Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things. 

By James M. Houston.
Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006.
Review by Lai Pak Wah, Tutor, Alumnus, 
Biblical Graduate School of Theology.

While studying at Regent College, some of my most enjoyable times were spent taking morning walks with the College’s founder: Prof. James Houston. This was the way by which he mentored and enriched generations of Regent students. So, it was my great delight to hear that Prof. Houston, at the urging of his son, has decided to pen down the spiritual convictions that he has embraced over his last eight and a half decades in Joyful Exiles.

Western Christianity, warns Houston, is in danger of losing its spiritual vibrancy and authenticity because of the negative influences of western secularism. According to Houston, the Christian life is, essentially, a life that is grounded in a joyful awareness of God’s transcendental reality in our everyday life. It is a life that is thoroughly assured of God’s love and deeply inspired by God’s eschatological promises for every believer. Such a spiritual vibrancy is clearly contrary to the unbelieving world. Unfortunately, it is also frequently rejected by many Christians and their ‘secularised institutions’. Consequently, Christians who desire to nurture an authentic Christian life would often find themselves marginalised and living like ‘exiles’ in the world, hence the title, Joyful Exiles.

Houston’s theme of joyful exile is developed over six essays. He begins in Chapter 1 by emphasising that the authentic Christian life can only be found when we conform ourselves to the image of Christ, i.e., to become a "godlike man [who] is not the hero who does extraordinary things, but the holy man who does good deeds." This, however, is a painful process for us because it demands our courageous embrace of all that is predicated in Christ’s life: self-denial, the rejection of worldly success and the mortification of sin. Yet, these sacrifices are worthwhile as they create the space in which we can deepen our self-knowledge and, most importantly, our communion with God.

Our growing intimacy with God, in turn, nurtures our openness to and experience of God’s transcendent reality in our everyday life. Houston explores this subject in Chapter 2, by first highlighting that mystical experiences are never foreign to Christians, both ancient and present. Such mystical visions, as Houston himself experiences, are often God’s means of encouraging Christians in our earthly pilgrimage and should never be perceived sceptically or with hostility. Having said this, Houston also cautions us against an overemphasis of our mystical visions over and against the teachings of Scripture. Indeed, such experiences must always be anchored in Christ, as taught through Scripture.

Ironically, as we deepen our friendship with God, tensions may develop in our relationships with fellow Christians! This is further explained in Chapter 3. Houston observes that, over time, Christians tend to develop formal organisation systems and structures (i.e., institutions) to manage the church. While such institutionalisation is necessary, it often distracts Christians to the extent that, practically speaking, the running of the church becomes the end in itself! For example, we may become so preoccupied with an orderly implementation of cell group meetings and ‘ministry targets’ that we neglect to discern the spiritual concerns of fellow Christians and how we may pray and minister to them. We may start deluding ourselves, thinking that a successfully conducted Bible study is equivalent to spiritual transformation! Worse, we may subtly marginalise those who are struggling with spiritual difficulties, thinking that spending excessive time with them is a hindrance to ministry goals! On the contrary, warns Houston, such institutionalisation of our faith often displaces the need and reality of God in the lives of Christians. Indeed, if our cell group meetings are so efficiently run, why do we still need God and prayer? Ultimately, these distortions create a Christianity that is devoid of spiritual vibrancy and heightens the implausibility (or ‘unbelievability’) of our Gospel.

To regain the plausibility of our Christian faith, continues Houston in Chapters 4 and 5, we must deepen our relationship with our Triune God. But, those of us who do so would often find ourselves marginalised or ‘exiled’ by fellow Christians. This is because intimacy with God must necessarily emphasise the importance of personal holiness, our eschatological hope and spiritual affections rather than institutional efficiencies or success. Alas, those who dare to live a life that is contingent upon God’s guidance will often find themselves moving against the grain of institutional ethos and incurring the displeasure of many.

Despite the difficulties that we might face, Houston comforts us in his concluding chapter that we need never endure this alone. Indeed, it is essential that we walk this path with like-minded Christians, i.e., Christians who are similarly determined to manifest Christ in their earthly lives. It is in the company of spiritual friends that we may encounter Christ deeper and discern Him better. It is in the company of such friends that we may be corrected or encouraged in our walk with Christ. And it is within this context that we may transmit the vibrancy of a life that is knitted with Christ to those who would come after us. Having benefited from my early morning walks with Prof Houston, I can certainly attest to the value of such spiritual friendships!

Joyful Exiles identifies a significant spiritual blind spot among many Singaporean Christians and churches: our technological or institutional tendencies towards spiritual utilitarianism and the substitution of a vibrant and authentic spirituality with mere ecclesiastical efficiency. How often do we pray as an afterthought and put our faith on the established systems and techniques of our institutions? How often do we ignore our sinful compulsions and refuse to deal with them by simply rationalising that we are spiritually OK as long as our Christian ministries are well-run? How often do we call for the multiplication of church members (i.e., spiritual ‘return on investment’) by marginalising those who need greater soul care but take up too much of our ‘ministry time’? How often have we abandoned many fruitful and worthwhile ministries just because they do not fit into the formal organisational objectives of our churches?

Truly, the message of Joyful Exiles is worthy of serious reflection by every Christian. Yet, we should never mistake it as a mere reprimand of our spiritual inconsistencies. Rather, it should be better understood as an invitation for all Christians to embrace the ‘eternal pleasures’ that God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

*Prof. James Houston’s course on "Psalms Through the History of the Church" will commence on April 4, 2007 at 7:15pm.

He will also be giving a Public Lecture on "The Paraclete and the Role of Christian Mentoring Today" on April 7 at 7.30 pm.

Both events will be held at Zion (Bishan) BP Church, 4 Bishan St 13, Sanctuary. Admission is free for the public lecture.

Introducing...

We continue with our review of journals currently received by BGST Library. This week we highlight

THE BANNER OF TRUTH

Written from a Reformed standpoint, this monthly journal explores aspects of Reformed piety covering topics like use of music in public worship, the Lord’s Prayer, preaching and Bible exposition, Bible doctrine, etc. The articles are written by ministers and professors from both UK, USA, Canada, Australia and other countries. Typical of the Reformed approach, they deal with a wide range of topics: doctrinal issues (like the perseverance of the saints), church structure (like the office of the Diaconate) and life in general (like lessons from nature and cloning human embryos). The book reviews are particularly helpful for those who want to delve deeper into certain issues and the News and Comment feature gives up-to-date information about what is happening worldwide in Reformed circles. There is, for instance, a note about a Christian Leaders’ Conference in Singapore from April 10-12 where the main speaker is Stuart Olyott , a retreat speaker at Shalom Reformed Baptist Church 17 years ago. His theme is Preaching. "The aims are to equip leaders to handle the Word in such a way as to glorify God and edify the saints."

So, if you are looking around for something light and easy to read and understand at BGST Library, you might find Banner of Truth to be what as a lay person you might enjoy. (Quek SH)

 

Chapel Notes

 We welcomed Rev Joseph Dakhum, BGST MDiv alumnus (1996), who shared at chapel on March 14 about his ministry in Yangon in churchplanting as well as the Bible School which he currently heads. He is taking leave to work for the MTh at BGST.

Chapel speaker on March 28 will be Mr Nicky Chong, Executive Director of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Come and learn more about the ministry of WBT.

 

Gideon’s Army Update

Since our last update, we are pleased to report that we have now 23 soldiers. We need 277 more soldiers. Please pray for God to touch their hearts for people to respond.

If you have not received a copy of the Gideon’s Army Letter, please call us or visit our website www.bgst.edu.sg for information.

 

News Bits 

An Intensive Course
by Prof. James Houston
"Psalms through the History of the Church"
(OT214/CH370, 
3 credits)

Dates: April 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16
Time: 7.15-10.15pm
Venue: 4 Bishan Street 13
Fees: $300 (for credit), 
$150 (by audit)

COURSE TOPICS:
The purpose of this course is to explore the rich treasury of the Psalms, which was the only text of the Scriptures accessible to the laity throughout the history of the Church. Viewed as a ‘mini-Bible,’ we will explore the changing use and value of the Psalter through many cultural differences in the history of the church. It is hoped that the course will widen and deepen the devotional life of the participants.

  1. The Psalms in Hebrew Worship

  2. The Psalms in the New Testament
  3. The Psalms in the Worship of the Early Church
  4. The Psalms in the Christological Polemics of the Church Fathers
  5. The Psalms in the Monastic Life of the Early Middle Ages
  6. The Devotional and Reforming Role of the Psalter in the Later Middle Ages
  7. The Psalms in Renaissance and Tudor Humanism
  8. The Psalms in the Reformation and 17th century
  9. Psalms and Hymnody in the Evagelical Awakening of the 18th century
  10. The Recovery of Psalmic Consciousness To-Day

Please visit our website for the course description. For registration, you can e-mail us at inquiry@bgst.edu.sg or register on-line.

 

 A Blessed Birthday to…

Mr Simon Liew 26/3
Mrs Tan Lee Lee 26/3
Mrs Lai Siew Lian 29/3
Ms Jeanie Kou 29/3
Ms Audrey Lao 29/3
Dr Koh Tse Yuen 30/3
Ms Lee Hui Ling 31/3
Ms Wong Kai Yun 31/3

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