The Way Of The Heart

The Transforming Friendship, by James Houston (Lion, 304 pp.; $14.95, hardcover); Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, by Eugene H. Peterson (Harper & Row, 151 pp.; $13.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Dallas Willard, author of The Spirit of the Disciplines and In Search of Guidance.

There are never enough good books on prayer. It is a subject we need help with. We are drawn to it, baffled by it, feel incompetent before it, and excluded from it; we try it (usually “fail”), avoid it, feel guilty about it. But we cannot give it up.

Now two teachers, both widely appreciated for their personal walk in the Spirit and their ability to guide others, explore major themes and approaches to this discipline. Their books will be helpful to those who are committed to incorporating prayer into the substance of their lives.

Heavenly Conversations

Eugene Peterson sees prayer as answering the God who has spoken. He would have us learn to answer by taking the Psalms as exemplar of what “answering God” is like. As many Christians throughout the ages have found, “praying the psalms,” speaking them out as our prayers, involves us in a spiritual and personal interchange between God and his people, and bends our whole being to the currents moving there. Though it has a long history, this use of the Psalms has been virtually lost to the Western church for a century or more, along with many other time-tested practices that can be counted on to produce growth in the spirit.

Not only does Peterson teach us about prayer, but he also explains the nature and content of the Book of Psalms. He locates the Psalms and prayer squarely in the midst of unvarnished human existence. What a relief it is when he tells us that “prayer is not particularly ‘nice,’ ” and goes on to make clear how the genius of “psalm language … is its complete disclosure of the human spirit as it makes response to the revealing God.” Narrative, rhythm, metaphor, and liturgy are given separate chapters. They prove to be what we live by, and, hence, to be the substance of the Psalms and of prayer, not mere decorations or subjects of scholarly research.

Perhaps the most helpful chapter is the one on “Enemies.” “The psalmists are angry people”—and so are most of us! But the psalmists help one “to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.” Chapters on the vital functions of remembrance and praise bring the book to a close.

Our Heavenly Friend

James Houston, who teaches spirituality at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, chooses friendship as the central feature of trinitarian reality, human nature, and salvation, and he argues that Christian prayer must therefore be viewed and practiced in this light. This “apostle of friendship” begins with a section on the desolate condition of “a world in fragments,” and moves in part two to the biblical world of prayer and the role of the Holy Spirit as Transforming Friend.

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Part three is the heart of the book, explaining how friendship and prayer characterize our relationship to Jesus Christ and provide insight into the joyous community of the Trinity. (Anyone interested in the nature of the Trinity should study this section.) Finally, in the last section, friendship and prayer are studied in the life of Paul and the history of the church.

The author convincingly shows that “prayer is at the heart of what it means to be human,” that “we need prayer simply to be a person.” At the same time, the friendship-prayer draws us “into the life of the three-in-one God, loving each person individually, and yet knowing their inseparable power.” Trinitarian faith and experience thus is the condition of human fulfillment.

Of all those now writing in English, James Houston surely is the one most knowledgeable of the devotional literature of the church. From this rich heritage, as well as from the Bible and his own deep experience, he inspires and guides us to walk, by prayer, in the love of God, under the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

The New Samaritans

The Samaritan Strategy: A New Agenda for Christian Activism, by Colonel V. Doner (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 247 pp.; $8.95, paper); Bringing in the Sheaves: Transforming Poverty into Productivity, by George Grant (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 221 pp.; $9.95, paper). Reviewed by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).

Perhaps the premier idol of our age is politics. There seems to be no problem that people do not now bring to the public square; even many Christians have allowed lobbying on behalf of the “social gospel” to supersede their carrying out of Christ’s Great Commission.

Christian Welfare

A welcome antidote to the church’s increasing reliance on government is George Grant’s Bringing in the Sheaves. Grant, director of the Christian Worldview Institute, has spent much of his career working with the poor. His goal is to provide “a practical primer” for families, churches, and private enterprises who wish to erect “effective programs of Biblical charity.”

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Bringing in the Sheaves is generally free from the ideological cant and “Biblical Scorecards” that mar so much Christian political analysis. Grant’s critique of the welfare system sounds conservative, but today many on the Left would agree with him. Moreover, he forgoes any partisan debate over competing reform proposals, instead calling Christians to care—personally—for their neighbors. “Welfare is not essentially or primarily the government’s job,” he writes. “Welfare is our job. It is the job of Christians.”

By collecting the practical experiences of organizations around the country, Sheaves will help Christians fulfill this responsibility. Grant examines not only what works, but also what does not work. The result is a guide that should stimulate believers to reach out to those around them, demonstrating what Grant calls “authentic Christianity.”

In particular, Grant warns that “guilt and pity,” the principal impulses behind many well-intentioned initiatives—especially broad outreaches to the generic poor—“are insufficient for the task of Biblical charity.” Instead, he recommends targeting a specific group, assessing their needs, developing personal relationships, and setting goals and priorities.

One example of a successful project is Houston’s HELP Services program, which tries to deal comprehensively with the poor, providing vocational training, job placement, money management, and adult-education courses, Christian day care, and tutoring for school-age children. Another is Chicago’s Jesus People USA’s jobs program, which started with job referrals but grew to include the formation of unskilled and skilled work crews and the creation of small businesses.

Righting The Right

While Grant has long been involved in humanitarian work, Colonel Doner is a recent convert to what he calls “the Samaritan strategy.” Doner, a former Religious Right activist, eats a large piece of humble pie in describing his departure from the fulcrum of American politics. Not only does he acknowledge “all the wrong turns and dead ends I’ve taken,” but he also admits that “the Christian Right failed in its mission because it was not perceived as Christ-like.”

His proposed remedy is to get Christians to recognize “the need for social justice and mercy” as well as righteous judgment. Doner argues that the way to assert genuine leadership that will be accepted, even sought out, by secular America is through good works. Doner is not, however, advocating a fundamentalist form of the social gospel, for he does not intend human compassion to replace godly salvation. Instead, he argues that “our redemption is more than a ticket to heaven, it is an obligation to actively serve.”

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The Samaritan Strategy does not advocate political noninvolvement; Doner believes that “civil government can and does play a major role” in a host of areas. But he emphasizes that “the process of governing” is merely one way of fulfilling our “primary purpose” of “service to our fellow man.”

His analysis is not without some glitches—his discussion of defense policy offers a simplistic hawkish agenda instead of a biblical approach, for instance. Nevertheless, Doner’s book is a stunning mea culpa by a political activist, which points the way for Christians to demonstrate true “servant-leadership.”

The Battle For The Marketplace

God in the Pits: Confessions of a Commodities Trader, by Mark A. Ritchie (Macmillan, 271 pp.; $18.95, hardcover); Biblical Principles and Business: The Foundations, ed. Richard C. Chewning (NavPress, 304 pp.; $15.95, paper). Reviewed by Robert A. Case II, president of Coldwell Banker Thayer Case.

“The whole country has a deep stake in the character of its merchants. It is they who regulate in a great measure the current morality of our cities, and our cities in turn make their mark upon the nation at large.” So wrote the great Presbyterian churchman H. A. Boardman in 1853.

What was true a century and a half ago is true today. And yet the church, particularly its seminary and pulpit arms, has been astonishingly ineffective in catechizing its merchant-princes in the Way. At a time when the national economies of the world are increasingly embracing capitalism with all its attendant benefits and hopes, the world’s leading capitalistic nation is increasingly bereft of moral leadership.

Two recent books attempt to address this moral bereavement.

Journey Of Ascent

An established genre of Christian business books is the anecdotal account of Christians in the marketplace. Into this genre falls God in the Pits: Confessions of a Commodities Trader, by Mark A. Ritchie. Given the recent investigation of Siegel Trading Company and International Trading Group by the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, this book comes at a very opportune time.

The fact that Ritchie is a very successful and thoughtful Christian is both encouraging and a bit daunting to those of less-substantial gifts and accomplishments. Being a mover and shaker in America’s commodities market, Ritchie has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and his book has received some attention by the secular media.

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In God in the Pits, Ritchie chronicles his journey from being a preacher’s kid in Oregon and Afghanistan through his college and seminary days to life on the Chicago Board of Trade, first as a commodities trader, and then as an owner of Chicago Research and Trading Group. Some of Ritchie’s personal reminiscences are moving, such as the description of his grief caused by the deaths of his brother Danny and a couple of his high-school pals. He also writes touchingly of his feelings about social discrimination in America and poverty in Afghanistan. Furthermore, several of his reflections on the brokerage business strike home and are conscience stirring for all those in the marketplace with a competitive nature.

Having said all that, it is as he wades into theological waters that Ritchie begins to flounder, and his stream-of-consciousness style becomes less effective. Being so personal, he can be too easily dismissed by the reader who is not able to relate to his experiences or who does not agree with his perceptions. His prescription for godly modeling in the marketplace is hard to follow since his personal odyssey takes him from “Fundamentalist dogma” (Dallas Theological Seminary) through existentialism (Jean-Paul Sartre) to a view of Christianity that is a synthesis of his particular journey (though not necessarily a convincing synthesis). If, however, the book is taken on its own terms—that is, the personal confessions of one Christian operating in the marketplace—then there is value here for the discerning reader.

A Rare Commodity

There is a general weakness in all testimonial approaches: Anecdotes provide good illustrations but no antidote to sinful practice and Christian ignorance. With anecdotes there is no “Thus saith the Lord!” A rigorous exegetical treatment of life in the marketplace is, however, a scarce commodity. Now that gap is being filled by the work of Richard Chewning. Chewning occupies the Chavanne Chair of Christian Ethics in Business at Baylor University and is perhaps the foremost evangelical business ethicist in the U.S. today. His writing has enriched and challenged thoughtful business people for years. In 1984 Chewning wrote a tour de force entitled Business Ethics in a Changing Culture, which should be standard fare in any Christian college business curriculum. The fact that this book is already out of print speaks loudly about the church’s lack of commitment to marketplace ethics and procedures.

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In his new effort—a four-volume series, Christians in the Marketplace—Chewning has gathered together various eminent evangelical thinkers and marketplace practitioners to write first and then discuss a wide range of subjects, all of critical interest to the Christian person in business. The first volume is Biblical Principles and Business: The Foundations.

While the theologians selected to contribute to this initial volume come from various theological perspectives, they all have one unifying conviction—“a high view of Scripture as the authoritative Word of God.” Contributors include Kenneth Kantzer, Myron Augsburger, Walter Kaiser, Vernon Grounds, Norman Geisler, John Jefferson Davis, and many others. Chewning himself comments on all the essays.

Chewning groups the theologians into pairs and allows them to square off on such subjects as “The Creation Mandate and the Great Commission,” “Absolutes in a Situational Environment,” “The Basis of an Ethical Appeal in the Marketplace,” and so on.

This is not bedtime reading for the casual Christian. This first volume is specifically designed for the “contemplative Christian business person” (as is the entire series).

What Richard Chewning’s project portends is nothing short of a revival of serious biblical thinking among Christian leaders in America’s marketplace. If that happens, and if Boardman was correct, then this series could rank itself alongside Thomas Chalmers’s nineteenth-century theological writings that so forcefully influenced the great evangelical Victorian prime minister William Gladstone.

The bottom line: Chewning keeps our business feet to the fire of the Lord, while Ritchie is helpful as a footnote on what should or should not be done.

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