Long time no see, btw. :)
At the time I requested this book to review, I was contemplating the strange notion that a guy can be kind without being nice. Or rather, I wanted to learn more about the Biblical category of kindness versus the cultural concept of niceness, because I felt like they must be different, and in getting to know menfolk, I wanted to be able to let go of my need for niceness while still evaluating whether they were the opposite of kindness. Because niceness seems to be more a feminine demand that maybe "we" shouldn't demand of men all the time.
So I thought this book might be JUST THE THING to give me a study on Biblical kindness from a man's perspective. :)
(Yes, I'm turning this into more than a book review, because it's more interesting this way, if not more cumbersome just to get to the review section.)
I'm part of a conservative Christians group on Facebook. And right before I got the e-mail confirmation about this book--with an e-book link to keep me occupied while the paperback was being mailed!--there was a big Calvinist/non-Calvinist eruption online. Actually, there have been several in the last month, most of which I seem to find myself in the middle of, but this one happened simultaneously with my receiving this book.
Background. I am not Calvinist. I believe in God's sovereignty, His foreknowledge, His omniscience, His omnipotence, that He does whatever He pleases. I also believe that He allows men to accept or reject His free gift. I believe that He loves the WHOLE world and that Jesus' substitutional sacrifice is available to all people. I also believe that baptism is a sign to the world by the believer of Who his Master now is. I do not believe that God's calling and promises to Israel in the Old Testament were only to a spiritual "Israel" that then became what we know today as the church. Rather, Romans 9-11, in my viewpoint, is talking about a nation, a group of people, that God will restore when the fullness of the Gentiles is complete. I also believe in a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth at the end of the world.
I know there are lots of nice Reformed believers who do not bend on what they believe--that's a good thing!--but who also do not feel the need to be obnoxious about it. I respect and have learned from Reformed believers because of their passion for Biblical scholarship even as I disagree fairly strongly with their conclusions.
But over the years I have run across a VERY few that feel the need to proclaim from the rooftops something like *dot, dot, dot* Calvinism is the true Biblical theology, the theology Jesus would have preached, that you're either Calvinist or Arminian, and that Arminianism is heresy. And if you want them to calm down on the passionate rhetoric, then you're insecure or being too sensitive or haven't read your Bible. Go, Reformed Theology!
Or at least, that's how the communication trickles into my ear. Whether that is what is meant, I cannot say. And whether or not I may have poked a Calvinist bear a time or two in my lifetime, well...I'm working on self-control.
So that's what I had just experienced when I received this book. I opened up to the first chapter and read, "Many young Christians who discover Reformed theology for the first time enter what has been called the 'cage phase.'. . . They are using their newfound knowledge of the truth like a club to assault those around them who have different understandings of the Bible." The author continues that the "antidote to the truth zealots' harsh tones" is not a lesser love of truth but an application of Biblical graciousness.
What on earth? How did I get a book aimed at instructing Reformed believers on how to be gracious when discussing theology with others? LOL!
So, obviously, this book was not what I was expecting to get, but that's ok.
On to the book review!
The first half of the book is an apologetic for graciousness. It was hard for me to follow the author's organization, and I felt like some of the extrapolation from Scripture was a stretch. Like that Jesus' admonishment to the church at Ephesus in the book of Revelation--that they needed to return to their first love--refers in large part to their love of people. So if they did not repent of acting unloving, He would snuff them out. Interesting and edifying, but I wasn't exactly convinced of this interpretation of that verse.
The second half of the book though got into practical application. Much of the information wasn't new, but it was a good compilation of other sources into one. Actually, what he had to say was very good, very true, and applicable in many scenarios.
My favorite part is when he says that before we try to convince another of some point of theology, we need to first listen. He says that other people will be more open to listening to you if you can well articulate their own point of view back to them. WITHOUT that tinge of criticism that I know I personally am so prone to add when summarizing what someone has just said. People will know that you actually understand them and thus will be more willing to hear your verses combating their view. Yes! This! On Facebook I noticed that no one was asking what non-Reformed believers actually believe. Or why.
The author talks about listening well for the reasons beneath the opposing position. He gives an example of someone who believes you can lose their salvation and has concerns that those who believe in eternal security now have license to sin. Instead of blasting them with eternal security verses, the author suggests you first address the legitimate concern about the license to sin. Because that is the underlying issue for the other person. I love that. It is so applicable in all communication, not just theological debates.
He also writes, "If you merely match passion and volume for passion and volume, coupled with verses against verses, what do you think will be accomplished? Will God be glorified? Will the conversation communicate the love of Christ to the other person?" (chapter 7)
Another good quote--again, applicable to any situation--"Obviously, when everyone is on the same team, or perceives themselves to be on the same team, the potential for a gracious and effective conversation multiplies exponentially. . . . If two people are having a theological discussion, it makes a difference if they posture themselves as enemies or friends." (chapter 7)
We are all on the same team--we are all redeemed, we are all followers of Christ, we all value Scripture as the authoritative Word of God. That is our unifying point. We are not enemies but brothers.
So what is my assessment of this book? I think the practical second half of the book won me over. I think all Reformed seminarians should read this book as part of the curriculum (since Reformed believers are the target audience), but it is also great for anyone who is passionate about theology and wants to grow in communication effectiveness. He makes a good argument for the idea that communication breaks down if we do not practice graciousness.
I also recommend David Powlison's Good & Angry for those who want to delve deeper into the heart motivations of why we are sometimes ungracious.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review.