Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sermon of the Week (6/22 - 6/28, 2014) Matt Chandler at The Village Church on The Generosity of God

Matt Chandler preaches a bit like a young John Piper, IMO. He is the Lead Teaching Pastor at The Village Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (they have several satellite campuses). He became most famous after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, from which he was recently given a clean bill of health. This sermon from 6/22 is entitled: "Grace Made Visible: The Generosity of God."

Chandler weaves several texts together to show God's grace to us. One notable point: Jesus made the trees from which his cross would be made; the saliva glands which caused spit to be hurled at himself. We serve a generous God and we ought to reflect His generosity.

Friday, June 27, 2014

An Open Letter (of Complaint) to Walmart

Dear Walmart,

It has been 2 or 3 months since our local Walmart (Georgetown, KY) introduced self-checkout lanes. They eliminated some of the regular and express lanes and replaced them with eight self-checkout machines. I have been using them at Kroger for years, so I was excited to hear they were going to roll out that technology at Walmart too. Unfortunately, my excitement was short-lived when the new technology at Walmart proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. I gave our local store a grace period to work out the kinks, although with a well-oiled machine like the Walmart system, I feel like I could have rightfully expected a seamless transition. However, I gave them a couple months to see if they could straighten out the areas that were lacking in the self-checkouts at our local store, and they absolutely have not. In fact, it may be worse now than it was when they first started.

I will use my most recent trip to Walmart to outline the shortcomings of the self-checkout experience at Walmart.

1. Self-checkouts are only positioned on the grocery side of the store.
I believe the intended purpose of a self-checkout lane is to allows a person only buying a few items to check out quicker. Unfortunately, if your few items come from Health & Beauty, Hardware, or Home Goods, you lose any extra time you might have gained by having to walk all the way across the store to access the self-checkout.

2. Self-checkouts have caused fewer manned checkout lanes to be open.
Since the introduction of the self-checkouts at my Walmart, they have drastically reduced the number of manned lanes open. Usually during the day when I am there, in addition to the eight self-checkouts, they also have two regular lanes open and occasionally an Express lane. This particular visit, I had about 20 items, there was no Express lane open, and the lines at the two regular lanes were all the way across the aisle. So if I didn’t want to wait in line for at least 20 minutes, I had to use the self-checkout. See point #8 about why I didn’t want to do this.

3. Self-checkouts only work with small orders.
I can rarely use the self-checkout lane at Walmart anyway, because that is usually my large weekly grocery shopping trip, and it isn’t possible to navigate the self-checkout with much more than 20 items. There is no signage on the self-checkout lanes indicating that it should only be for 20 items or less.

4. The self-checkout weight sensors in the bagging area just don’t work.
As mentioned above, you can only use the self-checkout for small orders. Really, though, it only works well if you have few enough items to fit in only one bag. Although there is a large platform

around the one bag stand, assumably intended to hold bags that are already full of items, the weight sensors red flag every time a bag is placed in a spot other than in the bag stand. Every. Time. If you move a full bag out of the bag stand: red flag. If you shift an item inside a bag: red flag. If you take too long to put an item in a bag: red flag. If you’re too quick to put an item in a bag: red flag.

5. Red Flags require a Walmart employee to walk over to your register and scan their badge to approve each error.
So the large number of red flags require physical intervention by a Walmart employee each time. At our Walmart, there is one employee manning all eight self-checkout lanes, and whenever I’ve been checking out there, I’ve had anywhere from 3 to 10 red flags just on a single order. That gets really old when I have to wait for the Walmart employee to come clear me 10 times just to purchase my items. Especially since she has up to 7 other people whose 10 red flags she is trying to clear at the same time. There is no way she is actually checking for whatever reason the red flag came up in the first place. She’s just scanning her badge and moving on to the next one.

*Note: At Kroger, the Self Check employees have a handheld device by which they can interact with the system, so they can clear red flags from one location without having to walk back and forth to each one. That’s really smart and saves a lot of time.

6. There is usually only one employee manning all eight self-checkouts.
I said this in the previous point, but my most recent trip to Walmart showed me another way that this is a serious shortcoming. At this particular time in the store, there were no Express lanes open, and so those with few items had to use the self-checkout if they didn’t want to wait in the long lines at the regular lanes. However, there were several elderly customers who neither wanted to wait in the line nor use the self-checkout. So what they did is walk up to the employee manning the self-checkout and ask if she would just check them out at her register. She accommodated them, and I do not criticize her kindness to the elderly patrons of Walmart. However, that means her hands were full checking out these customers rather than clearing all the red flags of the people who were actually checking themselves out. So this one employee turned out to be running eight self-checkouts AND her own Express lane as well. That didn’t work.

7. Self-checkout bagging areas can’t handle reusable bags.
This could fit under point #3, but it’s a big enough deal to me that it deserves its own point. The weight sensors in the bagging area throw up a red flag whenever I use my reusable bags, which I do every time I go to the store. Every single time I put my bags on the platform after pushing the “I brought my own bags” button, it says “Cannot confirm bags” and requires the employee to come clear me before I can even start scanning my items. Why make it an option on the screen if it doesn’t work?? Then every time I try to use one of the bags or shift the items in one, another red flag.

8. You cannot use price matching at the self-checkout.
Price matching at Walmart is a blessed and beautiful thing. It saves my family a ton of money. This is why I am so dismayed that you can’t do price matching in the self-checkout lane. As I said in point #2, I was forced to choose between a long wait at the regular checkout lane or losing my price matching at the self-checkout. Since I had my 6-year-old with me, I chose the quick option, hoping that Walmart’s new Savings Catcher system would catch some of the matches I was missing. Alas, it did not catch any of the below matches, and so I ended up losing $4.73 by not waiting in the long line. That’s not a ton of money, but it’ll add up over time.

3 cartons of Raspberries 6oz - paid $2.48 each, $1.50 at Kroger - lost $2.94
1 Dozen large eggs - paid $1.98, $1.69 at Kroger - lost $0.29
0.62 lb Plums - paid $1.41, $0.79 at Meijer - lost $0.62
1.27 lb Nectarines - paid $2.51, $1.63 at Meijer - lost $0.88
Total lost: $4.73

So all this is to say that I am extremely disappointed with Walmart’s implementation of self-checkout lanes. Maybe I wouldn’t be so frustrated if I didn’t have the excellent experience of Kroger’s Self Checks. However, this is a case in which Walmart needs to take some notes from a competitor on how to do it right.


Joni Tapp

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review (#58 of 2014) Power and Politics in Palestine by James S. McLaren

Power and Politics in Palestine the Jews: The Jews and the Governing of Their Land, 100 BC-Ad 70 (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement)
McLaren looks at the recorded action over the period 100BC - 70AD to determine what can be conclusively known about Jewish self-governance under Roman rule. He exhaustively looks at various other studies, comparing various researchers' opinions on what the boule and Synedrion (Sanhedrin) were. He looks chronologically at recorded events, identifies the roles people appear to have played, and examines how decisions were reached. His source material are primarily Josephus' The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, as well as the Gospels and Acts. (The Mishnah and other later sources are not considered useful for McLaren's purposes for many reasons, one of which is because its writing was motivated to further the future of Israel in the absence of a Temple. Someone tell Ray Vanderlaan.) The book is written for an academic audience that is already very familiar with Josephus' works. While a brief summary of the major events examined from Jospehus' work are summarized, the author assumes the reader has read the entirety of the texts.

I read this book because a reader of the Gospels & Acts is forced to ask "Who are these priests?  Who was Herod, who was Pilate, Agrippa & Bernice, what's going on here?" There are plenty of recorded events in between the birth of Jesus and his ministry, his trial and the trials of Stephen, James, and Paul. I find that the average Christian is ill-equipped to discuss the historical Jesus (and historical church) with critics like John Dominic Crossan and Reza Aslan (whose book I recently reviewed) who argue that Jesus was merely a function of the historical context of first century Palestine, or that Jesus' and his disciples had specific political motives. There are also those who argue there is a contradiction in the Gospel accounts-- the Jews deliver Jesus to Herod because they did not have the authority to put anyone to death, but there apparently was no such hesitancy when it comes to Stephen, James, and other Christians who were martyred.

A comparison of Josephus' The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews reveal many differences in the descriptions of the governance of the Jewish state, as well as contradictions in various events. Josephus' accuracy and possible motivations in writing the accounts are analyzed. Luke's accounts, likewise, are problematic in that Luke may not have been closely familiar with the governance of the state and uses some terms interchangeably. The sources, and therefore scholars, differ on the role of the Chief Priests, the Pharisees, the King, and the Sanhedrin(s).

What is clear is that there was political competition. Some figures had influence even though they no longer held official positions, and others held official authority but lacked influence among the people. Under Roman rule, the Jews generally had a head of state that was responsible and held wide authority. The family of Herod both ruled directly and maintained influence over the period.

"It is possible that the heads of state called upon the assistance of certain groups or individuals but they were not subject to other Jews. As long as these men appeased the Romans after 63 BC they were allowed to govern their kingdoms." 

Beginning with Alexander Jannaeus, Josephus records how several revolts were put down by the ruler at the time. This gives glimpses into which persons had what authority. Jannaeus is followed by his widow, Salome Alexandra, who appears to have been an effective ruler. She appoints Hyrcanus as high priest, and it is clear that he is subordinate to her command until her death, where he becomes the head of state. Pharisees and others begin to have prominent roles in the administration of Palestine. After Pompey assists Hyrcanus in a civil war against the Sadducees, Judea comes under Roman rule. An unpopular Antipater is essentially given power by Rome and appoints his sons Herod and Phasaelus as governors in the territory and a power clash ensues.

Hycranus summons Herod to trial after a murder but later releases or acquits him. Herod eventually is appointed "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate and prevails in a power struggle by conquering Jerusalem with Roman help. He ruled until 4 BC. Judea was placed under the direct rule of a Roman prefect in 6 AD. After Pilate becomes prefect in 26 AD, he is faced with some Jewish dissent against some of his actions-- allowing his troops to display their effigies when marching into Jerusalem, and later using temple funds to build an aqueduct. In the former incident Pilate backs down and relents to Jewish pressure. In the latter, he puts down a protest against his visit to Jerusalem (he ruled from Ceasarea) with violence. But not all Jews objected to Pilate's actions, particularly in regards to the aqueduct.

"the acceptance of Roman involvement in Jewish affairs was a complicated matter. On certain occasions their assistance met with some approval, yet at other times interference with particular customs was positively rejected" (87).

During the trial of Jesus we have an introduction to the synedrion. There are a host of characters requiring consideration including the high priest, the "scribes," and the "leading men."

"Uncertainty also remains regarding the references to the synedrion. John does not include the synedrion in the proceedings. Matthew combines the synedrion with the 'chief priests' and draws a
distinction between the two. Mark separates the synedrion from the 'chief priests', 'elders', and 'scribes'. Luke, on the other hand, refers to their synedrion, suggesting that synedrion did not denote one specific institution. Matthew and Mark appear to believe there was a formal Jewish trial against Jesus, which they describe with the term synedrion. This, however, is despite the separation of the synedrion from the other participants. Luke and John move away from such a stance, although the former probably believes there was a formal gathering" (92-93).

It is unclear exactly why the Jewish authorities enlisted Pilate in the trial and execution of Jesus, and why Pilate would in turn enlist Herod Agrippa, but McLaren examines a few possible motives.

"Rather than view Pilate as a 'puppet' in the hands of 'the chief priests', it is conceivable that he and 'the chief priests' acted in league. The presence in Jerusalem of a man who openly opposed by words and deeds the established order of affairs and had gained some public sympathy was likely to anger those Jews who were interested in maintaining the balance of power. Whether Jesus was
concerned with spiritual and/or temporal matters, his message certainly roused the anger of the influential Jews" (99-100).

It is "plausible" that the chief priests presented Jesus to Pilate as a troublemaker to be executed, feeling he was guaranteed to act, and thus the "chief priests" would not bear the responsibility of executing him themselves.

"this incident does not clarify whether the Jews had the ability to try and execute people in the mid-first century A D . The gathering of men to question Jesus before he was taken to Pilate probably sought to confirm their approach in dealing with the matter. There is no reason to assume, however, that the Jews actually wanted to take responsibility for trying Jesus, despite the intentions of
Matthew and Mark. It is, therefore, not appropriate to view the incident in terms of the extent of Jewish judicial independence" (101).

The trials of Peter and John, and Paul before the synedrion are also examined. The synedrion appears to have been headed by the chief priest and was both a sort of advisory body as well as a place where trials on certain matters would take place. Claudius appointed Herod Agrippa to rule Judea sometime after 39 AD and did so until his death in 44, after which Judea returned to direct Roman rule. Many incidents are described where the Jews and Romans both cooperated and negotiated in order to maintain the status quo. It is during this period that Paul is arrested, during the reign of procurators Felix and Festus. Agrippa II, while no longer having actual authority, was still often called on to negotiate between the Jews and Rome as a respected authority.

Jews still had autonomy in conducting their own affairs, legal and religious, under the high priest. Josephus mentions the trial of James and others, who were stoned by the synedrion, for violating some aspect of Jewish custom.The trial of James is the last case where the synedrion functions as a trial court.

"We have no reason to believe that the Jews were unable to try and execute other Jews in practice, providing that the procurator had been informed of the situation" (156). 

The last incidents examined are those in the war against Roman occupation. Josephus records that a large number of priests, the powerful, and the populace were opposed to the war. There were clearly attempts at negotiation to stave off armed conflict. Once Jerusalem was liberated, however, "most Jews in Jerusalem appear to have accepted the path of war and independent rule" (176).

McLaren concludes the book by examining all the accounts of rule and the synedrion. There was definitely a synedrion that was not a "national assembly" but a body composed of religious leaders and led by the high priest which conducted trials and may have played an advisory role. There was also a boule which may have been an administrative body in Jerusalem or greater Palestine (which Joseph of Arimethea may have been a member) but did not play a religious role. When revolt against Rome broke out, the boule was replaced by a "common council" intended to be more representative of the populace.

After the death of Herod the Great the chief priests and other influential laity took a greater role in administration and there was essentially no division between civil and religious affairs. These people represented the community in Jewish-Roman negotiations, with the high priest often acting as the leader of the Jews. The synedrion could be activated whenever the need arose, such as when controversies arose or heretics needed to be tried, but it was not a permanent political institution.

McLaren concludes: 
"Although Rome held overall control through its military power, it was not a relationship of master-servant. Jews retained their sense of community identity and interacted with the Romans as a subsidiary partner on the basis that the territory should remain loyal in frienship to Rome. The revolt of AD 66-70 was, therefore, not inevitable" (225).

His conclusion would seem to counter Dominic-Crossan, Reza Aslan, and others who argue that Jewish desire for independence was very strong and that Jews were looking for every opportunity (and every possible messiah) to cast off the Roman yoke. I give this book 4 stars. It is exhaustively researched and will give the reader plenty of sources to follow up with.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review (#57 of 2014) SuperFreakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

I did not enjoy this (quite short) book as much as I did the original Freakonomics. Some of the topics covered are well-covered in other places, like in Malcolm Gladwell's books. There was less highlighting of Levitt's work and more of other economists and psychologists.

A brief hodgepodge of things you can glean from this book: 
Horses were essentially the climate change problem of the late 1800s. Your odds of dying from a horse-related accident in NY in late 1800s higher than dying from a car accident today. Manure caused pollution, sanitation issues. Demand for horses and horse feed drove up prices of food.

The market for prostitutes. Prostitutes in Chicago are more likely to be paid for sex by a cop than be arrested by one. This chapter was a bit tough to stomach. An educated woman leaves her job in finance in order to become an expensive escort, makes a lot of money, and then later decides to leave her job to go back to school-- to become an economist.

Behavioral economists used experiments to show that humans were inherently altruistic-- contra Darwin's theory of natural selection-- until other behavioral economists showed that people were only altruistic when they were asked to participated in experiments conducted by behavioral economists.

Monkeys have been shown in experiments to be irrational like humans-- loss averse, and capable of understanding money as a medium of exchange.

Education is positively correlated with bad outcomes like suicide bombings and preventable diseases in hospitals (doctors do worse at washing their hands than lesser-educated assistants). 

The chapter on global warming is a large part of the book and has been the most controversial (read the entire blog post). Dubner and Levitt highlight some very smart researchers who decry the simplistic messages put out by the media and Al Gore. Reducing CO2 emissions, for example, will not be helpful and will cost more than it will help. They have simple solutions, like putting SO2 into the atmosphere, that can be done very cheaply and have the effect of counteracting global warming. Sea levels have been rising for thousands of years as the oceans warm. As they warm, they expand, and it has nothing to do with glacial melting. These researchers are frustrated with the archaic and outdated models usually used by climatologists. I assume Dubner and Levitt highlight them for no reason other than they don't think they've been getting fair press. They highlight the simple inventions that trump conventional wisdom. The global warming examples are similar to that of the child safety seat-- the safety seat has not been proven to be more effective at preventing child death/injury than the standard safety belt, and yet the government keeps pushing for children to use them for longer periods.

3 stars out of 5.

Book Review (#56 of 2014) On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (free at Project Gutenberg). 
Drawing from my own reading library, this book a little like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in that the author is taking personal observations and anecdotes and developing a broader hypothesis as to how things work and how we got to where we are today. Many of the anecdotal observations and hypotheses have since been proven as false or mistaken, and we now know more about what was observed than the author possibly could have at the time, but the broader implications and the core of the central hypothesis remain intact.

Darwin spends early part of the book discussing the difference between variations and species. Modern biological classification had not been completely developed at the time of publication. Genealogy was basically undeveloped, or is perhaps not Darwin's strong suit. His religious detractors at the time argued that species were immutable and that the geological record was perfect-- everything that could be known about the history of the earth was essentially already evident. I do not know how widespread the belief was at that time, but creation scientists today acknowledge mass migration, extinction, and "macroevolution," that from one species or phylum can come many different varieties. 

In Chapter 5, Darwin opines on why zebras have stripes in a greater context of how unique traits evolve in offspring and how offspring sometimes revert to the characteristics of their predecessors. There was no agreed-upon model of heredity back then. Scientists are still determining why zebras have stripes.

Chapters 6 and 7 are interesting as Darwin pivots to address possible criticims of his theory of natural selection. development of organs and the imperfections in the fossil record. He admits that it's hard to believe that something as incredibly complex as the eye developed gradually, but contends that it is not impossible. He contends that whale's lungs developed from an organ that was originally a swim bladder. Since vertebrates have lungs, we must have all evolved from organisms that had swim bladders-- ie: sea-dwelling creatures:

"The illustration of the swim bladder in fishes is a good one, because it shows us clearly the highly important fact that an organ originally constructed for one purpose, namely, flotation, may be converted into one for a widely different purpose, namely, respiration. The swim bladder has, also, been worked in as an accessory to the auditory organs of certain fishes. All physiologists admit that the swimbladder is homologous, or “ideally similar” in position and structure with the lungs of the higher vertebrate animals: hence there is no reason to doubt that the swim bladder has actually been converted into lungs, or an organ used exclusively for respiration. According to this view it may be inferred that all vertebrate animals with true lungs are descended by ordinary generation from an ancient and unknown prototype, which was furnished with a floating apparatus or swim bladder."

In Chapter 7 Darwin writes that one discovery that would demolish Darwin's theory is if altruistic behavior were to be found in an organism-- if one species acted simply to benefit another. This would be impossible under natural selection since each species has developed by focusing on adapting solely on its own survival in the "battle for life." Some have purported that the behavior of one type of ant which serves as a slave to another type are an example of this. Darwin maintains that the enslaved variety is smaller and weaker, and kept alive by their masters due to their usefulness, and therefore acceptance of the slavery is necessary to their survival.

One wonders, however, at the symbiotic relationships of many species. For example, I read an article recently about how botanists researching fungi have changed their belief in their relationship with trees:

“The new theory pictures a more business-like relationship among multiple buyers and sellers connected in a network,” Franklin said in a press release. Instead of being a cooperative trade of carbon and nitrogen between organisms, trees are forced to export large amounts of carbon in order to unlock nitrogen stores from the fungi."

The fact that mating behavior-- taking two to create offspring-- has evolved among so many species would seem to be problematic to natural selection. Wouldn't it be more efficient for survival if one could reproduce asexually with a relatively small gestation time? Why haven't the majority of species evolved that way? It seems that there are benefits to mating beyond reproduction. There is strength in symbiotic communal behavior, as Darwin gives the example of ants and hive bees. Since this behavior is so widespread, one can deduce that it is closer to the "perfection" eventually achieved by natural selection relative to the lower-order ancestors' way of producing.

In Chapter 9 and onward, Darwin deals with the imperfection of the fossil record. We are missing transitional forms at every level to verify his theory. In some layers or time periods, species appear which do not appear in the previous time period. This would seem to suggest creation rather than systematic evolution. Darwin's response to such a criticism is :

On this doctrine of the extermination of an infinitude of connecting links, between the living and extinct inhabitants of the world, and at each successive period between the extinct and still older species, why is not every geological formation charged with such links? Why does not every collection of fossil remains afford plain evidence of the gradation and mutation of the forms of life? Although geological research has undoubtedly revealed the former existence of many links, bringing numerous forms of life much closer together, it does not yield the infinitely many fine gradations between past and present species required on the theory, and this is the most obvious of the many objections which may be urged against it. Why, again, do whole groups of allied species appear, though this appearance is often false, to have come in suddenly on the successive geological stages? Although we now know that organic beings appeared on this globe, at a period incalculably remote, long before the lowest bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, why do we not find beneath this system great piles of strata stored with the remains of the progenitors of the Cambrian fossils? For on the theory, such strata must somewhere have been deposited at these ancient and utterly unknown epochs of the world's history. I can answer these questions and objections only on the supposition that the geological record is far more imperfect than most geologists believe.

Much has been undiscovered, much may lay under the oceans, and many layers may be compressed due to constantly having more sediment deposited.

Darwin concludes: 
"Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled... There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Darwin's arguments still did not answer the question for me as to how the eye and other organs developed. How did the original cells know that that there were light and sound waves from which information could be gleaned if a complex structure were developed to capture it?

Darwin either does not think about or chooses not to write about the ethical implications of his work. If we are not made in the image of God, do we have inalienable rights? Why should there be consequences if one murders another? The natural order is always engaged in a "struggle for life," and the end result is that it is leading us toward evolutionary "perfection." But what aspects of our society and behavior are evolutionary artifacts that will eventually die out and which are essential for our survival?

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Everyone should read it as it's a classic, definitely one of the most influential books on the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. I plan to read Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box before the end of the year.

On another note, I listened to this book on the freely-available audio files on Gutenberg. The text was read by a computer, each chapter alternated between a male and a female voice. This made it hard to listen to at my usual 2X speed as the cadence was a bit...unnatural...and some of the pronunciations were butchered. But I found it definitely doable.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fun at the Lake

We spent a much-needed last weekend away at my parents' house on Lake Barkley. It was fun for Elias to waverun and try something new like archery. I also decided to water ski. I hadn't tried to ski since I was about 17, and to my recollection I did not get up on skis at that time-- hadn't since I was much younger. To me, it's only worth it to work and have designated Leg Days in your week, if you then use the strength to do things you couldn't have done.

In the boat with Nana

Driving the boat (and honking the horn) with Granddad

Riding with Dad, no picture of us on the waverunner this time.

Trying archery for the first time. Shot two arrows.

Joni as Katniss. Seriously, she hit the target on her first try. Claims she hasn't tried since she was 12.

Water skiing did not last long. Once I was up I kind of said "Hmm, this is like skidding along the water being at the mercy of whatever is pulling me." But I was able to check it off the list for all time's sake.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sermon(s) of the Week (6/15 - 6/21, 2014) Tim Keller and Rick Dunn on Sex

Two interesting sermons this week that overlap in the category but with different approaches. Tim Keller preaches on 1 Corinthians 6-7 and begins by saying how 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is often, in his opinion, misinterpreted. He uses Richard Hays' commentary on the passage to purport that instead of these being a list of behaviors as sort of a litmus test as to whether a person is a Christian or not, Paul is listing behaviors that will not exist in the New Earth (Keller is a post-millenialist). This is a great sermon on the purposes of marriage and of Christ and His bride.

Rick Dunn is Lead Pastor at Fellowship Church in Knoxville, TN where my sister's family are members. Dunn rotates weekly pulpit duties with Greg Pinkner, the Teaching Pastor. Dunn's style is different in that he preaches while Pinkner teaches. They are currently going through Ephesians in an expositional way. Dunn preaches a sermon on Ephesians 5:3-5 entitled "Sexuality and the Reign of Grace."  You can watch or find the podcast on iTunes. Dunn has an obvious heart for discipleship and accountability within the church's small groups.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A.W. Tozer on worshipping at work

A.W. Tozer's The Pursuit of God is one book I cite frequently in regards to work being a way to worship. I recently subscribed to a daily email called Tozer on Christian Leadership that includes quotes from other Tozer works on work as worship. A couple really hit me this week, and I used one in the devotional that I lead my MBA students in on Monday nights (emphasis mine):

"So I've got to tell you that if you do not worship God seven days a week, you do not worship Him on one day a week. There is no such thing known in heaven as Sunday worship unless it is accompanied by Monday worship and Tuesday worship and so on....
We come into God's house and say, "The Lord is in His holy temple, let us all kneel before Him." Very nice. I think it's nice to start a service that way once in a while. But when any of you men enter your office Monday morning at 9 o'clock, if you can't walk into that office and say, "The Lord is in my office, let all the world be silent before Him," then you are not worshiping the Lord on Sunday. If you can't worship Him on Monday you didn't worship Him on Sunday. If you don't worship Him on Saturday you are not in very good shape to worship Him on Sunday. "Tozer on Worship and Entertainment, 9,24.


"You can worship God at your desk, on an elevated train, or driving in traffic. You can worship God washing dishes or ironing clothes. You can worship God in school, on the basketball court. You can worship God in whatever is legitimate and right and good....
So that's all right. We can go to church and worship. But if we go to church and worship one day, it is not true worship unless it is followed by continuing worship in the days that follow." The Tozer Pulpit, Volume 1, 51-52.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review (#55 of 2014) The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality "Every moment in time just is." That is a huge thing to wrap your mind around. Every moment in space-time just exists. While we experience the "arrow of time," the feeling of moving forward (which Greene explains) every moment already exists in the universe, and always will. When I saw an episode on NOVA made from this book I knew I had to read it. The episode I saw was "The Illusion of Time," and it blew me away. Watch it at the link and you'll be a 25-point Calvinist.

Mathematics might be the highest form of worship; every Christian should read books such as this one about cosmology. The more we learn about the universe, the more improbable a self-existing first cause seems. As Greene points out, the universe we see now is dramatically less probable, statistically speaking, than one that developed from complete randomness. That the universe originated with a low-entropy (Big Bang) event is also highly improbable, but yet we know it happened.

The universe started at a size smaller than the period on the end of this sentence. It had incredible symmetry, such that perhaps all of the forces we know today were combined together in one force. The laws of physics break down at that point, there's the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and generaly relativity such that we have a "fuzzy patch." But newly-discovered inflationary theory tells us much of what happens after the first moment, exactly how the universe began its incredible rapid expansion. (See Greene's recent article in Smithsonian Magazine).But, the "fuzzy patch still looks fuzzy."

Galaxies are now moving apart from each other at high rates of speed. We discover planets and learn more about the makeup of the universe every day. The last third of the book deals with super string theory, which Greene also details more thoroughly in The Elegant Universe (some parts seem to be repeated verbatim in both works; I imagine all of his books essentially say the same things in different ways... one has to make money somehow).

How many dimensions does space have? 10? More? Why did only 3 dimensions experience inflation after the Big Bang? What about curled dimensions? M theory? Planck length? Those are the tedium in the second half of the book. 

He does delve into the possibility of Star Trek-like teleportation, showing the recent advances in research that indicate this may one day be possible. Just this week the Army confirmed that it can teleport quantum data, for example.There is also an explanation of the theoretical and mathematical impossibilities of time travel-- traveling backwards in time. These are amusing aspects.

Greene frequently uses Simpsons characters in his analogies. It is not nearly as analogic in language as The Elegant Universe, but it's mostly understandable. The second half of the book gets pretty heavy, though, an audio version is the only way I could get through it. When you get bogged down in quantum mechanics it helps to have the audio keep pushing you on to the main point.

I really should not judge a book by one that followed it, but I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How I Spent Father's Day 2014

Yesterday marked the first Father's Day in our new house in Kentucky. It was memorable. Here's a little of how I spent it.

Teaching this kid's Sunday school class.

Enjoying this frozen high-protein dessert my lovely wife and son made for me.  Joni also had my breakfast ready when I got up, which was pretty awesome. 

Making one of these in our backyard. Garden forthcoming. Not pictured: Elias helping me drill holes in a trash can that is now our composter.

Watching Jimmie Johnson win his first race at Michigan and third on the season.

 Rocking T25 Lower Focus. A student lent me T25 for the week and I've found it challenging.

Watching a 36-year old Argentinian (Manu Ginobli) posterize 6'11" Chris Bosh and the entire Heat team. I did not know this guy could even still dunk.

Also watched a little World Cup, but not enough given the time constraints. A great day. Thanks to all for making it possible.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Sermon of the Week (6/8 - 6/14, 2014) Rick Hardison, Great Crossing Baptist Church

This is the time of year when many pastors take vacations and leave the pulpits to others, so my options weren't as plentiful this week.

Rick Hardison is at Great Crossing Baptist Church in Georgetown, KY. GCBC is one of only two churches in Scott Co. on the Nine Marks list of healthy churches, and the only Southern Baptist one. (Hardison interned at Capitol Hill Baptist.)

If you are familiar with people who have graduated from Southern Seminary in the last 20 years you will immediately recognize Hardison's style (they all sound about identical to me). This is a good expositional sermon on Acts 27 entitled The Gospel in a Shipwreck. Hardison illustrates how Paul demonstrates leadership despite his position as prisoner, and of Paul's relational needs-- his friends likely traveled as fellow prisoners with him. You can stream or download at the link, enjoy!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review (#54 of 2014) Thomas Aquinas for Armchair Theologians by Timothy M. Renick

Aquinas for Armchair Theologians
Unlike the previous Armchair Theologians book I read (on Calvin), this book discussed very little of Aquinas' life and instead focused on his philosophical works and their impact on the Western world. Renick is a professor of religion at Georgia State and does a good enough job making the complex somewhat humorous, and using some simple analogies to explain difficult concepts. Renick looks mostly at the Summa Theologica, but also explores some of Aquinas' other works. This is not a comprehensive treatment of Aquinas' thoughts, but it does show major ways he differed from Augustine and Calvin, as well as how his teachings on the moral law probably influenced Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and other Founding Fathers. His thoughts on war and morality still influence thinking today as well. His views on sex and reproduction are still the foundation for the Roman Catholic's doctrine today. 

Some topics covered: 
Nature and Essence of God

Will of God
Reason's role in faith
Theology of Sex
Just War Theory
Types and the Role of Government

Critics take issue with Renick's opinions of how Aquinas would view the American revolution, invitro fertilization, and homosexuality today. 

This series is what it is-- an introduction to the character, his major ideas, and his contribution to modern society in a humorous manner.
I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It inspired me to look further into the subject. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My favorite move-in ritual: Replacing our light bulbs

Way back in 2007, I wrote this post detailing our switch to compact fluorescent bulbs (back before Congress left us no choice) in our apartment in Texas. We kept those bulbs and have moved our box of bulbs all over the country. I followed up with another post in 2008 when we replaced the bulbs in our first rental house in Missouri. That box and those bulbs have traveled onward with us (we've had to add/replace a few along the way). When we move out of a house, we put the original bulbs back in and keep ours- we see them as an expensive investment. The tradition continued this week, replacing the bulbs in the first house we've ever bought. The previous owners were elderly and still had the traditional energy-wasting, heat-expending bulbs in most of their sockets. Now our house is both more efficient and not as hot. That is probably my favorite part of getting settled.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Sermon of the Week (6/1 - 6/7, 2014): Tim Keller and Being the Church in Culture

This week's honor goes to Tim Keller from a Resurgence Leadership re-podcast (#017-18 May 20, 2014) speaking at a 2006 Resurgence event in Seattle for church planters."Being the Church in Culture (Parts 1 & 2)"

Keller makes the point that Christianity has lost its influence on culture because it is predominantly the educated and affluent in major cities that drive the culture and Christians abandoned the cities for the suburbs long ago. He encourages Christians to move en masse to the cities, establish community, demonstrate faith through work (ie: get a job!), and live out the Gospel as a community. He talks about how he constantly has to exhort members of his church in NYC not to leave the city, but to stay as long as they can.

In Part 2, Keller gives a brief theology of work (check out my review of his book on the subject).He notes that in seminary pastors are trained in how to get people out of their jobs and into ministry and pastoral roles, which simply extracts them from their spheres of influence and removes them from the culture. He recommends doing the opposite, empowering people to more greatly engage their workplaces and to work as God is working. He encourages Christians to take normal positions in their communities-- instead of seeking power as they normally do. (I wish Southern Baptists would heed Keller's message.)

This has long been my take on things, and a major reason why we enjoyed living in a major world city near other Christians living in community in 2012. Cities are awesome and I spend much time on how it is that I just bought a typical American house in a small town with a 30 minute commute to my workplace (I'll have to write a post reconciling this decision with my "market urbanist" label). But the house is not isolated, it's located amidst many other houses with plenty of interaction with people different than myself. So, I feel it's possible to live out Keller's in-community vision even in small communities.

Enjoy Keller's talk!

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Book Review (#53 of 2014) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The God Delusion
2.4% of Americans claim to be atheist. As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins puts great faith in natural selection to develop nature as it should be. Why should he be so alarmed, then, that there are so many who believe in the supernatural or are deists? Perhaps the belief in the supernatural has aided the species' survival. Perhaps it's very important to our evolution as a species. Dawkins does not give this idea much thought, however. While he does address possible biological and psychological reasons for why people believe in God, he separates the world into "enlightened" and "unenlightened," which many find offensive.

Weaknesses of the book:
In Black Holes and Baby Universes, Stephen Hawking says that if the universe is unlimited in scope then the laws of physics were the same at its creation as they are now. The universe was not created nor can be destroyed--it just is. However, if the universe is actually limited in scope, then the laws of physics didn't apply at its creation as they do today. Some outside entity, like God, must be responsible for its creation. Hawking said that he chooses to believe a Grand Unifying Theory of physics will explain everything from how the universe started to why I drank coffee this morning; he rejects God as the other explanation for these events. This is one way of looking at the problem that Dawkins leaves out or even ignores. Many people find it easier to believe in God than some grand unifying theory of everything-- that has yet to be discovered or proven.

Dawkins also criticizes the various ways in which those who believe in God claim that he works because the working is so inefficient or implausible. If a Creator God does exist, wouldn't he be infinite compared to anyone-- even Dawkins-- such that it would be silly for anyone to critique his efficiency or rationality? This idea doesn't dawn on Dawkins, which makes some of his critiques sound petty. Likewise, Dawkins defends religious freedom and belief as diversity, but he rails against tax money going to a British school that teaches a 6,000 year old earth and literal Noah's Ark. If you believe in an infinitely powerful being that created the universe, it's only a small step to believe he could do it in any time frame or in any way he so chose-- it's therefore illogical to say "that's just too much."

On a smaller level, Dawkins selectively quotes from the Old Testament and criticizes passages and comments on its incomprehensibility without consulting any scholar's explanation of that text and its context. That carelessness (why even go there if you're not equipped?) makes me doubt other areas that Dawkins makes confident claims on. He holds up John Shelby Spong (whose work I've reviewed earlier this year) as an "enlightened" person even though Spong's beliefs are a mess of blatant contradictions. Dawkins' tone is different than that of Christopher Hitchens, who had no problem having many friends who had different beliefs. Dawkins makes it clear that he will have nothing to do with those who are not at least inclined to believe as he does-- a philosophical problem that he never works out.

He also attacks Christians specifically for "immorality" and being the perpetrators of "evil," while holding up atheists or even just general deists as "enlightened" and "moral." He highlights the hatemail he receives from purported Christians as support of this, but likewise ignores the billions of dollars and time and effort that Christian charities spend around the world in humanitarian aid.

Dawkins, like most atheists, ignores the problem of evil-- although Dawkins actually claims to address it. He, like Christopher Hitchens and others, hold up certain acts as "good" or "evil" even though it's not clear from what basis he can judge. A Jew or Christian can say that murder is wrong because man was made in God's image. Dawkins never explains why he thinks murder is wrong-- he just states that it is. Dawkins gives some ideas from evolutionary psychology to explain morality-- altruism as a biproduct of natural selection-- and religion -- our desire to love is a biproduct of the desire to reproduce as a result of the processes of natural selection.

He also never deals with the why problem of natural selection. Dawkins addresses pretty thoroughly Michael Behe's work on irreducible complexity. He explains how natural selection creates an avenue for cells and organs to mutate piecemeal, in a trial-and-error fashion, over billions of years in order to come into the "right" solution to be the working parts we know today. But Dawkins never addresses the why-- for example, say the eye develops its intricate parts piecemeal over billions of years. The eye allows the brain-- which also must develop along with the eye-- to receive information from signals of light. But how did those cells know that there was such a thing as light from which it could receive data? Why did it develop to receive that data? Why did it mutate in the first place?
You can ask the same question of all body parts and species. How did it know to pass the learned information from its trial-and-error process onto the next organism? There is also no evidence--fossil or otherwise-- that such microscopic piecemeal trial-and-error advancements were made.

Dawkins purports that since we see natural selection in process today and do have fossil record of species evolving, then it stands to reason that every part of every thing developed in such a piecemeal fashion. As Dawkins writes, ultimately you get something that is statistically-speaking highly improbable. But each step along the way wasn't so improbable, it's just that now we see the end result of billions of years of these trial-and-error processes on millions of planets and we happen to be the cosmic winners. That, in a nutshell, is what non-atheists find very dissatisfying. 

Dawkins spends much of the beginning of the book attacking nonsense theories and generally making fun of non-atheists. He readily acknowledges how he's been criticized for his attitudes but does not care as he seems himself as having the moral high ground-- even though it's not clear from what basis he can call something "moral" or not.

A couple of oddities in the book. He acknowledges that when the police went on strike in Quebec, chaos ensued. Non-atheists often argue that removing God from our believes removes the moral restraint of people, just like removing police from an area creates chaos and violence (Christians call this "common grace"). However, Dawkins thinks that if Christians are right then there should have been no problems in Quebec since he bets that most of them believe in God in some way or another. 

Another oddity is toward the end in his defense of the Catholic church from accusations of pedophilia. While he admits to being abused by a priest while in a Catholic school he hated, he has such fond memories of the whole upbringing that he thinks it's a shame that the church has been "unfairly punished" by lawyers.  His overall point is that the teaching of the Catholic church-- especially that there is an eternal hell to fear-- is the worst crime.


Dawkins forcefully attacks certain arguments that Christians often fall back on-- irreducible complexity, Pasal's wager, etc. He also has a chapter where he assails several anti-abortion arguments often used by Christians. All Christians need to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that they have. For many, this will boil down to a personal experience that seemingly defies scientific explanation. Someone who goes from being an alcoholic to completely clean after getting on his knees, turning to Christ, and confessing his sins. Someone who feels happier and much more fulfilling than she did before becoming a Christian. Someone who had terminal cancer and was prayed for by a church and saw the tumors miraculously disappear-- something for which his doctors could give no explanation. Someone who went into a hut in the deepest part of Africa and met a reportedly demon-possessed woman who spoke perfect English and knew exactly who he was-- despite her never having learned the language or left the country. Dawkins rejects these experiences as either impossible, or at best not something proveable. Jesus' resurrection is one of those events. Even the most skeptical Bible scholars acknowledge that "something happened" that turned Jesus' followers from cowering and disappointed into highly-motivated impoverished martyrs for their beliefs, foresaking their former power, prestige, and religious/cultural beliefs.

All Christians should be a bit more humble about what they believe. Dawkins is correct that most of the endless debating and name-calling among religious circles is about things people cannot possibly know. Most evangelicals I know are convinced that they are the most correct in their theology-- that their denomination/church/team is therefore somewhat superior to the others (whether they admit it or not). But it takes a lot of chutzpah to believe that of all the billions of people who have existed on the earth, God ordered things such that you personally ended up in the right branch of the right denomination of the right religion with the right heritage such that you are the "most correct." Most people do not recognize that they are bent toward _______ denomination because they were raised that way or it happened to be the first church they encountered after choosing Christ (call it "by the grace of God" if you will). Christians should also be more knowledgeable about the brain, chemistry, psychology, cognitive biases, and other physical processes that influence how we perceive God, the world around us, and ourselves.

As such, I would recommend this book as a good starting point for Christians and non-atheists to start to get introspective as to why exactly they believe what they believe. 3 stars out of 5. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Book Review (#52 of 2014) The Trials and Triumps of Thomas E. Hermiz

This little book (free PDF) was suggested by a friend in Turkey who recently visited an area described by the book's early chapters. Hermiz was raised in a Protestant Christian home in Mardin, Turkey. His Jacobite ancestors had emigrated from Mosul, Iraq to Midyat, Turkey, in the Southeastern part of the territory (then all under Ottoman rule). Midyat was predominantly made up of various Christian sects at the time. Protestant missionaries entered the area around 1880 and his grandfather became an evangelical Protestant. I like this quote:

"It became a passion with him to win others to Christ and to the Christian faith. He operated several stores, and each time he opened a store he would take time to speak to his employees about the way of salvation. His businesses became avenues by which he won converts to Christ. He became a thorough Bible student and used his Bible knowledge as a means of converting others."

His grandfather and Midyat survived several persecutions, including an 1895 uprising probably related to the Hamidian Massacres that targeted Armenians but also included Jesuits and Protestants (estimates of the dead across Ottoman territories number up to 500,000). Hermiz's father engaged in more violent activities against Muslims and was soon warned to flee the country. He emigrated to America while Thomas was an infant and enlisted in World War I in order to fight the Ottomans.

In 1915, the greater persecution of Armenians and other minority Christian sects broke out in Turkey and Thomas' mother and several relatives were martyred. He was eventually adopted and raised well by an Arab Muslim family, but when his father received word he had survived the massacres he worked with the Red Cross to get him smuggled out of Turkey and brought to America.

In America, Hermiz spends time in a Christian boarding school in New England and eventually comes to faith in Christ as an adult. Soon thereafter, he enters Bible college and becomes a pastor in the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, primarily in Ohio. Hermiz later takes a trip to the Middle East and visits relatives in Syria and Lebanon but is unable to enter the predominantly Kurdish area of Turkey where his estranged sister reportedly lives.

The book closes with a copy of a sermon by Hermiz's son delivered after the sudden loss of his 22 year old daughter to meningitis; a very good sermon.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5. It's a good third-hand account of what happened in southern Turkey in 1895, of which few first-hand records remain, and a good first-hand account of the massacres of 1915. The martyrdom of Christians there and the choices they had to make-- to fight or not, to compromise or not -- was pretty challenging and very worth reading.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Book Review (#51 of 2014) Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (9Marks) I had read portions of this book years ago and cite it frequently but recently decided to study the whole thing again. In any organization you have to define the standard-- what is healthy? What structures, policies, procedures, and best practices need to be actively in place in order for this organization to be sustainable?

Mark Dever admits that this is just one book in a long line of similar books, and even provides a bibliography of dozens of recently-published books; he provides his own grain of salt, in other words. There is nothing new under the sun, and nothing written today that wasn't written about 100 years ago. Dever also gives the caveat that this book is not a comprehensive list, but only the major points. Yet, this has now turned into a ministry by which you can find churches in the U.S. that aspire to the Nine Marks.

Weaknesses of the book:
Dever's audience is primarily Southern Baptists, so the book is both a call for SBC churches to find better moorings but also as a way for us to judge churches as "health" or "unhealthy," on a scale from zero to nine.

He is also taking clear aim at megachurches where elders are unable to have personal contact with all the "members," membership roles are not clearly dileneated, and the preaching is not expositional. The book he cites most frequently in Nine Marks is Os Guiness' Dining With the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity.

The book is very America-centric. I can think of congregations overseas that would think Dever's criticisms are off-base or say "Really, Americans have built their churches this way? Why?" 

His examination of church history deals exclusively with SBC in 1800s, Puritans in the 1600s. His sermon illustrations are almost always from colonial New England.

The book also ignores what we know about church polity in the first centuries of the church. Much has been written about elders and discipline in that first era after the Apostles that is valuable to today's church. Harkening only back to the Puritans is problematic for many reasons.

While I agree with all of Dever's points, I find his method of delivery to be a minus. The book is written as a compilation of sermons. Now, I listen to Dever preach regularly and I'm also reading his book compilation of Old Testament overview sermons. But he has a folksy way of delivering his sermon (probably what he grew up on in Kentucky, as it sounds very similar to my ear) that could be made much more succinct for a book.

That said, the book lays out some very good guidelines and a way to judge a church (on a scale from 0 to 9) on how "healthy" it is. If a church doesn't meet the Nine Marks, I would ask it why it considers itself healthy.  Now, the marks:

Mark One: Expositional Preaching
Expositional preaching, roughly defined, is working through entire passages of Scripture as opposed to picking a topic and then picking a few verses to support it. One can, however, teach a themed or topical message expositionally. The preacher does not have to use expositional preaching exclusively-- Dever has preached several topical sermons just this year-- but primarily.

"Expositional preaching is not simply producing a verbal commentary on some passage of Scripture. Rather, expositional preaching is that preaching which take for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture. That's it."

 "Be very careful before you ever join a church that does not stress expositional preaching, or help to call a preacher who is not an expositional preacher, who is not committed to preaching all of God's Word, regardless of how uncomfortable parts of it may be."

I agree with the centrality of this point. A pastor friend recently commented that "the most important thing I can do as a pastor is teach the congregation to read the Bible (for themselves)." That's the heart of it, preaching should inspire us to dig deeper into God's Word and learn more about it.

I contrast that with a very well-known Baptist-rooted megachurch pastor who intentionally avoids quoting Scripture and makes it a point to never say "the Bible says..." It's not a pastor (or preaching elder)'s job to give his opinions or advice-- it's his job to "preach the Word."It's good advice, but his congregation is biblically illiterate.

I disagree with Dever on this point:
"Permit me to suggest the one-sidedness of preaching is not only excusable but actually important...God's Word comes as a monologue to us."

If that is true, then why did the Word of God (Jesus) repeatedly ask questions and engage in dialogue with his audience as he taught?  One of the best (expositional) preachers I know uses a Socratic method to engage with his audience in a conversation. That style creates for a memorable sermon, and permit me to suggest that actually remembering what you heard in a sermon is important. Having the audience actively engaging their brain is something that rarely occurs in a preacher's monologue. I find preachers often dismiss proven pedagogy in order to maintain tradition-- even those with formal pedagogical training. Research shows time and again that the "sage on stage" method does not help facilitate classroom learning, and that methods like the "flipped classroom" work better at helping students retain the material and engage with it-- and requiring them to dig into the textbook material themselves (which is partly the goal of expositional preaching). Yet we Christians ignore that and put huge emphasis on a "sage on stage" monologue every Sunday morning. Would someone please reconcile this for me? 

Mark Two: Biblical Theology
Dever condenses all of biblical theology-- the basic arc of Scripture -- into one chapter, which is quite a feat. But the underlying point of the chapter is that God is sovereign and very active in human history and we should hear Him preached as such.

Mark Three: The Gospel
Harkening back to Marks One and Two, the church and its preaching should present an accurate picture of the sinful, helpless state of man in need of redemption. The cross of Christ should be prominent in its preaching.

Dever's critics might argue that Dever puts too much emphasis on the cross and not enough on the resurrection and the power of our risen Lord and His church which can now see things with "resurrection eyes." However, in Dever's sermons I find there is often talk of the power, joy, and hope of the resurrection.

My criticism of Dever's point here (from a Reformed standpoing) is that the Gospel I hear him preach and describe in this chapter is of the "two chapter" sort relating to personal salvation rather than a full "four chapter" Gospel. Other Reformed pastors such as Tim Keller equally emphasize the role of all creation-- including work-- in God's redemptive plan. (See this series by Hugh Whelchel for more on this topic). I suspect that this is in part because Dever's thinking is heavily influenced by Baptist thought of the 1800s that was being increasingly influenced by dispensationalist thought, but someone might correct me on this point.

Mark Four: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion
Dever hints towards the end of the book that he will not baptise children. He laments that there are too many people who show no fruit of Jesus' work in their lives-- such as not being active in a church-- who claim they are saved because they "know that they know" once upon a time they prayed a prayer to "receive Jesus" and "once saved, always saved" removes any worry about their souls.

Mark Five: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism
"We need to see an end to a wrong, shallow view of evangelism as simply getting people to say yes to a question, or to make a one-time decision...We need to see an end to worldly people having assurance that they're saved just because they once took a stand, shook a hand, or repeated a prayer. We need to see real revival not being lost amid our own manufactured and scheduled meetings that we euphemistically call 'revivals,' as if we could determine when the wind of God's Spirit would actually blow."

Evangelism should be out to preach a real Gospel to draw true converts-- disciples-- and not be a "how many prayed the prayer?" or baptism contest.

This chapter makes me wonder how many churches think they are doing well on the Nine Marks plumb line but are not to objective observers. I can think of a few flagship Southern Baptist churches that still use to long, manipulative invitations at the end of services and train members to do evangelism in a 5-step plan that presses for a "decision for Christ."  The Kentucky Baptist Convention hands out awards and even a free vacation to the pastors with the most baptisms at its annual evangelism conference. That seems to fall short of a biblical understanding of evangelism, but many attendees claim to be Nine Marks aspirants and scarcely criticize the status quo. 

Mark Six: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership
Dever's audience in this chapter is "you." He makes the case for church membership and individual involvement more than anything. But there are some clear notes for Southern Baptist churches.  If your church's membership roll has more people on it than actively attend or engage with your church, then you might not have a biblical understanding of church membership.

"Discipleship is both an individual project and a corporate activity as we follow Christ and help each other along the way."

Mark Seven: Biblical Church Discipline

Dever quotes heavily from Gregory Will's Democratic Religion which looks at Southern Baptist history in the 1800s. Interestingly, Southern Baptist churches were growing rapidly while also excommunicating something like 2% of their members annually. Dever uses Capitol Hill Baptist's history to illustrate the various reasons why members were investigated for possible expulsion.

Reasons for expulsion include non-attendance, non-tithing, and other forms of non-participation. What is not mentioned is that in the late 1800s you could also be excommunicated from your Southern Baptist church for arguing that slavery was evil, marrying someone of a different race, and various other things we would now find to be "in error." So, churches can be "healthy" in a Nine Marks sense but also be in error in the eyes of others. But Baptists distinctively have independence to come to their own conclusions about these issues.

Another weakness, however, is that Dever does not define what happens during excommunication. Is the ostracized allowed to attend services? What efforts are made to contact the ex-member and to evangelize? Some real-life examples from "healthy" churches would have been useful here.

Mark Eight: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth
Dever is primarily talking about spiritual growth. Believers corporately sharpening one another, correcting one another, loving one another, toward greater grace and less sin. This mark requires an understanding of the previous eight marks. Discipline, for example, aids spiritual growth by confronting the root of sin.

One strength of the book is Dever's commitment to meet with every member on a regular basis, along with elder elders. To ask key questions like "how have you progressed since our last meeting?" The larger your church is, the harder this obviously is for a senior pastor.  Is it necessary for health, or can the congregation be divided up among the elders and deacons? I was reminded of a pastor I know who resigned from his large church in part because he did not like the fact that people were calling him "my pastor" when he scarcely knew them (he later started a house church).

Mark Nine: Biblical Church Leadership
This mark is probably the most famous as it has led to quite the reformation among Southern Baptist churches. Scripturally, congregations should be led by a plurality of elders and not a pastor buffeted by a deacon board.

Dever does a poor job giving the historicity of this outside of 1800s Southern Baptist life. (Southern Baptists appear to have dropped elder rule in the late 1800s, probably as a result of rapid expansion and seemingly inadequate time to wait for elders to emerge.)

Presbyterians have had this figured out for centuries, and the early church of the first few centuries teach us so much about the importance of elder-led congregations; this goes unmentioned in the book. Dever would also seem to want to put more power in the hands of a senior pastor, like himself, over the elder body.

Dever concludes the book with advice for pastors who are wanting to transition their church into an elder-led Nine Marks model.

"I had thought of writing a book for pastors called ‘How to Get Fired…And Fast!’ I could sum up the basic idea of this unwritten book in one sentence of Pauline proportions: A pastor could go into a church members’ meeting questioning the salvation of some of the members, refusing to baptize children, advocating a priority of congregational singing over performed music, asking to remove the Christian and national flags and to stop any kind of altar calls, replace committees with elders, ignore the secular rotation of Mother's Day, Father's Day...the Fourth of July, begin practicing church discipline, remove women from elder-like positions in the church, and state that he had theological opposition to multiple services on Sunday morning…Such a pastor might not get much farther than his next members’ meeting."

He advocates a lot of prayer, patience, and good communication with everyone in the church.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It has obviously held up over time, but it could be better. In fairness, the 3rd edition as well as various articles and blog posts written by Dever over the years may have addressed my criticisms, but I have not read them all.