Book Review – “Searching for Jesus” by Robert J. Hutchinson

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As a lay apologist, I am always interested in reading on various aspects related to Christian evidence.  The various “quests” for the historical Jesus are just one aspect that I enjoy reading about.  I saw a new book on the issue, and immediately requested one from Thomas Nelson publishers (through Book Look Bloggers) to read and review.

Searching for Jesus by Robert J. Hutchinson is a very detailed read.  The text is 275 pages, not including the acknowledgements, selected bibliography, notes, index, or “About the Author” page.  The notes are extensive, adding up to 41 pages. The total page count is 350 pages.

The book is interesting.  The main thrust of the book is to show how (to borrow some phrases from the subtitle) “new discoveries in the quest for Jesus of Nazereth” mainly “confirm the gospel accounts.”  The book takes as its main task to argue that “many of the ‘scientific’ or scholarly ideas about Jesus paraded in the media every Christmas and Easter are increasingly obsolete, based on assumptions, theories, and unproven hypotheses that are, in some cases, more than a century old and which have been superseded by more recent research” (p. xvi, emphasis in original).  Rather, Hutchinson argues, “new discoveries are causing some experts to wonder if the basic portraits of Jesus in the Gospels is far more plausible than the elaborate reconstructions created by academic skeptics over the past 150 years” (p. xvii, emphasis in original).

Throughout the book, the author tackles the most prominent issues surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, examining the evidence to try to see what it shows us and what the best view of Jesus is based on that evidence.  Chapter 1 tackles the question on whether or not the gospels contain eyewitness testimony.  Chapter 2 looks at the arguments that the Jesus we have come to know is primarily based on legendary material and developments rather than historical facts.  Chapter 3 asks whether the gospels are forgeries that have a late date or whether they actually date earlier than previously thought.  Chapter 4 looks at archaeological finds relating to Jesus and the New Testament.  Chapter 5 asks whether the idea of the Messiah as someone who would suffer was invented by the Church, or whether it dates back to Judaism itself.  Chapter 6 examines the Jewishness of Jesus.  Chapter 7 looks into whether or not the gnostic views of Jesus are accurate.  Chapter 8 asks if Jesus was a revolutionary in line with the Zealots, or whether His revolution was something entirely different.  Chapter 9 examines ideas from the Gospel of Judas, specifically whether the view that Jesus planned His own death is accurate or not.  Chapter 10 examines what proof we have of the resurrection, and what it meant for Jesus to be resurrected.  Chapter 11 looks at how early in the history of Christianity the idea developed that Jesus was divine.  Because he covers so many topics, he cannot dig as deep as could be done into any of them, but he does a great job of giving a broad overview of the issues from multiple perspectives, ultimately arguing in favor of what the gospels seem to say.

Throughout the book, Hutchinson lays out all the various perspectives related to the issues above.  He doesn’t merely argue for the conservative, orthodox views.  He also clearly (and fairly) explains multiple views that would traditionally be considered liberal and skeptical.

Which leads me to the concern I have with the book.  As it is published by Thomas Nelson, I honestly think I went into the book expecting something more traditional and conservative.  In reality, the book, while mainly conservative, tends to be more open to liberal arguments than what I am used to reading.  From what I can tell, nothing on the back of the book or inside flap led me to believe that the book would be written that way.  An endorsement from N. T. Wright on the back says that “[q]uestions remain,” but it never mentions what kinds of questions or how many we should expect.  The inside flap does say the book is “Written for skeptics and believers alike,” but many conservative apologetic works make that claim. Once I started reading the book, however, it quickly became apparent that this was not a standard apologetic work.

In the book’s introduction, Hutchinson states:

Finally, a quick note on the Bible in general: In my own mind, I am writing for two groups of people: committed Christians of many denominations who have a wide variety of beliefs about how and to what degree the Bible is inspired or even inerrant; and, secondly, general readers who are interested in Jesus of Nazareth and early Christianity but who are not wedded to any previous notion that the Bible is based on real events.  Writing for these two groups presents many challenges, of course, but I tried to steer a middle course and remain respectful both of Christian orthodoxy and secular skepticism. What’s more, most of this book is about what secular, Jewish, and not necessarily Christian scholars and archaeologists are discovering and concluding–and how their recent research is, to a surprising degree, supporting much of what the Gospels say about Jesus of Nazareth.  Thus, this book is not primarily a work of Christian apologetics as such but rather a brief overview of the changing world of New Testament scholarship. (p. xxvii)

To me, something this clear should have been included on the dust flap or the back of the book rather than tucked away inside the introduction, especially since this book is published by a company that, to the best of my knowledge, is usually known for quite conservative and orthodox books.  People just getting into apologetics could pick up the book thinking they are getting something along the lines of Strobel or Geisler, when in reality, this book is far different.

The author goes on to explain how he struggles with the same skepticism as non-Christians, but that he is willing to dig into the evidence of contemporary scholarship to follow the evidence where it leads.  I admire this honesty, of course; I just wish it would have been clearer somehow on the outside of the book, which is traditionally the promotional part.

The last paragraph of the introduction begins:

I approach the effort to understand Jesus with what I hope is an open mind.  Although I am a believing Christian, I have no trouble questioning many of the central assertions of historic Christianity, especially when there are good reasons for doing so.  At the same time, however, I feel equally free to question the assumptions and unproven theories of contemporary New Testament scholarship, especially when there are good reasons for doing so.  I view them with the same skepticism and weary familiarity with which other people view the doctrines of Christianity. (p.xxviii)

Again, no fault to the author for his forthrightness.  I just wonder how many people will pick up the book based on reviews or the cover without realizing this is the mindset the author is coming from?

So, what is the end result of the author’s writing?  What does he leave the reader with in the last part of the Epilogue?

Whatever Jesus “really” was–and as we’ve seen in this book, after two hundred years of relentless scholarly digging, no one can agree what this is–whether Jesus was God incarnate or three quarters God or just a little God–it is literally true that he is and has been a “light of revelation” for untold billions of people throughout history.  For those who believe in him, skeptic or not, Jesus is nothing less than the human face of God. (p. 274)

This is far from a traditional conclusion to an apologetic book.  We have already established, however, that this is not a strictly apologetic book in the usual sense of the word.  For conservative Christians, however, who take in hand to read through this book, the ending may come as a shock. While the author doesn’t outright deny the traditional claims for Christ’s life, his desire to take a “middle course” keeps him from ultimately landing on either side, leaving it up to the reader to decide on his or her own.

So is this a book I would recommend?  Yes . . . and no.

Yes, I would recommend the book to skeptics who are open to historical evidence.  I would recommend the book to apologists who are interested in keeping up with recent findings in New Testament scholarship regarding the life of Jesus.  I would recommend this book to anyone who has already read and is familiar with the liberal and conservative arguments regarding Jesus of Nazareth.

But no, I would not recommend the book to new believers.  I would not recommend the book to someone interested in only a conservative, orthodox defense of Jesus of Nazareth.  There are other books that are better for that.

So how do I rate the book?  In terms of what it is intending to do, to clearly lay out multiple explanations for who Christ is based on current New Testament understanding and scholarship, it does a great job.  In terms of showing how recent evidence is pointing us closer to what the New Testament gospels have said all along, it succeeds.

Unfortunately, the “packaging” of the book from Thomas Nelson seems to leave something to be desired.  The outside of the book can easily lead someone to believe the book is something that it isn’t.  It seems like a traditional apologetic book on the defense of Jesus of Nazareth against liberal and skeptical views.  While there is some of that in the book, there are also more times the author concedes liberal views than what many Christians are used to reading about.  Again, I don’t fault the author of the book for being forthright in his views.  I just think it should have been clearer on the outside of the book.

Ultimately, this book is good for those I mentioned above, those who are familiar with the discussion and want to read more recent information on it.  But I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more successful if published by another company or if the outside was clearer?  I fear that skeptics will avoid the book because it is published by Thomas Nelson, a known Christian publisher, and because the outside of the book seems to describe it almost as a traditional apologetic book, or at least it doesn’t clearly explain that it is not.  Since the author’s stated purpose is to reach skeptics, I wonder if he will succeed this way.  On the other hand, I fear some Christians who have never been exposed to liberal or skeptical arguments may have their faith shaken up, if this is the way those arguments are introduced.  There are other books that do a better job of refuting those arguments and introducing them in ways that don’t sound as if they carry more weight than they sometimes do.  So there is the potential for confusion to be brought in to some people who the author ultimately wants to strengthen.

In short, the book is one I would recommend, with certain reservations, to certain people. But I could not necessarily recommend this book to just any Christian reader without making sure they have resources or people to help them wade through the contents.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  

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Book Review – “Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World” by Kristen Welch

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It seems that a sense of entitlement is the natural state of affairs in our society.  I wish I could say that it was limited to children, but adults live with it, too.  Honestly, I struggle with it more than I would like to admit.  As a result of struggling with it myself, seeing it in some of the students I teach, and seeing it in my own children, when I had the opportunity to read and review Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World by Kristen Welch (published by Tyndale House Publishers), I jumped at the chance.  Boy, am I glad I did!

The book is about 240 pages, including notes.  There are three appendices: “Cell Phone Contract Between Parent and Child,” “Christian Parent Manifesto,” and “Recommended Resources.”  There is also a discussion guide before the notes.

Welch does a wonderful job of discussing the ways in which are children are entitled, and provides many helpful ideas of how to help our children become more grateful.  The book’s focus, however, is on what we, as parents, need to be doing ourselves to ensure that we are communicating a grateful attitude in our homes, as we cannot expect from our children what we are not living ourselves.

Chapter 1 deals with the subject of wants versus needs.

Chapter 2 tackles the idea of how times have changed and how it is necessary, as parents, to be sure that we are instilling a biblical worldview in our children that is counter to our society’s constant desire for more.

Chapter 3 talks about seven ways that we, as parents, have struggled in raising grateful children and provides instruction on how to do fix it. A few of the reasons we falter on the issue are “We Want Our Kids To Be Our Friends” (p. 51), “We Are Afraid To Say No Because of the Fallout” (p. 53), and “We Don’t Want Them To Feel Left Out” (p. 57).

Chapter 4 talks about how our homes often become child centered, and the ways that this negatively impacts our children.

Chapter 5 discusses ways parents need to take precautions and think through the issue of technology use with their children.

Chapter 6 talks about helping children learn obedience and to go against the flow of our culture in terms of expectations.

Chapter 7 talks about “Living Out God’s Love In Your Home” (p. 129).  This chapter was especially good, laying out ways to be sure that our homes are centered around Christ.  This is, in some ways, the key stone to everything else discussed in the book.  If Christ and His word are not central to our homes, then going against the flow in society as discussed in the other chapters simply doesn’t make sense.

Chapter 8 reminds us that we have to choose to be grateful.  The chapter briefly discusses the benefits of gratitude before giving some practical ways to cultivate gratitude in our lives and homes.

Chapter 9 puts the information from the other chapters into practical use, providing “Seven Steps to Raising Grateful Kids” (p. 176).  Some of the ideas are teaching children to value hard work, teaching them the value of money, and teaching responsibility and how to manage consequences.  All of the steps are much needed in our society.

Chapter 10 is titled “Dear Parents.”  Rather than being a traditional summary and wrap-up chapter, this chapter reminds parents that the things discussed in the book are difficult to follow through with and that they may cause difficulties in the home and in the children’s lives.  How could we expect less?  When we ask our children to go against everything the culture around them teaches, there will me misunderstandings, loneliness, and push back.  But, as the author points out, that is what we should expect as followers of Christ.  I like the fact that the author doesn’t sugar coat this; instead, she calls it like it is and helps parents figure out how to prepare children for it and deal with the issues as they come up.

Each chapter ends with a section of helpful tips called “Going Against the Flow.”  There are always a few notes directed directly to parents, followed by some ideas for putting the ideas from the chapter into practice with toddlers/preschoolers, elementary students, and tweens/teens.  It is very helpful to get some practical insight on how to apply what you are learning as you read.

I would highly recommend this book to all parents.  My only regret is not having this book earlier, perhaps even before we had children in the first place.  Already I have shared portions of the book with my wife, and she plans on reading it herself.  We may even read it together.  This is definitely one book I plan on keeping and passing down to my kids to read as they get older.

If at all possible, buy this book and read it prayerfully.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.  

The Incarnation

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First, I want to apologize to my blog followers.  Things have been hectic the last few weeks, and I have not done a good job keeping up with the blog.  I hope to pick it back up more regularly.

Christmas is fast approaching.  Stores are busy, Christmas music is playing everywhere, and I have already eaten enough Christmas goodies to last for the season.

In our house, we chose not to tell our children that Santa was real.  Our goal was to keep the focus on Christ.  But I’m not sure that we have fully succeeded.  We still have a Christmas tree with lights.  We still watch shows with Santa, much like we might watch Disney characters, understanding they are not real.  We have presents under the tree.  And I still cannot help but feel that those things pull our focus away from Jesus.  So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the real reason we celebrate this time of year.

The real point of our celebrating Christmas is to remind ourselves of the miracle of the incarnation.  That a little over 2,000 years ago, God the Son came down to earth and took on flesh.  Without losing His divine nature, Jesus also took on human nature: 100% God and 100% human at the same time.  If your mind is spinning trying to comprehend that, then you are getting the point.  It is mind boggling.  It is a miracle.  And it should  be the focus of this season.

It gets better when we think about why Christ was “pleased as man with men to dwell,” as stated in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

One reason why Jesus came was to show us how to live.  From the Sermon on the Mount to the parables to His very life, Jesus intended to demonstrate the way to live as followers of God the Father in His kingdom.  Jesus told us to, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29, ESV)  We are to “learn from [him]” and follow Him.  The great commission was not to make converts, but to make disciples, teaching people to obey everything that Christ commanded and taught.

Another reason why Jesus came was to live the life we could not live.  In the process of showing us how to live, Christ fulfilled everything we did not and could not because of our flesh and sin.  Christ lived the perfect life, without sin.  More of this in the next reason.

A third reason why Jesus came was so that He could sympathize with us after living among us as one of us.  He was tempted (see Matthew 4), He knew hunger and thirst, He knew betrayal, and He knew emotional turmoil (remember the garden of Gethsemane).  Even with all of this, He persevered, never falling into sin.  Hebrews 4:15 tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (ESV)  Where we stumble and sin, Christ succeeded.  But because He was tempted, He sympathizes with us in our weakness.  When we pray to Him, He understands.  What an amazing thought!

One last reason why Jesus came (although I’m sure there are others I could write about) was to offer Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins.  As a perfect person, He was able to offer Himself up as the sacrifice for our sins so that our relationship with God could be restored.  Jesus tells us in Luke 19:10, “‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.'” (ESV)  Not only did Jesus come to die for us, but He was seeking us in the process.  Because He died in our place, we can become righteous in Him!  We didn’t have to beg God to die for us.  He initiated the process.  This should humble us and overwhelm us with gratitude!

So as you are making whatever preparations you have left for Christmas, as you are singing carols, watching movies, making cookies, and keeping whatever family traditions you may have, be sure to reflect on what Christmas means.  Remember the incarnation.  Remember the miracle.  And keep it central.

God bless you this Christmas!

Book Review – “Surprise the World” by Michael Frost

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One aspect of being a Christian is to reach out to the world and try to show them the love of Christ and lead them to Him.  There are many books on how to do this.  Some take a more methodological approach, teaching us steps to evangelize.  Others are more inspirational, trying to work up more of a desire in us to evangelize.  I’m not sure I’ve ever read one quite like one I received from Tyndale Publishers and NavPress.

Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael Frost is in a category of its own.  Rather than teaching us a method for sharing the gospel or trying to excite us and remind us of why we should, Frost’s book goes more to the heart of the matter, helping us develop habits that will naturally lead to an increased desire to share Christ and the ability to so more naturally.

Frost is quick to point out in the book that not everyone is gifted as an evangelist.  We are all, however, meant to be evangelistic as we live our lives.  Frost explains that

“the biblical model is for leaders to (1) identify, equip, and mobilize gifted evangelists (who then take a leadership responsibility for the church’s evangelism) and (2) inspire all believers to live questionable lives.  If all believers are leading the kind of lives that evoke questions from their friends, then opportunities for sharing faith abound, and chances for the gifted evangelists to boldly proclaim are increased.” (p. 5; italics in original)

I agree with his take on this.  We are all to be evangelistic, looking for opportunities as they arise, while some are more gifted to evangelize in more major ways.

To help believers live a questionable life, Frost offers his acronym: BELLS.  The “B” stands for “bless”; the “E” stands for “eat”; the first “L” stands for “listen”; the second “L” stands for “learn”; and the “S” stands for “sent.”  Each of these is more fully fleshed out this way:

  • If you bless three people every week, you’re going to become a very generous person.
  • If you eat with others, you’ll develop a greater capacity for hospitality.
  • If you foster the habit of listening to the Holy Spirit, you’ll become an increasingly Spirit-led person.
  • If you’re learning Christ, it’s fair to assume you’ll become more and more Christlike.
  • If you’re journaling the myriad ways you’ve been sent into your world, you’ll increasingly see yourself as a sent one, or a missionary in your own neighborhood.  (p. 23)

Chapters 3 through 7 take these ideas and dig deeper into them, explaining why the author recommends them and giving practical ways to live them out.  I found the chapters on learning and being sent to be especially good.

As one reads, Frost explains that the idea is that these things become habitual, things that we normally do without thinking.  As with any habit, it takes time and effort to move from it being something new that we have to remember to do to something that we do as a natural part of of our lifestyle.  As we live these ideas out, the world should take notice that something is different about us.  In light of this difference, a way may be opened for us to share the gospel with them.

Chapter 8 encourages us to form a group of three people who are in agreement to live the material in the book out.  This small group meets for “Discipleship, Nurture, and Accountability” (Table of Contents).

The back of the book contains a form to use in the small group, some questions for digging deeper as one studies the book, and an appendix with recommended books and movies on learning Christ.

The book is a small book, at 104 pages of the main text (125 with the form, questions, recommended resources, notes, and section about the author).  It is a quick read, but it is also a book I can see revisiting more slowly to think through the recommendations.

If you are struggling with a way to grow in your evangelistic living, I would definitely recommend reading Surprise the World as a way to help you.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.