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The Surrender Experiment

17 Dec

I recently read “The Surrender Experiment” by Michael Singer. The book was at times an interesting read, but mostly it just felt tedious, and even at times frustrating.

surrenderGoing into the book, I was hopeful. I had no knowledge of Singer or his beliefs, and a respected friend recommended the book to me. As I read through the first few pages, a few questions popped into my head about his statements, but nothing I considered major concerns. I enjoyed his story of personal discovery, and how he struggled with the inner voice. I even recognized some similarities in my own journey. However, the more I continued, the more I questioned not only Singer’s “surrender” philosophy, but also his (or anyone’s) ability to live this philosophy out.

In the following, I will review the three biggest issues I found with the book, in reverse order of their significance: first the writing, then his adherence to his philosophy, and finally the adequacy of the philosophy itself.

Writing Style

Michael Singer is not a bad writer, but I wouldn’t call him a great one either. While his flow is generally good and the story telling at times captivating, he often reflects on his accounts using nearly identical vocabulary. He regularly repeats himself, even using the same adjectives. Additionally, over and over his stories go like this: (1) he thinks things will turn out bad; (2) he “surrenders” and someone/something unexpected arrives/happens; (3) all is bliss. It gets very repetitive. And another tiresome reoccurring thing he writes about is how something profoundly changes him. It seems like this happens just about every few pages. It’s odd that someone can be profoundly changed on such a semi-regular basis.

The other problem I had with the writing is how much he writes about himself. He says things like “my intellect did not give her the room to breath.” Ouch. And many times he recounts stories of how awesome people told him he was. He tries to tell these tales in a way as if he were so deeply humble, but even to the casual reader it will seem like he included those details with the intention of lofting himself up. Ironically, occasionally he even notes how humble he is.

Singer Surrendering

While a major purpose of the book is to teach us to surrender to the flow of the universe, Singer himself doesn’t always surrender. Sure, there are lots of anecdotes about him surrendering. The pages are filled with personal accounts of him “giving in to the flow of life.” No doubt he takes care to be sure to avoid telling stories counter to this thesis, but on occasion, they’ve found their way in to the narrative. One example is a recollection of a neighboring property where the owner was clearing native forest and planting a new tree crop for profit (p158-9). Rather than “surrender” to this thing going on around him, Singer called the landowner and negotiated a land agreement with him. Singer then describes how this was actually a surrender. What? I guess you can spin almost anything. Other examples can be found as well, including when the city proposed building a dump near his land, he fought it. (Certainly, I would have done the same, but the point is, it is not consistent with his teaching to “surrender to whatever life brings before me.”)

And what about his first wife? One causal mention. nothing more. He makes it sound as if he were so noble “if I truly loved her, I had to let her go.” Is that surrender? Why not try to work it out? Surrender to your wife? Sure marriage is hard, but if he loved her, surely it’s worth it. And what of his daughter? Was that another surrender? It just seems disingenuous. Finally, when the book reaches the business section, it is obvious that many of the business decisions were not surrender, but rather well calculated business decisions (and Singer does seem to be good at that).

So ultimately, his “surrender experiment” sounds all nice and lovey-dovey with the universe, but he doesn’t live it out completely. Clearly if life threw a murderer in front of Singer who was intent on killing him, Singer wouldn’t say, “oh, I’ll just surrender to the universe and let this man stab me into nirvana.” No. Of course not, he’d fight back! And that’s precisely the main problem.

Surrendering to the flow of life is a bankrupt philosophy

Singer doesn’t live out his philosophy completely, because he can’t. He must often struggle against the world around him. We all do. It’s the way the world really is. Evil exists. Bad things happen. We don’t just sit back and let someone steal our car because it’s part of the universe flow, and think “oh, they must need it more than I do and this is the universe’s way of showing me.” No. We call the police and have them arrested. Going with the flow as a general rule can make you an easy going person, but going with it always makes you a fool.

While Singer wants to give the impression that he follows this rule just about all the time, in reality, it’s more like his basic guiding principle. And in that case, he seems to be genuinely committed. Living by this general rule, along with his intellect (which again, he makes sure we know about), Singer has had a very successful life. But he seems to think his success is validation for his spiritual intelligence, rather than recognize it for what it actually is – his business intelligence and some really beneficial timing. Of course, he suggests that the special timing is the universe rewarding him for going with the flow. Oh, please. Someone kindly remind Singer that this is the same universe that has been rewarding good “surrendering” people in Africa with starving to death.

The root of Singer’s problem is that his philosophy is based on a pantheist view of the universe. Discussing pantheism’s problems is far beyond the scope of this review, and there are many good books written on the topic, but it is worth noting here how Singer (and other pantheists) deal with the problem of evil. To Singer, evil is just an illusion. It doesn’t really exist. Of course, he doesn’t put it that way specifically, but if that surprises you, do a little study on pantheism, or check out some of the teachings of the gurus Singer mentions. They universally say evil isn’t real, but that it’s just an illusion – and essentially they have to say this since they believe everything is actually part of God. But if evil is just an illusion, then why spend so much effort trying to avoid it? The fact is that evil does exist. It is a departure from God. A great question to ask a pantheist like Singer is, “Is the illusion of evil, evil?” Most likely they’ll say it’s not evil. But this begs the question: why try to spend so much effort getting people to recognize that it’s an illusion if the illusion is not bad? Of course, if they actually say the illusion of evil is a bad thing, then they’ve won your case for you because they’d be admitting that at least some evil is real and exists. Either way, pantheists like Singer have a serious logical inconsistency in their worldview. And this is just one of pantheism’s philosophical problems.

With reference to Christianity, Singer mentions Christ and notes how Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, but Singer completely misapplies Jesus’ words. Singer says “Christ said the Kingdom is within you” and Singer sees this as being about an inner peace, akin to nirvana of Zen religions. (Much of this is based on what he learned from Yogananda – this post has some information on that yogi’s teachings.) At another point in his journey, Singer recounts reading the New Testament story of Jesus telling Nicodemus that man must be reborn of spirit. Rather than reading out of the Bible and accepting what Jesus meant by this, Singer reads his own context in to the words of the Bible. Singer says that Jesus is talking about the same spiritual journey he is on – a personal journey that leads to a state of recognizing not that one needs God (trusting in Him, the one God, as Savior and King), but rather that one is a part of God (pantheism). He writes “God was no longer a word to me. It represented where I wanted to go.” But the teachings in the Bible are clear. God is not place to go. He is a person, that desires Singer turn to Him and accept the pardon He has freely offered, and embrace the loving arms of Jesus.

Conclusion

In sum, I felt the book suffered in three key areas. First, the writing was fairly weak and repetitive. Second, it seemed that Singer was not really 100% genuine when he talked about “surrendering.” And third, the biggest problem, is that the overall philosophy itself is just incompatible with reality in general, and Christianity specifically.

One final point that I should note, is that to me, it felt like this book was mostly a treatise to exonerate his name from the legal questions that arose later in his life. It seemed as if Singer is trying to shape his legacy rather than “surrendering” to how the narrative about him would go. Perhaps he was completely innocent, but it does make one wonder.

Ultimately, there is only one thing we really need to surrender to, and that is the Almighty God, our Creator and Redeemer. He is our salvation. In Him, and only Him, will we find the comfort and peace Singer so often talks about longing for.

Short Book Reviews: You Really Should Read These 2 Books

2 Mar

 

misusedversesThe Most Misused Verses in the Bible by Eric Bargerhuff.

There are 17 popular passages dealt with in this book. Each of them are commonly misinterpreted and misused by Christians, particularly Western Christians.  He does a fantastic job of introducing each passage with a related story that helps capture the reader, and finishes the chapters with practical application. One of the best parts is that you don’t need a degree in Bible interpretation to understand his simple, yet articulate descriptions of these verses. Bottom line: This is a great book that clearly and concisely demonstrates how to properly understand some of the most commonly misunderstood passages.

Hole in Our HolinessThe Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung.

This is absolutely one of my favorite books I’ve read in years! But be warned, it’s not without conviction. His opening chapter contains these hard hitting words, “No matter what you profess, if you show disregard for Christ by giving yourself over to sin – impenitently and habitually – then heaven is not your home…You would not be happy there if you are not holy here.” Ouch.

But this is not a book about works. DeYoung is sure to point out, and often, that he is not in any way advocating a salvation that requires obedience. DeYoung believes in justification by faith alone. But he systematically demonstrates that the Bible consistently tells the believer that they ought to pursue holiness. For God’s glory and our joy, the pursuit of holiness is a worthy endeavor that goes hand in hand with our progressive sanctification. I absolutely loved this book. It will change the way I live.

 

Book Review: The Silence of Adam by Larry Crabb

1 Nov

A book based on bad hermeneutics, but delivers a few good applications points.

TheSilenceOfAdamIn his opening paragraphs, Crabb asks why didn’t Adam say anything to Eve to get her to not eat the forbidden fruit. Crabb suggests that there is good reason to think Adam was there when the serpent tempted Eve. This is the foundation for the rest of his book, and at best is a questionable interpretation held by a very limited number of Biblical scholars. I looked it up in several reputable commentaries, and none agreed with Crabb. The only indication that I see in the text is where it says Adam was “with” Eve. This could mean that he was right there with her, but it could just as well mean he was with her in the Garden.  Bruce Waltke  (one of the most respected Hebrew scholars and co-author of the TWOT) suggests that Adam was there but probably didn’t hear anything. (see similar case with the witch, Samuel, and Saul in 1 Samuel 28:3-25). This would seem to take away Crabb’s whole suggestion that Adam should have said something, because if Adam wasn’t there or didn’t hear, Crabb’s point is meaningless in this example.

A couple points need to be made here though. First, just because the author takes a passage and misuses it as a general principal, it does not mean that the rest of the book is not useful or supported by other passages in Scripture. It makes it hard to trust the rest of his exegesis, but it doesn’t mean he might not have some other good material.  Unfortunately, taking a single passage of Scripture and misapplying it, or taking it out of its context to mean something bigger is what sells in Christian books today. (See the Prayer of Jabez as a perfect example.)

This type of rhetoric is often done because it’s what people in the Christian community buy. Should we throw the whole book out because of these errors? It is after all, his main support passage? Maybe. But reading through the rest of Crabb’s book, I found there were some practical principles I could be applying that he brought up with good support from other passages.

Another thing I was disappointed with in Crabb’s book was that he didn’t give enough explanation to the issue itself. In other words, even if Adam heard, would he / should he really be responsible for saying / not saying something? After all, we have free will to choose, and Eve chose. Yet, while it may ultimately be our responsibility for sin, there is sufficient evidence in Scripture to believe that we ought to at least try to help others from sinning.Crabb argues strongly that Adam sinned by not speaking or acting, and perhaps he did, but this requires a much deeper discussion. Unfortunately, I felt that Crabb just assumed it and didn’t offer enough support for his position before just diving in.

And finally, it is unfortunate that the author here says Adam fails as a man. For one, Crabb’s belief implies that Adam was guilty of a sin before the actual sin God said he was guilty of. This is very problematic. And two, it seems to set a tone that Christian men are failures. And perhaps many are, but that is not the way God sees them, and we clearly see this in Paul’s writings.

In sum, it does trouble me that Crabb uses this passage this way, but the rest of the book does offer some good practical advice, but I would be sure to check the context of his Scripture sources if you find something that seems foreign. Overall, for men, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Instead, check out Six Battles Every Man Must Win by Bill Perkins.

That’s a quick overview – here’s some more specifics on the book if you’re interested:

In the introduction, I appreciate the writers’ humility, as we all struggle, but I am uncomfortable with their (what I consider pessimistic) opinion of Scripture’s advice about Christian living. I would say I am more optimistic about its content with respect to practical living in the Kingdom here and now.

I really liked chapter 1. I like the ideal world Crabb presents. For the most part, I agree it is a world Jesus would want for us to have.  One of my favorite points is when he says that we must know Christ first, then ourselves. When we focus on Him, we actually do more for us than when we are self-concerned. It seems backward to what culture teaches “be all you can be” for example, but its true. As he says “We need God’s empowerment to enter the mystery of relationships at a level of life-giving connection that enthusiasm and slogans can never produce. We need to abandon ourselves to Christ in a way that releases all that his Spirit has placed within us.”

I also like the descriptions of behavior he offers and what it leads to in chapter 2. I’ve seen it in others and myself. His description of controls was me years ago for sure. When I finally really focused my life on Christ, I saw those traits (and some good people pointed them out to me) and I had to work on them. So, I liked this chapter, with one small exception. I think he put a little too much rhetoric in his description of a dichotomy of people on page 40. I think there’s a lot of people in between those two groups he describes. He does too much to try to put them in categories. Overall though, I really liked the chapter.

In chapter 3, his points about recipe/transcendent theology are right on, and while others may not have pointed it out with the same words, it has been the focus of many books in the last decade, and I believe the church has made progress. Still, those “recipe” books sell, especially to new Christians, or those being poorly educated by pop culture pastors such as Joel Osteen. Unfortunately, the “recipes” that appeal to our narcissism (like Osteen’s book A Better You) will probably always be there, but we should encourage our brothers and sisters to seek more Godly wisdom and truths. Great chapter, maybe the best.

I didn’t care much for chapter 4, not because of his practical points, but more because of where he draws them from. , He misunderstands and misuses Genesis one, significantly. Also, the creation story is not a story of how we ought to behave. First of all, its descriptive literature, as opposed to something like the letters of Paul which are often prescriptive. Prescriptive literature tells us how we ought to behave. One the other hand, descriptive literature just offers us a story of what happened. There can be application from this type of literature, but its through seeing what God is teaching his people with it. I think some of his comments approach the creation as a prescription of “ought” and I think that’s mistaken. Still, many of his points of application, in the end I think are good, but I wish he had drawn on other biblical passages to make them. Instead, he seems to focused on trying to draw it all out of Genesis one and two. I find it a bit ironic too because he seems to argue against this “recipe” or simple formula for seeking God and trying to look at a bigger picture, yet he continues to return to this early part of Genesis and try to isogete his points out. Finally, I was really bothered by his interpretation of 2 Peter 3:3,5. He says that what Peter meant was that “if we forget that God created by speaking into the darkness, we are in danger of becoming ungodly”. Really? Is that what Peter meant? I don’t think the issue of God creating in darkness is even that significant to the author of Genesis one. Its more that God created out of nothing. And Peter is saying that we shouldn’t forget what and who did the creating, not how as Crabb suggests. Frankly, this is just abusive to the text.

By contrast, chapter 5 was awesome. The opening story of the realness of tragedy leading people to turn from God instead of to Him was so gripping. God wants us to go to Him – why do we get so stubborn at these times? We need Him. We need to trust Him. I have read many other creation accounts, including the Enuma Elish, but always more from an historical perspective, looking at how Genesis was a polemic to these stories, or looking at how the stories view God, or the gods. I had never thought about really looking at how man is viewed in these, as Crabb does. It was a really great learning experience for me to see the stories from that perspective.  (The only real exception I had was with the statement about man being in his “perfect state, on page 75. I’m not sure this was the case. No doubt we will be perfected, but if when we are perfected it is different than Adam was, how can Adam’s state be called perfect as well?) Overall, I thought it was a really terrific chapter. It was very insightful and well written, and I felt his despair over us turning away from the very thing we need and his joy in describing the hope we have.

(OK – this is getting a bit long, I think I’ll try to keep it shorter from here.)

Chapter 6 I thought was another edifying chapter. It had good examples and good recommendations. God is enough to fill us completely. Amen.

Chapter 7, I already addressed some of my concerns with in my overview above. I appreciate his points, but I just think he is mistaken.

The close to the first section is again really good as they continue to make the point that we need to surrender totally to God.

In section 2, he begins to transition more to application. I think 8 was the best application chapter in this section. The story of Chad interwoven with the application points and no resolution was a good way to bring out his point and keep you gripped to the message. And the message, that seems to be one of his overall points, to trust God and to act on what we know, rather than some silly formula, well, it really comes through well here.

The final section of the book was definitely the most instructive, and I felt it was also overall the best material of the book. Full of good story and application, but without questionable sourcing, I found it to be a really enjoyable and encouraging read. No doubt, “something powerful is available”. The chapter on Fathers was really great for me as I’ve got 2 sons. The three messages he suggests are all one’s my boys could use, and I really appreciated his presentation there.

Book Review: The Shack by William P. Young

1 Aug

From an older post I did on another site:

the-shack1It is with the desire that we all grow closer to God that I write this review. I recently read The Shack, and let me just begin by saying that I was moved.  I laughed at some good healthy humor in the writing. I cried at the tragedy that occurs and is repeatedly dealt with throughout the story. I felt the peace from redemption and reconciliation of the characters. It was an emotional experience.

However, mostly, as I read The Shack, particularly as it went on, I felt uncomfortable. So before I get into the review, if you haven’t read it and you don’t want any plot spoilers, please skip to the last paragraph.

As a work of fiction, I thought the book was good. It starts off a little choppy, and the last chapter is a bit abrupt, but overall, it was easy to read. I found myself drawn to characters, especially Mack. It was also hard for me to get through the first few chapters. The story of the abducted girl was tearing me up. As a parent, there’s always a fear of loosing one of your children, but this was really getting to me. I couldn’t help but think about my daughter and how awful that would be. I even had to pause a couple times to get through it. Then, as the story moved on, I found myself unable to put it down, and when I did, I immediately wanted to go back to it. That, of course, is a sign of a good book.

But as I continued to read, I noticed two things. One, I began to really start thinking a lot about God. That’s a good thing, and fiction works that are able to do that are rare. Young helped remind me how much I love the Trinity, and how much God loves us. I thankfully prayed for how He comforts us. However, the second thing was that I was beginning to feel a little out of sorts. I don’t mean physically sick or anything like that, but something just was off and got worse as I continued through the pages. As I mentioned above, a good word to describe it was uncomfortable. Let me try to explain the feeling better to you. It’s like the feeling you get when you’re watching a television show, and they say something that is cliché about Christians, such as we’re all ignorant of science. There is a sense of defensive anger, a righteous anger, that is there, and remains there in the background of the show as you finish it, even if you like the show. That’s how I felt as the book began to introduce and the describe God, or rather, god, as William Young sees him.

Instead of really dragging this out in to a 50 page paper, let me just highlight a few things that I think are very significant.

One big problem is that Young downplays Scripture and theological training, and replaces it with personal experience. Several times, Mack suggests that his time in seminary was nearly useless and the Bible is just God’s voice “reduced to paper.” First of all, this is completely contradictory to Scripture! The Bible never downplays itself, nor implies that it is just “paper” as Young writes. The Bible teaches just the opposite! It is a Treasure! What makes this such a problem for us is that we are a narcissistic culture. We want it to be about us as an individual, so we easily succumb to this false teaching. It makes our private communication with God more significant than His word. But that is unbiblical. Plus, it helps us be lazy about God and think we are doing what’s right, instead of taking the time to study the word, as Scripture clearly lays out is the correct way. (2 Tim 2:15, 2 Pet 3:16, 2 Tim 1:13-14, Luke 10:25-28, etc.). Friends, this can be dangerous, and lead us away from God’s truth and we begin to make God be what we want Him to be, not what He says He is.

Young’s treatment of the Trinity is also very problematic. For one, Mack is able to sit down and have a conversation with the Father. While we may like this picture, and desire it in our present state, it’s not near what the Bible teaches it’s like to encounter the Father – just ask Moses who had to hide his face, or Isaiah who cried out “Woe is me.” Instead of something like those biblical accounts, we find Mack cussing in the presence of the Father. Perhaps we should consider Paul’s words to the Romans here, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man.” Another problem is the treatment of the members of the Trinity. Papa at one point says “we became human.” There is no “we” about it. The Bible teaches that Jesus, the Word, became flesh. This really is a big deal. It affects all kinds of doctrines, and if you start exploring them, you’ll see. It blurs the clear and important distinctions of our God as the Holy Trinity, with separate roles in our salvation.

There are a few unorthodox things Young characterizes about God which are worthy of some consideration.1 For example, one repeated theme he discusses is the idea that there is no hierarchy within the Trinity. This contradicts many years of understanding by the church. However, it is a doctrine that has been questioned by some throughout that history, and recently people have made some pretty good arguments that at the very least are worth looking at (see The Trinity & Subordinationism by Giles). The concern that I have though, is that this is not a theology text, but instead a literary device that is filled with rhetoric. Why is that a big deal? Because rhetoric can make you want to believe something. If the style is good enough, it persuades you by gripping your emotions to the text in a way that you think its right because it seems so good. It lacks the merits of a good argument based on research and careful thinking, and instead fools the reader by creating an emotional tie to the point. Let me use an example from the book to help clarify this. Mack discovers that Papa too shares the wounds of Jesus on her wrists. This gets dangerously close to a Christian heresy of the early church called Patripassionism (which means Father suffers). Now here’s an honest question. Do you think that most people would read Young’s characterization of Papa here and know that history, and why the church condemned it as heresy based on biblical teaching? I don’t either. I think most people would be captured by the rhetoric and think that they have just learned a deeper understanding of God, when in reality, they have just had their ears tickled with false doctrine (see 2 Tim 4:3).

There are some very good things about this book, but they seem to always be countered by questionable teaching. For example, the love of God abounds in this book, but the justice of God is notably absent. Young also does an excellent job of showing how God uses bad events for good, but is inconsistent on how God accomplishes this. He also emphasizes how our relationship with God is much more important than following rules, but as I mentioned above, he ignores the reverence we should have of God.

There is much more I could offer, such as Young’s several references to teachings of Unitarian Universalism (God is a verb, aspects of modalism, pluralistic ideas, etc.) and other ideas of God that are considered by most heretical, but this would really be a long review, and others have already put together excellent detailed analysis’s of this work.

So, in conclusion, there is a lot of good in this book, but there is enough bad to make it something we should probably skip on. There are better ways to spend our time with God. I don’t think I would take time reading this book if my goal was to learn about God, or grow closer to him. If you really want to read it to get you “thinking” about God and explore other ideas, then I would proceed cautiously. As I mentioned above, rhetoric is a powerful tool, and it is easy to find oneself falling into its grip. Therefore, read it with a watchful eye, and a prayerful heart, and check out the “new things” that you think you are learning about God.

Finally then, let me make a few recommendations. If you’re wanting to know about the Trinity, may I suggest The Forgotten Trinity by White. If you’re looking for Christian fiction, that is written in a similar genre of this book, you cannot go wrong with Pilgrims Progress by Bunyan, Five Sacred Crossings by Hazen, or many books by C.S. Lewis, including the Space Trilogy, the Narnia books, or The Screwtape Letters. (An important point also to make is that the books like Narnia are meant to clearly to be illustrations of some characteristics of God, recognizing that they are indeed just characterizations, while Young’s book is meant to be an exact representation of God. This makes his tome much more of a theological treatise, rather than just a fictional allegory.). If you just want to grow closer to God, again, don’t bother with this book, just pick up the one you already own, and turn to John. Its a good place to start, especially if you haven’t been there for a while.


1 These are not worthy because Young brings them up, but worthy because theologians have been debating them for years. On the issue of the Trinity (and many others places he offers an unorthodox view of God), there is no debate. It is crystal clear. Many have even refereed to Young’s ideas as heresy.

Summer reading – books for diving deeper

24 May

While summer won’t officially be here for another few weeks, many of us are already in vacation mode, especially with the 3 day weekend upon us. So, here’s my Top 10 list of recommended theology reading for this summer.

First, let me be clear, this is not my top 10 favorite books. That list would certainly include more books by C.S. Lewis and Alexandre Dumas, and less books that make my head hurt. Instead, this list is for the person who wants to dig deeper into theology. All these books are a bit challenging, but none of them are too difficult to work through. Each one has been extremely beneficial to me and I encourage you to read them all if you are interested in the topic they cover. In my opinion, these are all just about as close as you can get to must reads for any student of Christian theology. Not that I agree with everything in all of them, I don’t; but they do help you get your mind around the issues they discuss. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen

2. Should the Church Teach Tithing? by Russell Earl Kelly

3. Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

4. Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views edited by James K. Beilby & Paul R. Eddy

5. How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Fee & Stewart

6. Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Beckwith & Koukl

7. Heaven by Randy Alcorn

8. Science & Faith by C. John Collins

9. Love God with All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland

10. The Forgotten Trinity by White

11. Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

Ok, it goes to 11, but that just makes it 1 better.