Book Review — Christ Among the Dragons

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  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Books (June 4, 2010)
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  • InterVarsity Press
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  • 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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    Review of John Stott’s “The Radical Disciple”

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  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (May 2, 2010)
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  • When I first opened The Radical Disciple, I wasn’t expecting to be captivated. It’s an unassuming little book, brown and white, with a subtitle that sounds suited to an academic publication and a Table of Contents that consists of a terse series of one-word chapter titles. In the text itself, the writing style is simple and direct; this is not stylish or witty prose. Eight chapters, preface, and postscript take up fewer than 140 small pages.

    As I read, though, I was won over. In the book, Stott explores eight aspects of Christian discipleship which are often neglected in today’s church. The eight aspects include nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death. Each individual reader will probably be struck by the application of several of these to his or her own walk with Christ; readers will probably also hold a variety of opinions as to which of these aspects is most egregiously neglected in Christian circles. The chapter on creation care seems to me to be the most surprising inclusion in a book on discipleship; placing stewardship of the earth in such a prominent position among our duties as followers of Christ runs counter to many of our political and social currents. The sections on nonconformity, simplicity and balance are strikingly relevant to individual lifestyles and to the life of the church. The final chapters on dependence and death are especially poignant to me as I face the aging and illness of a beloved family member who is, thankfully, a devoted follower and lover of God. In those chapters, Stott discusses not only physical dependence and death, but spiritual life and death and emotional dependence. A passage about dependence gave me food for thought:

    “We come into this world totally dependent on the love, care and protection of others. We go through a phase of life when other people depend on us. And most of us will go out of this world totally dependent on the love and care of others. And this is not an evil, destructive reality. It is part of the design, part of the physical nature that God has given us.

    “I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else. I’m happy to carry on living so long as I can look after myself, but as soon as I become a burden I would rather die.’ But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others. You are designed to be a burden to me and I am designed to be a burden to you. And the life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of ‘mutual burdensomeness.’ ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).”

    John Stott wrote The Radical Disciple as his final published book at the age of eighty-eight. This is the kind of book that one would expect from an evangelist and author who is nearing the end of an earthly life spent following Christ. With simplicity and a quiet boldness, he passes this reminder to the church: that we are called according to God’s purpose, and that purpose requires us to be imitators of Christ who are set apart and yet engaged in our world.

    — Reviewed by Desmognathus.  A follower of Jesus Christ, a wife, and a mother. She has an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in ecology, and enjoys philosophy and theology. She likes rock climbing and dislikes celery.

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for this review copy.

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    Recommended Reading on the Life and Work of Christ

    Michael Jensen at The Blogging Parson shares a helpful list of good books on these topics, especially on the cross and Jesus’ atonement.

    Every evangelical theological student (that means you!) MUST read J.I. Packer’s seminal article ‘What did the Cross Achieve – The Logic of Penal Substitution’. You can find it online at http://www.the-highway.com/cross_Packer.html and in other places too. The article is gold not only for what Packer says about the cross, but for what he says about theological method.

    Closely followed in this are two great evangelical works – The Cross of Christ by John Stott, and The Death of Christ by James Denney. Pierced for our Transgressions, the recent book by Ovey, Jeffers and Sach, is worth a read, though it has its limitations (very minimal reference to the gospels, for example). For a better defence of penal substitution, Steven Holmes’ The Wondrous Cross is the benchmark in my view. There is also Paul Molnar’s book Incarnation and Resurrection – I haven’t read it, but it looks good! :-)    (Continue)

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