Mythology and the Superhero


41qEUAlH+DL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When I was young I remember my stash of comic books. I often wonder, what if I actually carefully read them and then saved them for the future knowing that they would be worth money one day. I had a lot of the old Marvel Avengers comics as well as the very first Defenders! It seemed like my dad really couldn’t understand why I liked buying comic books back then.

As a quick aside, I remember a good friend of mine, Sam Rood, making the incredible claim that Superman was not only created by two Jewish men but that Jewish people love to identify Superman as Jewish. First, he is “born” but he is not of this world. While the reader is privy to who is birth parents are, the average person in the story has no idea where he originated except that he came from the “heavens”. Second, he’s an immigrant, and often treated like an outcast who doesn’t belong. But third, he is here to save the world, to right wrong by confronting  evil. He is often put in a place where self-sacrifice is necessary in order to save people. The only thing we don’t see is his mother nagging him because he won’t make the ultimate commitment and marry Lois…

It should surprise no one that mythical stories don’t die but are told and re-told. I’m certainly not an expert in ancient mythology but it seems to be that there is a connection between the old myths and the newer fascination with superheroes as portrayed in comics. When others were saying the comic book superhero movies had run their course a few years back, my gut was that the need for a hero would fuel even more characters and stories. All you have to do is consider Hollywood’s full plate of superhero movies and television programs!  Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth  goes so far as to write that myths are,

“so intimately bound to culture, time and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by the recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.” (Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p. 70)

Think though about the new focus on superheroes as introducing a modern way of communicating the power of myth:

1. With great power comes great responsibility. Over and over we see the value of acting virtuously. It is not something to be taken lightly but something that must be driven deep into the soul so that it comes out naturally.

2. The rags to riches hero who lived a life of vice but gets a second chance to make things right and to become virtuous. This certainly leaves some (if not all) heroes flawed. Whatever the case, these heroes “take up” your sin in the sense that we identify with them.

3. The superhero is committed to the greater good of humanity. It’s not simply “peace” but it’s a society that flourishes. Their creativity is intended to solve problems but sometimes it has the effect of creating even more problems!

4.The reluctant superhero who has to existentially discover what it means to stand out and stand for something, even if it means self-sacrifice. The greater good often comes at the cost of their own personal comfort or happiness. In some ways he represents the modern Odysseus who’s labor is unending.

5. In many cases, the hero has a vision of beauty. He places himself or herself at risk for the sake of beauty.

6. As I mentioned in another post, in some way their heroic effort is our success or failure. It’s really not the message that you can be a hero as well, but rather that in some way, our identity is wrapped up in their performance done for us.

7. There is an arc to stories where heroes die and are reborn. It’s hard to actually kill off Superman or Spiderman. Everyone knows that at some point heroes “resurrect”.

At the start of this year, I picked up Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings trilogy to re-read. Tolkien believed that located in the story are transcendent truths and virtues – commitment, beauty, and honor to name a few (Campbell in The Power of Myth connected ancient myths with universal themes). While these truths are “immaterial” they are nonetheless real and sensed by people. The language of myth effectively communicates these truths and virtues. What Tolkien then asserted was while other myths contain elements of both truth and error, the Christian story is historically grounded. This tremendously influenced his friend and colleague C.S. Lewis who came also to see the gospel as the one true myth.

“Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth (in other words, God bodily present on earth contains elements of the myth story but goes way beyond it). The heart of Christianity  is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from heaven of legend and imagination to the early of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, pp.66-67).

To quote my son, Justin (who loves comics): “Seeing the virtue of superheroes is why [the comic book superhero] won’t die. It shows us the best of what we can become but in a way that is somehow relatable and attainable. That’s also why the Gospel will never die. Jesus Christ has taught us how to become the best of what humanity can be, what it was intended to be.” So not only is Christ the ultimate hero (see a previous blog here) but He also gives flawed people a vision the virtuous life, both full and abundant.

Fifteen Books That Will Spark Spiritual Growth


216059With any new year approaching there’s always a hopeful sense of what the future will bring. Last year, I wrote a piece about fourteen things you could do to care for your soul that would move the spiritual yardsticks, even if slightly. If  you haven’t read it here it is (14 Things To Do To Care For Your Soul ) as it’s still relevant to a new year.

This year I thought I would list fifteen books I consider important for every Christian to read (Get it? 2015, Fifteen books?). These are books I have read at some point during the past thirty years that are aimed primarily at spiritual growth. You might think about taking one book at a time without rushing to get through them all in 2015.  Linger a bit with them as you would a conversation with a friend over a cup of coffee! The books are not ranked in order.

1. Devotional Classics by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith. The purpose of this book is to expose the reader to different spiritual writers through history, moving from the early church fathers (Gregory of Nyssa) to modern writers (C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard). The writings are short and edited a bit to make the readings more readable. You might take one reading per week, maybe with a few other people, to discuss and work through the questions, exercises, and reflections at the end of each selection.

2. Radical by David Platt. While I have a few concerns about how sustainable the radical life is (as Platt describes it) over the entirety of one’s life, that does not take away from the jarring impact his words have on my own tendency to choose comfort over discipleship to Christ. Bottom line: it’s hard to read this book and feel ambivalent. One of my favorite memories is going through Platt’s book with eighty young adults talking and dreaming about giving our lives to something bigger than ourselves.

3. The Great Omission by Dallas Willard. I have been asked, “Which Dallas Willard book should I start with?” I’ve had students in seminary class who have gotten lost reading The Divine Conspiracy and even Renovation of the Heart. Willard was a philosophy professor at USC and his writing style is not light so it takes a certain commitment to actually sit, read, and reflect. I would suggest reading The Great Omission, a series of short, straightforward chapters about recapturing discipleship in the church today as a way to introduce yourself to his writings and then from there move on to Renovation of the Heart.

4. The Pensees by Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a mathematician and theologian in the 1600’s. Following a dramatic conversion experience with God, he wrote the phrase, “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, certainly, heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. Joy, joy, joy, oceans of joy!” on a piece of paper and sewed it into his jacket lining where it remained until he died. The book is a collection of “pensees” (pronounced pon-seas), translated “thoughts”. There is no real order to them but others have tried to organized them systematically (see Christianity for Modern Pagans by Peter Kreeft) to help frame moving from the problem to the solution. This, I believe, puts Pascal’s famous Wager in a better context, allowing us to understand it’s evangelistic value better.

5 & 6. The Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller. There is no modern writer that I know of that is both as brilliant or as “down to earth” as Tim Keller. You can sense as you read the book that his goal is much like the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s aim which was to “smuggle Christianity back into Christendom” (we could also say this about C.S. Lewis and Pascal as well). The contrast between the younger and older brother in the familiar “Parable of the Prodigal Son” should deeply convict us our waywardness either by rebelling or by being morally good. Counterfeit Gods, likewise, points us to the incessant desire toward idolatry as we take people and things and make them ultimate in our lives in an attempt to fill an infinite hole in our hearts with the gospel as the solution.

7. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (translated by William Creasy). The great value of Creasy’s translation is it updates the language making it much more readable than earlier translations. The book is generally thought of as the second most read Christian book behind the Bible. While there are a few chapters where his “Catholicity” comes out, the vast majority of the book can (and should) be read devotionally by Protestants.

8 & 9. Formed For the Glory of God by Kyle Strobel and Beloved Dust by Kyle Strobel and Jamin Goggin. I include Kyle Strobel in my list because of his work studying Jonathan Edwards. What I appreciate deeply is the connection he makes between Edwards’ theology and his practice (much like Edwards himself). This is important because we want to connect good thinking with good practice, good theology with good application. Strobel’s focus on Edwards’ understanding of the “means of grace”, those practices that are essential to spiritual growth, re-captures a robust understanding of both mind and heart. This is also true of his and Goggin’s newest offering Beloved Dust, which focuses on the practice of prayer.

10. Reflection on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. This is one of Lewis’ lesser known writings penned in 1958. At the urging of one of his friends, Austin Ferrer, Lewis’ writing is much more devotional in nature than apologetical. It’s a great book to supplement reading through the Psalms devotionally each morning.

11. Finding Calcutta by Mary Poplin. Maybe this has meaning because of my time in the very poor parts of Calcutta and seeing the Mother Teresa’s ongoing work in the city. A friend, Bob Alexander, introduced me to the book a few years ago and I’m so glad he did! Poplin’s spiritual journey from agnosticism to faith in Christ put in the context of Mother Teresa’s life and work is soul stirring. What you will find is the simplicity of Mother Teresa’s lived out theology as she gave her life away to the poor of Calcutta even when her spiritual life was struggling.

12. Loving God by Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was a Catholic monk who was part of, what’s known as a Cistercian abbey. His influence was extensive not only as a Catholic reformer of sorts, but also an “abbey planter”. By the end of life his he had planted either directly or indirectly seventy abbeys. What throws evangelicals for a loop is that he is considered a Catholic “mystic”. That is, Bernard held to, “I believe that I may experience” with a focus on the love of God and union with God as stirring the heart. Yet because of his commitment to Scripture and a robust theology, John Calvin quoted Bernard numerous times in his devotional tome, The Institutes. Imagine a Protestant reformer referring to a Catholic! This is his most well known book on the “stages of love” as one grows in love for God over the course of their life. Here’s an edited translation that reads quite well – (Loving God)

13. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Put in the historical context of World War Two, Bonhoeffer’s classic still rouses the lukewarm heart to the great cost of following Christ. Dallas Willard referenced Bonhoeffer as it relates to the cost to following Christ in The Spirit of the Disciplines: If one is not willing to belly up to the bar (my paraphrase of paying the cost) to follow Him then one should wonder where they even stand with God. Man, that will preach….

14. Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace. Lovelace is Professor Emeritus of church history at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. The book provides a unified vision of the individual’s spiritual growth and periods in history when it erupted into corporate spiritual revival. Ok, so the book is a bit academic! However, Lovelace’s thoughts on the modern confusion on justification and sanctification and the “sanctification gap” are money. Deeply convicting and, even though it’s a bit academic, devotional.

15. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. No, he’s not the guy who had a giant blue ox named Babe. The book is considered one of the best examples of religious English literature by using an allegory of the Christian’s journey toward heaven. If the old English weighs you down there are more accessible modern translations. By the way, I’m not opposed to these “translations” at all. If the “translation” retains the thrust of what the author is trying to get at  yet makes it more accessible to the modern reader, then I’m all for suggesting them as a way to get people to read the classics. Here’s an example: (Pilgrim’s Progress).

I’m sure you have thought of classics that I haven’t listed. I wish I had more space to include some of the Puritan works (John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation is on deck waiting to be read) as well as men like A.W. Tower and more of the Christian mystics (Teresa of Avila). Space would only allow so much, but please feel free to add any books that have not only challenged your thinking but led to a more devoted walk with Christ. Enjoy and here’s to 2015 being a year where our hearts are knit more closely to His (Ps. 86:11)!

A review of Tom Krattenmaker’s book, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know


A few years ago I read “Jim and Caspar Go To Church”, which was absolutely fascinating. The book centers on the relationship between an evangelical pastor and an atheist who travel around the country taking in different church services, with Jim getting Caspar’s response immediately after in sort of an exit interview. It captured me because I’m right in the middle of evangelicalism as a pastor. When I read the book, I was thrilled that there was dialogue happening. Yet, at the same time, I both laughed and cringed inside when Caspar’s response to visiting at least some Sunday worship services was, “Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?”

As a pastor, I realize that, frankly, there are things that evangelicals do as well as say, that are, well, goofy, cheesy, and sometimes bizarre. And that seems to be the mostly innocuous part. On the other hand, there is a moral temptation among some evangelicals to want to fix, in our estimation, culture gone haywire. This, I believe, has led to some hurtful practices of alienating people, most often unnecessarily in order to drive a point home (or draw a clearer line in the sand).

After reading Tom Krattenmaker’s book, I’m hopeful. I’m not hopeful that we will all become one big happy family – theists, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. No. I’m hopeful because there have to be some brave people who are willing to be honest in order for us to have meaningful discussion with each other instead of speaking past one another. Tom’s book represents the best of people coming to the table, to honestly look at the “other side” and to look at themselves and somehow be open to having a dialogue characterized by charity and understanding.

Without spoiling the whole book, Tom’s book delves into his own misconceptions about evangelicals and his journey to confront his own misbeliefs. But in the process what he does is take us on the same journey to mirror our own fears and misbeliefs. The mastery of the book is that it does to serve to confront my own misbeliefs and how poorly I have acted toward others. At many points it felt like the book was the secular companion to Kinnaman’s and Lyon’s book, UnChristian.

Much of the book is spent de-tangling some of the quick prejudicial beliefs that people quickly accept about evangelicals. Some of the criticism by others is warranted (because some people are highly insensitive). But as no one enjoys being lumped into one single category, Tom begins to tease his readers by showing us counter-examples of evangelical Christians who actually think and act differently. What’s hard for people’s prejudicial beliefs is when great counter-examples are presented it makes it hard to compartmentalize people in one neat box.

It’s hard to find much to critique. I found Tom to not only be very frank but incredibly charitable. Much of what he writes on – evangelism, culture, an over-reliance upon the political process, and isolation – are topics that resonate well with the vast majority of people I minister to (college students/young adults).

My one “critique” of the book would be this… and I know this might not sit well with some. There are a growing number of Christians in academia, particularly philosophy, that are bringing an intellectual element to the Christian faith that has largely been lost. In fact, in his marvelous book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter writes that Christians have done a horrible job at engaging culture in a redemptive way. Most of our efforts, as Tom concurs in his book, have been to forfeit any meaningful voice in culture only to re-create our own Christian parallel universe. Of course, this has been a devastating response. Hunter admits though that there is one area where Christians have regained solid footing – philosophy. I would suggest that the evangelicals that many don’t know are the smart ones who are slowly countering the idea that Christians are really ignorant or gullible or unintelligent, that faith is merely unreasoned belief. And they are doing this in very gracious ways.

People like William Lane Craig and JP Moreland bring less of the combative attitude but more charity in the spirit of debate. Even at a pastoral level, the person who comes to mind who is not only smart but also very gracious is Timothy Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. These men are training up countless others in ways that are changing how people perceive evangelicals. As a result, they have some serious credibility with many young evangelicals who resonate with the concept of truth but aren’t interested in being obnoxious about it.

What is clear is this: if a person comes to a conclusion about the “other” based on what they see on television or the movies, they will walk away with a stunted view. Frankly, there is a reason why talk shows or news shows do not ask the brightest, most articulate Christians or atheists to represent “their side” on an issue. This is why books like Tom’s are important. They challenge us with a different narrative. We might have spirited discussions and eventually disagree, but in the end, we have actually been a part of something redemptive – we treat people as people and not as caricatures of people that we think are deserving of our scorn.

Best Reads of 2012


Book and ideas are my gig. It’s important for me not only to keep current culturally (I try to keep my musical tastes broad and I take in as many movies as I can) but usually I pass the time away reading books. So here are the top eight books I’ve read this year. Most of the books either were written this year or were released at the end of last year. My favorite read is older but I included it because it rivaled the excellencies of God and Guinness a few years back!

8. Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke. John Piper recommended this book so I picked it up. It’s a short book that can be read fairly quickly. It not only includes reading books from a Christian perspective but also offers practical tips on reading with intention and getting the main point. To be honest, the first part wasn’t too compelling. I thought that it could be written much simpler and with much more emphasis on reading books written by people who are not Christian. However, the second part of the book is worth its price.

7. All books Keller. Rather than include them one at a time, I think it’s appropriate to include all three from Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, who is quickly becoming quite the prolific author. Center Church, Every Good Endeavor, and The Meaning of Marriage (co-authored by his wife, Kathy) all have the gospel central to the book. Church, vocation, and marriage are all deeply connected to the gospel and Keller makes a strong argument for a re-envisioning of all three that leads to a greater flourishing not just of Christians but of culture as a whole. In my opinion, Tim Keller is akin to a modern day example of C.S. Lewis… well-thought out, wise, and Christ-centered.  Great combination!

6. Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life edited by Mike Austin. I included the book because I’ve known Mike since our days with Campus Crusade. He’s a great thinker as well as a friend so I wanted to give him some props! And the book has two of my favorite people as contributors – Dave Horner and David Turner! Actually the book is a wonderful collection of articles from philosophers, theologians, and pastors as they take eleven key virtues and practically expound on them. My favorite?  The Horner/Turner contribution on zeal. Who writes on that in a book of virtues?

5.. Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Luekin. Fascinating story of a church east of Sacramento that began a journey to move from appealing to those interested in Christianity to a church that is focused on heart transformation. I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive but the pressures of being relevant to people’s lives often leaves out harder issues like dealing with the heart. The thrust of the book is to explore what it means to be transformed apart from starting with behavior. In spiritual formation language, the journey this church took was one of active desolation. In other words, it was not a passive desolation that God allows a person to go through This was active in the sense that decisions the church made to stay true to a particular vision led to a mass exodus of people. Must read for those interested in spiritual formation.

4. Slouching Toward Adulthood by Sally Koslow. What is going on with young adults that seem to extend their adolescence well into their thirties? Why the reluctance to enter into adulthood? This is a good read for those interested in gaining a picture of why young adults are “slouching” toward the future. The language is harsh at points but it provides a good picture of how even those who are not Christian are noticing something is wrong. I was particularly interested in the chapters on marriage, work, and religion. They provide a slacker’s view of three key institutions!

3. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat. Op-ed writeer for the New York Times. His book examines the slow decline of religious faith into what he considers to be heresy. In many places he’s spot on however, I think the word “heresy” needs a bit more structure. It’s certainly strong language to call something heresy. That said, what is offered today to many is not just a shade of Christianity but something completely different. It’s worth the time to read.

2. To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter. As a former Campus Crusade staff member this one had something personal to it. How do we change the world? Evangelicals who take the Great Commission seriously have approached it in a particular way. Hunter deconstructs the ways we have tried with the conclusion that all have failed. His suggestion is much more in line with the older Christians who believed in a “faithful presence”. This is not a book that will fire you up but rather leave you with the sense that what God wants is for us to be faithful right where we are at.

1. Drinking with Calvin and Luther by Jim West. Actually written in 2003, I’m ten years behind. The book is a historical recounting of the understanding and use of alcohol (mostly beer and wine) in Christianity’s history. Focusing on both Martin Luther and John Calvin, you are given a picture of how alcohol was a part of their life and the Puritans who followed. I laughed out loud when I read that one of the first buildings the Puritans erected at Plymouth Rock was a brewery! The second part of the book focuses on the theology of alcohol as found in the sacrament of the Eucharist. So, obviously if alcoholism runs in your family, this is not a good read. However, if you find that you’ve inherited negative taboos about alcohol this might be just the book to read!

Time to start thinking about what to read next year!