The One Problem With Christian Biography

If you go to and look at the list of 10 Great Christian Biographies by Al Mohler, you will see some great books. And you will see some of the same great books if you look at John Piper’s list. And a few different ones also. They may differ a little but are so similar as to almost be indistinguishable. And they look like almost anyone else’s. Mainly because they all have one thing in common.

Nearly every Christian biography is of a person in vocational ministry. They are either a pastor, missionary or theologian. The one exception is C.S. Lewis. But he preached and taught on faith. He was not a vocational minister but he is famous for much of he would have done if he were one.

So here is the problem: most recommended christian biographies are about vocational pastors and missionaries even though most Christians are not vocational pastors or missionaries.

I’m trying to connect the dots here.

OK, I don’t blame Mohler and Piper or anyone else for that matter for this. It makes sense they would recommend these books. For two reasons: First, those who recommend are pastors. They will read books about pastors. These are the books they know. It’s natural.  Second,  What else is there?

A college student I follow on Twitter asked once about books on christian missionaries. I told her to read about a Christian banker first. I knew I was asking her to find the impossible (and probably being a little too snarky) but I wanted to make a point. She is not training to be a vocational missionary. She is going to be a teacher, I think.

I want young people like her to learn how to live out the Christian life in vocations that are not full-time ministry.

Often we leave people – particularly the young – the impression Christianity is best lived out in the context of full time ministry. Whether we say it or not, we give the impression, if you want to live out the Christian life the straightest path to that goal is through pastoral fields of ministry. Which is really just a short trip to believing that if you were really spiritual, you would be a minister or missionary.

This has not happened because of some nefarious scheme. We just don’t have the imagination to see the spirituality of banking and waiting tables and landscaping. We cannot see the goodness of accounting, food service and mowing. And so we look past it. Probably assuming God is doing the same.

No wonder most Christians can only think of the Christian life in terms of morality, church attendance and evangelism.

So we celebrate the pastors and the theologians who are doing the important work by reading about them and doing our best to be like them while not being like them. Because Christian biography pretty much equals biography of pastor or missionary in our collective minds and hearts.

I wonder if frustration ever sets in.

Actually I’ve heard the frustration in myself. Back when I was sitting in a cubicle, waiting to go to Seminary, I probably said…certainly thought, “I wish I could go ahead and start doing something extraordinary/important/spiritual instead of this 8-5 mundane routine.” I wanted to move on to the spiritual stuff.

I had no vision for living out the Christian life where I was. I had no imgaintion for a spirituality in the midst of the mundane.

The answer of course is not to stop writing or reading Christian biography. But we do need to work to create a context in which the great majority of the church is not left to thinking their work is business-class spirituality, while the pastor and missionary are first-class. Pastors can do this from the pulpit but also they can do it by telling stories of faithfulness in the marketplace – the world where most of their people are week-in and week-out.

(Next week I’ll try to have a list of biographies of Christians who were not vocational pastors or missionaries. Or athletes. Or musicians. If you know of any, let me know.)

Tuesday’s 10: Thoughts One Month After Reading ‘Love Wins’

Even though I finished Love Wins about a month ago, I’ve not been all that anxious to weigh in with a review. Below, I will explain further. But as the publisher sent me a copy to review, I feel as though I should. And to be honest the more toxic the debate got, the more I wanted to at least wait if not just forget it altogether.  I’m pretty convinced waiting is always good idea. It is my chief concern in the whole affair – the desire for the heavyweights to weigh in as-soon-as-possible. And even before then.

The following are ten thoughts I have about Love Wins one month later. Please do not read into the order of these. For those who do, your condemnation is just.

1. The storytelling and the stories themselves were compelling. Bell certainly has a gift for telling a story. Most people have no idea how hard it is to do what he does and do it well.

2. On the whole, I did not like the way Bell’s book is written. The starkness felt shallow, not artsy. Choppy not profound. I think if you are going to challenge the traditional view of Hell, you may wanna play by the rules of the traditional book. You know, a footnote or two would have been nice.

3. Speaking of footnotes, it felt sloppy. I mean, if you are going to challenge a truth almost universally accepted throughout Church History, when you use Church History to defend your questions and assertions, you better damn well get your quotes right in context and let people know where you got such assertions from. (All puns intended.)

4. Just so you know, I do not agree with Rob Bell’s view of Hell. He does great violence to common sense and instead of doing what he sought to do – make the gospel more gracious – he actually strips it of its immediate meaningfulness. It becomes tangential whether one believes now if we know everyone will believe it eventually in a salvific way.

5. However, I do not dislike him for it. I get it. Like most in the Anabaptist tradition, their trajectory is off a smidgen to start with but every golfer knows it only takes a smidgen. But I understand his desire for an orthodoxy which is gracious and loving. I sympathize with his questions. And I am not unhappy he asked them. The church should be able to handle it.

6. I think Justin Taylor and John Piper should have waited till the book was read completely and released.  By not doing so, they made the book far more a threat to orthodoxy (their fear) than it would have been if they had waited. Instead of striking the tone of conviction, the din of prejudice.

7. More than anyone, I would have liked to hear an apology from John Piper. In a debate/discussion/argument, the way you do it is important, even if you are right. I find it hard to believe – and saddening that so few, who agree with his theology have not publicly asked him to apologize for his flippant tweet and his doing so, without reading the book first. Or is reading a book first only for others?

8. I think we need a robust discussion that takes into account John Stott’s annihilationsim and the Calvinist’s love of him.  Some argue that Stott is simply unsure and is floating a what-if? scenario. Really? Because that is precisely the criticism leveled at Bell. If this cannot be done in a dignified manner then we need to reckon with the fact that we are respecters of people.

9. I think the parodies of Rob Bell and his book are disgusting. Funny? Sure. But to make fun of Bell on facebook will only give geeky sophomoric neo-Calvinists something to puff up their insecure egos between listening to Lecrae albums. It will convince no one. And will win only the respect of those who already had it.

10. I cannot prove it, but a few people have seemed fairly cold towards me because of my criticism of the criticism. One criticism that some have of the neo-Calvinists is their tribalism. I always denied it till now. But it’s true. It’s not enough to think Rob Bell is wrong, you must defend his critics at all costs. If this is the case, God help us.

A Post of Apology to Steve McCoy

Who would want to read the blog of a guy who has to apologize?

This is what was going through my mind when I realized this morning I needed to apologize for something I had posted on my blog. I had done the very thing I had been disappointed to see in another. I had two choices. To apologize simply in the blog post or to do so in way that would possibly grab as much attention as the original post.


Last Friday I did a Random Thoughts post. It was a hit that got a lot of hits. Part of that may be due to the fact some of them were pretty humorous. But I suspect the last random thought was the real culprit.

“10. So this is the next the next movement? I wondered what would be next.”

The ‘this’ linked back to a blog post by Steve McCoy on his desire for a movement of open-air preaching throughout the country. My dismissive and flippant remark got more than a little attention.

Not two days later the Rob Bell/John Piper flap hit. One of my chief concerns was and is Piper’s flippant and dismissive tweet with a link to Justin Taylor’s post on Bell’s views on hell. Even if you don’t understand the context and the back story, you can see why I need to apologize.

I criticized Piper for being dismissive and flippant just days after doing the same to Steve McCoy.

So I would like to publicly apologize to you, Steve for my post. Please forgive me.

I’m about to hit ‘publish post.’ The need for this kind of belief in my acceptance and security as one who is in Christ lies heavy.  I suppose it will lie heavier as I cast it all into the open space of social media. But I am sure it will not be the last time.

I am sure some will find some humor in this. Not me. At least not yet.

More Thoughts on the Rob Bell Controversy

There are still lots of people talking about this. My main concern is not about the Universalism issue and whether it is true or not. If Rob Bell is a Universalist then I think he is wrong. Simple as that. I actually think even if he is one, it is of less importance and will have less of an impact on the evangelical landscape than the present response to his book…which has not been released. I have already posted some thoughts on this issue. The following are some more:

1. John Stott’s annihilationsim is important to this discussion. There is no person (Piper, Taylor, Burk, Wax, DeYoung, et al) who has been critical of Bell who is not a fan of Stott. I love Stott. But young neo-Reformed men and women are more likely to listen to Stott’s views on hell than Bell’s. The young people I work with are more likely to read Stott’s the cross of Christ and then take seriously his eschatological views than they are to read a Rob Bell book period. Last night I sat in a room and discussed this one some of them. Only one person in the room had read one of his books.

2. We need a Gamaliel.  I assume the best of those who I think have acted poorly. I assume Piper and the rest have done all their tweeting and blogging because they love God and his people and want to protect the sheep as shepherds are wont to do. But the Reformed world needs someone – with gray hair and years – to stop this madness and ask everyone to wait till the book comes out so we can have a discussion on this issue. My hope would have been for John Piper to be that man. That is now out of the question. I would love for someone like Keller, Duncan or Sproul to do this.

3. Rob Bell is now considered a Universalist. Again, the book is not out. But if you look on Twitter (I use Tweetdeck to watch all the tweets about “Rob Bell”) he is now called a Universalist without equivocation. It went from concern about his supposed to view on hell to now him being branded as such within a few days. This should not be so.

4. Have I mentioned the book is not out yet? Should we know about his views before now? Maybe. Sure. But, in a way he has asked me – all of us – to wait. Where is the harm in waiting? Where is the harm in saying, “I would prefer clarity now but out of love and respect I will wait. Can we then seriously and passionately debate it all after it comes out?”

5. Speaking of clarity, we have all wanted the Scriptures to be more clear on certain things. Haven’t you ever wished Paul was more clear on the Trinity? The Hypostatic Union? Predestination? Creation? Even Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I believe in the Trinity but a verse or a letter from one of the Apostles that said, “3 persons, one God” would be nice. Should I want other people – especially pastors – to be clear? Yes. Should I want to be clear as a pastor? Yes. Should I write someone off for not being clear about the questions I want answered? Not so sure. Can I think about it?

Thoughts on Rob Bell and the Controversy Surrounding His Yet-To-Be-Released Book

If you have no idea what is going on, read this.

The post that started it all is here.

If you are clueless on who Rob Bell is, go here.

Update: Here is a really interesting post on Rob.

1. I have never read a Rob Bell book. And have never wanted to till now.

2. I have however prejudged a book of his before and then been found to be wrong.

3. It will not commend the gospel of grace to anyone who does not believe the gospel (or who you might think is in error), to denounce a book and it’s author before it has been released. The young people we keep saying we are worried about will not take us and our concerns seriously. Only the ones who agree with orthodox views on hell will listen. And retweet.

4. Rob Bell may be a universalist. Or he may just not be all that on clear on purpose.

5. John Stott is an annihilationist. Lewis believed in Purgatory. Would we be nicer to Bell for these beliefs?

6. I love John Piper but his ‘farewell’ tweet to Rob Bell was poorly done.

7. Harper Collins Wins.

8. The Synod of Dort took 6 months, the council of Nicea at least two months. Not sure if 6 days is enough.

9. If I had to make a prediction, I think this will end up being a non-issue when the book comes out. The worried one will not see a crystal clear declaration and the fans of Bell will keep on being fans. Again, all it would have taken to get a listen from those who do not already agree with them, would be for the Calvinist bloggers to wait till the book comes and and be able to say, “I have read it, this is what I think.” But now? Impossible.

10. I’m hoping the Publisher sends me a free copy. If I have to wait I may forget about this by the time it comes out. (Just heard from publisher and I should get a copy soon.)

"This Is A Must Read" and Other Ridiculous Ideas About Books

When you pretty much get paid to leave a job in ministry, inevitably there comes a crisis of belief. And as you emerge on the other side, dripping with the mire of failure and loss, reality comes into focus as you look through tears and sweat. The effects are myriad. Legion. Over the past year, one of these effects has been how I look at books. Since books have been precious friends since my earliest days, it is no wonder this would be the case.  The effect has been to see how we often think about books wrongly.

For example, far too often we think of a book as “The Way” when we should be thinking of books as something to help us on the way. This thinking is betrayed when our opinion of people is lessened because they did not like a particular book we thought should help everyone in Christian growth. I mean, this bundle of bound pages is a “must read.” Right? Or when they love a book and we thought they should have thought it should have been bad for them.

But what I notice more than anything is our need to qualify our love for a book or an author by saying, “Of course, I do not agree with everything he/she says.” The “of course” is misleading because, let’s face it, we always feel the need to add it. “Of course” means “it goes without saying.” But we say it anyway because we want to make sure we do not get colored with someone’s theological errors, methodology, etc., though we want to make sure others know we benefited from the book or author’s work. A little.

Actually it’s refreshing when this does not happen. My wife and I have some friends who love and have benefited from a particular author’s books. He is a little, ehem, controversial in my world. So one night while eating dinner in their home, they told me they loved his books. I sat there and I waited for what seemed like an eternity for the, “Of course…” but it never came. I didn’t know how to respond, I probably stuttered trying to sound diplomatic. But I’m glad they did not feel the need to qualify their affection for this author and the books he had labored over.

And I’m glad because we should dispense with the whole thing. We are Christians, right? We believe everyone has a sin problem. Everyone includes authors. So, no one’s book is the book to end all books. Yes, even John Piper and Tim Keller.  No decent author feels this way. We tend to think a book is a “must read” even when the author of the book does not. The fact that we would disagree with something in a book someone wrote should…well, go without saying. Literally. (Actually, we need to admit that we even disagree with The Book, The Bible, sometimes. Not because it is wrong but because we are natural rebels.)

The real danger comes when you feel the book you love could not have error, either because of your devotion to its message or because of your devotion to the author. It’s as if the problem of sin ceased to be a factor in the writing and editing of a particular work.

Maybe we should relax. Read books and be helped by what we can. Sure we can disagree with someone and still love their book just as we disagree with a friend and love them and benefit from their life. Let books help you on your way without feeling the necessity to live as if any book is the way. Because if you don’t, you will say something ridiculous like, “This is a must read.”