Monthly Archives: September 2008

Book Review: The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield

Stephen Mansfield. The Faith of Barack Obama. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008. 164pp. $19.99. Reviewed by Matthew Carroll.

Stephen Mansfield has done well in this brief book about Barack Obama’s life and faith. Presidential biography makes some of the most interesting reading, and the story of presidential candidate Barack Obama is among the most remarkable. I am grateful for the opportunity to read and review the book. It has helped me to better know who Obama is, and understand his significance.

Perhaps most interesting to me is that Obama, if elected, would be the first “Third Culture Kid” to become president. One of the aspects of Obama’s life that Mansfield makes clear is that Obama is a “man without country” (xvi). He was too white for his black friends, and too black for the society of his white grandparents. He was born in Hawaii, and barely knew his father from Kenya. A significant portion of his childhood was spent in Indonesia where his step-father introduced him to folk-Islam. And his mother sent him to a Catholic school, though she herself taught Obama her “atheistic optimism” (14).

Technically, John McCain is also a TCK, born in the Panama Canal Zone, and moved from base to base much of his childhood, though in my opinion, as far as cultural diversity goes, that does not hold a candle to running barefoot in the streets of Jakarta.

As a TCK myself, I find Obama’s biography fascinating. Raised in Colombia of American parents, I can identify with the feeling of being neither fish nor fowl. I can sympathize with his longing for belonging, and yet never quite fitting in. And even when apparently finding some birds of a feather, I know the feeling of resting lightly on the roost. Mansfield describes Obama’s association with Jeremiah Wright’s church and suggests that Obama was able to attend there for 20 years and “take the chicken and spit out the bones” (64). I can attest to the TCK’s ability to pick and choose wherever he goes. In my past 15 years as an adult TCK, as I moved from assignment to assignment, I have participated in a dozen churches on four different continents. Of these churches, I only left two for doctrinal reasons. The others I stayed and got plugged in despite the flaws—and found the Lord still worked in me and made me useful in that season. But I have little assurance that Obama would have the foundation to pick and choose rightly. Being raised in an atheist and Muslim home, attending a Catholic school, I don’t see where Obama would ever have received the biblical instruction required to have the discernment to pick and choose from Jeremiah Wright’s sermons. All the same, I will give Obama the benefit of the doubt. I will grant that he may have able to receive some benefit from the good, bring his own contribution as well, and leave most of the bad to the side. If this is true, it stems not from any superior skill of Obama’s, but from God’s sovereign ability to use imperfect vessels to accomplish His purposes.

This brings me to the main thing that troubles me about Obama. Mansfield quotes from Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, that “he was seeking a ‘vessel’ for his values, a ‘community of shared traditions in which to ground my most deeply held beliefs’” (24, 52). This concerns me because it appears that Obama came not to faith and a church because he was drawn to Christ, but because he already had a “faith” of his own making and sought a sympathetic community not unlike a virus seeks a host to draw the basic requirements to pass on life. The Gospels record several people who wanted to be included among Jesus’ followers, but on their own terms (Matt. 8:19-22; Luke 9:57-62). Jesus turned all of them away, because “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself” (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23). No one can come to Christ with his own agenda; Christ is Lord, He sets the agenda.

Furthermore, Mansfield quotes from Audacity that “rather than ‘renounce the world and its ways’” Obama “was pleased that his faith would not require ‘retreat from the world that I knew and loved’” (53). This raises red flags in my mind, for though Jesus’ followers are “in the world” (John 17:11), we are not to be “of the world” (John 15:19). Likewise John in his first epistle writes “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). If Obama is pleased with his faith because it has not required him to forsake the world he knew and loved before his conversion, then I must express serious doubts that Obama has found biblical, saving faith.

If I could hazard a guess at where Obama is spiritually in his own mind, I would draw from the words he used to describe his own mother. In a caption to a photo on page 68, Mansfield records Obama as having written, “For all her secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person I have ever known.” Obviously Obama is not speaking with scriptural understanding here because no atheist is spiritually awakened in the biblical sense. Without Christ, we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). I believe Obama intends to pay his mother a compliment in calling her “spiritually awakened.” The way the world understands these words, being spiritually awakened merely means appreciating beauty in others different than one’s self and acknowledging an immaterial dimension to reality. Ann Dunham raised her son well, and I suspect there is a great deal of her still in him. Though many are eager to say Obama is a Christian, and proud of it, it might be more accurate to say he is “spiritually awakened” as the world would understand it, and he has associated himself with Christianity in order to give his spirituality expression.

Unfortunately, Mansfield was not able to interview Obama personally, and since I have not read any of Obama’s books myself, I will stop short of pronouncing Obama an infidel. But after reading The Faith of Barack Obama, the best I can say is that I hope this is not the final definitive word on Obama’s faith. Obama is still a young man. I pray that the Lord will indeed save Barack Obama. Jesus is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him (Hebrews 7:25).

Book Review: The Leadership Dynamic by Harry L. Reeder III

Harry L. Reeder III. The Leadership Dynamic: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.189pp. $12.99 (paper). Reviewed by Matthew Carroll.

I was once asked to assemble a book list of recommended titles on Christian leadership. Immediately, J. Oswald Sanders’s classic Spiritual Leadership came to mind, but not much else. After consulting other pastors and seminary professors, I realized that much has been written on leadership attempting to apply a corporate business model to the church, but very little has been published on leadership from a biblical perspective. Therefore, the book list project was scrapped, but just this month, Harry L. Reeder III, pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama has come out with a book on leadership in the church.

The Leadership Dynamic is the book I would have liked to have had at the top of my book list on leadership a couple years ago. Harry Reeder’s conviction is that “The Christian church must become a leadership factory and distribution center for the world, and by the grace of God, it can – if we return to both the biblical definition of leadership and the biblical method of producing leaders for the church and the world” (15). Reeder’s dream is to hear the words of Acts 17:6 uttered again, even upon the lips of an adversary, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (22). In order to see this come about, we need what Reeder calls 3-D Leadership: “The church must follow the Bible’s model for defining, developing, and deploying leaders while simultaneously rejecting the world’s leadership models and standards” (15).

Chapters 2 through 11 flesh out the ideal of 3-D Leadership. Christ’s threefold mission on earth was to save sinners (Mt. 1:21), to destroy the works of Satan (1 Jn. 3:8), and to purchase his church (Eph. 5:25-27). Reeder finds “embedded in achieving his threefold mission is the strategy of leadership multiplication of servant leaders for the kingdom” (35). A leader is defined as one who “influences others to effectively achieve a defined mission together” (43).

In Chapter 5 Reeder deals with the lists of qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 and distills them into four requirements for leaders in the church: 1) the existence of a divine call, including an internal aspiration and an external affirmation, 2) that godliness is more important than giftedness, 3) that effective leaders must develop a grace-driven and disciplined lifestyle, and 4) that leaders are position-bearers, not position-wearers.

In this same chapter, Reeder describes three traps to avoid: indolence, immorality, and insubordination. Here, unfortunately, Reeder is unclear on whether an elder or pastor who commits adultery may ever be restored to his position. He asks the question, “Can a leader who falls to adultery or fornication be restored and reconciled in the home and in the church?” and responds, “Yes—sexual immorality is not the unforgivable sin. But it is extremely destructive to the element of trust that’s so essential to leadership, and full restoration to authority will, of necessity, require much supervised time and effort” (60). However, on the following page, Reeder describes an accountability group he has been a member of for 25 years. In this group each member has agreed that if any one of the group is guilty of “violating [his] marriage covenant, he must leave the pastoral ministry. For us, the door to leadership and ministry swings open one way and only one time” (61). Reeder’s personal conviction seems to be that a pastor or elder needs to be a one-woman kind of man; it doesn’t make sense that he allows in general the remote possibility that a Christian leader who has proven himself not to be a one-woman man could then return to his former position.

In Chapter 12, Reeder sums up his vision that through 3-D Leadership the church could once again become a leadership factory and distribution center for the world. Reeder writes passionately about a topic near to his heart, and with only a few exceptions, supports his points well from Scripture. Though Reeder includes no examples from modern corporate leadership, he takes many examples and illustrations from military history, using them to good effect throughout. The Christian life is spiritual warfare, so we should not be surprised, Reeder affirms, that biblical leadership more closely resembles a battle than a board meeting.

To cite just one example, Reeder relates the story of Lieutenant Colonel Moore, who during the Vietnam War was known for his leadership skills. One story is told of Moore that in a training exercise, a squad leader was “killed.” Moore declared, “You are dead! Now, who do you have ready to take your place?” Reeder employs this story to illustrate one of his leadership maxims that “great leaders always prepare to reproduce and multiply themselves” (68).

I left the foreign mission field to enroll in seminary in order to be equipped to return overseas and train men to effectively proclaim the Word of God. Pastor Harry Reeder is a like-minded brother-in-arms, and I heartily recommend The Leadership Dynamic as a resource to anyone who is about the work of training faithful men who are able to teach others also.

From the Publisher:
Product page: The Leadership Dynamic: A Biblical Model for Raising Effective Leaders.
Read the Preface and Chapter 1. [PDF]

About the Author:
Harry L. Reeder III earned an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary and a DMin from Reformed Theological Seminary. He is senior pastor of the 4,000-member Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. He is also the author of From Embers to a Flame.

An I Can Read Story

Of course every parent thinks their kid is the smartest. 

Or do they?
Recently I was in line at the grocery store and observed a mother with her daughter in the grocery cart. The girl, maybe 5 years old, had plucked a board book from a rack and was whining that she wanted it. Her mom responded, “What do you want that for?!? You can’t even read!” 
Mother and daughter continued to repeat this point and counterpoint until I left the store and could hear them no more. Broke my heart. Surely there are 100 better ways to tell your child, “No, we’re not buying that right now.”
     *     *     *     
Nathanael loves to ride elevators–there are so many buttons to push! Tonight we entered an elevator, and before I could grab him, he set off the alarm (Why do they put that big red button where a 2 year old will find it?). 
I picked up Nathanael to prevent any more alarms, and from his higher altitude, he could see more bottons, and started shouting “Two! Three!”
When we got home, I opened a jar of canned mush for Nathanael and broke open a pack of colorful magnetic numbers. We played with numbers 1 through 5. I asked Nathanael to show me the three. “Three!” he shouted, pointing to the big number 3 on his jar of baby food.
Kid does not miss a thing.
Now if he would only tell us where he hid his mother’s car keys.