Posts Tagged ‘book review’
Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus
168 pages plus 2 indices
It might be a sign that I have read too many of Dr Carson’s books if they no longer truly impact me where I am at any given moment. I have read a lot of his books. I have listened to a lot of his sermons. I have read a lot of his formal journal contributions. I am like a junky for Carson, at one time actually spending money to purchase very poor cassette tape audio recordings of his sermons. But this time I found myself finishing his sentences and skipping over time-worn illustrations and yawning. The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus are amazing, mind blowing, earth shattering, soul undoing events. As Tim Keller notes: If Jesus is who he said he is, then everything changes.
In this book Carson did not do a good job of bringing those earth shattering realities to the surface or bringing my understanding of them to the point that my life is thoroughly, completely, utterly undone.
Scandalous is the first Carson book I have read in some time and, to be sure, I was disappointed. Disappointed enough that this will likely be the last Carson book I read. This is not to say it was a terrible book or that Carson’s scholarship was off or that his writing was, well, not Carsonish enough. It’s just to say that for the most part I was bored.
The book was cobbled together from a series of five sermons Carson preached at the 2008 Resurgence Conference at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. I’m willing to bet that these five sermons were actually written down in other books that Carson has written at some point in the past (many of his illustrations have been used elsewhere). If anything positive can be said about the book it is that Carson is at least consistent: He hasn’t said anything new since I started reading his work twenty years ago. That is what makes the work a rather tedious and hum-drum affair for me.
Don’t get me wrong. As far as theology is concerned, Carson mostly is right on target. He never deviates from his essentially Reformed Calvinist point of view and even though he never once mentions the name ‘NT Wright’ (he does get in a dig at Steve Chalke and Alan Mann in the note on page 69) one can sense that underneath much of what Carson writes is a polemic against the so-called ‘new perspective on Paul’ and what many in the Reformed camp feel is a threat to the grip they have on theological power that goes along with the Reformed interpretation of the atonement (viz., penal substitution). I find it hard to believe that something so obvious needs so much defense.
It’s almost as if someone is trying to dress up an old theologian and make him into a hip, happening kind of guy. The cover is cool: ‘Scandalous’ is emblazoned on the cover in shiny, raised, blood spattered letters that would make Dexter proud. The rest of the cover is an appalling black. All the right cool people are quoted lauding the work. Yet none of this changes the fact that when you open the book and begin reading you are struck by the fact that the most modern poet Carson quotes is himself. There are plenty of quotations from hymns written by Martin Luther, Lidie Edmuds, William Cowper and others, and these folks are fine, excellent hymn writers and poets. But they are from yesterday. I found it terribly disconcerting that Carson resorted three times to quoting his own poetry in the book (72, 109-110, 167-168) and that he was the most modern poet he quoted.
I think if you have never read DA Carson before you will find this a helpful book and, perhaps, even a good book. Like I said, Carson is not wanting for scholarship skills. If you have never read him before you will get a very good introduction to the Reformed view of the cross (although the book is subtitled “The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus” the Resurrection of Jesus only gets one chapter to itself) and resurrection. This may or may not be a good thing. I think when we get so intent on defending a point of view we often fail to be challenged or changed by the story itself.
If you have read Carson before, I think you will be bored and/or disappointed. He has not given his readers anything different or anything new to think about in this book. I wish he had interacted with some of those he opposes since it would have made the book a better read. He would likely be pleased with that fact, but for his readers there will be much yawning and sleepy eyed skipping ahead to the next page or the next chapter. And that will likely not please him one bit.
2.5 Stars out of 5
The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by JK Rowling
Children’s High Level Group, 2008
I don’t know if JK Rowling is a Christian or not. There’s a part of me that really doesn’t care if she is or not. Neither would prevent me from reading her books. But, no, it’s not like that. Of course I hope she knows the wonders of salvation and the grace of Jesus, but, well, whatever. There’s not really a way I can explain what I mean by that without being proverbially damned if I do and damned if I do not. How about I say it this way: I am one Christian man who is overjoyed that JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books and and even more overjoyed at the lesser acclaimed The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
I know some people who would have never hired me to preach at their church if they had known about my cache of Harry Potter volumes that I so prominently displayed—after reading—on the bookshelves in my study or if they knew that I attended not one but two midnight release parties! It could be, perhaps, that it was those same volumes that caused some in my former church to cast a suspicious eye my way and, eventually, call for, and receive, my termination. I doubt it. I know what was in their houses too. (*Smile*)
Many who belong to the uber-conservative christian caste of the church are terribly critical of anything Harry Potter. The bible writer called James wrote that, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing” (James 3:9-10). And so, to paraphrase: “Out of the same mouth comes praise for Narnia and cursing for Hogwarts.” Eh. That’s all it is. No one likes magic if it comes from the pen of someone who hasn’t stood up on an altar and declared their allegiance to Jesus.
Frankly, I think that some were simply unhappy that children were actually, gasp, reading. Or maybe they were jealous that JK Rowling sold more books with hidden christian ideas than did Max Lucado with blatantly obvious christian ideas. After all, Rowling dared to talk about things like love, friendship, self-sacrifice, justice, righteousness, and, well, you get the idea. And kids ate it up by the book-ful as did many, many adults.
But this has all been hashed and rehashed a million times over on blogs and in books. This short post is about Beedle and the short collection of wizard fairy tales ascribed to his pen and in this particular volume translated by the esteemed Hermione Granger. The book contains five such tales and is a scant 107 pages and can literally be read in under an hour. The five tales are wonderfully written in Rowling’s ironic and cheerful voice, but they are not her voice either. They are told in the voice of Beedle the Bard. Interspersed between each tale is commentary written by Albus Dumbledore. Rowling herself has written some footnotes explaining to us Muggles some of the more complex wizarding history and practices.
It was in the introduction to the stories that I came across the point of the whole book, if, in fact, the ‘whole’ book (a collection of five tales) has ‘a’ point. There Rowling wrote:
Beedle’s stories resemble our fairy tales in many respects; for instance, virtue is usually rewarded, and wickedness punished. However, there is one very obvious difference. In Muggle fairy tales, magic tends to lie at the root of the hero’s or heroine’s troubles—the wicked witch has poisoned the apple, or put the princess into a hundred-year’s sleep, or turn the prince into a hideous beast. In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, on the other hand, we meet heroes and heroines who can perform magic themselves, and yet find it just as hard to solve their problems as we do. Beedle’s stories have helped generations of Wizarding parents to explain this painful fact of life to their children: that magic causes as much trouble as it cures (vii-viii).
Isn’t this the truth? I know that I have personally been the victim of many a magic spell gone wrong. And, too, have I learned that there is no secret spell I can cast that will make this problem disappear or that blessing appear—as if magic spells and charms exist merely to serve my ends and means. There are plenty of times when we certainly wish that magic worked that way. I wish sometimes I could conjure of an invisibility charm and vanish from the world, but it has yet to happen.
In Dumbledore’s commentary on the fifth story The Tale of the Three Brothers he writes this:
But which of us would have shown the wisdom of the third brother, if offered the pick of Death’s gifts? Wizards and Muggles alike are imbued with a lust for power; how many would resist the “Wand of Destiny”? Which human being, having lost someone they loved, could withstand the temptation of the Resurrection Stone? Even I, Albus Dumbledore, would find it easiest to refuse the Invisibility Cloak; which only goes to show that, clever as I am, I remain just as big a fool as anyone else (107).
Sadly, while there may well be a Resurrection Stone and a Wand of Power, there is no such thing as the Invisibility Cloak. The one thing all of us would desire, to be hidden from Death and from others, is the one thing we cannot have in this life. It is a troubling fact of life that we cannot hide from anything. The Psalmist knew this: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139) For some reason God takes particular delight in forcing us to face all those people, place, and things that we would rather not face. He forces us to be seen and prevents us from being invisible. Oh, unhappiness!
I think it is easy to want to be invisible, to want to hide from everything. Sometimes, we don’t even want to hide from Death (recall Job who, so unhappy about his so publicly displayed suffering, wished he’d never even been born.) Sometimes we just want to hide from people for a while. What I truly admire about these stories and the stories of Harry Potter is that it’s often not magic that solves the problems or brings the blessings we seek in life. Often, more often than not, it is wisdom that is required, and this wisdom is only acquired by seeing and being seen in and by this world, by facing death a thousand times a day, and by continuing to live day in, day out, in all the strength that comes from being utterly helpless.
I recommend that you read this book because it is helpful for gaining some wisdom that will benefit you long before and after you reach the point in life where you realize that being invisible is simply not an option. Such wisdom is beneficial for those of us humans who realize that being seen is not only a privilege, but a responsibility.
Sinning Like a Christian, by William Willimon
Abingdon Press, 2005
A Peculiar Prophet (Willimon’s Blog)
I wish I had the courage to sin like William Willimon, but I know that if I did, people might look at me funny. After all, I’m not William Willimon. The problem with Willimon is not his theology. I think he is a fine theologian. His problem is not his preaching: he is thought provoking, at times his tongue is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and his sense of irony and sarcasm is astounding. I can take him in tempered doses which is why it takes me a month to read a 150 page book like Sinning Like a Christian. I read Willimon like I read Anne Lamott: slowly, cautiously, and with a small glass of sipping whiskey.
The problem with Willimon is that, for all his intelligence, he really doesn’t know when to quit, and when he keeps going he comes off as terribly judgmental, arrogant, and ungracious. So, Willimon, true to form, published a Postscript at the end of this book wherein he waxes eloquently about grace and love and happy-happy-joy-joy but manages to take swipes at former president George W. Bush and an unnamed ‘conservative, evangelical, Bible-thumping pastor.’ It’s at this point that Willimon tends to lose me: for as much as he talks about grace, he seems to reserve not the tiniest bit for those who are on the opposite side of the political aisle from him. I find this to be true of a lot of theological liberals.
Sinning Like a Christian is Willimon’s exploration of the so-called seven deadly sins. Overall, I think this book is worth the read if, and I say if, you can read with a light-heart and laughter. For example, take this quote, “Jesus was crucified for the very best of human good reasons such as peace, justice, doctrinal fidelity, national security, and on an on. We are rarely more murderous than when we are defending some noble ideal like freedom or democracy” (29). Frankly, it is this sort of statement that makes me want to vomit on the book. It is so painfully obvious what he is saying (and thank God and the warmongering conservatives he can say it!) It really gets old when one’s person political agenda manages to makes its way into a book that is not about politics. This is not the only time it happens in Willimon’s book, and it never, ever gets new.
It is difficult to continue reading Willimon after he makes such a blatant political statement. But, then, he will keep typing and come up with something like this:
The most moving moment in Sunday worship for me is when my people come forward at Holy Communion, streaming down the altar, and there they hold out empty hands like little children, like the famished folk they really are, empty, needing a gift in the worst sort of way…What’s strange, from the world’s point of view, is the empty-handed, needy, empty request for grace. (47)
That is beautiful. I wonder if Willimon is confident enough in God’s grace to serve communion to President George W. Bush? The true test of grace, it seems to me, is not how you treat your friends, but how you treat your enemies—especially your enemies who are your brothers in Christ. I’m not sure if Willimon is attempting to appeal to the more liberal folks among his readers or if he is just trying to irritate the more conservative folks among his readers. Anne Lamott is at least wise enough to realize that someday she will have to share a table with the former president (see her book Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith). Sometimes I wonder if Willimon realizes that?
So what I’m trying to do here is write a short review that a) talks to the strengths and weaknesses of what is written on the pages of the book I am reviewing and b) gives you enough reason to actually want to read it. I’ve read enough Willimon books to know that he is, frankly, difficult to pin down theologically. Sometimes he is profoundly gracious and other times he is profoundly stupid. I say that lovingly, of course; he’s probably said the same thing about most of the people he reads. That’s why I say that Willimon is hard to read: sometimes you love him, other times not. I know, you need a reason to read him so I’ll go back to what I said at the start.
Don’t read him for his political views (I don’t happen to think that his theological or political liberalism is any better an option than another’s theological and political conservatism.) Don’t read this particular book because you hope to find something particularly insightful, or new, or interesting about sin. Don’t read this book because you hope to find something that cures what ails you because I don’t think the book is chock-full of the sort of answers you might be looking for. But if you want, and if you dare, read the book because no matter how much Willimon appears to withhold grace from his political enemies (i.e., those who are ‘conservative, evangelical, [and] Bible-thumping’), I believe Willimon actually understands grace all too well—and perhaps that is what frightens (motivates?) him to write in the first place.
“This is who we are, says Jesus, not big, self-sufficient adults, but rather little children, naked, frail, empty, and hungry, needing a gracious God in the worst sort of way. You can’t get into this Kingdom if you are all grown up and big and important. You can only come in through a very small door as an inept, bumbling, ignorant, and empty little child” (47)
And this is exactly the reason why I keep coming back to Willimon. No matter how distasteful he finds conservative politicians and haughty academics, he always comes back to grace. He cannot stay away from it. He circles it, swoops in, hints at its borders, dabbles here and there, and then in one final blow he unleashes a barrage of grace missiles (I couldn’t resist using a warfare metaphor to describe the tactics of a pacifist writing about grace; it’s my own bit of irony)—even he cannot stay away from it! It’s like he is writing along, happily minding his own business, and wham! out of nowhere—grace.
I’m a big fan of grace and my reason for reading Willimon is that he is too and he has found a way, amidst all the hoopla that is America, academics, politics, church and church-folk to articulate it in such a way that I actually find myself loving Jesus more and despising those who disagree with me less.
That, my friends, is the worth of a good writer.
“By the grace of God, a good-enough church, and lots of practice, it is possible even for ordinary folk like us to become saints” (146).
“One thinks of the prophets of Israel, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, all of them. They were par excellence the putters of words to things, and the words they put are so thunderous with rage and exultation, with terrible denunciations and terrible promises, that if you are not careful, they drown out everything else there is in the Old Testament and in the prophets themselves. At the level of their words, it is not truth they are telling but particular truths. They are telling about the nations and naming names, telling about Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and, above all, about Israel as a nation, and the truth they are telling until the veins stand out on their necks and their voices grow hoarse is the truth that by playing power politics Israel is not only bringing about her own destruction as a nation but is acting against her holy destiny, which is to be not a nation among nations but a nation of priests, whose calling it is to be a light to the world. -Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 17-18
“It is important to read Jesus’s parable of the lost son in the context of the whole of Luke, chapter 15, but the story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than for the world.”-Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 90
In my estimation, this is the best chapter in the book. I mean that sincerely. The authors bring us into the story in the earlier chapters, but in this chapter they focus our attention on a single point within that history. All eyes are turned towards the powerful, the Solomon son of David, the power-brokers like Rome and her Caesars. The prophets kept pointing and looking and searching–and they were not pointing to the powerful, the wealthy or the influential except to say ‘look at what won’t work.’ No, they pointed to God and said, ‘Behold God!’ Then one night, there in the midst of a dark and frightful place, all the light in the universe converged on a single human being: Jesus, the son of David.
And this chapter sets about the problem of understanding what it really means to be a, the, son of David. They also point us in only one direction for it seems to me that the authors have taken this approach: there is only one true son of David. So over the course of 16 choppily written pages, the authors of the book scatter that Name 61 times. You may think I am merely making a rather pedantic observation that proves absolutely nothing. What can mere word counting prove or accomplish? Maybe you are right. My point is, however, that usually when an artist wants you to see something in a painting, something rather particular, she draws her picture in such a way that the perspective is drawn towards only one point. For example, the Last Supper by Da Vinci. All the perspective is focused on Jesus. Or a musician who writes a symphony will add in a refrain and come back to the refrain at various times throughout the piece.
That’s what Bell and Golden did in chapter 3: they brought our attention back to Jesus over and over again. As I read through the chapter, I kept seeing the name Jesus, over and over and over again. These men want me thinking about something…someone…in particular. They are drawing the perspective in such a way that I can neither see nor think of anyone else but Jesus. In other words, David’s other son can only be one person: Jesus. And they did so masterfully. For people who are routinely accused of being un-orthodox or anti-christian, or heretics, or whatever other label you may have heard–they sure do spend an awful large amount of energy to work their narrative and understanding of Scripture and history around Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s almost, dare I say, as if they were constrained to do so. It’s almost as if these god-haters read the Bible and see that there is only one possible outcome to the story. It’s almost as if they can could do nothing but write the name of Jesus over and over and over again in this chapter. Almost? These are men who have read the Scripture and they know where Scripture leads and the story it tells. Of course they were constrained! Of course there was nothing else they could write! Of course the only possible outcome of this story is Jesus. Of course.
Now I’d like to make a couple of pointed observations about the chapter that I found either heartening or troubling. I’ll keep these brief so as not to give away too much or overwhelm you with minutia.
First, one reason why this book resonates with me is due to the authors’, in my estimation, proper understanding of Israel as a kingdom of priests. I know there are all sorts of ways to understand and misunderstand the role of Israel in redemptive history. I doubt seriously any of us will ever fully exhaust the literature or debate. But in my judgment, I think many theologians have overplayed the ‘Israel’ card much to the detriment of Israel. Jesus, yes, was ‘sent to the Jews’ first, but I don’t this was ever meant to mean that he was sent to the Jews only. In fact, when Matthew tells us of Jesus’ beginnings, he quotes from Isaiah’s prophecy and said that Jesus fulfilled it. What does he quote? A passage about Gentiles! (Matthew 4:12-16). So Bell and Golden note, “Jesus hears everyone’s cry, even the cry of the Canaanites” (79). Or, another way, “Not just Jewish exile but human exile [...] So if all creation is in a sort of exile, east of Eden, estranged from its maker, far from home, what’s the penalty for that?’” (88, 89). This also comports with the quote from Kellar above.
I guess I sort of grow weary of the typical John Hagee approaches to Israel. Bell and Golden rightly view Israel as priests, a son of God (‘out of Egypt I called my son’), who were meant to fulfill an important, redemptive role, but failed. “The prophets had declared that someone would come who would be willing to pay that price, the price for all of creation breaking covenant with God. And if that price was paid, that would change everything” (89). Indeed. And they say that it was Jesus who was Israel, the son of David, the Adam who didn’t fail, the Suffering Servant, the new Moses. Jesus and only Jesus. That’s a rather important and exclusive thing to say because if it was Jesus it cannot be anyone else; there can be no other way.
Second, a complaint. On pages 83-84, the authors bring up an important point: “The writers [prophets] want to make it very clear that this new son of David isn’t just leading a new exodus for a specific group of people; he’s bringing liberation for everybody everywhere and ultimately for everything everywhere for all time” (83). The problem here is that this language is a wee bit fuzzy. I’m fully on board with the former statement (‘…not just a specific group of people…’), but that latter part of the statement is a bit fuzzy and unclear and unrefined (and to an extent, undefined). Jesus did, indeed, promise that he will ‘draw all people’ to himself (83) and I think Bell and Golden are right to emphasize the ‘all’ of this, but here I think they can easily be accused of espousing a non-exclusive version of redemption (not a Calvinistic sort of limited atonement, but an atonement that makes no demands on those who are saved). “The ‘whole world,’ ‘all nations,’ ‘all people,’ ‘all things’ are the biggest, widest, deepest, most inclusive terms the human mind can fathom. And they were on the lips of Jesus, who is describing himself” (84). I think this statement is far too vague and indeed I didn’t think they spent enough time or space unpacking what they mean by this. They step to the edge, but never walk over it. Maybe it was intentional.
I really don’t want this to relapse into a discussion concerning universalism. They are clear, I think, that Jesus is the way (81). They are unclear on who will follow that way and exactly what ‘Jesus is the way’ means. I’m not saying they don’t clear it up later, but I am saying that this is an easy place for someone who is nit-picking to do just that: nit-pick. Here I think the language should be clarified or they are open to the very charge they probably don’t want to be labeled with. I’m not saying they are universalists. I am saying that they open themselves up to the possibility of being accused as such. (In my judgment.)
Third, the authors are wholly dependent upon Scripture to make their case. They rely on the prophets. They rely on Moses. They rely on the Gospels. In fact, the last 8 pages are an exposition of sorts on Luke 24. The best sentence in the chapter highlights the importance they place on Scripture: “In a couple of hours, using nothing but the Hebrew Scriptures, this man converted all of their despair to hope and a vision of the new future” (90). They are pointing out what Jesus saw as the real problem: “In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message” (90). This is their point: By taking those two disciples on the road to Emmaus back through the Scripture (Law, Psalms and Prophets) Jesus was saying, ‘Look, I was there all along. God had already told you what to look for and you missed it.’
The authors are warning us, as preachers should, not to miss Jesus. It is far too easy and far too often that people miss the greater point. We get so consumed by systems and ideas and proof and (being) right (thinking we know when really we do not) that we miss the point of Scripture which is, surely, Jesus. We want to carry around Scripture like a sword in our hand instead of as sword in our mouth which it really is. In doing so, we miss the point; we don’t hear the refrain; we get caught up in a detail and miss the perspective, the focal-point. This, it seems to me, is their warning: We cannot afford to miss Jesus. And if those who walked with him did, how much more easily will we if we are not cautious? “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; see also, Luke 24:44). 16 pages. 61 times. And if you have read the book and noticed the style of writing and sentence structure then you know that this is a much greater ratio of words to words than it is words to pages. Don’t miss Jesus. (See page 91.)
There are some other things that are important about the chapter, but these sort of stood out to me. Other points that could be discussed are: their use of exclusive terminology (81), the importance of the suffering servant (87), their discussion of exile (89), the importance of non-violence (88), and the crusher of serpent’s heads (90).
The Scripture presents to us the history of humanity. A pretty picture it is not. It is a tragedy. According the Buechner, “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy” (Telling the Truth, 7). But it doesn’t end there: “But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy” (Telling the Truth, 7)
But if we miss Jesus, the world will never know that. Bell and Golden’s point is that if we miss Jesus how in the world will anyone else get him? David’s other son is, and can only be, Jesus. This is the Jesus who crushes the head of the serpent, this is the Jesus who suffers, this is the Jesus who leads us out of exile, this is the Jesus who instead of resisting violence absorbs it, this is the Jesus whom Scripture speaks of in exclusive terms. This is the Jesus of bad news and good news. “In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message. In Jesus’ day, people could follow him, learn from him, drop everything to be his disciples, and yet find themselves returning home, thinking Jesus had failed” (90)
Jesus wants to save Christians from thinking that he failed. Jesus wants to save Christians from missing the point of Scripture. Jesus wants to save Christians from missing Jesus. And if there wasn’t a real danger that we might, or a dangerous reality that we have, there wouldn’t be a need for a warning, would there?
Soli Deo Gloria!
Here is episode #2 of the Rain and Snow Skycast. In this episode, I finish my exploration of Revelation 1 by studying with you verses 9-21. I also included a book review of NT Wright’s book Surprised By Hope. I close the Skycast by talking about God’s grace and how the modern manifestation of the church seems to be lacking in grace to one another and those who are not like us. This is a serious, serious problem. The podcast opens with a quote from the book The Justification of God (or free here). by PT Forsyth which I believe serves as a great segue into my discussion of the contents of Revelation 1:9-21. This episode is about 34 minutes long. Thanks for stopping by. Tell your friends about the Rain and Snow Skycast. Thanks, and may God bless you as you search His Scripture, jerry
Listen here: Resurrected Jesus among the Churches
Or use the inline player below:
You can listen to the previous episode of the Rain and Snow Skycast, The unveiling of Jesus to the Church, here:
“Scripture renders a living, breathing, demanding personality, not a set of freestanding, self-evident, abstract, allegedly biblical propositions. Yet then again, a personality with whom we are in relationship obligates us, demands that we take our place in the relationship. In Jesus, salvation and vocation are linked. The pardon and freedom of salvation carries with it a summons. Friendship is inherently demanding, which is one reason why we have so few friends. A proposition asks only our intellectual assent to what makes sense to us. An abstraction or a generality, no matter how noble, will never move us to love or to give half of all we’ve got to the poor” (William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 116)
“Sometimes the will of God is scary because he is asking us to choose between a life that looks successful and a life that is actually significant, between a life that wins the applause of our peers and a life that actually transforms lives through love” (Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, 119)
“The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3, NIV)
Rob Bell and Don Golden continue to insist, in chapter two, Get Down Your Harps, that God is interested in a relationship with his people. In this chapter, relationship is spoken of in terms of a marriage. They also continue to insist that God’s salvation is much bigger than we sometimes want to admit-and that it has always been much bigger than the people Israel wanted to admit-that it is for all. But I wonder if perhaps the authors of Jesus Wants To Save Christians are not hinting at something else in this chapter, something Christians tend to overlook, something we tend to, however inadvertently, neglect and despise. Get Down Your Harps…it does make me wonder if they are getting at something else. I’ll come back to this.
But, and here’s the thing, in my estimation if your mind is not steeped in the New Testament you are not likely to make the connections that Bell and Golden are making subtly and not overtly. I fully grant, they are asking the readers to read between the lines-maybe that’s why they chose such an odd format-and figure out what they are saying. They want us to think about it, they want us to remember the New Testament. They want us to put two and two together and imagine the only way possible for these things the prophets spoke of to happen. They don’t need to come right out and say it because the person whose mind is baptized in the New Testament will have already figured it out before the end of the first page of the chapter. Some may not like this. To me, it is the essence of a great sermon.
I think it is a brilliant strategy. Those who are experienced preachers know all too well that there are times when you build the intensity as you go along. African-American preachers (at least the ones I have had the joy of listening to) excel at this art. The preacher keeps giving hints, clues, adding a piece here and a piece there, stacking words upon words, images upon images; sentences and paragraphs become large canvases upon which to paint other sentences and paragraphs. You tie it in at this point and leave it dangle at that point. You regroup, retrace your steps, go back and repeat it all over again. The intensity builds like the steam in a pressure cooker. You hold the audience on the edge of the precipice until they cannot help but cry out the “Amen!” And then the preacher says, “Gotcha!” And the listener cannot help but draw the intended conclusion without the preacher even saying it. There’s no escape.
Bell and Golden follow the Old Testament in this respect: “And this is how the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Old Testament, end. With all of these suspended promises, hanging there, unfulfilled, undone, waiting” (72). They build the intensity page after page after page and like good preachers leave us dangling, wanting more, hungering for what we already know to be true: “What if David had another son?” they ask. We already know the answer; they need not even say him. But this is no let down. This is no shock. This is no surprise. They have been doing this since the beginning of the chapter. In this regard, they simply follow the Old Testament pattern. The Old Testament left us dangling, sitting on the edge, waiting for the preacher to drop the bomb. The end of the Old Testament makes us want to read the New. It leaves us hungry and with an appetite for more. But it never quite gets us there. It’s that old saying, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” Ah, yes.
The mind steeped in the Scripture-they don’t quote a lot of Scripture verbatim in this chapter-will know exactly what they are getting at. But like good preachers in need of another sermon the next week, they leave us hungry and wanting more. We know the answer is Jesus. I couldn’t help myself as I read this chapter. Page 65, for example: A new exodus, “Jesus!”; a new way, “Jesus!”, a new marriage with a new covenant, “Jesus!”; a new city, “Jesus!”, with a new temple, “Jesus!” Or page 69: a Prince of Peace, “Jesus!”; David’s throne, “Jesus!”; servant, “Jesus!” Or page 68: like Moses, “Jesus!” Or page 70: who would crush all evil once and for all, “Jesus!” Or page 67: a new heavens and new earth, “Jesus!”; wolf and lamb feeding together, “Jesus!”; salvation to the ends of the earth, “Jesus!” As you read this chapter, if you are thinking about anything but Jesus, you have seriously missed the point of the chapter. Seriously.
Now, just a couple of final points in conclusion, and, obviously, I’m not commenting on every single aspect of the chapter. They are unfolding a theology for us, chapter by chapter, and theology takes its time. The other day, I hate to do this, one of the commenters here wrote this: “From what I could discern, there is little emphasis on redemption and a focus on curing the world’s ills. I fear a moving away from the gospel, death, burial, and resurrection, and a moving toward a humanitarian message. Humanitarian expressions are vital to showcase God’s love, but only the gospel message can elicit faith and a genuine conversion.” (Rick) This may well be true, but that is not the entire point of the book. The book is written to those whose faith has already been elicited, and not necessarily to those whose faith needs to be elicited. And to the point, after faith has been elicited (whatever that really means), what are we to do with it, what should God do with it? Leave it sit? Leave it stagnant? Or shouldn’t that faith get involved in the story that God is telling and involved in the work that God is doing?
The book is not even about ‘curing the world’s ills’ as much as it is about curing the church’s ills and reminding us that, in Willimon’s words, ‘salvation and vocation go hand in hand’ (paraphrase). If we suggest this series of theological sermons written to Christians is a move ‘away from the gospel’ (which necessarily includes, death, burial, and resurrection) then of course we are going to object to the content. But that’s just the thing about this book. Even if, and I’m not conceding for a minute they are, but even if the authors have interpreted the Scripture in a way that is not ‘reformed orthodoxy’ they have done no damage to Scripture’s intent. They followed the apostle Paul’s dictum that “these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). They are not interpreting Scripture any differently than Paul did in Galatians when he wrote about Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael and mountains and faith.
On the other hand, it is about redemption. It is about the New Exodus promised by Isaiah, Jeremiah and the prophets, Moses, David, the Psalms, and culminated in Jesus of Nazareth. They do not explore the ‘hows’ and ‘means’ of this yet because the Old Testament only gave hints and clues (1 Peter 1:10-12). But they do explore and explain the necessity of it, and the scope of it. It is this New Exodus that has offended some people, but it is there. Their job in the book is to remind us of the fact of our liberation, of our freedom, of our Exodus. They do a fine job of it, and point two below explores what they mean by this exodus they speak of.
Second, the authors talk about our bondage to sin. They describe this bondage as ‘Egypt’: “There’s an Egypt that we’re all born into, and that’s what we really need an exodus from. So when Isaiah speaks of this new exodus, he doesn’t just speak of liberation from a particular oppressive empire; he speaks of liberation from anything that oppresses anybody anywhere” (57). And they do a fine job of emphasizing the ‘all’. It’s what Karl Barth noted, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (as quoted in Willimon, p 38). This is also what the apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned.” And just to clarify what Bell and Golden mean, “The real problem, the ultimate oppressor, is something that resides deep in every human heart. The real reason for their oppression is human slavery to violence, sin, and death” (57). That sounds strangely orthodox to me.
To go along with this is the emphasis that ‘All peoples will see it together’ (58, quoting Isaiah 40:5). The authors lay heavy emphasis on the fact that if all are held in bondage, all have equal access to freedom as God intended. This is the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12 and announced by Jesus early in his own ministry (Matthew 4:12-16). This chapter goes a long way to undoing any narrow ideas about salvation being limited to a particular nation or tribe: “By the rivers of Babylon, the prophets began to reimagine grace. They started to see what it would look like for Israel’s debt of sins to be paid. And what they saw was a reconciling grace so big, so universal, that it could bind all human beings into a brand-new way for the divine and the human to relate” (60-61, my emphasis). They thus rightly express this as possibility and not certainty. (Their argument is a little more detailed and contains much more Scripture, but I think this is the gist of their point. Some of you may wish to highlight other aspects of what they are saying, but rest assured, I did not personally pick up any hints whatsoever that this was a universal proposition guaranteeing salvation for everyone, everywhere. Thus the ‘could’.)
Finally, I’d like to explore their points about ‘marriage’ between God and man, the ‘forever’ aspect of the rule of the One to come, and what I’ll call the national reconciliation into one body of all all the peoples of the earth (Ephesians), but I don’t want this to be too long and any more cumbersome than it is already is. Their point about an ‘altar being built in Egypt’ is an excellent point and I think properly echoes what the New Testament says about Jesus in Philippians 2 and Revelation 7. Suffice it to say that these were the expectations, written in the prophets, that are easily overlooked and ignored. A fitting conclusion to these is found on pages 70-71, “What started as predictions about an earthly ruler exploded into an expectation of a divinely sent servant who would in some powerful new way rule forever…Israel’s failed marriage to God had never produced that child….The promise is so poignant because from the beginning, from the first moments when our primal ancestors began longing for a way out of this mess we’re in, the ache had centered around the birth of one who would crush evil forever.”
That is a very, very orthodox interpretation of Scripture (and I can point you to the lectures that prove it.)
I will close with this. The title, Get Down Your Harps, indicates that the harps had been hung up, left desolate, forgotten; put on a shelf and silent. “They hung up their harps” (52). “The harp was an instrument of joy and celebration. People played the harp because they had reason to praise God” (52). This chapter begins by reminding us that we have been rescued. “If God freed people once before, couldn’t God do it again?” (54) The implication being, of course, that He already has! He has freed us! We have a reason to be playing our harps! And we are still acting like we are in exile; our harps are still hanging, we are still weeping beside the waters of Babylon.
Or worse, we are like the older brother who refused to go in and rejoice with the family when the younger brother came home. Or we are like Jonah who sat outside Ninevah angry at God for being forgiving. I certainly doubt we are like Jesus who wept over the lost Jerusalem. Whatever the case, I think Bell and Golden’s point in this chapter is to say: “Get down your harps! God has freed us! You know how he did it! You know who did it! Get down your harps, you Christians, and start singing, rejoicing, and worshiping God! Join the party!”
Like good preachers, they don’t say it in so many words. But we know who they are talking about on every single page.
I am happy to announce to you that along with my weekly sermons, I will begin doing a series of podcasts here at Life Under the Blue Sky.
The first series of podcasts I have scheduled will be from the book of the Revelation. I will not be covering the entire book, but rather focusing on the first three chapters and the words of Jesus to the Churches. There is a wealth of teaching in chapters 1-3 of the Revelation and I hope to share my particular understanding of those chapters with you.
In this episode of the Rain and Snow Skycast, I will be exploring Revelation 1:1-8 and laying a foundation for our understanding of Revelation 2-3. Thanks for stopping by. As always, your comments are welcomed and appreciated.
Or listen using the inline player below
Part 2: The Cry of the Oppressed
“What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime? Those two questions shape this book. First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second” (NT Wright, Surprised By Hope, xi)
“God is looking for a body” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 34)
“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” (Matthew 2:14-15)
It is easy to miss that verse. The prophet Hosea first said it (11:1-11). When he said it, he was talking about the people of Israel, the Israelites, the Chosen People. He was reflecting on the story of their national identity: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt; ruminating on the prospects of future enslavement in Assyria or Babylon. “The NT writers insist that the OT can be rightly interpreted only if the entire revelation is kept in perspective as it is historically unfolded (e.g., Gal 3:6-14)” (DA Carson, Matthew, 92-93). So Matthew does just that by showing how Jesus, the Son of God, succeeded where Israel, the son of God, failed (see Matthew 4:1-11). The entire narrative is thus kept in perspective.
Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea, guided along as he no doubt was by the Holy Spirit, states, quite unequivocally that Hosea was talking about Jesus. Such a hermeneutic is spoken against in better homiletics and hermeneutics classes. If I were to stand up and preach such an allegorical interpretation of, say, the Exodus I would likely be branded a heretic or a liberal ‘liberation theologian.’ Yet Matthew looks back, finds a rather obscure passage of Scripture, in a prophet decidedly dwarfed by his contemporary Isaiah, and states boldly, loudly, formulaically: This verse is about Jesus and this before Jesus had ever even gone into Egypt let alone come out of it. “Not surprisingly the infant Christ, who summed up in his person all that Israel was called to be, was likewise threatened and delivered; and although the details differed, the early pattern was re-enacted in its essentials, ending with God’s Son restored to God’s land to fulfil (sic.) the task marked out for Him” (Derek Kidner, Hosea, 101-102; my emphasis).
The Son of God
I bring up Matthew and Hosea because this is the point of chapter 1 in the book. Consider:
” ‘Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’” (30) “So when God invites the people to be priests, it’s an invitation to show the world who this God is and what this God is like” (31) “God is telling Moses that Pharaoh will see him as God, or at least ‘like God’? And this is not Moses’ idea; it’s God’s idea. What’s going on here? The answer leads us to a universal truth: God needs a body. God needs flesh and blood. God needs bones and skin so that Pharaoh will know just who this God is he’s dealing with and how this God acts in the world. Not just so Pharaoh will know but so that all of humanity will know” (31) “This God is looking for a body” (34) “God is inviting. God is looking. God is searching for a body, a group of people to be the body of God in the world” (34) “God was looking for a body, a nation to show the world just who God is and what God is like” (36) “Remember, God is looking for a body, flesh and blood to show the world a proper marriage of the divine and human. What happens when your body looks nothing like you?” (43) “God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44)
The authors keep coming back to this theme, this most important idea: Israel failed. They failed time and time again. They became slaves of the wrong masters: “Exile isn’t just about location; exile is about the state of your soul…Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God” (44, 45). Rob Bell and Don Golden are making a serious charge: The Church has failed (and likely will continue to unless some things change) to ‘look like God’ even as Israel failed, even as Solomon-the one held up as the prime example of said failure-failed. This is why the one who succeeded is called the ‘son of David’ and not, for example, the son of Solomon. Their exegesis and interpretation of Solomon’s lifestyle, his rule, his failure is dead-on the mark with the best scholars. Solomon, they note rightly, had become the new Pharaoh; Jerusalem, the new Egypt. Failure.
Their contention is that we have enslaved ourselves all over again. Commenting on the prophet Amos they ask: “God calls their church services ‘evil assemblies’? God hates their religious gatherings? When God is on a mission, what is God to do with a religion that legitimizes indifference and worship that inspires indulgence. What is God to do when the time, money, and energy of his people are spent on ceremonies and institutions that neglect the needy?” (46) The church, the son of God, the body of Christ, in other words, has become slaves of the wrong master. If Israel was the son of God (see Exodus 4:22-23) that failed, Jesus was the Son of God who did not (Matthew 4:1-11). Bell and Golden are asking: Which son of God are we, the Church, like? Their conclusion seems to be that we most effectively emulate the former not the latter. Can we properly worship a God when we don’t have in our hearts the same things that God has in His? (That’s what Amos was asking.)
God came down and set us free. He released us from slavery, ended our exile, concluded our captivity. As the Body of Christ, the ‘Son of God’, God expects us to be about the business of doing the same in the lives of those still in captivity: “At the height of their power, Israel misconstrued God’s blessings as favoritism and entitlement. They became indifferent to God and to their priestly calling to bring liberation to others” (44). This is what the title of the book means: Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Why? Because we are slaves to the wrong master; because we have forgotten our story of liberation; because we have neglected the weightier things of the law. In a real sense, we don’t love. The church is so internally focused that we forget the suffering that is going on all around us. We sometimes so forget our redemption from slavery by God that we fail to remember those who are still there. We are so comfortable in our comfort that we forget to comfort the afflicted with that same comfort (2 Cor 1) we ourselves have received. Paul said it too: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Galatians 2:10).
William Willimon wrote, “Christians go to church in order never to forget that we were strangers and aliens out on the margins (Eph 2:19)” (Who is Saved?, 54) I agree. Once we forget, we are lost. This is why we read so much in the Old Testament about the Exodus and why God told them to remember it: why the Psalmists sung about it, why the Prophets preached about it, why Moses wrote about it. They were never to forget who they were, where they had come from. In the New Testament, Jesus continues this very thing except that ‘remember it’ became ‘remember me.’ I wonder if we have forgotten? Bell and Golden are reminding the church, God’s son, of who we are: We are the liberated, the freed, the unleashed, the undone. We are the ones who were in a ditch, needing rescued and there are many others still there, still needing lifted up.
Sermons on Idolatry
This chapter is a long sermon, and a well done sermon at that. In it you will find an exposition of Genesis, Exodus, 2 Kings (Solomon), the 10 Words, Amos and 2 Chronicles. The authors brilliantly tie all these books together, as they should (see Carson above) and demonstrate the seamless narrative of God’s grace and love for all of his creatures, for all his created peoples. We are to learn from Israel (1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews) so that we do not fall into the same error as they did. I think the authors did a fine job of demonstrating that if we don’t pay attention to the history of God’s redemptive work, we will be doomed to perpetuate the same mistakes and sins that others have before us.
One of the better aspects of this chapter is the authors’ intent to deal with idolatry and do this well especially so in their handling of the Solomon narratives. They spare nothing when it comes to Solomon’s failures. They point out just exactly how far he fell: “Seven hundred wives? Three hundred concubines? But the point for the storyteller is not the numbers; it’s how his wives affected Solomon. They turned him away from God, and ‘his heart was not fully devoted” (41-42). I think we are meant to ask ourselves: Are our hearts fully devoted? In doing so, they warn us of the great and subtle dangers of idolatry. After reading their exposition of the Solomon story, I wondered: Do we talk enough about idolatry in the church? (1 John 5:21!)
The Messed Up World of the Oppressed
An important question to ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to be the body of Christ, the son of God, on this earth? Are we prepared to be his people, on his terms? Peter told us: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 1:9-10). Peter then goes on to point out the distinctive way a people of God is supposed to live.
Bell and Golden are asking us: Are we prepared to live according the standard that God himself has raised? “The Hebrew Scriptures have a very simple and direct message: God always hears the cry of the oppressed; God cares about human suffering and the conditions that cause it. God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44).
Will we be that people? Will we care about the things that God cares about or will we continue to live in exile, slaves to our own passions, our own desires, and our own sins? Are we willing to do an evaluation and see if we are slaves of the right master? Didn’t Jesus say: You cannot serve two masters? That’s the gist of this chapter: If God has liberated us, what are we doing to liberate others? What are we doing about being God’s people?
You see, those of us who ‘are a people’, who ‘have received mercy’ know exactly what it is like to be on the other side: not a people, not receiving mercy. We know. We’ve been there. We understand. We can relate. But life is not just about understanding or relating or having been some place. It’s about more than just ‘learning to listen’, although that is surely a place to start. This brings us back to NT Wright: “First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second.” Are we doing that? Does the first, our narrative, our redemptive history in Christ, do anything to generate and sustain the second of those two points in our lives?
I’ll close this portion of my review with a short story. In our community, we have an ecumenical food center. What started as a small project, with volunteers from all different congregations, has grown into a major ministry that, in November 2008, fed over 1,000 hungry people in our community. This is a ministry blessed by the Lord.
The food center directors recently learned that the rent-free space they have used for 2 years will no longer be available by May of 2009. They need a new home. When I heard about this, I immediately called and said: We have space. We really do. The entire bottom half of our ‘education’ wing is empty space being used to educate young bats on how to locate rogue mice. We don’t even heat it. What needs to happen is that space, sitting empty now, needs to be turned into a living, breathing, place where people can find hope in this present world; and a good meal. It needs to be converted into a space where 1000+ people every month can get food, find friendship, discover a body of Christ that love and cares for them when they are at the end of their ropes.
“Think about your life,” Bell writes. “What are the moments that have shaped you the most? If you were to pick just a couple, what would they be? Periods of transformation, times when your eyes were opened, decisions you made that affected the rest of your life. How many of them came when you reached the end of your rope? When everything fell apart? When you were confronted with your powerlessness? When you were ready to admit your life was unmanageable? When there was nothing left to do but cry out? For many people, it was their cry, their desperation, their acknowledgment of their oppression, that was the beginning of their liberation” (24). (See also Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p 53-54)
What I hear is: “How is this going to inconvenience me?” All I hear is: “God is not big enough to accomplish this here.” All I hear is: “I’m more concerned about holding on to space I don’t use, that we might need, than I am about hungry people in my hometown, who need something to eat and someplace to get it.”
I think that is kind of what Bell and Golden are ‘complaining’ about in chapter 1 of this book. And they are right to do so. If the church won’t be the son of God, the body of Christ now, who will? If we won’t be agents of mercy, ministers of compassion, voices in the wilderness calling out for justice, who will? The government? The politicians? The strong? The powerful? Bah! The church has already surrendered too much of its priestly role the powerful, the rich, the influential, the arms dealers, the generals, and the Caesars, the presidents of this world. I agree with Bell: God is looking for a Body. He has prepared a body, but when we are more concerned about holding on to that which isn’t ours, or spending on ourselves what should be spent on others, then we have failed.
That’s what God has created us for: Whatever it takes! Your will be done! Here I am, send me! That’s what he has liberated us for. Christianity, salvation, is not just about a place we go. It’s about who we are, what we do. “Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation…We have been shown something that much of the world is waiting to see, even when the world doesn’t yet know for whom it awaits” (William Willimon, Who Will be Saved?, 3, 29)
The question is: What sort of God will we show them?
Next: Part 3, Get Down Your Harps
“My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living ‘in Jesus’ name.’ But the ways that dominate our culture have been developed either in ignorance or in defiance of the ways that Jesus uses to lead us as we walk the streets and alleys, hike the trails, and drive the roads of this God-created, God-saved, God-blessed, God-ruled world in which we find ourselves. They seem to suppose that ‘getting on in the world’ means getting on in the world on the world’s terms, and that the ways of Jesus are useful only in a compartmentalized area of life labeled ‘religious.’” (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 1)
When Eugene Peterson writes, I read. There is scarcely a word he has written in book form that I have not read. He is a respected preacher and pastor whose understanding of Scripture is profound and whose theological perspective holds Jesus in the highest possible position. He has a high view of the Word of God and interprets it within a tangibly orthodox hermeneutic. So when I heard echoes of Peterson in Rob Bell’s book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, I started paying closer attention to both writers.
I will state at the outset that I have not read any of Rob Bell’s other books. Nor have I ever watched a Nooma video. I have listened to exactly 23 minutes of one of his sermons My point in noting these things is to say that I am coming at this series of posts unbiased. I am neither for nor against Rob Bell. I am interested only in what he has written, along with Don Golden, in this book. The book is only recently published, but I don’t think it is too soon to offer a critique of the work.
That said, my wife bought me Jesus Wants to Save Christians for Christmas. I have desired to read this book since I saw this blurb in a flier for Family Christian Stores, “There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more than $20 million. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty. This is a book about those two numbers.” (This also appears on the back of the book.) I was intrigued and decided that I should read this book and make it my first introduction to the work of Rob Bell. Now I am reading it, and I cannot tell you how thoroughly surprised I am by what I have read.
I was fully prepared to hate this book. I had browsed it at the book store. The silly green pages bothered me. The unorthodox writing style annoyed me: Sentence fragments; sentences that are chopped up and drawn down the page in a column-like structure in an effort to fill the two covers with more and more pages than are necessary. The book is certainly not a DA Carson or David F Wells type of theology. However, if it is true that we should not judge a book by its cover, neither should we judge a book by its particular stylistic format.
I should say a couple of other things about this book before I go too much further. First, there are a scant 218 pages in this book. I think that is probably more than there actually are given the format of the book. Still, I think Bell has said a lot in those 218 pages. This book serves as a fine introduction to the New Exodus perspective.
Second, there are 34 pages of endnotes written in a very traditional, single spaced (double between) format. That’s a total of 326 endnotes. 256 of those 326 notes are direct references to Scripture. If my son did his math correctly, that means 79% of the notes are Scripture references, more detailed explanations of Scripture, Scripture quotes, or more commentary on Scripture. Sometimes, a note contains more than one reference to a passage of Scripture.
What this indicates to me is simple. It means that Rob Bell (and co-author Don Golden) has not written a book that is based on his own idea or his own imagination. This is a book that relies far more on Scripture than it does on anything else. Here is a man who has written a book and allowed that book, and I believe his theology, to be shaped by the Word of God. And when one reads through the book, one discovers that much of what is written is merely (I say that not at all meaning minimally) a retelling of the story of Scripture-from Genesis to Revelation.
In fact, this is what is stated at the outset of the book, “In the Scriptures, ultimate truths about the universe are revealed through the stories of particular people living in particular places…We join you in this tension, believing that the story is ultimately about healing, hope, and reconciliation” (8) He goes on, “This is a book of theology…This book is our attempt to articulate a specific theology, a particular way to read the Bible, referred to by some as a New Exodus perspective” (8) Make no mistake about the intent of this book and the authors: It is designed to make you think about God and about what God’s Word says to its readers about what God is doing in the world. They do this, again, by constantly referring the reader to Scripture.
This further indicates to me that Bell and Golden have a very high view of Scripture. They could tell these things their own way, but they deliberately chose not to. Instead, they quote from Moses, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the New Testament (I thoroughly enjoyed their interpretation of the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch). They don’t challenge the Scripture. Scripture speaks. (I regret that I couldn’t find the page number, but as it is said, “God has spoken; everything else is commentary.”) These are not men who are picking and choosing what ‘fits’ their idea. Their idea is driven along by their high view of Scripture. For someone who has been accused of doing exactly the opposite, this is a great risk for Bell. He might actually be accused of being too orthodox for some readers.
This is my first introduction to Rob Bell’s theological point of view and I have to confess that, intrigued as I was by that blurb in a flier, I was skeptical. Sadly, Rob Bell is held up as a poster child for all that is wrong with the church, with Christianity, with this generation of believers. Yet, as I read the introduction I was struck by this statement: “For a growing number of people in our world, it appears that many Christians support some of the very things Jesus came to set people free from” (18). I was struck by it because I had heard it before: Eugene Peterson wrote a statement very similar to this in his book The Jesus Way. It seems that on the horizon there is more than one person saying that there is something seriously wrong with the way ‘we’ are doing ‘Christianity.’
What does he (Bell) analyze that problem as? Simple: Too many in the church have associated a certain brand of political persuasion and nationalism with the ‘right sort of Christianity.’ “A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage” (18). This is a real problem, as I see it too, because it makes the Scripture ‘mine’ instead of God’s. It makes the Bible no longer God’s Word to us and instead it becomes more a weapon we use to determine who is and is not in the club. This is decidedly the wrong approach for us to have towards Scripture. It slants everything in our favor and becomes a tool for oppression instead of a declaration of emancipation for those held in captivity by the ‘very things Jesus came to set us free from.’ Scripture becomes a handbook for winning elections instead of a declaration of war on the things that keep people prisoners, enslaved to a system that hates them.
Bell and Golden are right: We are east of Eden, but remember, the book is written to Christians. It seems to me that Bell and Golden are saying there is something seriously wrong with the church, with Christians. What they are thus proposing is a solution to our problem. It should be interesting to see what they propose is the solution to our problem.
Next: Part 2, The Cry of the Oppressed
Over at Advance Signs, I have written a short review and recommendation of Gary Haugen’s latest book Just Courage. I have also provided a series of web-links that will get you around the web to learn about the darkness that is the large business of human trafficking (slavery) that exists in our world.
I have just finished reading this book Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort The Gospels, by Craig A Evans, distinguished professor of New Testament and director of the graduate program at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
The hardback copy I have from IVP (2006) contains 290 pages. These 290 pages are divided into 11 chapters, 2 appendices, a glossary, abbreviations, end notes, recommended reading, and four indices. Also included is a preface, introduction, and three pages of advanced praise for the book. The print is nice and easily readable. Contained within the main writing are several charts and excursions highlighted with a grey background and enclosed in a separate box. These are helpful, sometimes giving more detail of something contained in the text itself; sometimes merely repeating what is in the text in chart form. They are helpful and not intrusive and I believe they can be overlooked, if you choose, without losing any of the meat of the book.
Evans is a competant scholar who has written extensively on matters of the New Testament. He has an impressive resume in this respect. He is no slouch when it comes to understanding the issues he writes of in this book, exposing them as fraudulent and lies, and detailing the faulty foundations upon which semi-scholars have constructed them. I appreciated this book because he was not afraid to name names and to point out the absurdity of those who claim to be authorities in matters which they are clearly not authorities (i.e., Dan Brown): “The success of The Da Vinci Codesays more about the gullibility of modern society than it does about Dan Brown’s skills” (204). I also appreciated that Evans was not afraid to use a little humor and sarcasm to point out the fictional nature of some claims: “Beam me up, Scotty.” (204) But even more than these, I appreciated the depth and breadth of the literature he examines from popular fiction to historical treatises, ancient to modern. I think it is to his credit that even though the book is written “on the popular level and is primarily intended for nonexperts” (14) he assumes the competence of the reader to understand sometimes difficult subject matter, and is not afraid to drag us through it to prove his point. (His discussions of Josephus, for example, are most helpful.)
I don’t like the cover. I have to mention this because I’m not a big fan of any likenesses of Jesus. I would just as soon he put a picture of Dan Brown or JD Crossan or Elain Pagels or Homer Simpson on the cover than the pseudo picture of Jesus currently there. It is somewhat ironic that a book concerned with exposing the fallacies of modern scholars’ distortions of Jesus has, on the cover, a rather ridiculous portrait of Jesus. But that’s just me.
In the book he deals with the likes John Dominic Crossan, Dan Brown, Robert Funk, James Robinson, Robert Price and Bart Ehrman right from the start and interracts with their work throughout. It is thrilling to see someone put Crossan and Brown, for example, in the same book, in the same camp, and for the same reasons: Crossan for his intellectual, scholarly deconstruction of Jesus and Brown for his fictional, popular deconstruction of Jesus. When it all boils down: they are they doing the same thing which is Evans’ point. What is frightening is how many people take the work of folks like Dan Brown and simply assume the historical validity of his conclusions without doing investigation on their own. In this book, Evans tears apart the foundation upon which Brown’s conclusions are built and exposes the apostate, pseudo-scholarship that underlies it. (Brown’s work, for example, is based on a ‘scholarly’ and well documented hoax and forgery.)
At the core of the attacks on the historicity and veracity of the canonical Scriptures is an attack on the person of Jesus himself. Why does this matter? Well, for example, if Jesus is ‘attacked’ in such a way and is purported to be anything less or something other than what the canonical Gospels report, then Christianity as a whole is at risk. This is why it is the Scripture that is always first to be attacked. What is amazing to me is that certain scholars find non-canonical documents such as The Gospel of Thomas more reliable than those historically accepted as canonical such as the document we call Matthew. But don’t they have to do just that in order for their portraits of Jesus to stand up? Seriously, when any document in existence is given equal weight with the canonical Gospels, then literally any portrait of Jesus can be conjured up from the ashes, which is exactly what has happened. From Crossan to Pagals to Brown: All have different portraits of Jesus based on their favorite non-canonical ‘gospels.’ This is why I believe that their ‘research’ is really, ultimately about undermining Christian faith altogether. It is about an unwillingness to submit to the authority of the Gospel. It is insidious, really. What other reason could there be for such activity but to distort and throw into confusion those who accept the Gospel story found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
I like the subtitle: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. I like it because it warns the reader of what most readers suspect already: the real danger to the Christian faith are the learned ones who think that by their gnosis they are somehow superior to those who accept the faith once delivered, the simple, Biblical faith. And most of what Evans uncovers can go by the simple term: Gnosticism. This is the basis for most of the popular, avant-garde crap that is published under the guise of ‘Jesus Research’ today. Evans rightly calls this ‘radical and pseudo-scholarship.’ (222) I probably couldn’t agree more. The so-called work done by such folks has, in my opinion, nothing to do with uncovering or discovering the ‘real Jesus’ and everything to do with deconstructing the canonical Gospels. But to the point: We are already in possession of a portrait of the real Jesus in the Gospels. Part of Evans’ objective in this book is to lay waste to the notion that the New Testament cannot be trusted. To this end, he writes:
In my view, even though the Gospels are written from a perspective of faith in Jesus, they are reliable. Faith and truthful history are not necessarily at odds. Criteria of authenticity, which are remarkably vigorous in their application to the Gospels, confirm the essential core of Jesus’ teaching. It is not necessary to claim that the Gospels are inerrant, though for theological reasons many Christians accept them as such, and that every saying and deed attributed to Jesus is true to history. But claims that the Gospels are unreliable, full of myth and legend, and so biased that knowledge of what Jesus really said and did cannot be uncovered are excessive and unwarranted…[T]here is every reason, then, to conclude (again, without invoking theological dogmas) that the Gospels have fairly and accurately reported the essential elements of Jesus’ teaching, life, death and resurrection.” (234)
Another important aspect of this book is the uncovering of the pathetic level of understanding and competence of Scripture among Christians in today’s church. (Perhaps I might also add the significant lack of trust in the Gospels too.) The reason so many people are duped by folks like Brown and Harpur and Baigent is because they have not themselves studied and learned. “Some of these ideas are not well understood even by professing Christians, and they should be. If they are not understood, then writers of hokum history and bad theology will continue to prey on the naive and the credulous.” (222) In other words: Christians are the very ones creating the market for the Dan Browns and Margaret Starbird’s of the world. This is troubling for a number of reasons not least of which is the fact that such books actually get written, get published, are purchased, and read and thus is perpetuated the mythologies of said books. The end result is that faith is undermined because that which is authoritative in faith formation is undermined, namely, the Scripture. Furthermore, false gospels are perpetuated and these false gospels end up becoming the sort of gospels that Jesus warned about in Matthew 24 for example: “What out that no one deceives you for many will come in my name claiming, ‘I am he.’”
I don’t think that our current situation is any worse than at any other time in history. I am not, after all, claiming that somehow folks like Dan Brown have cornered the market on tabloid-like reporting and writing about Jesus. There have always been heretics and heretics have always rightly been rebuked by the faithful and by the Scriptures themselves. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about the nature of Biblical understanding, or lack thereof, among the folks of the church. There is so much emphasis today on the so-called practical side of Bible teaching that in many instances sound, biblical theology is simply avoided as too complex or even unecessary. This is why Jesus warned us to pay close attention. This is what Peter warned us of in his letter–that is, of people who ‘make up stories’:
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.”
Peter and the others were not duped by fancy stories. They were eyewitnesses of His glory and this is the story they have saved for us. This is also what the author of the Hebrews warned us of too:
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
The most important aspect of the book is that Evans continually draws our attention back to the canonical Gospels and reasserts their validity, authority and necessity for shaping faith in Jesus Christ. He continually brings us back and says: “These Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are our main source for understanding the historical Jesus. They are trustworthy documents, and we can have confidence in them.” Thus, while certain other documents may lend us helpful or important information they are not vital for Christian faith and lend us nothing more than what is satisfied in the canonical gospels. In other words, as fascinating as The Gospel of Thomas or The Gospel of Judas or The Gospel of Mary may be, Christianity will not be less if those documents did not exist. Writes Evans:
The true story of the historical Jesus is exciting and inspiring. The true story may well be an old story, but it is far more compelling than the newer, radical, minimalist, revisionist, obscurantist and faddish versions of the Jesus story that have been put forward in recent years. Ongoing archaeology and ongoing discovery and study of ancient documents will continue to shed light on this old story. These discoveries may require and adjustment here and there. But thus far these discoveries have tended to confirm the reliability of the Gospels and disprove novel theories. I suspect that ongoing honest, competent research will do more of the same.” (235)
I do not agree with every single conclusion that Evans makes. For example, his thoughts (see above) about the inerrancy of the Gospels is, to me, a bit disturbing and I cannot imagine what events in the life of Jesus may not be ‘true to history.’ I don’t know if Evans is stating this as a fact of his personal conviction or as a concession to those who may have issues with certain aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. On the contrary, I think it does matter whether or not everything written in the Gospels is ‘true to history,’ but Evans is clear on this point earlier in the book when he cites three specific instances where ‘textual problems’ exist in the canonical gospels (the ‘longer’ ending of Mark, 16:9-20; the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11; and Jesus’ prayer in the garden in Luke 22:41-45). Evans contends that these stories can be removed from the gospels and that no significant doctrines would be lost, but this assumes, I think, that these stories do not add anything significant to the Gospel. In my judgment, this is somewhat misguided. If the credibility of the Gospels does not hinge on these stories exclusion then I contend that neither is its credibility damanged by their inclusion. My point is that the above sentence may be confusing to some readers and I wished that it was clarified just a wee bit. It is important, in my estimation, what we believe about the nature of the Scripture, but I have contended for this point elsewhere on my blog and will not rehash it here.
I think you will enjoy this book and I think you will benefit from it greatly. It gives the reader easy, point by point explanations of the places where ‘modern scholars’ go wrong and why they go wrong. He interacts with the historical documents well and explains them sufficiently to the lay person. You would do well to have a copy of this book handy when talking with your friends who are skeptical of the Gospels’ claims about Jesus. Also, this will be a handy volume to strengthen your own faith walk by reinforcing what you believe in your heart about the Scriptures that have been passed on to us from generation to generation: They are trustworthy.
I will say this in conclusion. Evans documents a mountain of theories and portraits. The scope of literature he surveys is daunting to say the least. However, all this ‘hokum history’ and all the ‘bogus findings’ surveyed and reported will come and go with each passing generation. They will take new shapes, new forms, and be reported in different ways by different people. There will be new ways of interpreting ‘evidence’ and manuscripts, and, I suppose, people will continue digging in the dirt of ancient lands in hopes of uncovering some new scrap of pottery or piece of papyrus that will prove or disprove the canonical gospels. Such things will always be happening and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening. But it is all so much dust in the wind and will, like the fading flower men who go to the effort, wither away in the sun. The Word of God, however, will remain; and it must. Here is our confidence.
Soli Deo Gloria!
PS–For related help, pick up a copy of Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, IVP (2nd Ed), 2008.
Friends, I wrote this review as part of my requirements for my latest seminary class. The paper was meant to be 1200-1500 words and I ended up with over 3000. So before I could turn in the review I had to pare it down by 1200 words. The final count was 2023 or so. Anyhow, you are reading the short version here. I highly recommend this book if you can get it. It is a great book about how grace is meant to invade all areas of our lives. Grace will help us avoid the ‘performance trap’ and ‘perfectionism’ that pervades the church and causes the ruin of many Christians. Enjoy! jerry
I was fully prepared to hate this book. I have very little use for psychology as a cure-all for what ails sinners. A quick perusal of the book had convinced me, prematurely, that the book was yet another one of those attempts by a ‘Christian psychologist’ to manufacture a purely psychological well-roundedness without really dealing with the heart of the matter (sin).
It was after reading the first four and a half pages (10-14), however, that I also changed my mind about the book. On page 13, I read the author’s sole complaint addressed in the book: “Just as there are different degrees of any disease, so there are different levels of intensity in performance orientation….Performance-oriented Christians represent a wide range of despairing humanity” (13). This is a horrifying charge considering that Christians should, in fact, represent the widest range of joyful humanity. Seamands contends that we are joyless because we have missed grace: “…at this point it is important to see that the roots of performance orientation are theological. If the ultimate cure is grace, then the ultimate cause of the behavior is the failure to understand, experience, and live out grace at every level of our lives.” (67, emphasis mine).
Seamands believes that the answer for Christians trapped in a “prison which was at least partially of their own making,” trapped in mind set of “I ought to do more,” and perpetually racing around in a life of “performance” is, unequivocally, grace. Grace as a way of life, not only as the way of salvation, is the point Seamands is trying to get across to his readers. “To restrict God’s grace only to saving or sanctifying grace would be to miss the all-encompassing nature of God’s love in action” (186; see also 181-182.)
Part of the problem, at least from where Seamands writes, is in fact the very church that should be the vehicle and conduit of God’s grace to the world. If the church or the preacher plays a role in Seamands’ book, it is, in my opinion, largely a negative one. “We must always remember that those who make up the visible church are products of a particular culture. So it shouldn’t surprise us to discover within the church certain impediments to receiving and living out grace” (35, my emphasis).
The three major impediments he speaks of are: 1) The Gospel of success. “American activism has clearly infected the church’s idea of success” (35). Again the blame is laid at the feet of the preacher and rightly so. “I believe the church’s distorted gospel of activism and self-effort contributes greatly to the self-belittling and low sense of self-worth so many people feel” (37). 2) The Gospel of self-reliant individualism. “Another aspect of the church’s life which conflicts with biblical grace is an overemphasis on the individual Christian life apart from open grace-filled relationships with other people” (37). 3) The Gospel of legalism. “Evangelical churches and pastors believe in and proclaim a doctrine of salvation by grace through faith…[B]ut the Sunday School lessons and sermons are sometimes not heard as messages of grace” (38). In my judgment, the preacher bears a majority of the responsibility for all three problems.
If this is to be rectified, then changes must begin to take place in the lives and preaching of the preachers and teachers in the church and others that Seamands calls ‘people in Christian service.’ Yet, for as much as Seamands criticizes the church in general, and preachers in particular e.g., 128-131), for their poor understanding and practice of grace, he rightly recognizes that pastors are usually well suited conduits for healing grace to flow (67). However, it is highly unlikely that the congregation in general will have a great grasp of grace if the preachers and teachers have a faulty or weak grasp of it themselves.
Seamands writes, “Doctrinal belief in a theology of grace, as important as that is, does not change the way performance-grounded Christians live. This is not understood by a large number of persons involved in Christian service—pastors, evangelists, teachers, and counselors, and so they sincerely but mistakenly deal with problems brought to them by parishioners only on a cognitive level—preaching/teaching/admonishing” (120). His solution is ‘the all-encompassing way of grace’ which is fine as far is it goes, but how else can preachers, evangelists, and others, ‘reconstruct,’ ‘reprogram,’ and ‘recycle’ apart from changing damaged and destructive cognitive patterns? “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” wrote the apostle (Romans 12:2a, NIV, cf. Colossians 1:9). It seems to me that it will be rather difficult to practically apply such grace if we do not have a cognitive grasp of what it is in the first place. Furthermore, it seems to me that the very purpose in writing Healing Grace is to change the way we think about grace in order that we might change the way we practice grace.
This leads to a second complaint that I have against the book which is, there are no long, sustained expositions of Scripture. The book is full of Scripture, on this point there is no complaint and for the most part I believe Seamands handles the Scripture faithfully and justly. This does not change the fact that he quotes Scripture in pieces. Paul the apostle did not write a few verses here and there, David did not write a few disconnected lines of poetry, and the Gospels are not mere collections of ‘stories’ designed to make a moral point about Jesus or us or grace. For example, his use of the so-called childhood narratives of Jesus to build his case for good parenting (chapter 3) was a very troubling to me. Jesus as a merely well-rounded psychological profile is, to me, more than a little disturbing. Not that Jesus is not or was not, but that I hardly believe that was the Holy Spirit’s point in guiding Luke to write those narratives.
I am not a fan of piecemeal verse collections that serve to bolster an author’s foregone conclusion. Although Seamands does not necessarily damage Scripture, I cannot help but wonder if perhaps more attention to Scripture as the revelation of Christ (John 5:39-47, Luke 24:27, 44-49), to Scripture in larger portions, and to Scripture exegetically taught, would serve his ends better and make grace even more alive. Committed as he no doubt is to Scripture (see page 40), I did not appreciate on the whole his ‘use’ of it.
The strongest part of the book was Seamands’ relentless pursuit to identify those things (and people!) which are barriers to grace. It is simply stunning how many barriers to God’s free gift we (the Church, Christians) have erected. One might almost say that Christians actually delight in re-constructing the barriers that Christ himself tore down at Calvary. According to Seamands, our problem begins when we are young and our parents wreck our lives through what he calls dys-grace: “Now let us turn to the greatest hindrance of all—destructive interpersonal relationships within the home and family” (38). Families play a significant role in helping us mis-understand grace in all of its glory. But Seamands doesn’t stop there at all. Chapters 2-6 all deal with barriers to grace in one form or another whether it is the church (2), the family (3), sin (4), man-made alternatives (5), or poor psychological profile (6; 143-148).
All of these barriers form a mighty chasm, a gulf that we simply cannot span. I think Seamands has to do this, though. It is necessary for the reader to understand how completely defunct we are and how no one is going to help us out of our predicament. In short, we are in desperate straits apart from God’s grace. We are hopeless. We are a ‘wide range of despairing humanity.’ These are not just barriers we have to get around; they are downright prohibitive measures: They prevent us from enjoying God and serving others well. Thus he rightly concludes that we need something different, something diametrically opposed the traps of man-made solutions and barriers: “…we have looked at the origin and development of the more extreme variety of performance-based Christians, perfectionists. We have also seen that any attempt to find freedom by our own efforts only leads us deeper into the mire. Let’s turn now to the only solution and our only hope. God’s greatest gift—grace” (106). And with that, Seamands begins to undo all the nastiness he spoke of in chapters 2-6, all the un-grace, and dys-grace, and no-grace that pervades this world and, all too often, the Christian’s life. For Seamands, there is only one solution to bad parenting, sin, perfectionism—any of it—and that is the Grace of God. “The way of grace is not some afterthought on God’s part. It’s the way, the only way God ever planned” (199).
I spoke with a friend while I was writing my review and I expressed my concern over having to review a book that the professor had probably read a hundred times and that the professor has read countless student reviews of in the course of his tenure. I said, “How does one write a paper in this situation?” She responded, “Write it like you think he hasn’t read it. Write it like you just discovered it and you want to share it with the world. Make him care about it again.” Well, whether or not I accomplish that with this paper is beside the point and for someone else to decide. Seamands, however, accomplished it brilliantly with his book. He brings grace to the front and, through anecdotes from his counseling work that nearly any person can fit into at some point, he makes the reader think about why they are hindered from receiving God’s grace and living it. He brings the reader face to face with the problem and then he confronts them with the only answer: The grace of God. He does this time and time again in the book. Always the solution is grace.
Is that not what God does too? Reading through the Scripture are we not continually brought back, time and time again, in the narrative to grace? Here it is in Eden. There it is at Moriah. Still again it makes a grand appearance in Egypt. If we go further on, trudging through the difficult books, we see grace at Jericho (Rahab), Moab (Ruth), Phillistia (Samson), in the Desert of Sin (Israel), at Sinai (Moses), Babylon (Nebudchadnezzar), and Ninevah (Jonah). We see grace in the life of David and his dealings with the Lord time and time again in the Psalms. We see grace in the multitudes of animal sacrifices which never atoned for a single sin. Grace is there in the stories of obscure characters like Jabez and Mephibosheth. Grace is in the Law, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Apocalypse. It opens and closes many of the epistles. It is the last words in the Revelation, and hence our canon. Grace consumed Peter, Paul, James, Mary Magdalene, John, and many other unnamed people whom Jesus touched, such as the woman at the well, the unnamed woman forgiven of adultery, and Ethiopian Eunuch, and not a few lepers. And it was John himself who pointed out that “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14b, 17, NIV).
I appreciate what Seamands has done with this volume to open my mind to what I had always known, but had never understood; always paid lip-service to, but had never believed; always witnessed, but had never seen; always heard, but had never listened to. Surely God’s grace is sufficient for all.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Here’s the review I promised for The Great Omission by Dallas Willard. It is non-technical and rather short. The book is not altogether bad, but it does have some issues that need to be addressed and perhaps there are other, longer, more technical reviews that will satisfy the need.
Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis sums up his point in the next to the last chapter, a chapter he titled “Nice People or New Men.” He wrote:
For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of men.” (1)
The problem I had with The Great Omission is that I was often under the impression that this ‘effort’ we make in grace was merely about improvement and not about newness; or about becoming nice people and not new men. Willard does write, “Transformation into goodness is what the ‘Good News’ is all about…isn’t it?” (2) I think this is too shallow.
The author’s purpose can be summed up, I believe, by combining a few sentences from a couple of different places in the book. The first is found in the introduction, “We have a manual, just like the car owner. He told us, as disciples, to make disciples. Not converts to Christianity, nor to some particular ‘faith and practice.’” (3) The second quote is found twice, but I’ll cite only page 61, “To drive the point home I often put this challenge: I do not know of a denomination or a local church in existence that has as it’s goal to teach its people to do everything Jesus said. I’m not talking about a whim or a wish, but a plan.” (4) I gather, then, that his point is to present to us what ‘we’ have been missing, or omitting (hence, The Great Omission) in the practice of the church. The Church, he suggests, cannot be satisfied to think in small terms any longer about what it means to make disciples: Sunday School, Congregational worship, and pulpit preaching are not enough to ‘drive home this point.’ The church generally and individual Christians specifically must make ‘obedience to all [Jesus] commanded,’ under the cover of grace, a deliberate, proactive choice (see chapter 11). Aside from this deliberate choice, we will simply fall well short of Jesus’ intentions for disciples. Willard’s contention is that we have, and we are.
Thus it seemed to me that he was speaking more to a specialized audience and not just the general reader. The book contains ‘previously published articles and addresses’ which at times was more of a distraction than a help. I well understand his desire to reach and speak to those who are the so-called shapers of a Christian spiritual formation, but if spiritual formation (discipleship) is the responsibility of us all, then the book should have been edited better. There were, in my opinion, too many occasions in the book when, due to poor editing, the reader could tell that Willard was ‘speaking’ to someone who was not, in fact, the reader. An example is found on page 170, “I trust and hope and pray that the occasion of this colloquium, under the leadership of people at Harvard, will open the way to a renewal of that kind of depth of life and thought on earth.” I appreciate the overall point, but in leaving this sentence at the end of this ‘previously published’ paper I felt like Willard was no longer speaking to me (and he did this other times too.) I wonder if this detracts from the overall purpose to help ‘everyone’ become obedient to all the things Jesus said?
Another problem I had with the book is that Willard, for all of his quotation of Scripture and all of his otherwise fine points about Scripture, takes a very ‘Rick Warren’ approach to Scripture. I was immediately put on guard while reading the introduction and on page xiii Willard paraphrased the ‘Great Commission’ found in Matthew 28:18-20. His paraphrase lacked authenticity. Furthermore, aside from a couple of passages in chapter 15, “Jesus the Logician”, Willard makes no attempt at all at lengthy exegesis of Scripture to support his ideas. His points fall more along the lines of philosophical observations based upon the fact that “Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived” (180) or that Jesus is the “maestro of all good things” (191). But if we take Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture from Luke 24: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about mein the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44, NIV), then we see that Scripture is more than a ‘manual’ to help us get along better, be better, or do better. Scripture is about Jesus and merely yanking verses here and there out of a larger context, without doing detailed exegesis, and paraphrasing passages in strange, non-traditional ways (much like Rick Warren does), tends to reduce Scripture from Word of God concerning Jesus as God’s Revelation (See John 1:1-4; Hebrews 1:1-4) to a manual for improvement. We become not necessarily new men even if we become nice people.
Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion of other problems with the book. In short they are, in no particular order: 1) The use of ‘previously published material’ meant there was too much repetition in the book. 2) The use of ‘previously published material’ caused the book to lack any sophisticated logical flow. There was no ‘building upon’ each chapter in the next. 3) Although Willard did well to analyze the ‘problems’ the modern church faces when it comes to discipleship, I believe that he spent far too little time addressing how to solve the problem through spiritual disciplines. Here and there he spoke of them and expounded upon them, but not nearly as well as Foster did in his book. 4) I concede that this fourth objection may be a (too) personal complaint, but I wondered at times why he seemed to shy away from traditional language. What he was generally speaking of was sanctification and holiness (and he was not speaking of them in perfectly theological ways.) Yet I don’t recall seeing the former at all and the latter only a couple of times. 5) While I appreciate his oft-repeated phrase “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort,” (5) he did place much of the burden for spiritual achievement on the human effort. After reading, I wonder if there is anything left for the Spirit to do after we have made our efforts?
On page 157, Willard writes: “To develop accurate knowledge of the human soul is the primary need of our times, and who should be in better position to provide it than the Christian psychologist? If we accept the reality of the soul, we can begin to explore its nature and to seek the means, of whatever kind, that are effective in its restoration.”(6) Dallas Willard had many well rounded, sound thoughts interspersed throughout this book. I think at this crucial point in the book, however, he fell flat. I don’t think I could disagree more with what Willard said in this paragraph. The truth is, the Gospel of Jesus has been so thoroughly psychologized in our culture that one can scarcely tell where Dr Phil ends and Jesus begins. If all we need is a sounder point of view on the psychology of humanity, or even the soul, then how can we ever begin to tell the difference between ‘nice people’ and ‘new men’?
Instead, I believe that God has ordained the preaching of the Gospel, the proclamation of his Good News, to be the catalyst behind the changes that are necessary to restore the soul. If Paul says that we cannot ‘call on the Name of the Lord’ without a preacher (Romans 10:5-17), he also says, “we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices…not conforming to pattern of the world, but being transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:1-2). Then he says we will be able to test and approve God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. In a left-handed sort of way, Willard has persuaded me all the more of the importance and necessity of preaching the ‘whole council’ of God. What the Church needs now is far less Christian psychology in the pulpit and far more prophetic preaching of the Word of God. Perhaps the reason that teaching, study, preaching and congregational worship have not done as well in making disciples is precisely because the Word of God has been co-opted by psychologists who are interested in making nice people, but not new men.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), 182
Willard, 34 and elsewhere