One of the joys attendant to aging as a professor is to note the successes and accomplishments of one’s former students. Thus, though it would be both unwise and prideful to claim any credit for their work, I am pleased to review books recently published by several graduates of MidAmerica Nazarene University who took classes with me—and with whom I have maintained contact over the years.
Dean Flemming, who currently teaches New Testament at European Nazarene College in Germany, has devoted his missionary career to teaching. In the process he earned a Ph.D. from Aberdeen University. The fruit of his doctoral studies and classroom experiences has been published, titled: Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 2005). The book was cited by Christianity Today as one of the 22 most significant titles of the year, and The International Bulletin of Missionary Research labeled it one of “Fifteen Outstanding Books of 2005 for Mission Studies.”
The thesis for the book began when Flemming discovered that the deep concerns of his Asian and Pacific students were quite different from those of the graduate schools he had attended. He quickly learned to actually listen to his students and take seriously their questions, such as the New Testament’s message regarding suffering, spiritual powers, honoring ancestors, etc. He discovered what most missionaries soon learn: the Gospel must be contextualized. He further realized that “the activity of expressing and embodying the gospel in context-sensitive ways has characterized the Christian mission from the very beginning” (p. 15). Thus his task, in this treatise, is twofold: “first, to study the New Testament writings in order to discover how they demonstrate the task of doing context-sensitive theology; and second, to reflect on what these patterns and precedents teach us about how the gospel might become embodied within our diverse cultures and life settings today” (pp. 15-16). We have a text, which is normative and transcultural for Christians. And it must be rightly embedded in various cultures, which requires a very intentional activity called contextualization. The model for this is Jesus, whose incarnation “serves as a key paradigm for a contextualized mission and theology” (p. 20). Jesus both enfleshed and explained (using a variety of culturally appropriate means) the gospel.
As one might anticipate, Flemming devotes considerable attention (one-sixth of the treatise) to the book of Acts. “The language and content of Acts suggest that Luke’s primary target audience would have been Greek-speaking Gentiles, especially those familiar enough with the Septuagint to appreciate Luke’s frequent allusions to the Scriptures and their fulfillment” (p. 28). Luke wrote both to encourage believers and to help establish the Church in a pagan world. From the beginning, as is evident by the role Hellenists played in the Jerusalem church, the good news of Jesus Christ was proclaimed to both Jews and Gentiles. Important incidents, such as Stephen’s speech and Philip’s evangelistic witness to the Ethiopian, indicate the stance of Christians in the first decade of their existence as a people.
Still more, the significance of the story of Cornelius (a Roman centurian) and the Apostle Peter “can hardly be overstated” (p. 36). The God-fearing centurian represents “a natural ‘bridge group’ for the progress of the gospel into the Gentile arena” (p. 36). When Peter finally grasped the meaning of both his vision and his encounter with Cornelius he declared: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 1):34-35). This good news is good for all people. And it must not be hamstrung with non-essential Jewish traditions. As an outgrowth of this, the Council of Jerusalem clearly declared the universal dimensions of the Christian message. “Sharply put,” Flemming says, the Jerusalem Council concluded that “God’s present activity among the Gentiles becomes the hermeneutical key for understanding the biblical text” (p. 46). Interestingly enough, the apostle James cited the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the OTin this pivotal council.
Paul’s missionary journeys and preaching dominate Luke’s history in the last half of Acts, wherein “Luke portrays Paul of Tarsus as a missionary of extraordinary flexibility and cultural sensitivity” (p. 56). He employed the techniques of classical rhetoric—typically moving from ethos to logos to pathos—that “stressed the importance of tailoring an oral speech to the specific audience and occasion” (p. 58). (Helpfully, Flemming provides the reader a three-page chart summing up such items as geographical location, audience, rhetorical style evangelistic appeal, etc. in each of Paul’s sermons).
Flemming especially notes Paul’s preaching in Lystra and Athens, “the only speeches in Acts directed to pagan Gentiles. Consequently, these two sermons are critical to understanding how the word of salvation bridged cultural barriers within the early Christian mission” (p. 66). The message delivered in Athens, a philosophically-rooted challenge to polytheism and call to repentance, recorded “in Acts 17, is perhaps the outstanding example of intercultural evangelistic witness in the New Testament” (p. 72). Importantly—and highly relevant for us today—in “Athens Paul refuses to syncretize his message or to compromise its truth claims . . . . Paul engages Athenian culture with the goal of its transformation. There are non-negotiables to Paul’s message that confront the prevailing assumptions of his audience: the sovereign lordship of the Creator and Ruler of the nations (which means there are no other gods), the universal need for repentance (which presupposes sin and guilt), and the reality of a future judgment (which implies moral accountability). Above all, Paul announces the supreme revelation of God in Christ, validated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (which flies in the face of Greek notions of death and immortality)” (pp. 82-83).
Though Paul’s letters certainly contain doctrinal and ethical injunctions, Flemming is concerned to show how, addressed to churches historically located in Acts, they “are unrivaled in offering examples of doing contextual theology for diverse Christian communities” (p. 89). One should not be surprised to discover Paul using markedly different words and developing different perspectives in his various epistles. (To read the works of C.S. Lewis illustrates how one man can write in unusually different ways!) Rightly read, they display “a delightful creativity in the use of theological language and imagery that allows him to express the meaning of the gospel with both flexibility and precision” (p. 111).
Paul endeavored to engage the Greco-Roman world as a thinker fully embedded in it. A Roman citizen who was born a Jew and schooled as a Greek, he functioned as a “world citizen” in his missionary work. He easily affirmed certain aspects of classical culture—especially its understanding of creation and conscience and its positive pronouncements regarding virtue, military service, and athletic competition. Yet he also denounced certain sinful aspects to that world and called for cultural transformation, under the Lordship of Christ Jesus.
Turning from Paul’s epistles to the four Gospels, Flemming finds similar missiological themes designed to implant the story of Jesus—the fundamental Christian message—in various cultures. Matthew mainly addressed Jewish believers, Mark targeted both Jews and Gentiles, Luke mainly focused on Gentiles, and John wrote to encourage and theologically mentor early Christian communities; all of them, however, make clear the universal implications of the gospel.
On the basis of his study, Flemming then concludes with a brief chapter arguing that the New Testament provides guidelines for “contextualizing the gospel today.” Four things truly matter. “First, the biblical witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ is fundamental” (p. 303). Who He Is and what he said must never be compromised. Secondly, the Spirit must be heeded as He guides believers in the way of truth. Thirdly, all disciples must evaluate their beliefs and traditions in light of the broader (historical and geographic) Christian community. And finally, the gospel is rightly contextualized when it bears good fruit in the lives of people who come in faith to Christ.
This is a fine, scholarly work. While certainly accessible to general readers, pastors and professors will most benefit from it.
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David and Lisa Frisbie are co-executive directors of The Center for Marriage and Family Studies, and (growing out of their extensive experience speaking, listening, conducting conferences) have recently published two books: Happily Remarried (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, c. 2005) and Moving Forward After Divorce (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, c. 2006). Both books are filled with dialogues and personal stories, obviously drawn from the Frisbies’ interviews and discussions with folks who have weathered the storms of divorce. Concerned with helping folks who have, for whatever reason, divorced, they choose not to explore the biblical and theological questions posed by divorce and remarriage,
In Happily Remarried, we discover “Four ‘First Principles’ for Building a Strong Second Marriage.” First, “Form a Spiritual Connection Centered on Serving God.” The Frisbies strongly urge the men and women they counsel to regularly pray and worship together, inviting God to take His rightful place at the center of their lives. Thus equipped, they can engage in service projects—soup kitchens, mission trips, etc. Secondly, newly married couples must “Regard Your Remarriage as Permanent and Irreversible.” The mental reservations and half-hearted commitments and escape clauses that often undermined first marriages must not be allowed to destroy the second. Thirdly, one must “Forgive Everyone, Including Yourself.” However deep the hurts, however righteous the anger, one must learn to forgive in order to successfully remarry. “The antidote to anger is forgiveness: the process of releasing our anger and frustration, thus restoring the inner health of our soul and spirit” (p. 59). No new relationship can be healthy until earlier animosities have been defused. Finally, “Use Conflict to Get Better Acquainted.” Newly remarried people, and especially those bringing children into the mix, must learn to cope with conflict. It’s both normal and inevitable. The key is to profit from it. You can get better acquainted when you argue and learn to see things from another person’s perspective. As long as you learn when, and where, and how to argue, you can benefit from the conflicts that surface as you adjust to your new spouse.
Having set forth foundational principles, the authors move to “Strategies for Building your Remarriage Relationship.” They offer suggestions regarding the wedding ceremony, honeymoon, choice of residence, finances, disciplining children, dealing with former spouses, successfully laminating the particles of what had been two significantly different families. David and Lisa Frisbie confidently set forth their suggestions, for in their travels they “continue to meet courageous, hope-filled people who have survived divorce” (p. 203). The challenges are clear, but with God’s help happy second marriages are possible.
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Though published subsequently to Happily Remarried, the second book by David and Lisa Frisbie, Moving Forward After Divorce is logically the first of their treatises, since it deals with the immediate issues confronting divorced persons. They try to balance the inevitable grief and anger one feels with the possibility of healing and hope. As was true of their first book, they choose to focus on the practical steps available to formerly married men and women and declare: “The ideas here beckon our gaze away from the debris at our feet and out toward the far horizon” (p. 10).
Out of the death of one’s dreams regarding a first (or prior marriage) one must envision “new beginnings” rooted in the reality of God’s love and others’ support. By resolutely facing forward, relying upon strength offered by loved ones, it is possible to move forward. Most importantly, one must find his or her real identity in God rather than in one’s spouse. Then one can look for, and act upon, opportunities that come, doing different things and doing things differently, becoming a different person in the process.
A major part of this process, of course, is discovering how to deal with children. Discipline becomes especially difficult, and two extremes must be avoided: overcontrol and permissiveness. One must also resist the temptation to become a “friend” rather than a parent. Complicating the task is “the delicate dance of co-parenting,” maintaining one’s own rules in his or her household without condemning different rules followed in one’s former spouse’s. Working constructively together, rather than using children as weapons to salve festering sores, makes things better for the kids. Difficult though it may be to envision, one may actually gain influence while losing access to one’s children. Even adolescents may be effectively parented, if one learns lessons from the Frisbies’ informants.
Finally, there is the issue of remarriage. For some people, “flying solo” is the best solution. Some are deeply committed to their marriage vows, considering them indissoluable, and rightly maintain their moral convictions by refusing to consider a second marriage. Doing so may also facilitate better bonds with one’s children, who are easily confused and upset by the injection of “step” moms or dads into their already shattered world. But others, the Frisbies say, rightly choose to remarry. When they weigh the odds and make mature decisions, rich and rewarding second marriages do in fact result.
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In The Power of Serving Others: You Can Start where You Are (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., c. 2006), Gary Morsch and Dean Nelson challenge readers to be world-changers. Indeed, “This book is about changing our world. It’s not about a revolution, but it is revolutionary” (p. ix). Morsch is a medical doctor who established Heart to Heart International—probably the most fiscally efficient relief organization in the world. Nelson is a journalist who teaches at Point Loma Nazarene University who has been published in the New York Times and Boston Globe as well as various religious periodicals.
The authors want to illustrate the power of serving others, so this book is largely a collection of Morsch’s heart-worming stories, made winsome by Nelson’s engaging literary style. They take us from natural disasters, ranging from New Orleans to Indonesia, to war-devastated regions in Kosovo and Iraq. In the midst of chaos and sorrow, good things still happen. Repeatedly we discover the book’s core message:
1. Everyone has something to give.
2. Most people are willing to give when they see the need and have the
- Everyone can do something for someone right now” (p. 2).
Most of us are, by nature, altruistic rather than self-centered, they say. We just need to find ways to reach out and help others.
This was evident in New Orleans, when hundreds of volunteers responded to the devastation of the hurricane. They “were on the scene days before government agencies were deployed” (p. 14). Often those paid to respond to crises simply fail to do so as well as unpaid volunteers! “Individuals, neighborhoods, and churches responded as if they were made for these kinds of situations, which is exactly my point! (p. 15). Following the powerful tsunami that devastated Indonesia in 2004, students at Point Loma Nazarene University raised $40,000 to help Heart to Heart, which transformed (through contacts Morsch has with pharmaceutical firms and FedEx) the offering into “more than $1 million in aid” (p. 48).
In the course of highlighting relief for major disasters, Morsch and Nelson also remind us of Mother Teresa’s powerful admonition: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Small acts of love, daily done, make the world a livable place.
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