Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: Soul Keeping

John Ortberg.  Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.  207 pp.  $22.99.

Peter the Apostle once wrote of his fellow apostle Paul that Paul wrote to Christians out of “the wisdom given him” although some of his writings are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16).  I feel this way about the writings of Dallas Willard.  Willard was such a wise Christian, a man full of immense learning and inscrutable humility.  However, I have struggled to finish any of his books—let alone understand what he is writing about.  Yet, as with Paul the Apostle, I am immensely thankful for the life of Dallas Willard.  For one thing, Willard mentored John Ortberg. . .and I love Ortberg’s writings.  Like Peter the Apostle, Ortberg communicates the deep teachings of Christianity in a way that the majority of us can understand.  In many ways, Romans and 1 Peter communicate similar theological messages.  In like fashion, Willard and Ortberg communicate similar messages regarding the spiritual life.  The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Ortberg) is the layman’s version of Spirit of the Disciplines (Willard); When the Games Is Over, All the Pieces Go Back in the Box (Ortberg) is the layman’s version of Revolution of Character (Willard); Soul Keeping (Ortberg) is the layman’s version of Renovation of the Heart (Willard).  In reading Soul Keeping, I was able to listen in on conversations between pupil and teacher and also to see the mantle of spiritual director move from Willard to Ortberg.

However, if this is all that Soul Keeping is about, then I cannot honestly recommend it to anyone except those who are practicing spiritual directors.  Thankfully, as is common with Ortberg’s works, there is always much more going on beneath the surface.  The volume does serve as a form of extended eulogy for Willard.  It is evident that Ortberg’s extensive ministry that has impacted the lives of so many (including myself and my students who have read Ortberg’s books in their classes) was shaped by the ministry of Dallas Willard.  Willard demonstrated how to care for one’s soul.  Through a lengthy relationship, Ortberg picked up on these lessons and implemented them into his own life, and now communicates those messages in his own books, sermons and workshops. 

In this volume, Ortberg tackles the topic of the soul and how to care for it.  His volume is divided into three major sections.  In the first section, he asks and answers the question of what defines a soul.  According to Ortberg, the “soul is what integrates your will (your intentions), your mind (your thoughts and feelings, your value and conscience), and your body (your face, body language, and actions) into a single life” (p. 43).  A healthy soul, Ortberg argues, is connected with God and functions with integrity.  The challenge, then, is how to develop a healthy soul that functions with integrity.  This is the focus of the second section.  In this section, Ortberg outlines nine “needs” of the soul (e.g., a keeper, a future, rest, freedom and gratitude).  This section is the heart of Ortberg’s book.  Delivered in his classic narrative style, Ortberg clearly defines each “need” and then succinctly delivers avenues that the reader can take to develop a healthy soul.  For example, in the chapter entitled “The Soul Needs Rest,” Ortberg outlines a “cycle of grace” that flows from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:28-30 about his yoke of discipleship (p. 126-127).  The cycle flows from acceptance to sustenance to significance to achievement.  Each movement is centered within grace, which allows us to let go of the need to prove ourselves so that we can find spiritual rest in Christ.  At the end of the chapter, he talks about “doing nothing” and simply enjoying God’s presence.  Throughout the volume, I kept coming to the same conclusion: simple yet profound.

In my humble opinion, the mantle of spiritual director has passed from Dallas Willard to John Ortberg.  Willard will continue to influence us through his books, as he has now gone to receive his eternal reward.  Ortberg continues the legacy of thoughtful, practical spiritual direction through writing in Soul Keeping.  It is likely his best work on spiritual formation, and that is saying something.  However, this does not mean that the volume is perfect.  There are portions of the book where simple prose falls into syrupy simplicity.  However Ortberg does not stay there too long.  Additionally, his views regarding the original sin come out in the chapter on freedom (specifically on p. 151).  While this is certainly not the place to debate the various points of the determinist doctrine, I do believe that it is important to highlight this for potential readers.  Fortunately, Ortberg does not dwell on this, although it central to his belief structure on sin.  Despite these concerns, however, I heartily enjoyed reading Soul Keeping and drinking deeply again from Ortberg’s (and, conversely, Willard’s) well of spiritual wisdom, and gladly recommend it. 

Rob O’Lynn, MDiv
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ministry
Kentucky Christian University

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the Publisher and was asked to review it.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: After Lament (ACU Press Book Club)

Glenn Pemberton.  After Lament: Psalms for Learning to Trust Again.  Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2014.  220 pp.  $17.99

Thirty years ago, OT scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his book The Message of the Psalms[1], developed the labels of “orientation” (a time of praise), “disorientation” (a time of suffering) and “new orientation” (a time of restoration) as an approach to studying Psalms.  Since its publication, Brueggemann’s cycle of orientation has become the standard paradigm for interpreting and preaching the psalms.  Pemberton has already followed in Brueggemann’s footsteps by focusing on psalms of “disorientation” in his previous volume Hurting with God.[2]  Now, in this new volume, Pemberton indicates that he will be moving on to psalms of “new orientation” to demonstrate how lament moves us toward mature faith in God through the image of a wagon wheel.  With lament at the center, each chapter focuses on a different “spoke”—a different type of psalm—that comes out of lament and brings about that “new orientation” (e.g., psalms of trust, thanksgiving psalms and wisdom psalms).  The volume concludes with a look at some of Pemberton’s “case studies” that he has examined in both volumes.

In terms of evaluation, Pemberton’s volume has both strengths and limitations.  In terms of strengths, this volume speaks with the same pastoral voice as his previous volume Hurting with God.  Pemberton has experienced an immense amount of suffering in a short time, and he shares his suffering in such a way that we find a kindred spirit in these pages rather than a disconnected scholar who has never experienced a moment of anguish.  Additionally, this volume effectively compliments Hurting with God in that Pemberton spends most of this volume focusing on the psalms of “new orientation.”  Although he continues to look at the lament psalms in an effort to bring these texts back into the church’s language and to make us comfortable with them, he does focus a great deal on the prayers and hymns of bygone saints who have emerged from their suffering more confident in their faith.  He is quick, though, to note that “happily ever after” is not a guarantee of “new orientation.”  The sickness or sin is still present; however our hope in God has matured.  Lastly, the general strength of this volume—as with Hurting with God—is the practical approach that the volume takes.  Pemberton has not written for the scholar but for the student, everyday church member and preacher.  His exegesis, if not slightly tinged by his new normal of daily suffering, is solid and communicated with the care and creativity of a veteran preacher. 

However, this does not mean that this volume is free of critique.  There are a couple of minor technical issues that I must address: 1) The boldfacing of selected Psalms is not consistent throughout the volume, and 2) not all of the referenced material makes the Works Cited or Recommended Bibliography sections.  These are minor points of critique, yet I think their mention is warranted.  Now, on a larger scale, there are three major points of critique that I have with this volume.  First, while I appreciate the personal nature with which he writes, I fear that Pemberton borders on using his writing as a form of self-medication.  As someone who has endured a different type of suffering, I can resonate with Pemberton.  There needs to be a place for people of faith to address our concerns to our God.  Yet, drowning in our own sorrows only perpetuates our sorrows.  Second, although the title indicates that he is going to move beyond the psalms of “disorientation,” Pemberton continues to focus predominately on such psalms.  The bulk of this volume rests in that unsettled upward curve between crisis and stability rather than fully moving to “new orientation.”  Third, his “spokes” paradigm is disconnected.  Pemberton envisions the psalms of “disorientation” as the center of a wheel and the psalms of “new orientation” as the spokes that come out of the center.  Taken collectively, he argues, these spokes form a wheel of faith that allows us to continue moving spiritually.  However, the spokes operate more like fan blades.  They are certainly connected to the center, yet they are not connected to one another.  Lament can lead this way or that way, however there is nothing that connects them to one another.  

Still, despite my concerns, this is a solid study and a needed pastoral voice in our religiously shallow world.  If you are not hurting, someone close to you is.  These texts can be your words of solace to them.  If you are hurting, Pemberton gets you.  He understands your pain and wants to help you discover the words you need to offer to God.  This book, along with Hurting with God, would make for a great Bible study (discussion questions are included).  I would also recommend both volumes to the undergraduate instructor who is teaching a text course in Psalms.  That being said, I hope that Pemberton writes a third volume, an “orientation” volume, that will complete the cycle.   

Rob O’Lynn, MDiv
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ministry
Kentucky Christian University

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from ACU Press/Leafwood Publishers as part of their ACU Press Bookclub Program.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

[1]Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).
[2]Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2013).