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Book Notes ~ March 2016

I have begun to get serious about coming up with a good research question to apply for a Ph.D program, so you'll notice that books about Thai church history and missions will come up more frequently in coming months.  But it is good to have diversity too, so Scotland and Vikings also feature in this month's book round-up. 

Khrischak Muang Nua: A Study in Northern Thai Church History

Khrischak Muang Nua book cover

When I opened this book, I anticipated a simple summary of the activities of 19th missionaries in Northern Thailand, bravely overcoming difficulties, and planting the first churches in the region. Instead, I discovered a scathing critique of the early American Presbyterian missionaries of the Laos Mission (present-day Northern Thailand), showing how they failed to 1) provide pastoral leadership and 2) train pastors for the church. They failed to do these things because they overemphasized evangelism / expansion, poured a lot of time into building schools and hospitals, and thought that local Christians were childlike and not ready for leadership. I found page after page of disturbing things about these early missionaries that made me shake my head. I wish many of them were not true but author Herb Swanson has done a thorough job of scouring the archives of Payap University, providing copious primary source documentation for his critique, which I found myself largely agreeing with. From the outset, the author is honest about his particular perspective (which could be fairly called "theologically liberal") and this perspective certainly influences his evaluation of the missionaries' policy of "expansionism" (as he calls it) and their attitude towards Buddhism. However, he has done his homework and his critique should be read and seriously considered by all missionaries in Thailand today.

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Sola Scriptura vs Sola Experientia

Horace Vernet, Jeremiah on the ruins of Jerusalem (1844)
Many Christians today use human reason to determine the meaning of their personal experiences more than they use the Bible.  Many who do so would deny that they are doing so, and often times they are aided in that claim by pastors and preachers who have torn some Bible verses out-of-context in order to “prove” that a certain experience should be validly interpreted in a certain way.  In response to this trend towards forming beliefs based on experience rather than Scripture, some other Christians raise the cry of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone), harkening back to the return to the authority and sufficiency of the Bible which was championed at the time of the Protestant Reformation.

But sadly, this call to “Sola Scriptura” is often misunderstood to mean that experience has no place in the Christian life.  That is blatantly false.  Both today and in the Scripture, experience is an essential and valid part of the Christian life.  But the value and meaning of experience all depends on what we use to interpret our experience. 

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Book Notes ~ February 2016

I am continuing on in my attempt to read 50 books this year. This month I read books on miracles, marriage, a famous medical anomoly (I think you have heard of them), and J.I. Packer (sorry, I couldn't come up with another "M).

The Two: The Story of the Original Siamese Twins

the two siamese twins book cover

This was a very long, but very interesting and detailed story of Chang and Eng, a very famous pair of co-joined twins, from which the expression “Siamese twins” originates.  I was interested to read this book because of the Thai connection (I live in Thailand) but only the first chapter deals with their early years in Siam (now Thailand).  The rest of the book chronicles their life in the United States, painting a vivid picture of both their unique circumstances and claim to fame, and also rich descriptions of daily life in mid-19th century America.  After touring for a number of years, the twins settled down in North Carolina and married two sisters (who were not twins) and had numerous children.  The authors did a massive amount of  research, and the book is filled with tons of excerpts from primary sources, which gives a nice historical feel to the book.  The authors say very little about the twins' religious faith, although it seems that they were nominal Buddhists as young men in Thailand, and became nominal Christians as a result of living in the United States

 

 

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Instructions for New Missionaries to Thailand (1846)

The letter replicated below is the first letter of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission to its out-going missionaries to Siam in 1846.  One other missionary from the American Presbyertian Mission had gone to Siam (now Thailland) previously, but he returned to the United States after only a few years because of his wife's health.  

It is interesting to note the priorities of the sending church (and its denominational agency) more than 150 years ago, and to compare those priorities to those of missionaries today.  Language study was prioritized, as was evangelism, although medical and publishing work were seen as useful primarily as a means to the evangelistic work.   While the world has changed greatly in 150 years, this letter reminds me of how much has basically stayed the same in the work of missions and evangelism over the years.

A print copy of this letter may be found in "Historical Sketch of Protestant Missions in Siam 1828-1928"Historical Sketch of Protestant Missions in Siam 1828-1928", edited by G.B. McFarland.

 

Mission House, New York, 10th July 1846 

Rev. S. Mattoon 

Dr. S. R. House, M. D 

 

Dear Brethren,

In going out to resume the Mission in Siam, it is proper that you take with you the instructions of the Executive Committee in reference to that field of Missionary labor.

  1. When you are permitted to enter upon your work, we shall be glad to hear from you once a month or as near these periods as you have an opportunity of sending. Letters by way of Canton will come with those of the brethren to China. Thin paper must be used for one letter a month via Canton overland. Other letters with your Journals, annual reports etc., sent by way of Canton will your reach us by ships from China.
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What is a Grace-Centered Church?

“Our church is grace-centered.”  

“We need more gospel-centered preaching.”  

The terms “grace-centered” and “gospel-centered” are sometimes used to describe the emphasis of a church or ministry, but I suspect that not everybody knows what they mean. “Don’t all Christians believe in grace?” “Don’t all churches preach the Gospel?”  In this post, I want to briefly explain what these words mean and why they matter.  (Some people might draw a distinction between “grace-centered” and “gospel-centered” but in practice they are largely interchangeable)

Like most technical terms, the expressions “grace-centered” and “gospel-centered” have developed in reaction to something else.  All broadly evangelical or pentecostal churches (or even liberal churches) would say that they preach grace and love the Gospel.  And, of course, the words “grace” and “Gospel” show up in most discussions of Christianity.  But are they at the center?  Is “grace” the main thing which shapes the thinking, speech, and actions of your church?  Is “gospel” something that only needs to be preached for evangelistic events?  Is “gospel” simply a type of music?  Is “gospel” used loosely as a umbrella term for any nice, Christian thing you do to help your community?

While people use “grace” and “gospel” in different ways, those who use the terms “grace-centered” and “gospel-centered” generally define them somethings like this:  Grace is God’s unmerited favor towards sinners.  The Gospel is God’s promise of salvation to all who repent  from their sin and trust in Christ alone.  Those definitions could be expanded on with more theological precision and nuance but the important thing I want to bring out in this post is what it means to have the Gospel of grace at the center of the life of a church.  Here are three reasons why “grace-centered” churches believe it is necessary to put grace at the center of the life of the church (aside from the fact, of course, that the Gospel of grace is the center of the teaching of Scripture).

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Book Notes ~ January 2016

I am starting a new monthly feature of my blog, called “Book Notes”.  Each month I will write some brief notes on the books that I have read during the previous month.  My goal is to share with others what I have been reading and thinking about in hopes that perhaps someone else will discover a new book that will be interesting and helpful to them as well.   

Last year I spent too much time on Facebook, scrolling the newsfeed, reading interesting yet non-essential articles, and engaging in discussion and debate with other Facebookers (only some of whom are actual friends).  I don’t think that that was the best use of my time. For 2016, I have decided to drastically scale back on my Facebook usage.  I figured out that if I eliminate (as much as possible) my internet usage in the evening, I can spend an hour or more reading each night after the kids go to bed.  If I add in time spent reading on the Bangkok sky train and listening to audiobooks as I drive, I hope to dedicate a lot of time to reading this year.   

About a month ago, around New Year’s 2016, I read Tim Challies’s “100 Book Challenge” to read 100 books in 2016.  That seemed a bit too much for me but I have decided to try to read 50 books this year, or about 1 book per week.  Of course, there are no merit badges just for finishing books, but I think that reading whole books will give me much more information and food for thought than reading short blog articles that I happen to find online.  Hopefully, all this reading will help me be better equipped to teach my students at Bangkok Bible Seminary and to write Facebook and blog posts on missions, church, and theology.  It is sometimes tempting to abandon social media all together, but I can’t bring myself to pull the plug. I still see too many benefits.  However, I have decided to change my approach to social media.  I will spend less time online and more time reading books and creating meaningful content to post and share, rather than just reacting and responding to whatever shows up in my newsfeed.

So, without further ado, here are my book notes on what I have finished reading in January 2016. Hopefully you’ll find a book that you’d like to read.