An excellent book for Christian communicators in cities

I am starting a little project I’ve been thinking about for awhile. I hesitate to say that it’s to get me into a better writing habit. Rather, and more specifically, it’s to get into a blogging habit because all my writing is happening elsewhere. One place my writing is happening is doing very brief book reviews on Instagram that I then copy to Goodreads. The space limit and the mobile medium of Instagram are limiting, but helpfully so in the sense that it gets me to just crank something out and ship it, which is something I find helpful. It also gives my students an extension to the classroom as they stalk me for gossip. That said, I’ve been wanting to edit those reviews, revisit those old reads, and add to them when time allows. Before 2016 ended, and after taking a Strengths Finder test and getting “Input” as my top strength, I read that something helpful for me would be to generate and not just collect information. So starting with my first read and review in January 2017, here we go.

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller is not an average preaching book. I’ll go a bit beyond saying I enjoyed it and recommend it. What set this book apart in my mind was its emphasis on apologetics. At times it read much more like an apologetics textbook than a preaching guide, which I guess feels very Kelleresque if you are familiar with him and his style. It sets out to do what the subtitle suggests, which is communicate about Christian faith in an era of deepening skepticism, and in my opinion he achieves this. Even in my contexts at international Christian schools in Asia this is very helpful, as many of my students are very skeptical of Christianity for varieties of reasons. Many Asian societies are secularizing in general as well. This book was a helpful guide for various ways of communicating about faith in such a context.

When I first read Preaching I had not read, nor was familiar with, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That work along with others like it, that nuance the formation and impact of secularity in the West, are deeply influential in Keller’s thinking and his writing about Christian ministry. It’s always a bit shocking how resistant cultural Christianity is to seeing their own context as a mission field, which explains the often heavy resistance to Keller and others like him doing exactly that. Some are finding the best communication tools they can to speak the Gospel to the secular West with deconstructive nuance to unpack the culture’s lies, and constructive clarity to believe God’s truth, in ways that are so familiar to the culture that they seem foreign to Christian subculture. This is mistakenly taken as syncretistic instead of incarnational or contextual. I would offer it is also an indictment on how isolated much of the Christian West has become from the neighbors they are called to know, love, and serve. I’d recommend this book first and foremost to Christian communicators in urban settings, but any preacher will benefit from a careful read.

320 pages or 6 hours of preaching well in a secular age. All links are affiliate.

A reoccurring issue in both the books I’m reading and in the schools I’ve worked at, is that we live in an age of particular fragmentations and on a scale that is unique. Reasons for this vary, but the internet age is part of it. How we have utilized the internet is another factor, such as social media, and the ubiquity of mobile internet devices in the hands of increasingly younger people is perhaps the biggest. It’s the amount of info, including targeted ads and messaging, in the hands and drawing the eyes of a critical mass of young people that has led to a kind of fragmentation of identity and a malaise that follows it. Students are overwhelmed with information and then with the the task of making sense of it. Adults have the issue as well, and while they have tried, or not, to figure out this new life, they have certainly failed to pass a serviceable amount of wisdom to the next generation.

In my own experience of being a student when the internet first really popped, and mobile technology quickly followed, there was a fragmentation of knowledge, how to interpret it, how to act on it, and confusion was a very common feeling. At the time I didn’t appreciate any of this as a global phenomena or anything beyond my own experience. I took it as a problem of fitting in on my part as an individual. It wasn’t long before I went to university and realized the issue was a bit bigger than me, and then further into life to see a larger impact, especially as I traveled and worked around the USA and the world. Now the market is flooded with books, talks, consultants, and all manner of attempts to sort it all out. We no longer have a unified story, or identity, and with the loss has gone a basis for agreed upon virtues. We are well marketed into consumerism, but very poorly discipled into humanity.

I say none of this as a technology naysayer. I’m largely for technology and its utilization in education. But I also can’t deny what I and the market at large are seeing, and that is a real dearth of wisdom, perhaps a specific kind of wisdom in the form of information literacy. With incredulity towards metanarrative comes the absence of the kinds of norms that support any harmony between an intellectual and a virtuous life. There is only left a life of distraction and whim. Happiness is quick to fade as well. Suicide becomes a common thought, and slowly a more common practice. Fragmented attention, fragmented stories, fragmented lives and malaise are all that’s available under this worldview rubric. And to this end the materialistic cultures rush headlong.

As a Christian I have to acknowledge the fragmentation of my own tribe. It’s well beyond good apostle’s warnings to not “be of Paul, or Apollos, but of Christ.” It’s also beyond schisms and reformations and three major divisions. We’re well into thousands of expressions of faith, some quite close, others may as well be from different galaxies. The debate about doctrinal and practical norms will perhaps never cease until time’s end. And yet, in my experience and in my intellectual explorations, I can find no greater answer to the problems of our age than the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Bible in which its contents are found. While the various traditions squabble over what the Bible is, and how it is to be used, and what other sources of authority to draw from and how precisely to do that, at the end of the day it is the Bible and it is the life and work of Jesus that are the center of the Christian story. While we have much to overcome, we have so much to offer. I for one draw a great deal of purpose from this effort in my context. There is a wholeness to be had amidst the fragments, and a healing calm more powerful than the malaise.

There have been far too many occasions in my professional life that warrant detailed explanation in order to be understood fully. Somehow I manage to make the narrative exciting in job interviews, but to most everyone else there’s usually a sense of feeling lost in the twists and turns. Sense can be made, but it takes more than a summary. Alas, my time in Korea, though the longest I’ve been anywhere since my undergrad days, has fallen in line with this pattern in my life.

Within a month I’ll be moving to Hong Kong with my wife to be a Bible teacher at an international Christian school there. We’re excited. It has been a long season of discernment, lasting over a year, where both our natural and spiritual senses, and mentors, have been indicating that the sun was setting on our time in the hermit kingdom. We weren’t sure where we would go next but in the last year I’ve interviewed more than a dozen times for various roles, mostly Bible teaching at Christian schools all over the world. I’ve said no just as often as I’ve been said no to, and have felt peace each time even while my peace at staying in my current role was waning.

Finally, through a connection, I was made aware of an opportunity in Hong Kong that just popped at each step. We don’t know why this door opened after so many didn’t but we trust that God’s plan is unfolding with this move. I have two more weeks in my current role before going home for a short break and then starting at my new job.

As with every move I’ve made, I hope to stay a long time, the rest of my professional and ministry tenure if God wills it. But I know that my bread will come daily, as will my prayers, and any new directions in the future will follow in like manner.