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Review: Niringiye’s “The Church: God’s Pilgrim People”

The Church: God’s Pilgrim People Review

Author: David Zac Niringiye

Published: 2015

Publisher: IVP Academic

The Church CoverLiving in a globalized world in this new millennium, one of the great benefits is being able to hear the voices of many from far places that might have been unheard before. In picking up Bishop David Zac Niringiye’s recent work The Church: God’s Pilgrim People, the reader is given a text that holds one of these important voices. Previously serving as the Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Diocese in Kampala, Uganda until 2012, Niringiye is currently a Fellow in the Faculty of the Social Science at Uganda Christian University working in the fields of religion, culture, and public life. Holding a PhD from Edinburgh (1997,) his dissertation was a ecclesiological-historical study on the Anglican Church of Uganda. Bishop Niringiye provides both a practioneer’s experience of being in the midst of the churches and a scholar’s engagement with a larger breadth of conversations.

In his recent work, The Church: God’s Pilgrim People, Niringiye provides a text to engage ecclesiology from both the New Testament and the Old Testament vantage points. His approach seeks to integrate Israel’s story and the Church from the New Testament and explore applications for ministry and theology in this present era. This is the primary goal of his text. As part of this approach, Niringiye also intends to keep the global church in perspective instead of isolating to the Western expressions of ecclesial life. As the subtitle indicates, Niringiye hopes to show how the biblical Church is a pilgrim people, operating across the two testaments while bringing the Kingdom of God to be in this world. Niringiye presents is a biblical ecclesiology for the reader.

To accomplish this, Niringiye’s approach is to accomplish this over eight chapters after beginning with an introduction. The text also has an acknowledgements section and bibliography; footnotes are found in each chapter. As he sets into the introduction, one gets the sense of the book immediately. Niringiye’s style is not formal, but uses a causal linguistic approach to set out his text. In terms of structure, the first chapter frames his aims for the text while also setting Hebrews 11-12 as the New Testament basis for his ecclesiological project. Chapter two traces the pattern of God’s work in the Old Testament in order to draw comparisons to the Church as revealed in the New Testament. Chapter three continues this pattern, with the post-exilic period, completing the Old Testament correlations. Across chapters four and five, Niringiye turns to the New Testament texts and specifically how Jesus instantiates the Church. The sixth chapter moves into the Acts of the Apostles as described by Luke and discusses the initial moments of the Church, focusing on its missionary activity. Chapter seven walks the reader through some of the high points of the rest of the book of Acts, before chapter eight closes the text. In this final chapter, Niringiye moves into less of a recitation of the biblical ecclesial movement, as he sees it, and more into projecting his ecclesiological vision. The eighth chapter serves as the concluding chapter for the text.

In evaluating the text, the first point worth making is that Niringiye does a good job with his task and has crafted a worthwhile text for his readers. This is a unique contribution, a biblical ecclesiology, but a contribution that is exactly that and is not to be seen as a systematic theology. One of the most important contributions this text makes to the growing ecclesiological conversation is how mindful it is of the global Church. Too often ecclesiologies will tend to favor the first world, Western expression and seem almost devoid of any interest in second or third world expressions of ecclesial community. Niringiye does not suffer from this horizon and his work accomplishes an expansion of inclusion not often seen in texts on the Church. He also makes use of life illustrations helpfully while also tying his entire effort to the text of Scripture. This is one of the most biblical ecclesiologies this reviewer has encountered. To these ends the text accomplishes its goals and presents a provocative picture of the Church that is rooted in both testaments. Because of these qualities, it is easy to commend the text, though with some noted caveats.

One of the first of these is noting that the text does suffer from a lack of depth which prohibits its use beyond a survey level introduction to some ecclesiological matters. Niringiye keeps his discussion of the Church at a basic level, so much so that it limits the scope of the text’s use in seminary or research courses. This criticism is evidenced in the eighty-two total footnotes and forty-nine sources cited in the bibliography. For this work to qualify as an academic one, which the publisher touts the text as, it would need more heft and erudition on these levels. Perhaps some of this is to blame on the relative thinness of the volume, a quick two hundred pages. Regardless, this contributes to the text’s lack of scholarly height. Secondly, Niringiye’s position that the Church finds its roots in the Old Testament expression is Israel is an ecclesiological position that many will take issue with and one that is not well defended by the author. It is difficult to see how the Church extends to Israel, even the reconstructed post-exilic Israel, as the author assumes. Perhaps investigating this topic and establishing a more credible foundation would have aided the work. Finally, the author seems to have created, for the majority of the text, simply a recitation of the biblical events he is considering, with some minor commentary, more than a self-sustaining biblical ecclesiology. There are a number of points at which non-episcopalian model ecclesiologists and parishioners will disagree with his conclusions; fleshing out this territory would certainly have benefited the text and the reader alike. Even with the biblical theology category in which the text falls, some engagement with ecclesiological concepts and discussions that are more in depth and worth exploring would certainly have aided the text. None of these issues are fatal to the text.

In all, this is a good text and the community of Christ is benefited by the work. Niringiye’s voice is one that should be included in the larger ecclesial discourse of the global church. Though some stylistic issues will inevitably challenge readers, particularly his penchant for lists, when one looks beyond these minor trivialities there is a quality text to read. Niringiye’s work is best suited for a lay, undergraduate, or as a secondary course in the seminary level.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be interacting with some points from the text and hopefully expanding on some key issues that Niringiye brings up the in text. Stay tuned.

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Review: Christmas – A Festival of Incarnation by Heinz

Title: Christmas: Festival of Incarnation

Author: Donald Heinz
Details: Fortress Press, MN 2010
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars…a worthwhile read.

Summary: A good text that reaches beyond the contemporary confinement

concerning Christmas and provides an erudite read of the historical and theological basis for Christmas. Central to the purpose which Heinz has for the text is indentifying Christmas in its appropriate expression as a celebration of the incarnation of Jesus. Though the text seem limited by redundancy and a continual rant against consumerism, the author does provide a readable text that is informative for the engaged reader. This is a good text for the included theological reader who desires a text which is deep in history, rich in story, and thorough in method.

 

Detail: At the center of this book’s aim is to delve into the annual winter festival known as Christmas to uncover the Christian practice as a celebration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Per the author’s description, “This book is a religious and historical accounting of Christmas as an ever-evolving festival of Incarnation…This book tells the amazing story of how an original religious festival celebrating the one-time Incarnation of God that is the heart of Christianity relentlessly expanded the divine investment in material culture and laid down vast deposits in the Western tradition.” (ix) To accomplish this task, Heinz lays out three sections across which he moves from text to historical expression and to culture.

Heinz keeps central that Christmas, as it stands today, provides a unique interaction with the sacred and secular that should not be ignored. However, this interaction exists at a tension where excessive consumerism has turned this distinctively Christian celebration (at least in its post-Easter adaptation) into a feast of personal indulgence instead of the reflection on the divine gift. One of the aims for Heinz is how the Church might recapture Christmas and bring it back to its profound reflection on the nature and glory of the incarnation of Christ.

The first section, “Plotting Incarnation” has two chapters which cover the biblical content and characters involved with the original Christmas story. In the first chapter, “The Original Texts of Christmas,” Heinz carries out a brief study of the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke. For the inclined reader the author’s background in mainline theology will become apparent, though it does not takeaway from any interaction with the two Gospel accounts. This background continues in the second chapter, “The Human Play of Christmas,” where the players evident in most western Nativity scenes are considered. A pleasing aspect of the text is that Heinz continually infuses poetry, literary quotations, and songs into the discussion. This allows the text to move beyond a simple historical evaluation and provides a deeper insight. As Heinz employs this method across the text it elevates the discussion for the reader which provides a text that is not common to, often vapid, reflections of this season.

Heinz’s second section, “Theater of Incarnation,” considers the historical foundations of the modern Christmas holiday. He reaches back to original solstice celebration beginning in 46 BC and providing a thorough description of the process of adoption and contextualization by the early Christians. Following this, Heinz works through the development of the holiday in the medieval and Protestant stages, providing many quotable moments. Asking the question “Can Liturgy Save Christmas?” moves the focus to whether the modern expression of Christmas can be redeemed. Ultimately this is the central question for the entire text. Heinz believes that by refocusing on the ritual will help illumine the forgotten celebration of the incarnation which Christmas represents. He moves on to discuss the act of pilgrimage as it draws believers to participate in the lived religion celebrated in Christmas. Following this is a discussion of the manger scenes and how they moved from the actual New Testament scene to the nativities which adorn many western homes. Then Heinz spends two chapters in his proposal of how the Church might re-propose Christmas as a formative festival celebrating the incarnation over and against the consumerist corruption which pervades its current expressions. At this point, Heinz begins describing the capitalist consumerism which he sees as becoming its own secular religion that takes way from the Christian point of the celebration.

The final section, “Incarnational Extravagance,” discusses the movement of the Incarnational holiday from the Church and into the world. Heinz speaks to how different secular functions of the Christmas celebration have pushed out the sacred context and allowed a corrupting consumerism to take over. He has many good points here, though citing examples of excess is often never difficult. One of the better points in this section is how Heinz takes each unique aspect of the western celebration of Christmas from trees to lights to gifts, and beyond, and tells how they came about and were then corrupted. Following this is a, seemingly mandatory, discussion of Saint Nicholas. Heinz handles this as well as other sections. There is a deep understanding of where this tradition came from in history and how it has morphed into an entirely different image. Then Heinz speaks to how we might see Christmas through visual experiences and then how we might sing of Christmas in the musical expressions. His chapter on the musical orientation of Christmas is particularly insightful. Following all of this, he then closes his text with a valediction and final thoughts. This ends up being a final discourse against the capitalism of the age and leaves the reader a bit mystified as to what the next steps are for reclaiming Christmas,

In evaluation of the text, Heinz has produced a unique work that rises above the sugary, shallow treatments that provide intellectual Milquetoast during a season which should be profoundly reflective. While the work is not beyond the grasp of the layman it also welcomes the attuned scholar. This is a difficult text to develop as it must speak into both worlds; being readable while also providing depth. However, Heinz does well to produce a text amiable to this level of discussion. Some might find the text too lofty, favoring something with a more sweet tooth satisfying glaze of cultural accommodate. There are plenty of treatments of the season that will suffice. For readers who desire to be stretched and motivated to consider the Incarnational reason for the season, Heinz has provided a text that does permit this intellectual exercise.

There are a few weak spots in the text. While I am not convinced that capitalism is entirely corrupt, I do share a concern for the secular religion of reckless consumerism which pervades the holiday. Christmas for the vast majority of people in the western world is indistinguishable as a festival of Incarnation. However, I do worry that Heinz takes his critique too far and becomes redundant. For readers who align with his theological school, the tones of liberationist theology will be soothing, for evangelicals the continual refrain against capitalism seems injurious to the point of the book. Heinz does well to show how Christmas has been both banished and welcomed by different generations of Christians. He does seem, though, to take this critique too far and, specifically in the final summation, seems a bit overbearing. This is the most troubling weak spot for the text.

Some more conservative evangelicals will be uncomfortable with Heinz’s theological method which will rub against the standard commitments they are comfortable with and cause some strain. However, if a reader can look beyond this they will find a text rich in historical and theological reflection. There are some theological points which I didn’t agree with but I still found the larger point of the text edifying and educating.

The text is replete with quotable lines, useful illustrations, and helpful historical reflections. If pastors and teachers were to take some of the illustrations and lines from the text their sermons and lessons would benefit. Overall, I believe this is a fine text that is written well, researched well, and presented in a fine format. The middle section of various pictures and art is a wonderful addition. Also, the annotated notes section (there are no endnotes or footnotes) is well researched and the author’s own annotations are rather insightful. This is a good text and would be a excellent selection for a more inclined theological reader who desires a deeper discussion on the beauty of the Incarnation in the midst of the holiday season.

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Dec 2013
POSTED BY Garet
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Review: The Advantage

Book Title:  The AdvantageThe-Advantage

Author: Patrick Lecioni

Year Published: 2013

In One Sentence: Organizational health is vital for sustainable and successful organizations.

Evaluation: 4 out of 5 stars, a very good text

Review

Patrick Lencioni has developed a  well earned reputation for being a leading edge writer addressing some of the key issues and practices which make, or break, successful businesses. Through several best selling books, Lencioni has often presented his analysis and recommendations through stories or fables. In The Advantage, Lencioni moves away from this pattern and crafts a straightforward text that leverages stories and examples from his own consulting experience to speak to his central idea.

At the outset of his first chapter, Lencioni states his big idea for the text: “The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it.” (1)

Over eight chapters, The Advantage walks through its presentation of what organizational health is and some specific actions which create and sustain it for organizations. The chart to the left here is a version of the one found in the book. Its four quadrants explain the four disciplines which lead to and build healthy organizations.

Each of the disciplines are essential to organizational health and Lencioni does well to explain and give examples of how each one works. While it is too simplistic to do, indeed the book works out each point appropriately, they do ultimate boil down to:

1. Having a cohesive team

2. Being able to communicate clarity well

Having been part of a number of organizations in the church world, this book is definitely a reinforcement of how some organizations have gotten it and others have missed it. As a kind of addendum to the chapters on the four disciplines, there is a helpful chapter on why it is essential to have great meetings. As I read through this chapter I was reminded of a number of good points from his other book, The Five Disfunctions of a Team. The main portion of the text wraps up with a five page charge that reinforces the essentials of the text.  Finally, there is a checklist for all the disciplines that have been discussed in the text.

Interaction

The book is very good and if you haven’t read any of Lencioni’s other texts it does well to act as a kind of capstone text that brings together many of his best ideas. (This isn’t to say you shouldn’t read the other ones, but there isn’t an intellectual penalty if you haven’t.) We’ve all been part of organizations that rise or fall on this issue of organizational health. Particularly for churches, health should be intrinsic to what we do but it often is overlooked.

For ministry leaders, this is a great book to have your principal leaders go through during a two day retreat. If, as leaders, we think health can be ignored we are just pushing off difficult days. Our people thrive on properly articulated and communicated clarity about goals and vision. (Proverbs 29:18)

There isn’t much I found to disagree with in the text. Lencioni writes clearly (which is important for book about clarity) and often has great lines. A couple of concepts would be challenging to incorporate if not handled by a consultant (e.g. the strategy ameba.)

Bottom line: this is a very good text that will help organizations, including churches, find the kind of life giving health to be sustainable.

Have you read The Advantage? What did you think? What are some of the things you think are central to building healthy organizations?

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Book Review: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter

Title: To Change the WorldTo Change the World Cover

Author: James Davison Hunter

Publication Year: 2010

In one sentence: With the dismissal of Christianity from the public sector, faithful presence is the means by which Christians may regain their voice in the culture.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Review:

Anyone who has spent time working through the contemporary landscape of the challenges facing modern evangelicalism, and Christianity in general, will have had to interface with James Davison Hunter to be taken seriously. In his current position at the University of Virginia, Hunter has become a significant scholar on the shaping of evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) in modern America. This text has, as its purpose, providing an answer the challenge of Christianity in the late modern era, particularly its marginalization culturally. Hunter’s means of resolving the prevailing question is through three interconnected essays that work out and explain the problem and his solution.

The three essays are:

  • Christianity and World-Changing
  • Rethinking Power
  • Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence

 

In the first essay, Hunter lays out the terrain of what the common view of culture is and how Christians might go about a task of cultural engagement that leads to cultural change. Central to his work in this essay are eleven propositions which frame out his understanding of culture. Each of the propositions work together to show that culture is highly resistant to change from institutional methods of change. Culture change, for Hunter, comes from individuals or movements that penetrate the linguistic and mythical elements of culture. This is a truly grassroots kind of movement. Throughout the essay, Hunter keeps the contemporary plight of Christianity in the viewfinder with comparisons and discussions.

The second essay, Rethinking Power, steps into the political discussion in the extremes of evangelical activists. Hunter’s primary approach considers the historical parameters of the discussion and how things have worked themselves out in both the Christian right and Christian left. He then presents the example of the Neo-Anabaptists as the best example of historical and New Testament forms of engagement. His sixth chapter in this essay is his strongest, though without immediate resolution to its central questions. Hunter resolves some of this with a final discussion about the implications of power in a culture.

The final essay is where Hunter more formally presents and works out this notion of faithful presence from within the culture. The opening of this essay is one of the best parts of the text. He then points out that there are two challenges which encumber this project: that of difference, with a pluralistic west there is no dominant culture; and dissolution, with no underlying agreement on terms and conditions. He then works through how Christians in a post-Christian culture might go about this task of changing the world through faithful presence. Ultimately, faithful presence from within, is an incarnational effort that requires sacrifice of ourselves on behalf of our calling.

Interaction:

Hunter’s text is an important one for church leaders to work through. It is well written and carries a historically informed discussion to bear in the contemporary problem. As I encountered the text initially, it was after a conversation with several leading edge ministers who were raving about the text. I found it erudite and articulate in its arrangement of the issues and presentation of the author’s solution. 

Copious endnotes allow the motivated reader to dig a bit deeper into the text and research behind the author’s work. Hunter’s criticisms seem fair as they approach both wings of Christianity he is considering. I do have reservations about the neo-Anabaptist movement he puts forward as being more apostolic and biblical than the other alternatives. Perhaps this is because I don’t buy political solutions in the earliest Christian communities. When one is without power, appeals to corrupt leaders are moot.

This text is important young leaders to read through. I would caution against the employment only for political reform; culture changing should move beyond that limited horizon. Church leaders would do well to engage key laity with discussions about this book and others like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians. (Of course that’s a lot of reading for a church staff.)

Finally, I simply disagree with Hunter’s idea of faithful presence from within. As I consider how the New Testament and the earliest Christian communities, even through the immediate post-apostolic age, interacted with culture it was the idea of faithful proclamation. My challenge is that, for all the stories of anabaptist type incarnational living, the examples given in the early communities find early Christians caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked while earnestly proclaiming the Gospel tradition handed down for all generations. Though I don’t wish to take more time to unpack this here, it seems that proclamation wasn’t about obtaining power for the early Christians but about being devoted to the apostolic teaching which is that message that can save. 

Hunter’s text is a fine one and it should be read by serious ministers who seek to engage the culture to transform it through the power of the Gospel. You simply won’t be disappointed in the text. For those who can manage a deeper discussion of its historical points, there is a rich mine of fortune in these words.

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