attached, nor expecting a tax-deductible receipt or a plaque on the wall; they gave willingly for the betterment of the body of believers.

3. Covenant Membership

The term membership carries too much baggage in our consumer-centric society. Membership implies something is due to the member, benefits flowing one way from the organization to the member.

Instead, I love using the term covenant to describe membership in a church. Drawing from the rich covenantal images in the Bible, this concept signifies that both parties make promises to the other. To the covenant member, the church promises to protect, equip, and disciple. To the church, the covenant member promises to submit, serve, and be a functioning part of the body.

This view of church membership looks less consumer-centric and more like a marriage commitment. The member is less likely to ask “What is the church doing for me?” and more likely to ask “What can I do for the church?” It also moves the focus away from the preferences of the individual and toward the needs of the community.

Conclusion

The way we view a church’s identity affects our expectations, desired outcomes, and even our theology. The view that the church is a social club promotes the idolatry of self, as seen in the culture of consumerism. This view is wrong and is harmful to the unity of the body of Christ. We need to purge this and other false identities from our congregations. The only way to do that is to preach, teach, and model the biblical roles and purposes of the local church.

Series on False Church Self-Identity:

 

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lancaster pa

Big Changes for the Schmidt Family

I have been silent for the past few weeks on social media and this blog, and for good reason. We’ve been working on some pretty big, life-altering news, and now it’s become official and public: we are moving to Lancaster in October!

Since moving to Corning in 2010, we have made the long trek down I-99 and Route 15 to Lancaster about a dozen times a year. Mostly this is to see family, but we have always loved Lancaster county and we’ve always said that one day we would want to move there. With Norah about to turn one next month, we want her (and us) to be closer to family; so that “one day” wish to move to Lancaster is becoming a reality.

ydopWhen we move, I’ll be joining the team at YDOP, an internet marketing company right in downtown Lancaster. I’ll be writing content for clients, meaning I’ll get paid to research and write—a dream come true! I’ve enjoyed getting to know the fun team at YDOP this past month, and I’m looking forward to being down there full-time.

We will miss all the friends we’ve made here in Corning the past five years, friends at North Baptist Church, Corning Christian Academy, and in the community; but we are grateful that we live in an era where friendships can stay strong through FaceTime and Facebook.

If you think of it, pray for us during this transition time. We are still working out the housing situation, bank accounts, and the hundred other little changes that have to happen in the next month. I’m sure we will be reaching out to all of you for cardboard boxes and your muscles to lift those cardboard boxes.

 

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The Power of Story from Back to the Future

The Power of Story from Back to the Future

I am a die-hard Back to the Future fan. I have watched all three movies dozens of times, can quote most lines from the movies1, and I have my own Marty McFly outfit. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the first Back to the Future, as well as the future date Marty & co. travel to in Part 2.

In preparation for that date in October, I recently read We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy. Getting unparalleled access to the director, writers, cast, and crew behind the trilogy, author Caseen Gaines provides a compelling read on the long and complicated journey these movies took to get to the screen.

In the chapters describing the first movie, I was impressed by the significance everyone put on the strength of the story. Steven Spielberg, a producer of the trilogy, loved it immediately upon first read; so did many of the cast and crew. But what impressed me the most was the reaction from the movie’s first audience.

As Gaines describes, the film the audience saw was a “work-print,” meaning it had rough transitions, lacked most of the visual and sound effects, and was without the soundtrack. This viewing took place in May 1985, less than a month after shooting wrapped on the movie. The audience was told little about the movie they were about to see, only that it starred Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

For the first 20 minutes, the audience seemed unimpressed; some thought there was too much dialogue and buildup, and they couldn’t see a purpose or direction for the movie. But, with that famous scene in the Twin Pines Mall parking lot, when the DeLorean rolls out, the audience was sucked back in. Over the next few minutes, when the DeLorean actually goes back in time, the audience was hooked.

When the movie finally ended, the audience erupted into applause. Response cards filled out by this first audience reported that 90% of them thought the movie was “excellent” or “very good;” and that was without any special effects! As Neil Canton, a producer on the film, later said:

It was still a work in progress at the time of that screening… visual effect shots weren’t done, and the music wasn’t done, but the audience was just so into the story. (Quoted in Gaines, We Don’t Need Roads, 107).

In an age where special effects, graphic designs, and pretty typography can add a lot when done right, the core thing that matters is a good story. Too many movies2 have had massive budgets for special effects, but because they were lacking in story, they ultimately failed. And yet, partially based on the strength of its story, Back to the Future was the highest-grossing film of 1985. Moreover, the movie has endured for a long time; so much so that a person like me, who was only born in 1985, still loves it.


  1. To the annoyance of my wife. 

  2. See G.I. Joe or any of the later Transformer movies. 

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Why Read the Old Testament

Why Read the Old Testament?

 

Over the last two weeks I’ve been looking at the new NIV Zondervan Study Bible. While this is not a review per se, my first impressions are that the Bible is very promising: great articles, helpful study notes, and full color on every page.1

In his article “Introduction to the Old Testament,” T.D. Alexander provides a compelling description of the Old Testament’s role in the biblical storyline:

The Bible is built around a grand story that starts in Genesis with the divine creation of the earth and ends in Revelation by anticipating the coming of a new earth. The OT contributes to this story by explaining the origin and nature of the human predicament, which, in essence, is our alienation from God. From the early chapters of Genesis onward, the OT describes how God sets about redeeming and restoring creation after the tragic rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Not only is God’s redemptive activity evident throughout the OT, but by pointing forward to Jesus Christ, the OT introduces the ultimate means by which the tragic consequences of human sin will be reversed. (p. 3)

Alexander then goes on to provide a brief summary of the Old Testament narrative. He concludes this section, writing:

While the grand story of the OT moves through a series of distinctive stages, these stages are closely linked to one another as God’s plan of redemption unfolds. From the Garden of Eden to the return of the exiles from Babylon, God is at work, seeking to restore to himself an alienated humanity and to reclaim the earth from the powers of evil. In all of this, the OT prepares for events that come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. With good reason the NT cannot be fully understood without an intimate knowledge of the OT. (p. 6).

What a great reason for reading the Old Testament! Sure, the stories seem bizarre, the names unpronounceable, and the genealogies monotonous; for the Christian, the Old Testament is required reading, helping you better understand the events and writings of the New Testament. Moreover, as Alexander writes in the last paragraph, in the Old Testament we see God at work, bringing restoration and reconciliation to both mankind and the entire cosmos.


  1. Now if they could only work on the size. My copy—which is the Personal Size—makes the ESV Study Bible look thin! 

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theology of space in jonah

Theology of Space in Jonah

 

This past Sunday we hosted a Children’s Worker Training at church. In the training, Pastor Gary provided a sample lesson on Jonah 1. As we all reflected on Jonah fleeing from God by heading away from Nineveh, I noticed how much detail the author of Jonah puts into the narrative, especially in terms of space and location. After doing some more reading1 I realized that much of the movement in space in Jonah is communicating some powerful theological truths.

Falling from God

In Jonah 1:1–2, God commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it. This is a command for Jonah to physically travel there, heading north and then east from Israel to arrive in the Assyrian capital. Instead, Jonah heads west to Joppa, where he finds a ship that will carry him farther west to Tarshish2. But notice also that Jonah travels down; twice in Jonah 1:3 the text says Jonah went down—first to Joppa and then to the boat.

Once on the boat heading west, a giant storm strikes the boat, terrifying the hardened sailors. Yet Jonah was not among them, as he was sleeping in the hold. Once again, the text describes Jonah as moving downward “into the inner part of the ship” (Jonah 1:5). The Phoenician captain orders Jonah to arise and to worship his god, but Jonah believes it is futile. Instead, Jonah orders the sailors to throw him overboard into the deep of the Mediterranean. When they do this in Jonah 1:15, Jonah is again falling deeper into the earth, away from the presence of God.

Crying from the Depths

While in the watery deeps, as far as he could physically go, Jonah was rescued. A giant fish—appointed by God—swallowed Jonah and kept him for three days. In the midst of this behemoth rescuer, Jonah finally prays for the first time in this book. Spanning most of Jonah 2, this prayer is rich in spatial language. Jonah notes that God sent him to the depths—to the very roots of the mountains (Jonah 2:6). Yet from the depths God hears Jonah’s cry and rescues him from the same depths.

In this prayer, Jonah is no longer fleeing God, but is in communion with Him. In the depths of the sea, Jonah finds a divinely appointed place of worship. From this organic temple/method of deliverance, Jonah’s prayer is heard in God’s heavenly temple (verse 7), and God provides the salvation he needs (verse 9).

Also worth noting in Jonah 2 is the lone line of narrative at the end. In verse 10, the narrator says that the fish vomited Jonah out “upon the dry land.” Keeping with the movements in the rest of the book, Jonah is no longer descending into earth. Instead, in one mighty belch he finds himself in the same space he was in Jonah 1:1—on dry land and about to hear from God.

Towards the Center of It All

God repeats his command for Jonah to go to Nineveh in Jonah 3:2; the wording is nearly identical to Jonah 1:2. Only this time, Jonah listens. Rather than running from Nineveh, Jonah heads directly towards it. Jonah arrives in Nineveh, and begins to venture into the city, preaching his message of condemnation as he goes3. Jonah—or at least the message that Jonah brought—eventually arrived in the center of Nineveh, where the king of Nineveh ruled. His response to this message echoed the response of the entire city: repentance and begging God for mercy (Jonah 3:7–9).

Arise and Judge

In Jonah 4 the narrative focus returns to Jonah. He is very angry that Nineveh repented and God relented (4:1). In verse 5, the text describes Jonah as traveling further east; he wants to get a good vantage point from where he hopes to watch Nineveh’s destruction.

While I couldn’t find any evidence in commentaries, I wonder if the author intended for verse 5 to read as if Jonah climbed an elevation to view Nineveh’s destruction. Viewing from an elevation—even if just a hill or slight rise to the east of the city—would have given him a better view of the anticipated destruction. Moreover, in continuation of the role of space in this book, it would serve as further movement by Jonah. In this case, he would have risen above the city; having served as judge and found the city guilty (4:2), he now awaited the carrying out of the sentence.

Using a divinely-appointed plant, worm, and wind, God yet again demonstrated to Jonah that divine compassion and love exceeds human understanding of justice and revenge. Even though Jonah fought to change the situation, God would have mercy on the repentant Gentiles.

Reflection

In the first half of the book, Jonah tries to flee the presence of the Lord. Not only does he run in the opposite direction from Nineveh, he also descends deeper and deeper into the earth. With the ancient worldview believing that God lived in the physical heavens above, Jonah’s journey down to the sea, into the hold of the ship, and into the sea can be seen as Jonah trying to get as far away from God’s presence as physically possible.

Yet Jonah found that was impossible. In the depths of the sea, God was there—and He rescued him! Jonah discovers the truth found in the Psalter:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?

Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 139:7–8)

Later, we find out why Jonah is fleeing God: he knows that if Nineveh will repent, God will forgive them; Jonah thinks they deserve judgment and not mercy. In this way, Jonah tries to take the place of God, climbing to a vantage point to watch the hoped-for destruction. But this turns into another lesson for Jonah, as God uses the plant to show how much he cares for Nineveh.


  1. After the training, of course. 

  2. The identity of Tarshish is unknown; it would have been west on the Mediterranean.  

  3. While Nineveh was a great city, it was not so massive to take 3 days to travel. The ancient walled city was only 1–3 miles in breadth. Likely the narrator is referring to the cities and towns in the Nineveh region—what we would now call the Greater Metropolitan Area. Another compelling explanation for why Jonah’s journey took so long is because he preached his message to every home he encountered, jumping into his prophetic role with gusto. 

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