Dead Man’s Faith: A Review

25 October 2022

Back in 2019, John Niemela of Message of Life Ministries wrote an article-length review of my Dead Man’s Faith. John sent me a draft of the review before it was published, but I’ve never been able to link to it because the review was behind a paywall.

It is now in the open. The article begins on page 71 of this file.

I’m deeply grateful for his kind words and thoughtful review. I still plan to rework the material into a popular-level book at some point, and when I do, I’ll be taking his perspective into account. In the meantime, if you want the Cliff-notes version of my book, John’s review is a great overview of the high points and I highly recommend it to you.


Like Bread and Wine

19 March 2019

Over the next couple years, I’ll be involved in a protracted engagement with a number of people who are actively involved in using 3DM resources and applying their methods. I plan to discuss my experience here at some length; I hope these articles will be a help to others who are considering the brokenness of American church culture and considering various answers to it.

3DM offers one set of answers, and far from the only one. (There’s also Soma, Theopolis Institute, Trivium Institute, Greyfriars, Acts 29…the list goes on and on. And yes, those are not necessarily comparable organizations, which in itself illustrates the diversity of approaches.) I don’t think 3DM’s approach is The Answer To Everything; I found an earlier iteration of their material to be basically unworkable in my context, but still helpful and worth engaging. What I’m engaging now is a further iteration of their material, and I’m now in a different context, so…we’ll see how it goes. (That said, if you’re the kind that picks up your toys and goes home the minute you encounter unfamiliar terminology or an exegetical mistake, you’re going to find this difficult reading. But then, if you’re that kind, you’re probably over at Lighthouse Trails anyhow.)

3DM’s approach and resources present as a highly integrated, highly polished, highly developed system. So here’s the thing with systems like that. You stumble around, knowing you have a problem and not sure what to do. You find someone who has a couple of suggestions that look promising, so you look into their ideas a little further. The more you look into their system, the more you find. It’s all been carefully thought through; there are answers to everything! Everything fits together! Whether it’s a system of doctrine like Reformed theology or Dispensationalism, or a system of praxis like the 12 steps or 3DM, exploring a new system can be an intoxicating experience.

And “intoxicating” is the key. When you take in too much, too fast–faster than you can metabolize it–you get stupid and make bad choices. But like a fine wine, a good system can add value to your life, if you can take it in moderation, in doses you can metabolize. (Thanks to my pastor-theologian friend Tim Soots for the metaphor; he was talking about Barth at the time, but it applies just as well to other systems.)

Highly developed systems are also like a loaf of good bread: if the system is properly designed, the ingredients are well integrated to the point of being hard to recognize as separate entities. That is a design feature. Nobody eats eggs, flour, water, yeast, salt, and oil separately and thinks it’s the same thing as good bread. And if you find a lump of flour in the middle of your bread, it’s not good bread. The ingredients working together harmoniously is the point.

But every strength has a corresponding weakness. If the bread has one ingredient in it that you personally can’t digest — eggs, say — how can you eat it? It’s not like you can pick the eggs out of the loaf. And if, through some oversight, the baker has mixed in a quarter-cup of iron filings, then the loaf isn’t just useless to you; it’s bad for anybody.

At their finest, bread and wine become sacramental vehicles through which we experience Christ. At worst, they fully integrate indigestible and unhelpful ingredients, or make us drunk and stupid through overindulgence.

Wisely engaging a developed system (of doctrine or praxis) is not a simple task. It’s not really enough to simply glorify or condemn the finished product. The job is do take your time and unravel it. Dive deep into the ingredients, and examine how they work together. See what’s true and false, what’s bound to a particular context, what’s applicable to your own situation.

That’s what I intend to do here. Over the next few years, I’ll be writing a few different kinds of posts in this series:

  1. Autobiographical accounts of engaging and using 3DM tools and training (when I do)
  2. Reviews of 3DM resources
  3. Critical engagement with three particular content areas in 3DM training and resources: their use of Scripture, their underlying theology, and their grasp of the real world (pedagogical theory, culture formation, contextualization, etc.)

I hope it proves helpful to you. If you’re interested, you can keep up with these posts by checking on the 3DM category.

Voting on the Wolf

20 August 2018

[EDIT: There’s been some complaint about this “anonymous” article, so let’s set the record straight: my name is Tim Nichols, I live in Englewood, and I wrote this piece. This is my blog, my name is on the About page, and every article on here is written by me, in case anybody was wondering.]

We are children of Abraham by faith; we are called to be a blessing. We like to think that our call to blessing means we can be nice to everybody, all the time, and we’re wrong. That’s just wishing to live in a world that doesn’t exist. It is pretending that you can love sheep and never raise your hand to a wolf. That may be true for a while, but only as long as there aren’t any wolves around. When the wolves come, the shepherds fight. And the people who professed to love sheep, but “don’t want to get involved” as the wolves feast, are revealed for what they are: hypocrites, cowards, sentimentalists addicted to an insipid niceness that’s a poor substitute for love.

In Englewood, Christians stand at that crossroads. The situation will be sharpest for the voters of District 3, but the whole city is deeply affected, and city-wide discussion is appropriate. In late August, the city will mail out ballots asking whether to recall Council Member Laurett Barrentine. The voters of District 3 will have to decide on one of three responses: yes, no, or refuse to answer.

Let’s talk first about refusing to answer. In our democratic republic, all voters are bound by the challenge to civil magistrates to function as “God’s servant for good” (Romans 13:4). When a police officer ignores a bank robber, preferring to “not get involved” in such messy business, we all see this for what it is: willful desertion of his duty. When a matter comes to a vote, voters are in the same position. By God’s good providence, they are involved. (That doesn’t mean abstention is never the right thing to do, but a voter need a reason to abstain, just as he needs a reason to vote yes or no. No one gets to wash their hands, Pilate-like, and pretend that somehow absolves them of responsibility.)

Moving beyond futile attempts to remain loftily above the fray, let’s talk about voting yes or no. The charges against Barrentine are serious and well-founded. She has habitually sowed conflict and division in the city, in order to champion one side against the other for her own private advantage. This is something that God hates (Proverbs 6:19), and Christians are required to oppose it. She has used her position of power to falsely accuse those who help our poorest and most vulnerable citizens–and this while claiming the name of Christ. In that respect she is precisely what the Pharisees were, and Jesus would be at war with her, as He was with them. She has spread gossip and lies about various city employees, accusing them of incompetence, criminal negligence, and conspiracy. It has gotten so bad that a number of valuable employees have sought employment elsewhere. Proverbs tells us exactly what to do about this: cast out the scorner, and the strife will cease.

You can review the evidence for those claims at (; I’m not going to rehash it all here. The point for our purposes is that if the claims in the above paragraph are true (and they are), every Christian in District 3 should vote to recall Barrentine, and should do so because they are Christians.

There is simply no Christian way to vote “no” without concluding that the claims are not true, or that there’s insufficient evidence to support them. (Given Barrentine’s talent for deception, a good Christian could mistakenly vote against the recall. I am saying that it would be a mistake, and a pretty serious failure of discernment at that.)

But the point for our purposes today is that a Christian voter has an obligation at this point to review the evidence, and having examined the evidence, to get involved. This is the kind of controversy where Christians should take a very public stand. Let me tell you how I came to that conclusion.

What Would Jesus Do?

“What would Jesus do?” can be a hard question to answer. Jesus regularly surprised everyone, even the disciples who knew Him best and walked with Him for three years. 

Jesus didn’t treat everyone the same; He knew that He had different responsibilities upward, toward God, inward, toward God’s people, and outward, toward the world. He was also called to fulfill three very different roles: priest, king, and prophet. Jesus calls us to follow Him, to live our lives by the patterns He set. Since He’s not fulfilling only one role, there’s never just one answer. In any given situation, there’s a priestly response, a kingly response, and a prophetic response; we have to ask what God is calling us to do in that particular situation.

The priestly response is to bless, despite everything, and that is where we started. My allies and I have been working hard to bless our city for years now, both on our own and in coordination with others who want to help. We now find the people we are pastorally responsible for being injured by a wolf in our midst. At that point, I felt compelled to do something more direct. 

We moved next to a prophetic response. We challenged the lies, gossip, and hypocrisy directly, naming the sins for what they were in multiple city council meetings. That was not fun, and we had to defend the necessity of it to many of our friends and allies, who hadn’t ever seen that side of us before. (Our earlier essay, “Speaking with an Edge: The Biblical Case for Hard Words,” laid out the case for doing what we did there.) Barrentine did not respond well to the rebuke and doubled down on her ugly behavior.

Unfortunately, that makes it necessary for the people of Englewood to recall her. Supporting that recall effort by talking with people, writing, putting out yard signs, and every other way I can–that’s the kingly response. I am doing that, and I am doing it because Jesus requires it of me.

This is not something like a municipal bond issue, where good Christians can legitimately be on either side of the issue. There is no Christian way of approaching this issue that leads to the conclusion “vote to keep the wolf in office.” And if you live in District 3, you can no longer avoid the question except by willfully abdicating.

Bible Curriculum Samples

30 December 2013

Headwaters Christian Resources has just released a brand-new Bible curriculum sample packet containing 3-4 lessons from each of the three years: Old Testament, New Testament, and Christian Worldview. Of course the intent is to fascinate you so that you buy our curriculum when it’s released this spring — but quite apart from that, consider what you’re getting. The samples consist of entire lessons, and most of them will teach well as stand-alone lessons. They’re yours, absolutely free. We encourage you to read them for your personal benefit, and use them in whatever venues you like. Have a look!


1 October 2009

I have updated the Gospel Discussion page, for those of you who follow such things. Not much new info, if you’ve been reading here regularly, but maybe organized a bit better.

Sons of Korah

22 February 2009

Friday night some friends and I went to see the Sons of Korah in concert at Calvary Chapel of Montebello.

I’ve been hooked on Sons of Korah since my first visit to Australia in 2001, but I’ve never had the chance to see them live.  They’re an Australian group based in Melbourne, which rather seriously impaired my chances in any case, and when they did make it to the US, their tours were largely confined to the Midwest.

Not anymore.  This time they’re playing a number of Calvary Chapel churches and some other venues in California, and best of all, a pastors’ conference in San Diego.

It was incredible.

It’s a little difficult to explain the experience.  We hear the word ‘concert’ and instantly categorize the affair: guys up front playing instruments and singing, yeehaw.  It’s another Christian rock band.

But no.

First of all, these guys sing psalms.  Not, please notice, soulful ballads based on the psalms, nor peppy choruses made up of two lines from a psalm.  They sing whole psalms, beginning to end, set to music that will adorn the words and suit the themes of the inspired text.

That ‘beginning to end’ part is important.  I’m a big fan of metrical psalms, but there’s a serious problem: when you turn a psalm into a hymn, you’re going to sing the first verse and the last verse to the same tune. This is a problem because there are an awful lot of psalms that have multiple moods.  The psalm may start out grabbing God by the lapels and demanding “Where are You??  Why aren’t you doing anything about this??”  It may go on to rehearse the evil deeds of the psalmist’s oppressors, and then rehearse the many times that God has delivered His people in the past, and close with a vow to praise God in His sanctuary when He delivers from the present trial.  That’s at least two movements, musically, and it would be better with four.  One tune, repeated four times hymn-style, can’t possibly cover the emotional range of such a psalm.  So to really hear the psalm the way it’s meant to be heard, you need to hear it through-composed with an arrangement custom-built for it.

That’s what Sons of Korah do.  And they are gooood at it (click the album art in this post for some samples.)

And they do it for free.

You read that right.  They make some money on CD sales, but they charge nothing to come and do a concert.

Why would they do that?  Because it’s their ministry.  All they need is enough invitations in one tour-able area to cost-justify the trip, and they’re willing to come.  Their goal is to get the word out.  As Sons of Korah founder and front man Matt Jacoby put it last night, the goal is “to wake people up to the psalms.”  Concert performance allows the widest possible range of musical expression, so that’s what they focus on.  Future projects may include teaching tools and arrangements for congregational singing, but for now, performance is the tool that brings the most people into meaningful contact with the psalms quickly.

These guys ought to be in much greater demand than they are.  They should be buried under years’ worth of invitations.  A cynical man might take the fact that they are not as an indication that the church has simply lost its taste for God’s songs, that the church would prefer not to know how to handle its worship, its prayers, and its emotions in a way that requires faith.  All of that is certainly true in some measure.  But I prefer to think that most believers just don’t know the Sons of Korah exist.

Now you do.

News: Winning NanoWriMo

15 December 2008

nanonovember120x238Ten years ago, a merry maniac by the name of Chris Baty decided it would be a good idea to try to write a novel in a month.

This is obviously ridiculous.

But he did it, and got people to join him.  The event is called National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo), and it takes place every November.

To clarify, the challenge is to write a 50,000-word first draft of a novel entirely in the month of November.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  It doesn’t have to be edited.  It doesn’t even have to be finished.   It does have to be nonexistent until midnight on November 1 — no starting early — and at least 50,000 words long no later than midnight, November 30.

Last year, my darling wife did it — starting late and finishing early, even — and I made taquitos and encouraged her when she thought she wasn’t going to make it.  It looked like so much fun I decided that I’d join her this year, circumstances permitting.  Well, circumstances didn’t really permit, but I decided to join her anyway.  I could always quit if I was failing horribly.  And besides, 50,000 words sounds like a lot, but spread over 30 days it’s only 1,667 words a day, which is not all that bad.  After all, I’ve banged out 10,000-word position papers in an afternoon; 1,667 words a day should be easy.

I was behind from the very first day.

1,262 words behind, in fact.  The next two days were so busy I didn’t even try to write — which put me even further behind.  By the morning of November 4, I needed to write 6,263 words by midnight just to get caught up.

I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong; I wrote a very respectable 2,007 words that day.  But it wasn’t close to enough.

It got worse from there.  When I went to bed on November 21, I  still needed almost 28,000 words — more than half the total — and I had only 9 days to go.  Meanwhile, I had no idea where my plot was going, and my wife was in worse trouble than I was.  Her writing process is to talk about what she’s writing.  A lot.  As she talks, and people comment and ask questions, ideas come to her, and then she goes and writes them down.  Last year, that worked wonderfully, because I was supporting her.  This year, though, I was writing.  My writing process is to say nothing, and write in utter solitude and silence.

Cracks were beginning to appear in the domestic bliss.

The spectre of failure loomed.  We began to discuss whether we’d have to alternate, with one of us writing at a time, and the other in a support role, and then switching places next year.  We decided, though, that we were going over the cliff with all our flags flying — either win together, or not at all.  We needed a way to work together.

We didn’t have one.  We talked about both our projects, which helped Kimberly immensely and — to my delight — helped me some, too.  But it was costing me valuable writing time.   Thinking that we were going to succeed became a conscious discipline rather than a belief.

That lasted for days.  Just before bedtime on the 25th, with just 5 days to go, I was struggling along at 31,000 words, and Kimberly was just behind me.

Then a friend introduced us to Write or Die.  It’s a web-based app with a simple text editor.  If you stop writing, it turns your screen angry colors and plays nasty sound effects — crying babies, Hansen, and worse — on the theory that an immediate, negative consequence motivates better than a distant, positive one.

If it sounds like this doesn’t allow for sober reflection and careful attention to what one is writing, then you’re getting the idea.  The goal is to WRITE — editing can come later.  Bad writing can be edited, but blank pages can’t.  It works better than you’d think, and both of us found surprising twists of plot and characterization arising from “mistakes” we made under pressure.

It was the tool we’d been waiting for.  We instantly went from 1,000-word days to 3,000-word evenings, and better.  We would write for 10 minutes at breakneck speed, churning out 300-600 words, then compare word counts so the winner could celebrate.  A quick break to shake out the hands, get a bite to eat, talk character and plot on our respective projects, then back to it for another ten or twenty minutes.

All of a sudden I could spare the time to talk as much as Kimberly needed so she could write, and still get my own writing done.

nano_08_winner_largeWe made it.  Together.  Rather handily, actually — we both hit 50,000 words with time to spare.

Needless to say, we’re pretty happy with that.  Kimberly’s book is nearly done.  Mine still needs some serious surgery, and probably another 20,000 words or so.  I’ll have something to do over the Christmas holidays.

But for us, the most important thing to arise from NaNo 2008 was gaining the ability to write together.  Still on separate projects, but in the same house, at the same time, with two very different writing processes.

The domestic bliss is back.

News: We Got Sound!

11 December 2008

I’ve upgraded! For the paltry sum of $20 annually, I can have sound files, and 5Gb of extra storage. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it all — that’s a lot of space — but for the moment, I’ve put up the Living the Living Word lectures. In a nutshell, it’s a 10-week exploration of the idea that the Bible teaches us how to study the Bible, complete with enough suggestions for further study to get you at least to a Bible college-level workload, if you want to do that much. The extra work is not required, however, and the lectures are designed to be beneficial for people who just want to listen.

I’ve also posted my personal recordings of last year’s FGA panels on assurance and the cross, for those who’ve perhaps read about the discussions but haven’t had the chance to hear and judge for themselves. Links to both are also now posted on the Gospel Discussion page.

News: NaNoWriMo Begins!

1 November 2008

The merry maniacs at the Office of Letters and Light are off and running again, assisting thousands of volunteer lunati…er, writers all over the world.  The challenge?  Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, specifically the month of November.

Just the first draft, of course…

To give you a vague notion, 50,000 words is the length of Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  In other words, a little on the short side for a novel these days, but plenty of room to express literary genius, if there happens to be some lying about.

Not any too likely, in my case, but you never know until you try.

My darling wife did did it successfully — in 21 days, too — last year.  It looked like so much taquito-fueled mad fun that I’m joining in this year, in my Copious Free Time.

In between moments of sheer panic, I intend to have a rollicking good time doing this, but there is also a larger end in view.  When I was in high school, I read the essays of the existentialists, and had an awful time trying to figure out what they were saying.  I remained mystified until I read The Stranger, Metamorphosis, and The Fall, particularly the first of those three.  Fleshed out in story, the pieces of the philosophy began to fall into place.  Then, as now, existentialism struck me as a bad idea — not merely a misstep, a sticking-a-roman-candle-in-your-eye-on-a-drunken-bet bad idea — but the real lesson wasn’t about existentialism at all: no amount of exposition brings an idea to life as well as a story.

I had read enough bad fiction with a moral, though, to be suspicious of deliberately trying to convey a message with a story.  Surely, I thought, it would be impossible to do it on purpose.  One would have to tell the story for the story’s sake, and let the moral leak out as it would.

That romantic delusion came crashing down when I encountered the work of Andrew Vachss.  He’s a man on a mission, and meant his first published novel to be “a doctoral dissertation without the footnotes.”  Did I mention that he’s now published more than twenty, plus a couple collections of stories, the odd graphic novel, and so on?  Clearly it’s possible to do it on purpose and succeed.  (By the way, Vachss’ work is not for the faint of heart.  I believe in what he’s doing, but I was compelled some years ago to purge my library of his work because of the way he goes about it.   Fair warning.)

Like Camus, Kafka and Vachss, I have some things to say that I believe are better conveyed in fiction than in my usual essays and articles.  The ability to actually write more than a scene at a time has been an elusive target for more than ten years, and NaNoWriMo has a reputation for turning people like me into novelists.

I’d appreciate your prayers.  If you want to make taquitos for me, I won’t say no to that, either.

Apologetics Online Seminar Update

20 October 2008

Because of various scheduling considerations, we’re modifying our time slightly.  The Devotional Apologetics online seminar will meet for four consecutive Mondays starting next week, October 27th, from 4:30-6:30 pm Pacific time (6:30-8:30 Central, etc).

If you’d like to join the group, drop me a note through my contact form.

If that day/time doesn’t work for you, a second section is a possibility — again, drop me a note through my contact form.