Good Pictures, Bad Pictures // Kristen A. Jenson and Gail Poyner // Richland, WA: Glen Cove Press, 2016

Back when pornographic magazines were sold behind the gas-station counter, parents could perhaps afford to deal with porn reactively rather than proactively. But in these days of smartphones and ubiquitous wi-fi, a proactive strategy is the only option. Your kids need to hear about porn from you before they encounter it at school or at a friend’s house. And now there’s a great new resource to help you: the book Good Pictures Bad Pictures.

Porn is a $97 billion global industry, and it’s growing rapidly. At the peak of Playboy magazine’s popularity in 1975, it had a circulation of 5.6 million; in 2016, 107 million people in the U.S. visited an adult website every month. One out of every nine internet search requests is for porn. According to Time magazine, the average boy encounters pornography in some form by age 11. But here’s the good news: though 40% of children ages 10-17 have been exposed to online porn, it usually happens accidentally. In other words, your kid isn’t seeking porn. Rather, porn is seeking him. Porn marketers want to push their way into your child’s life early – especially if he is male – so they can hook him as a consumer for life. If you can prepare him for battle with a proactive strategy, you can counteract the negative effects of porn before they wreck your child’s sexual and emotional future.

But how do you talk about porn with young kids? Porn is so dark – so evil – that it’s tough to know how to discuss it without compromising a child’s innocence. Kristen Jenson and Gail Poyner understand – and they’ve given us a resource to help. Poyner is a licensed clinical psychologist and therapist. Jenson is a best-selling author and anti-porn activist. Together, they’ve put together a children’s book that tackles the subject squarely yet sensitively. Using the concept of “bad pictures,” they help kids understand in a simple but honest way what pornography is. And they teach kids neuroscience in the process! The book explores the difference between the “feeling brain” (the limbic system) and the “thinking brain” (the prefrontal cortex), helping kids understand how addiction hijacks the brain’s reward system. After reading this book, your kids won’t just know to say “no” to porn; they’ll understand why porn can initially seem exciting or interesting, and why that can be so dangerous.

In the Introduction (intended for parents), Jenson and Poyner explain why they wrote the book:

We wrote Good Pictures Bad Pictures as a tool to help parents begin a dialogue about pornography before kids become interested in it and while they still see their parents as a credible source of information. In other words… to get in first and immunize kids against the very real harms of “picture poison…” Internet filters are important, but not enough. When it comes to kids and pornography, ignorance is risk… A child’s brain is more vulnerable to porn because it is designed to imitate what it sees. Additionally, a child’s brain has less ability to control those imitative impulses. Viewing pornography can alter the brain’s neural pathways… Today’s Internet pornography goes way beyond the nude, still photos of men’s magazines. It has metastasized into a hundred thousand variants of degrading violence, including rape, sex with children, group sex, and horrors we won’t describe here… That’s why kids must develop their own internal filters. We call it porn-proofing: empowering kids by teaching them what pornography is, why it’s harmful to their brains, and how they can minimize its impact once they have been exposed.

 Even the book’s art is thoughtful. “When I asked myself the question, ‘How do we illustrate a book for kids about pornography?’” writes Jenson, “I knew I wanted the illustrations to be in watercolor. They needed to be classic and soft to counter the harshness of pornography; and real, not cartoonish – I didn’t want to risk trivializing this serious problem.” The book ends with a five-step plan that’s simple, easy to remember, and empowers kids to reject porn when they encounter it.

Good Pictures Bad Pictures is intended for 7-8 year olds. It will work with kids up to about age 11 or 12, but will likely “miss” with teenage readers, who will prefer a more mature treatment of the issues. If you’re looking to porn-proof your kids early, this book is an absolutely wonderful resource. I earnestly recommend it. Get it. Read it. Pass it along to others. You’ll be glad you did.

Here’s a link to the book’s website, where you can learn more and order a copy.

For years, I’ve been looking for a clear, simple, charitable treatment of the key theological differences between Protestants and Catholics. Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo have finally produced such a book, and it’s a refreshing and insightful read.

The Unfinished Reformation is only 171 pages including endnotes. That means it’s the kind of book you can read in a weekend. And yet, Allison and Castaldo don’t compromise depth for the sake of brevity. They offer plenty of theological rigor, appealing to primary sources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, and Calvin’s Institutes. More importantly, they recognize important intellectual pre-commitments that are in play for readers on both the Protestant and Catholic sides of the table. Their first chapter begins: “Catholic and Protestant teaching frequently suffers from selective quotation without regard to official documents and without taking into consideration how religious ideas influence the faithful.” Amen and amen. Both Protestant and Catholic readers will be pleased with the tone and tenor of this book as it traces key points of agreement and difference.

Allison and Castaldo begin their work by identifying ten areas where Protestants and Catholics stand together. After establishing this common ground, they proceed to outline key areas of difference. They frame each difference as a question (for instance, “What is the Church?” or “How Do the Sacraments Work?”) and then show how each tradition answers that question. The authors write as unashamed Protestants. But Castaldo’s Roman Catholic roots and Allison’s academic integrity motivate them to represent the Catholic point of view cogently, charitably, and accurately. Roman Catholic readers will find no hint of polemic, caricature, or oversimplification; only a clear, nuanced treatment of Catholic theology and practice.

Within Coram Deo Church (and others like it), many worshipers have come to evangelical convictions after being raised in a Roman Catholic heritage. For such people, the ability to winsomely and intelligently discuss areas of agreement and disagreement is crucial. Why might your parents see your evangelical awakening as a decision to leave the faith? Why might your family members react negatively when you don’t baptize your child in the Catholic tradition? The reasons are theological. And understanding each other’s theological convictions can lead to more fruitful, constructive, and charitable conversations.

The danger of a book like this is that it’s bound to leave some readers on both sides of the aisle disappointed. After all, we’ve been arguing about the merits and demerits of the Reformation for five centuries now. It’s impossible to capture 500 years of ecclesial history in 200 pages. So to some, The Unfinished Reformation may seem a little bit… uncomplicated.

But in my opinion, that’s precisely the book’s strength. Without sacrificing theological precision, it keeps things simple and basic. And that’s exactly what many people are seeking: an easy-to-digest, reliable tour guide to the key differences between Protestants and Catholics. This book may not qualify you for a master’s degree in theological studies… but it will certainly help your conversations at Thanksgiving dinner.

Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).

The biggest problem with good Christian books about sex… is the lack of them.

I don’t mean that Christians don’t write about sex. We have, and we do. But our writing tends to be thin and simplistic. Christian writers have mostly failed to engage the significant cultural narratives about sexuality and personhood that frame the context for modern thinking. As Jonathan Grant puts it, something about our cultural moment “makes the Christian vision of sexuality seem naïve and unrealistic at best and downright repressive at worst, even to many young Christians.” And THAT’S the problem the church needs to tackle. Generally speaking, we do provide moral instruction. But that moral instruction is often divorced from a coherent narrative framework that makes it meaningful.

That’s the gap Grant seeks to fill with his excellent book Divine Sex (Brazos Press, 2015). It’s a thoughtful book, a meaningful book, even a compelling book (as its subtitle claims). Why? Because Grant deeply understands both the biblical vision of sexuality and the modern cultural context in which we are seeking to live out that vision.

The basic conviction of this book is that Christian faith and secular culture exist in complex interrelationship. This creates both challenges and opportunities for discipleship. The first part of the book considers the following questions: what is the modern self, and how does it approach sexual relationships? How has our cultural moment shaped what we think and do in this area? Having identified the signs of the times and their influence, the second part will propose an alternative Christian vision of personal identity as the basis for a practical model of formation, one that integrates issues relating to sexuality and relationships (Grant, 25).

In other words, Grant is going to place his discussion of sexuality within the larger category of personhood. Sex is something that persons do, and so our vision of sexuality is integrally bound up with our understanding of the self. Set within that context, it becomes clear that a counter-cultural vision of selfhood is crucial to a Christian sexual ethic.

Part One of Grant’s book, titled “Mapping the Modern Sexual Imaginary,” sets out to name the cultural influences that shape the modern self and therefore the modern vision of sexuality. By drawing heavily upon academic sociological research, Grant makes this part of his book almost unassailable – this is just the way things are, and the studies prove it. He focuses on five features of our cultural landscape that shape our thinking about sex:

  • Individualism: We live in a “culture of authenticity” which encourages us to create our own beliefs and express our own unique identity. Because we are shaped by individualism, we find ourselves caught between intimacy and autonomy, unable to sustain deep commitments for fear that they will keep us from being “true to ourselves.”
  • Freedom: We have been taught to understand freedom as unrestricted, unrestrained personal choice. Because of this (mistaken) thinking, we are caught in the “freedom trap,” desiring total autonomy and self-determination, but cut off from the mentorship and deep friendship that can actually help us grow into full maturity.
  • Consumerism: Modern capitalism trains us to acquire, consume, and move on, with novelty as our guiding impulse. Under the influence of consumerism, people and relationships become commodities. “What we do with things, we will inevitably do with people.”
  • Hypersexuality: Our culture has reduced sexuality to sex. This causes us to use sex as a “happiness technology,” emptying sex of its deeper meaning and losing our ability for relational intimacy. In a porn-ified world, “We become performers and consumers rather than genuine participants.”
  • The Loss of Transcendence: The naturalistic, scientific view of the world as a closed system has undercut our sense of meaning or purpose in the universe. We live with a “low horizon.” Because of this loss of transcendence, we lack a coherent vision for life and for sexuality, and we are left with the narrow utilitarian goal of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. We see relationships as transactional. “Our bodies become pleasure machines.”

This section of the book isn’t exactly encouraging. The mal-formative sexual influences around us are many and powerful, and Grant describes them cogently. After reading his bleak portrayal, readers will be ready to embrace a deeper, more thoughtful, more holistic strategy for Christian discipleship. And that’s what Grant sets out to provide in Part Two: Charting a New Course for Christian Formation. He wants us to think in terms of counter-formation: not just teaching basic doctrine, but shaping a “Christian social imaginary” that envisions a whole different kind of life.

This second section is the brilliance of Grant’s project. Rather than focusing on simple moral instruction, Grant wants Christians to embrace the thick, coherent vision of human personhood that grounds the biblical sexual ethic and gives it meaning and significance. The Bible gives us a new vision, a new story, a new community, and new practices.

  • A New Vision: The biblical sexual ethic is rooted in a comprehensive vision of life which is eschatological (focused on the future kingdom of God), metaphysical (grounded in a vision of ultimate reality that anchors our lives now), and formational (virtue-shaping, not merely rule-following). “The Christian vision of sexuality is less like putting out ‘Do Not Walk on the Grass’ signs and more like marking out the boundaries of a field so that the game of life can be played well and with conviction… Our hearts must be truly captivated by the goodness of the Christian vision of life, so that our whole self is drawn toward it, or our commitment to live in tune with it will be brittle.”
  • A New Story: Modern culture is a powerful storyteller. It offers us a steady diet of “sexual scripts” that reinforce a particular narrative of sexuality. In contrast, Christians need to practice “narrative discipleship” – immersing ourselves in the story of the gospel in a way that counteracts our culture’s sexual scripts. “The single most important thing you can do for your family and church community may be… [to] develop a strong common story.”
  • A New Community: As ground zero for Christian counter-formation, the church needs to be a thick, deep, formative context, not just a weekly social gathering. God’s family needs to nurture its spiritual children – not just by teaching truth, but by shaping virtue and forming identity. Particularly important in this process is the role of exemplars – mature living examples who embody the faith and can provide a pattern for others to follow.
  • New Practices: Evangelical Christianity tends to under-emphasize habits and rituals. Grant quotes Richard Rohr’s quip that we don’t “think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Therefore, we need Christian counter-practices that prepare us for alternative ways of imagining and living. Disciplines such as prayer, personal Bible study, immersion in small-group community, embodied worship, and solitude help to train us for life in the kingdom. Rather than just expecting these practices to happen, the church needs to become a laboratory where these habits can be built and explored together.

As helpful as Grant’s overall vision is, the real genius of this book is in the details. A sentence here or a paragraph there will stop the reader cold and provoke an awakening of new insight. The margins of my copy are filled with scribbled exclamations like “Yes!” and “Finally!” and “This is good.” Here are a few examples:

  • Whereas contemporary culture thinks about sex mainly as an experience, Scripture and Christian tradition have always thought about it in terms of virtue or character. Christian sexuality is primarily something we are becoming rather than something we do.
  • “Chastity” is a deeply misunderstood concept today. We tend to associate it with sexual celibacy, but chastity is a virtue that relates equally to singleness and marriage; it is not directly about sex at all. Chastity is… emotional sincerity or integrity, by which we express our feelings honestly.
  • The way we disciple people within the church… sets out clear moral rules, rather than thinking about how we might become the sort of people who actually live by these convictions. The flaw in this cognitive approach is its assumption that everyone is morally mature and has the power to do whatever he or she chooses to do.

Grant’s theological vision of of singleness is beautiful and compelling. His observations about “social or affective sexuality” are amazingly perceptive. And his nuanced distinction between “desire for sex” and “sexual desire” will fuel fresh hope in those seeking to live with sexual integrity.

Last week, one of my friends went to a youth event where the speaker challenged teens toward sexual purity. It was the standard “save sex for marriage” talk. Such messages, though true and necessary, will have less and less persuasive power in the modern social imaginary – which is why we need the excellent resource Jonathan Grant has given us. If you want to talk meaningfully about sex… if you need to redeem your own thinking about sex… if you long to disciple others into a vision of Christian sexuality that’s beautiful and compelling… you need Jonathan Grant’s book on your shelf.

You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith Brazos Press, 2016
You Are What You Love
by James K.A. Smith
Brazos Press, 2016

“I now feel that almost everything I have written about liturgy in the past amounts to reinventing the wheel.” So wrote Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff after reading, late in his career, a work by Abraham Kuyper on worship.

Such are my own sentiments about James K.A. Smith’s newest book You Are What You Love. This book isn’t new content; it’s a re-working (at a much more accessible and popular level) of the theological ideas Smith put forward in Desiring the Kingdom (2009) and Imagining the Kingdom (2013). For over a decade I’ve been writing, preaching, and speaking about spiritual formation, liturgy, and discipleship – and I now realize I’ve largely been reinventing the wheel. Or maybe, to be slightly more generous, I’ve been intuitively sensing gaps and longings that Smith quite deftly elucidates, clarifies, and synthesizes.

James K.A. Smith is a scholarly academic who writes like a pastor. Like Peter Kreeft or J.I. Packer or Tom Wright, his mind clips along comfortably in the world of high-level academic philosophy, but his soul resonates with the ordinary church member. He possesses a unique skill in bringing these two worlds together. This book is perhaps his most successful attempt yet to land his insights about worship, culture, and spiritual formation in the living room of the average church member.

It’s not often that a book will change your next trip to the mall. This book will. It will also change your next college football game, your next PTA meeting, and your next family meal. I can’t say much more than that without a spoiler alert. But you’ll find a clue to the book’s argument in the subtitle: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Smith wants his readers to see that “liturgy” is not confined to the walls of the church. We are shaped by what we repeatedly do – and the culture around us is seeking to form us every day through “secular liturgies” that seep into our bones and shape our ultimate concerns without us even knowing it. Once our eyes are opened to the formative nature of these practices, we begin to see how idolatry is more caught than taught. And we begin to see more fully what it means for us to live in light of the gospel story. We are not “brains on a stick” who just need to embrace a Christian worldview; we are loving, desiring, worshiping beings who need our loves reoriented.

In a sense, You Are What You Love is an introduction to the Smithian corpus. Most of the insights in this book are worked out in greater detail in one of Smith’s other works. At a very basic level, Smith is seeking to change how the Christian church in America understands its task. You Are What You Love is a populist manifesto toward that end. This book begs to be read and discussed by every Christian and every church leader. It’s probably too much to say that the renewal of the church in America depends on these insights; but it’s certainly true that if we ignore them, renewal will be that much more elusive.

Consider these compelling chapter titles:

  • You Are What You Love: To Worship is Human
  • You Might Not Love What You Think: Learning to Read “Secular” Liturgies
  • The Spirit Meets You Where You Are: Historic Worship for a Postmodern Age
  • What Story Are You In? The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship
  • Guard Your Heart: The Liturgies of Home
  • Teach Your Children Well: Learning by Heart
  • You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies

If you’re looking for robust criticism of this work, you’ll have to look elsewhere; I resonate too deeply with the book’s premise to focus on its possible flaws. As Smith’s work gains traction and readership among American Christians, I imagine others will build upon the foundation he’s laying (or more accurately, the foundation Augustine laid). The book does leave some gaps; for instance, it fails to consider the formative nature of small-group discipleship. Smith focuses so strongly on the gathered worship of the church that he tends to blunt the importance of gospel-formation in smaller communities within the church. This and other weaknesses are forgivable, however, because this book succeeds so well at its primary purpose: returning us to a discipleship that shapes what we love, not just what we think.

GE_CoverMy new book Gospel Eldership releases April 4, 2016, from New Growth Press. What is this book and why did I write it?

Well, first of all, it’s not really a book in the classic sense of the word. It might be more accurate to call it a spiritual formation resource. It’s part theological tome, part small-group study, part personal development journal. It’s a tool for raising up and developing godly, wise, gospel-formed, spiritually mature elders for the future of the church.

The content was developed over the course of about 8 years. When we planted Coram Deo Church in 2005, we immediately set out to train and develop leaders to become elders and deacons and church planters. But we quickly discovered a scarcity of resources in this area. There were good biblical/theological books on eldership (Alex Strauch’s Biblical Eldership); there were good works on pastoral ministry (Eugene’s Peterson’s Working the Angles); and there were some decent resources on gospel centrality. But nothing that brought all of these strands together. And certainly nothing that was aimed at emerging/future elders rather than those already in pastoral ministry.

So in 2008, I set out to create something. First it was just discussion questions based on Strauch’s work. Then it became a fuller biblical/theological workbook focused on eldership. Then it became a stand-alone resource. The final product, which is being released under the title Gospel Eldership, is the fourth iteration of a training manual that’s been in development for almost a decade.

Here’s why that’s good news for you: it means this material has been field-tested. It’s been passed around on the Internet for years among churches in our network. Dozens of pastors and leaders have given feedback to make it better, stronger, and more helpful. The final product reflects years of shared wisdom among churches that take biblical eldership and gospel clarity seriously.

To my knowledge, this resource is in a category by itself. I’m not aware of anything similar on the market. Which is why I’m so excited to see Gospel Eldership released. I think it fills a vital niche that’s crucial to the flourishing of the church in the years to come.

I’d encourage you to check out a sample chapter online. New Growth Press will be running a number of promotions to celebrate the launch of the book, which should help you get it in the hands of leaders who need it.

If you’d be so kind as to spread the word about Gospel Eldership, I’d appreciate it!