Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book Review: Now That I'm A Christian

Now That I'm A Christian: What It Means to Follow Jesus. C. Michael Patton. 2014. Crossway. 176 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Now That I'm A Christian: What It Means To Follow Jesus by C. Michael Patton is a thought-provoking read. The intended audience for this one is new believers. This is made clear both by the title and the introduction. Patton hopes to shepherd new believers, to guide them into the faith by teaching them the basics and emphasizing the journey, the "what comes next."

Five chapters focus on the basics of the faith, the essential doctrines: "Bible," "Man," "God," "Christ," and "Faith." Five chapters focus on the christian life, the practice of the journey, if you will: "Prayer," "Study," "Church," "Suffering," and "Mission." Each chapter concludes with discussion questions and a bibliography of further resources for readers.

Overall, this book has more strengths than weaknesses. It's one that is easy to recommend to new believers and to old believers who could use a refresher course. This is a book that should not be limited to new believers, in my opinion. Just because the subject matter is basic or essential does not mean that it lacks depth and relevance to all believers.

His chapter on Bible Study alone would be worth the cost of this one. He shares "eight common Bible Study methods" pointing out how these eight will lead you to trouble: "Lucky Lotto," "Brussels Sprout," "Channel Changer," "The Concorde," "Baseball Card," "Clint Eastwood," "Magical," and "Indiana Jones." He then teaches three steps for right interpretation.
The goal is to find out what the Bible meant, what it means, and how it applies to us. Get that down: (1) meant, (2) means, (3) applies. Many people start with the third step and fail miserably in understanding God’s Word. Others start with step two, attempting to force their own beliefs on the text.
The first step, he writes, is exegetical: what did it mean then? The second step, he continues, is theological: what does it mean for all people of all places of all times? The third step, he concludes, is homiletical: how does it apply to us? He illustrates the three steps in a reader-friendly way giving plenty of examples.

I also loved his chapters on Man. He does a wonderful job explaining the creation, the fall, original or imputed sin, inherited sin, etc. By the end of the chapter, he has clearly shown why we all--every one of us--need a Savior.
Imputed is an accounting term. It is appropriate because we are all born with a sin debt. This debt was created in Eden. It is a debt that every human, including you, has inherited directly from Adam and   Eve.
The best way to think of inherited sin is to see it as a spiritual infection. This infection, like a virus, spreads to all mankind. We are born with a sinful inclination or disposition. Just as you are born with a hunger for food, you are also born with a hunger for sin. We are born rebels. We can’t help but sin.
Not only are you born with a massive debt in your bank account (one so large that it could never be paid off), you are also born with a spending habit. You are in debt, and you, from the moment you are born, continually make that debt greater.
Strengths: Now That I'm A Christian covers the essentials of the faith in a straight-forward way; the style is casual and inviting yet respectful of both God and man. The book may start at the surface, but, it's not afraid to dig deeper. I found this one to have depth and substance. Just the right amount. It is not weighed down by footnotes or endnotes. You don't need a dictionary or a reference book to comprehend it. Patton is not scared of introducing new vocabulary, of challenging readers to learn new words. But he always provides clear definitions and illustrations. He challenges his readers to grow in their new faith. "Your God is with you every day and is leading you safely to your eternal home. Yet so many people will go months, years, or even a lifetime without taking the initiative to grow as a learner." And I loved this: "The knowledge is foundational. But the response is what changes the world." I applaud Patton for going deeper, for going darker. He's not afraid to talk about the dark side of the Christian life. He's not going to proclaim half-truths and make promises to his readers that they're going to be healthy and wealthy and that they will never suffer more than a paper-cut until the day they die. In this world, we will have trouble. He addresses the issues of pain and suffering, of depression and loss, of anger and doubt. I respect him for going to hard places and sharing personal stories. The book is practical and personal.

Weaknesses: While I think I would ultimately end up agreeing with Patton at the end of the day, I feel some of his statements are too strong and may give brand new believers the wrong message. I hope this isn't so. I really do.
But the Bible can be hard to understand. Often, interpreters can’t agree on what many passages mean. This is part of the reason why the Bible is the most controversial book ever written. It has divided countries and families. It creates divisions, splits churches, and can be downright frustrating to read. The Bible study method we are going to focus on will not guarantee that you always understand the Bible perfectly, but it will guarantee that you are interpreting the Bible with integrity before God and having a legitimate interaction with God.
Is it helpful to new believers to tell them the Bible is hard to understand and that most people cannot agree on what many passages mean? Yes, in the wrong translation (the wrong translation being one that you can't understand or make sense of for comprehension reasons) or in certain books (say Leviticus or Ezekiel) the Bible can be seen as "frustrating" or "hard to understand." But it is my belief that most of the Bible can be read and understood with only a minimal amount of effort. As far as "not agreeing on what many passages mean" that may be more of a split between protestants and catholics and within denominations than anything else. And that does NOT have to be an issue new believers deal with from the start. Especially since these more often than not fall into the non-essential category. (Perhaps with the EXCEPTION of doctrines that divide protestants and catholics to begin with. Again not a subject that would have to be brought up with a brand new believer.) Still I believe that when and where it matters in the Bible, it is clear within the Bible itself, and there is a majority interpretation. I've often thought that it isn't a lack of comprehension, but a not wanting to do what it clearly says. For example, "do all things without grumbling or disputing," is clear enough as is "count others more significant than yourselves." It challenges us as readers because it challenges us to change our behaviors, our thoughts, our actions.

He concludes his overall wonderful chapter with these sobering words:
I want you to understand how important it is that you read and study your Bible. But I would rather you not read it than to read it and make the fundamental mistakes I have described in this chapter. This is why the Bible is a dangerous book. It is very powerful when interpreted correctly. But when it is interpreted wrongly, it can destroy people’s lives, split churches, and bring about all kinds of troubles. If we properly interpret the Scriptures consistently, we will be less prone toward discouragement, disillusionment, and distancing ourselves from God.
Is it helpful to new believers to tell them you would rather them NOT read the Bible out of the fear that they might misunderstand or misinterpret what they read? Is it helpful to stress the fact that "the Bible is a dangerous book" and that it can "bring about all kinds of troubles"? Do we even want to hint that the Bible can "destroy people's lives"?

The Bible--to new believers and even to old believers who have never read the Word for themselves--may seem intimidating enough without the drama of these warnings. I believe that the Bible should be read prayerfully, thoughtfully, emotionally and intellectually. I believe in devotional reading and in-depth Bible Study. I believe in stressing the fact that the Bible is never read alone. Believers are spirit-filled. The Spirit can and will ever-guide us day by day through the very Word of God. It is not that I'm blind to the fact that there are dangers to getting it wrong, of misinterpreting things, concluding things from passages that just aren't so. But those dangers exist regardless of if you read the Bible or if you don't read the Bible. Those dangers exist if you turn on the TV, if you explore on the internet, if you turn on the radio, if you attend a church weekly, if you talk with other believers, even if you debate with nonbelievers. Wrong thoughts about God, wrong teachings about who He is and what He has done, and how we are to live until His return. I say it's dangerous NOT to read the Bible. I say it's dangerous to not be grounded in the Word of God, in the truth. I say it's dangerous to merely accept what other people say, other people's interpretations of what the Bible says. Knowledge and more knowledge is always the answer. The Bible is meant to be read and studied and cherished and treasured. It is a book for every emotion a soul can be. It truly is. The Bible is God's very revelation of himself. How can your faith grow or mature WITHOUT the Bible? And if you're letting other people do your thinking for you, if you're merely accepting what someone else says instead of reading and studying yourself, then that is dangerous. Pray for wisdom. Pray for understanding. Pray for interpretation. Talk to the Author of the Book as you read! But DON'T give up reading the Bible out of fear or anxiety that you'll get it wrong or that you're not smart enough.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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