Book Review — Christ Among the Dragons

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  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Books (June 4, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com
  • InterVarsity Press
  • Q and A with the Author
  • Orthodoxy. Dogma. Creed. Church. Religion. These words can evoke mixed feelings from those whose eyes wander across them. Even Christians, whose religion is shared, may react differently to a word like “Dogma” or “Orthodoxy.” One of the great questions of our Christian Age (and of any Christian Age) is this: “How are we to live?”

    James Emery White addresses this very topic in Christ Among the Dragons. White properly distinguishes two approaches to this question that have caused great turbulence in our Church:

    1) A lack of concern for truth and an abandonment of the central doctrines of Christianity

    and the very opposite problem of:

    2) An overly zealous tendency to focus too much on issues of little importance and to alienate those with which one disagrees on the details of Christian faith.

    Christ Among the Dragons is a book that on some pages convicted me—for I had, myself, sinned against my Christian brothers and sisters in my denouncing them over certain details of our Faith. On other pages it caused me to nod my head with sadness—for I have been attacked for different opinions on non-central doctrines of Christianity. The book, in all honesty, led me to tears on both accounts, and led me to repentance and to forgiveness.

    White begins with a chapter discussing the concept of “truthiness”—a divergence from absolute truth that has permeated our era. He then explores the concept of and need for orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, on White’s account, should be confined largely to “Mere Christianity.” White gives the illustration of Richard Baxter, who coined the term. Baxter was called upon to write about the “fundamentals of religion” for the government by Cromwell, and came up with a summary that “could be affirmed by a Papist,” as the complaint from Cromwell went. To this, Baxter replied, “So much the better” (p. 58). Baxter wrote, “Must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: but if any will call Mere Christian by the name of a Party . . . I am of that Party which is so against Parties . . . I am a CHRISTIAN, a MERE CHRISTIAN, of no other religion” (58-59). It is this Mere Christianity that White stresses Christians should embrace: an acceptance of the central tenants of Christianity (namely, belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, the Trinity, and the Resurrection), but this not at the expense of jettisoning other beliefs. Instead, we should not let these other beliefs divide and separate us.

    White then goes on to describe the impact Christianity has had on the world. Then he explores the absolute necessity of Christian witness. Christians should never approach people outside the faith as needing to go to hell; instead, they are in need of witness (95). He finishes this chapter with one of my favorite quotes ever, from the atheist Penn Jillette: “If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell. . . . How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” (100).

    Finally, White enters the section that I find most important in his book: an exploration of Christians’ attitude toward the world and toward other Christians. We should not approach non-Christians as enemies to be attacked, but as fellow creations of God, a God who loves them and who is calling them to Him. Our fellow Christians, likewise, should not be seen as enemies. White discusses what Christians should do about disagreements on doctrines in some quotes I simply must repeat:

    “Truth be told, we should have enough theological humility to admit that we may all be wrong. The greater issue is refusing to make our theological viewpoint the test of orthodoxy, the agenda for which we exist and the basis of our community. . . . And our rhetoric isn’t helping” (126).

    White later quotes two other theologians, John Stott and the Lutheran theologian Peter Meiderlin. Stott wrote:

    “Perhaps our criterion for deciding which is which [that is, which doctrines are essential and which are matters of liberty] . . . should be as follows. Whenever equally biblical Christians, who are equally anxious to understand the teaching of Scripture and to submit to its authority, reach different conclusions, we should deduce that evidently Scripture is not crystal clear in this matter, and therefore we can afford to give one another liberty” (127-128).

    Meiderlin stated, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    Christians of either of the two views outlined in 1) and 2) above tend to disagree with White here, but I think it is absolutely essential to take White’s words to heart:

    “When we condescendingly say that our position is simply the ‘gospel,’ as if it’s not really a debate worth having, then we are being arrogant. When we make our view the litmus test of orthodoxy, or even community, we are being neither gracious nor loving. When we say that our view alone upholds God’s sovereignty or that our perspective is the only one that cares about lost people, we are not being truthful. When we exhibit a haughty smirkiness, or we so state our position that we divide churches, student ministry groups or denominations, then we are sinning” (126-127).

    Christ Among the Dragons is one of the books I would consider essential reading for the Christian. It is a simple work that is never simplistic. White’s points are clear and relevant. Most importantly, however, I think many Christians will find, as I did, that his words will convict and comfort, his points will hit close to home, and Christ will shine through. I cannot recommend White’s work highly enough.

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. writes on philosophy and theology at Always Have a Reason.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy of Christ Among the Dragons.

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    Book Review — Life in the Spirit

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  • Paperback: 270 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2009)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com
  • IVP Page, with Sample Chapters
  • Life in the Spirit, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis, is an excellent collection of essays on the Holy Spirit and Christian spirituality.

    Topics in Life in the Spirit are varied, and are grouped under the headings of “Theological Contours,” “Historical Approaches,” “Spiritual Practices,” and an epilogue.

    The “Theological Contours” section includes two essays on spiritual formation, and an essay entitled “Getting the Spirit Back in Spirituality.” This latter essay was written by Gordon Fee and it is, in my opinion, the best essay in the volume. Fee urges readers towards the realization that the Holy Spirit is fully active and alive in the church and to open ourselves up to the presence of God. Fee’s article was simply fantastic, and this entire section on Theological Contours is perhaps the highlight of the book.

    The “Historical Approaches” section features four essays that focus on Christian spirituality throughout history. I found each of these essays interesting, particularly Lawrence Cunningham’s “The Way and the Ways” which discusses Roman Catholic spirituality. His insights on different “Ways” within Christianity and spirituality were enlightening. His points could be equally used for other denominations, such as his advice to analyze Catholic spiritual practice by asking, “Do we follow Christ by this practice, or by reading that book, or by participating in the liturgy, or by seeing Christ in others? By the use of that criterion we can then judge whether this vast panoply of Catholic devotional, ascetic, spiritual, liturgical and diaconal practices . . . are worthy of attention” (96).  I urge readers to consider the various “schools” or “Ways” Cunningham discusses. My single complaint about this section is that it seemed a little unbalanced to have two out of four essays on Roman Catholic spiritual practice. Surely there are other spiritual traditions worth exploring within Christianity! Catholicism would obviously be one of the top choices, but to dedicate half the essays on the historical perspectives to it seems a little extreme.

    Part 3 focuses on “Spiritual Practices” and features five essays on the topic. These essays are wonderfully diverse. I was particularly excited to see that the essays weren’t all on topics that were to be expected, such as prayer (though the essay on prayer by James Wilhoit is great). Of particular interest to me was David Gushee’s essay on “Spiritual Formation and the Sanctity of Life” in which he urges Christians to “establish . . . the sanctity of human life as our utterly fixed, unshakable and immovable moral standard” (215).

    There are difficulties with reviewing a work of such a broad scope, as it seems unfair not to deal with each essay individually. I trust this doesn’t reflect on this fantastic work, but instead on my inadequate review. I highly recommend Life in the Spirit for both interested laypeople and scholars. The diverse array of topics alone makes it worth buying, but the incredible insights the authors offer make the book essential.

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. blogs on philosophy and theology at Always Have a Reason.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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