Posts Tagged ‘book’

GFTROUCan you imagine if Karl Barth sat down to write Church Dogmatics and began with an exceptional account of how wrecked his life has been by sin, how disturbed his family is/was, and other unsavory and sordid details of his confusion, pain, and suffering and then told us the story of how God redeemed it, made it whole, and eventually used that life to change the lives of countless other equally shattered and broken people?

Neither can I. But maybe if he had, Church Dogmatics, as much fun as they are to read, would be even more fun. (I confess I have not read through the entire Dogmatics, so maybe he did I and I don't know it.)

To be sure, God for the Rest of Us is not Church Dogmatics. Most will probably be thankful for this. But it is another book among a collection of books that continue to be published by Christian publishing houses who are convinced that the every day readers in the church want to read stories about how terrible the lives of their favorite preachers have been. Preachers used to be paragons of untouchable virtue and holiness. Not so much anymore. It's kind of a newer trend where we get insights into practical Christianity via the growth process of (insert favorite preacher's name here). We get to read about their struggles, their families, their suffering, their pain, their doubt, their heroics, their rise from the squalor of outcast kid who doubts his way through Bible college on to having some sort of an epiphany and their subsequent rise to become super-hero pastors of super-mega-giant churches that are doing everything right that most other churches do wrong.

I hate to be this way, but this is the trend. I don't see it slowing down anytime soon because evidently there is a market for it. Evidently, people are buying this stuff. When I think about my own 'rise to stardom' in the world of churchianity, I usually end up sitting around wondering why it is that some people suffer so much and end up writing books and others of us suffer so much and end up reviewing those books. Sometimes, I suppose we come off as bitter.

This is partly what you get though when you read God for the Rest of Us. I'm not, necessarily, suggesting this is a bad thing. Those who read this book will figure that out on their own. To be sure, I think people should read this book because despite my conviction that the preacher should not be the focus of his sermon or an illustration (I learned this in elementary homiletics classes) in this case what we learn is that Antonucci is not some stuck up snobbish preacher unwilling to get close to people or to have people close to him. I like that this is a man who has been through the mud a time or two and yet somehow or other found Jesus. Or maybe Jesus found him. Or maybe Jesus dogged his footsteps until he turned around and asked where the Master where he was staying or the Master informed him he was coming over for dinner. Maybe its a little bit of all of it. Maybe Jesus follows us long before we ever follow him. I don't know. My point is that while I have grown somewhat weary of reading stories about the preachers who have struggled and suffered so much prior to Jesus (and sometimes after Jesus too) and share it in their books, churches, and t-shirts, church curricula, and DVDs, there is something to be said about what these preachers have learned from these experiences.

I think this book is, partly, the evidence of what Antonucci learned through his experiences.

While some Christians seem to go out of their way to protect God from the unseemly and untidy and unwashed heathens in this world, Antonucci goes out of his way to demonstrate that it is precisely 'these types' of people in whom God is most interested. Jesus did say 'it's the sick who need a doctor, not the well.' OK. So Antonucci has a vision one day, or a calling, and he packs up the family and moves to Vegas where he, following the lead of Jesus, starts to befriend and minister to all the wrong people–you know, people who would never fit in in our comfortable, white-washed, stained glass, middle-class suburban campus style churches. And a church starts to grow–and the Lord 'added to their number daily those who were being saved'–right in the middle of Las Vegas.

And if this story is true, and why shouldn't it be and how can it not be, it is utterly remarkable and unnerving the people that Jesus loves into his church through his people.

I heard a young preacher say something once that was utterly brilliant. He said, we cannot build relationships if we don't start them first. Oh, he had me hooked after that because I know that I am a somewhat strange person when it comes to relationships. Antonucci agrees: "The way to change a life is not by judging people but by embracing them. Not by pointing out their sins but by pointing the way to hope" (19). I mean, how simple can one get? He goes further (and I've read variations of this before, so it's nothing new, but I think it sets the tone for what the book is about): "What's so disturbing is that what Jesus was known for–amazing grace–is the exact opposite of what Christians are known for today. We're known for judgment and condemnation. We're known not for what we're for–loving God and loving people–but for what we're against" (19). It's really hard to argue with this. 

When I was still a preacher, here I go breaking my own rule, I was one time ripped a new one in a board meeting because I helped a friend with his taxi service. The reason I was ripped? Well, you see, I picked up drunks from bars, I drove people to a local gambling facility, and every now and again I picked up and drove 'exotic dancers' home. You'd never believe some of the conversations I had with people in that car. But it was too much for the uptight members of the board–after all, I was a preacher and I shouldn't be seen in such places or with such people. (It's a true story. It wasn't too long after that that I left the church.) I think God was teaching me to love people. I should have stayed at the church because I ended up not being very loving towards those board members who seem to want to stifle and criticize me.

Love even the judgmental. God is for church boards.

I don't know what is so difficult about loving people right where they are and then allowing God to do the hard work of changing them. But let's take it a step further and suggest that it is our goal to change people, "If our goal is to change people's behavior, to get them to repent, is fear really the best way to do that?" (156) Spend enough time trolling the blogs and you will see that there are a lot of Christians who believe just that. Spend enough time with Jesus and you will see that it will never work because even those who are won over by fear will not last long. Maybe the voices of those who spend more time with Jesus ought to be the voices heard the most by those who think of God as someone who could never love them. Our lives are shaped and we thrive by love. Fear motivates me to nothing, but love? "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). What else need be said? 

God is for us, and if he is, who can be against us? Yes, this is spoken in particular to Christians, but isn't there also a sense in which we can say that God is for all people? God is patient and not willing any one should perish. God wants all people to come to a knowledge of the truth. All. That is a huge, huge word that is too often left out of our Christianese dictionary. We need to embrace it. We need to embrace all people. And seriously who cares if we embrace people and they take advantage of us or persist in their sin? Will God find fault with us for loving all people?

Ask yourself: Will God judge the church more harshly for loving all people with great love even though they might take advantage of us or for only loving some people who treat us kindly? I think it would be better to ere on the side of love than discernment. God can do the judging, we are called to do the loving.

So, yes, there are parts of the book that made me uncomfortable. For example, I don't know about his list of apologies on 112ff, but I suppose if my apology will lead someone to Jesus, then I'll offer it. What do I care? What matters most: my squeamishness at offering apologies for things I never did? Or someone else seeing the Love of Jesus? I like that he takes the time to open up lengthy passages of Scripture for us and walk through them. In particular, the story Jonah, the story of the woman accused of adultery in John 8, and the story of the Prodigal from Luke 15 were well told. I like that he made reference to The Count of Monte Cristo; I dislike that it was the movie version. I like the stories of redeemed lives and how God took broken people and made them whole again. I like how he is honest about who he is and where he's from because even though I get a little tired of the personal 'how I rose from nothing to start a church and write books' stories, I think in this case it grounds the reader: Antonucci understands well the depths of God's love for all people–not just the few we think ought to be saved. God is for everyone. You name the category, the sub-category, or whatever: God loves people. That's the point. God loves people. So should we.

I am glad for that because this also means he was and is for me. That says a lot.

He ends the book with a worthy challenge for those who read it: Whom Do You Least Want to Love? That's all I'll say because I want you to read the book (so does Antonucci) and I want you to answer the question. I have to answer the question too because I suspect there are a lot of people I find it difficult to love. And yet God loves me. I must change.

Notes are appended at the end and there's a nice appendix titled 'My ABC Book of People God Loves." It just may shock you to see the people God is for, but it may also affirm that you are on the right path in your own choices of who you love. Good reading here. I recommend this book for all Christians who struggle to love people who are different. I recommend this book for all Christian who think it is their job to change people or to judge people. I recommend this book for Christians who are more in love with discernment than they are with Jesus. I recommend this book for Christians who truly believe that God does not want anyone to perish.

Get this book. Read it. Think on it. Then go love someone–maybe someone you never thought you could love.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase God for the Rest of Us Tyndale House Publishers (Trade Paperback $15.99)  Amazon (Kindle $9.99 Pre-order)  CBD  (Paperback $12.99)
  • God for the Rest of Us on the internet
  • Author: Vince Antonucci On Twitter
  • Where Vince hangs out with People Jesus Loves: Verve
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
  • Pages: 255
  • Year: August 2015
  • Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people, people whose lives are a trainwreck, seekers, the saved, the lost, the helpless and hopeless, the loveless, the judgmental
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of Tyndale Blog Network.
  • Page numbers in this review are based on an ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.

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71q989m262LTitle: Vanishing Grace

Author: Philip Yancey

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 298

[Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of Vanishing Grace via BookLook Bloggers program. I was in no way compensated or asked to write a positive review. I was asked only to be honest and fair in my review which I was. Thanks for stopping by and reading.]

I think the first Philip Yancey book I read was The Jesus I Never Knew and when I read it I was simply blown away. Along the way, I have read just about everything Yancey has published in book form and even used one or two of his video series' in Bible studies.

Yancey's work has been a blessing to me not only because of the work he himself has done but because of the work he has introduced to me through his writing. He introduced me to Annie Dillard and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Walker Percy. He introduced me to GK Chesterton and Thomas Merton and Dr Paul Brand. There have been others, yes, and Philip Yancey has had a way of making these authors and artists seem like old friends–like I am sitting in my living room with a fireplace and a glass of wine enjoying their company and conversation.

Vanishing Grace follows Yancey's standard model and if I hadn't read What's So Amazing About Grace many years ago this book might have impressed me more. The problem, as I see it, is that there's not really all that much about it that is new. That's not to say the book is merely a mirror of the former book as much as it is to say that I have read enough of Yancey's work to be able to say that I've been there, and I've done that. I've read his criticisms of the church, he doubts about faith, and his enthusiasm for artists and activists. New packaging; same story.

Yancey explores things in the book that at some level irritate him about the church. And the truth is, if all I ever read about the church was Yancey's experiences as a young man growing up in a southern Fundamentalist kind of congregation, I suppose I would hate church too (not that Yancey hates the church, but that he struggles mightily against some of the more challenging aspects of it). I have my issues with the church: after serving a church for nearly ten years and buying a house with their blessing, I was asked to resign. That was five or so years ago and I have largely let go of it because in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. There's a sense in which I wonder if Yancey has ever let go of those negative experiences of his youth or if they continue to color the way he sees things in the church. After reading so many of Yancey's books, I'm kind of bored reading about how terrible the church was when he grew up in the south.

The book does what Yancey does: he explores the church, the world, and himself. Maybe not always in that order, but always with a keen attention to detail. As per usual, Yancey is a very well read individual–now he even begins to explore internet resources like blogs. Nevertheless, he always comes back to his favorites: O'Connor, Volf, Weil, and others. I liked that he also interacted, at some level, with some newer folks: Keller, Collins, N.T. Wright, and Eugene Peterson. He touches base with all the big name evolutionists we would expect: Dawkins, Hawking, Hitchens, and Gould. And of course he interacts with the Bible and some of the ancient commentators on the Bible.

I am certain that a lot of people in the world have a lot of problems with the church–Yancey not least among them. Throughout the book he identifies and labels the church's faults. He then goes on to highlight several ways, in each category he explores, how the church–or at least people who are somewhat loosely affiliated with the church–is going out of its way to buck the trend of gracelessness so evident in churches like the one in which Yancey grew up. I think it is difficult to come face to face with our sin and Yancey certainly pulls no punches when it comes to brutal honesty about the failures and faults of the church. But if, as Yancey rightly notes, "Jesus turned over the mission to his followers" (98; one of only 3 or 4 places I underlined in the book), the what are we to expect? He goes on to note that he struggles with the 'ascension' of Jesus (99) because it was the 'ascension that turned loosed that company of motley pilgrims known collectively as the church.'

And here I admit that Yancey's consternation is somewhat flummoxing to me. If Jesus set us (the church) free, then what are we to expect but that the church, made up of humans–albeit redeemed humans!–is going to foul things up every now and again? The ascension isn't about Jesus floating up to heaven on a cloud. It is kings who ascend to a throne and Jesus is no different. Jesus, ascended to the right hand of God, now rules from the right hand of God, seated. There's more. In the Revelation, Jesus is described as one who 'walks among the lampstands' (where the lampstands represent the church). Jesus ascended. Jesus among the lampstands. It's not so much that Jesus has set us free–that is, to run around without any help or guidance or direction or oversight or discipline. At this point Yancey kind of loses me because I'm not sure if he a) doesn't understand what ascension means or b) chooses to ignore what it really means. There is no Christianity without the church.

Yancey remains one of the finest journalists and storytellers the world knows and for this I appreciate his work. I think Yancey would tell his readers that the church has a lot to offer and that, ultimately, the church is a good thing. But I think he might also tell people to proceed with caution. I think he might also tell his readers that even though the church is a good thing perhaps working as a church outside of the church is a better thing. His distrust of the church is somewhat apparent, but his praise of those who do Jesus things while belonging to the church only tangentially is also quite apparent. Take that for what it's worth. At the end of the day, Yancey has written a book that even for my criticisms was hard to put down. I was always awaiting the next anecdote and the next quote and every now and again he perks up with childlike wonder at the changes that Jesus brought into a person's life. This is when Yancey is at his best.

I'll end with a quote from Chesterton that Yancey includes in his book that to my mind is one of the best things he wrote: "Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who new the way out of the grave" (158). Although, to be sure, I think the renewal he speaks of must include words and deeds. I think the words need to be more full of grace and less of hate and I think the deeds need to be, well, more.

4/5 Stars

PS-I am still not a huge fan of the way Yancey writes his notes. I'd prefer endnotes with numbers, but that's a small thing.

9780764211287Title: The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible

Authors: Dr William H Marty & Dr Boyd Seevers

Publisher: Bethany House (Baker)

Year: 2014

Pages: 304

[Disclaimer: I was provided with an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was given no compensation and I am not required to provide a positive review.]

I'm just gonna go ahead and state at the outset that this book was a disappointment for me. I think the problems started with the the authors' a priori commitment to the standard conservative reading of the Bible. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the 'standard conservative reading' (I most likely subscribe to it myself, although a a little more nuanced), but at times it forces the authors to make statements for which there is considerable debate (e.g., "The original author and his audience probably knew the answers to such questions, but modern readers struggle to find the answers in the text", 14). And this commitment to such a reading colors the authors' understanding of the books and thus troubles their application of the books at the end of each chapter.

That being said, if I can sum up my thoughts in one sentence, it would be something like this: either the authors or the publishers don't think very highly of their readers. I mean, seriously, this book is written by authors who hold Ph.Ds in their respective fields and this book reads like something written for a someone in a very early high school class. This book might have been in mind when the author of Hebrews wrote, "Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…." (6:1).

Both the Old Testament section and the New Testament section follow the same basic format. First, we learn a little about the 'Setting.' In this section we may learn a little about the place where it was written, the events that occasioned the writing, and the person who wrote the book. The authors also speculate about the timing of the writing. Also in this section the authors, almost without fail, tell us how we can 'divide up the book.' I found this dividing up to be a bit forced and unnecessary. I realize full well that this is what we do, but the problem is that it really didn't help us understand the books any better.

Second, there is a 'Summary' section. In my opinion, the summary section is the worst part of the book because it simply provides us with no significant information. It is, to be sure, merely a page and a half paraphrase of the content of the book being explored. Maybe paraphrase is too generous. Maybe it's more like an outline in paragraph form. The truth is, one can probably get more information by just sitting down and reading the Bible.

Third, in typical preacher fashion, the author complete the alliterated trifecta by giving us a 'Significance' section. In some instances, this section a page or so long (on my Nook). In other instances, it is merely a sentence or two. Although the authors try to vary the themes they broach in the significance section, I found that entirely too much of the time they state that the significance of the book is either God's Sovereignty (which is a good thing, except that their subtle or not so subtle commitment to Calvin's version of God's Sovereignty is troubling) or that we are going to suffer and we have to be faithful. I guess for me that's just not enough.

I always go back to Luke 24:27, 44 where Jesus gives us the ultimate in exegetical mastery: "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." And, "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms." I'm thinking this is fairly significant and ought to be explored a little more deeply.  Yet even the times when these connections are brought up, they are not brought up to the end that the reader is left thinking about Jesus as the fulfillment of God's righteous action in this world. In short, there is no real commitment to the meta-narrative that stretches from Genesis to Revelation.

I'm not one who happens to think the Bible can be piece-mealed into a mere 66 books easily divided after the first 39. There is a grand story being told and I'm not convinced the authors are as committed to it as they should be or as they claim to be. Even for a terribly elementary book such as this there should be a string stretched from one end to another connecting everything together. The subtitle of the book is, "Understanding the Big Picture Book by Book" and it is exactly at that point the book fails. To understand the big picture, there has to be commitment to the meta-narrative. And I didn't see it even if the author of the Old Testament section did a better job of trying than the author of the New Testament section.

I think that thread is Jesus. Don't get me wrong, He is present in this book but Jesus is not necessarily the focus of the book so much as each book is the focus of the book. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but what I came away from this book thinking is that it is hurried, it is sloppy, and it is terribly shallow and safe.

I'm not sure why this book was written or to whom it was written. There are hundreds of bible survey books available on the market that are infinitely better than this book. I'm sorry to say it, but this book falls short.

2/5 Stars

18148523Title: The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to our Jobs

Authors: Sebastian Traeger & Greg Gilbert

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 160

[Disclaimer: I was provided a free e-book copy of this work via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I noted this in compliance with the rules that govern earth, Mars, and Neptune.]

Forward: David Platt

Twitter: David Platt

Secret Church

I was thinking as I started this book that I was going to have problems right away when David Platt referred to retirement as unbiblical. And I was not disappointed in my thinking. This book was a major letdown; a disaster of biblical proportions.

Don't get me wrong: a lot of important and well connected, celebrity Christians endorsed this book. I'm sure in some way they really thought they were helping. Either that or they have made an idol out of endorsing books and simply couldn't resist. Either way, it's just not a good book. It is riddled with cliches, full of step by step instructions, and seemingly goes out of its way to make work more of a chore than it already is (and I'm confused as to whether or not I'm actually allowed to enjoy my work and find personal satisfaction in it). When I wake up in the morning and go to my classroom to educated my kiddos, I really do not need to go through 160 pages of checklists or bullet points to make sure that I am 'doing it correctly' or to make certain I haven't 'made my job into an idol.'

The best advice we need is this: Just do it! Seriously. Work should in no way be as complicated as these two gentleman–fine gentlemen I am sure–have made it to be. Get up, be joyful, go to work, do your job, do it as best you can, come home and do whatever you have planned or whatever comes to mind. Be free! Live! Move about! Serve! Love! Be! I hardly think we need a treatise on what it means to work. I know, maybe I shouldn't have read the book. I seriously thought it was about something else.

There are a couple of serious issues I have with the book. I will note them briefly. First, there is simply no sustained, in depth exegetical arguments supporting their theology of work. The points the authors make are proof-texted. That is, they pull a passage from here or there and just because it uses the word 'work' they have assumed they can build an entire theological system out of it. Doing this, however, means that they have to ignore context and they also have to ignore the meta-narrative of the Bible. This is my biggest pet-peeve with the onslaught of books the Evangelical publishing world produces. There is a singular disregard for the Biblical narrative in order to produce 'principles'. And I don't care what word is used: 'motivations,' 'principles,' 'axioms,' 'truths,' 'steps,' or 'rules.' The Bible is not a book of principles.

Books that reduce the Bible to a set of principles frighten me. Couple this use of the Bible with phrases like 'minimum standard of faithfulness' and I start smelling legalism. If any aspect of our relationship with Jesus can be reduced to mere principles, such as the many found in this book, then there is something seriously wrong with the relationship or our understanding of Jesus. And all of this goes back to the utterly horrifying use of the Scripture and the way it has been reduced from narrative to verses.

This is my main objection to this book (and to all books like it.) It simply has no anchor in the meta-narrative. The authors even point out that there is nothing inherently Christian about what they are saying: "Yes, this passage is speaking about the local church, but we believe the same principles hold when we apply them to society at large" (140). Well, if there is nothing distinctly Christian about the principles, then it is unnecessary to use the Bible to make the points in the first place. And in the second place, there are better books to read to find said principles.

Now let me make it worse. When the authors do happen to quote large swaths of Scripture, and it's never more than a parable, it is again taken out of context and/or utterly misunderstood (e.g., Matthew 20:1-16, quoted in full, and then: "The point of this incredible story is simple." But they get it terribly, terribly wrong because they avoid the narrative context; 138-139). Let me give a couple of the more egregious examples. Over and over again the authors make reference to the New Testament's conversations about 'slaves' and 'masters.' Now, in all fairness, there is a rather lengthy section explaining that slavery is, among other things, bad. With that said, in my estimation it is simply unreasonable to take those passages where an apostle talks about slavery and apply it, in any way, to the relationship between me and my principal.

Another example is when the authors talk about Joseph, David, and Nehemiah. They conclude their conversation by saying, "We're going to guess you're neither the vice-regent of Pharaoh nor a king, but the principle is the same for you: authority rightly exercised leads to flourishing" (118). Well, I will leave aside the fact that this 'principle' is just unbelievably ignorant and simply point out that I don't know how anyone can say the 'principle' is the same when there is simply no evidence that story is intending to lay down a set of principles.

In conclusion, then, I will say this much: I'm not sure what the purpose of writing this book was. One author had a business, sold it, was unemployed for a while and all of a sudden he is an expert on what it means to get up every day and go to work as a Christian. Meh. Too many principles have no meaning because they speak only his experience. He had a couple of crisis moments in life (unemployment, birth of a child) but so what? Many of us have. That doesn't mean we were somehow, now, experts with books in the wings. And what's ironic is that his angst wasn't born out of his every day work, which he evidently did well, but out of his unemployment for a spell. And if that's not bad enough, he goes on to write, "Are you unemployed right now? Even then, you need to understand your assignment from God, right now, is to be unemployed" (90).

I spent 10 months unemployed once. I had lost three jobs in a span of 2.5 years. I cannot imagine a minute that that was God's assignment for me. It was the most miserable 10 months of my life. I cannot imagine why God wanted me to be that miserable. And if I'm reading this book, and I'm unemployed, and I come across those words….then I'm closing this book and never heading to the nearest church.

There is nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking about this book. I detect a bit of Reformed Theology under girding the ideas in the book which is an issue as bothersome as their poor use of Scripture to make 'points.' There are helpful moments, but there are not enough to outweigh the utter absurdity of much of what was written. For example, I was unsure why it's OK to give up family time to be at church, but it's not OK to give up church time to be with family (see 94, 95).

I didn't like this book at all. From the very first pages when David Platt announced, without any justification, that retirement is 'unbiblical' I was bored. The book is not short on platitudes or cliches or hyperbole or legalism. Meh.

1/5

PS. On page 25, the authors make reference to 'little golden statues that Indiana Jones swiped from the Temple of Doom.' It wasn't the Temple of Doom that featured the scene of Indiana Jones swapping a small golden statue. It was the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

IndexTitle: 50 Things You Need to Know about Heaven

Author: John Hart

Publisher: Baker Books (Bethany House)

Year: 2014

Pages: 144 (e-book/Nook)

Disclaimer: In full disclosure, you need to know that I was provided with a free e-book copy of the above mentioned book in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I have also posted this review at Goodreads.com and Amazon.com.

I think the initial problem I had with this book is found in the title of the book. The word 'need' is kind of strikes me as misplaced because Dr Hart never really tells the reader why they 'need' to know these things about heaven. Unless, of course, it is because 'our ideas of heaven are drawn from many different sources [so] how do we know whether any of [the concepts in those sources] are true?' Maybe that was the point. However, it then begs another question: How then do I know that this particular author has provided me anything more substantial than the other sources? How do I know his authority to write this book is any more noteworthy than, say, a 10 year old kid who died, went to 'heaven', and came back telling us all that it 'is real'?

Truth is, there are all sorts of books and films and seminars and motivational speakers and Oprah episodes dishing about heaven. What's one more voice going to add? And, to be sure, are there really 50 things I need to know? "But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by earth, for it is his footstool" (Matthew 5:34-35). What more is there to say besides that? Well, at least 50 other things; I guess.

That said, the introduction, a mere three paragraphs, is entirely too short for such a subject. This is the perpetual problem with the popular level book market in today's world of Christian book publishers and stores: very little depth. I think this book is no exception. It is 144 pages of hurry up and get a book on the market before someone else does. I found that in reading the book I grew weary of a lot of the retread: repeating the same parables or verses or ideas. That is, there was simply too much repetition in the book. (!) There is so much repetition, I think, because there's just not all that much to say about a subject that the Bible says so little about. So many of the questions are questions that the Bible cares so little about that the author has to offer a great deal of speculation in order to arrive at a satisfactory length chapter. Sure there are Bible references in every chapter and at the end of every chapter for 'further study,' but I was unconvinced that even those extra references were going to be helpful in developing this subject properly.

Another aspect that was extremely irritating to me was the constant use of a variety of Bible translations. Personally, I believe the text would have flowed more smoothly if I didn't have to stop and think about what translation the author was using when quoting Scripture (that is, by figuring out what the letters after the verses meant, CEV, NIV, TLB, etc). If you need to use a different translation to make your point then maybe, just maybe, the point is beyond making. Stick with one version and note textual variances if necessary–or use your own translation directly from the original languages. Most people read one translation–not all of us have fifteen different translations laying about for comparative readings.

Finally, my last criticism is this: some of the questions really had nothing to do whatsoever with 'heaven'–if heaven is defined properly. So the author entertained questions about whether or not we will be bored in heaven; what is 'soul sleep'; do some people go to purgatory; and how can I explain heaven to my children. And there were more. At times I thought I was reading a book of salvation theology–who's getting in, who's not. I think maybe this book should either be titled differently or it should have about half as many questions. I'll say it this way: there is simply not enough information in the Bible about some of these subjects to warrant so many questions or to fuel so much speculation about their answers. Pulling snips and pieces of Bible out of context and developing an entire theology around those pieces is, in my mind, not much different than the way most people in the world get their (false) ideas about heaven in the first place. 

Now, on to a couple of the more commendable aspects of the book. You may have guessed so far that I didn't care all that much for the book. That's not entirely the truth. I actually like the format–questions/answers–I just don't think most of the questions asked/answered have anything to do whatsoever with heaven as it is properly defined in Scripture. I think many of the questions asked/answered are drawn more from pop-culture and the 'various sources' referenced in the short introduction. Maybe the book would be better titled something like '50 Misunderstood Ideas about What Happens After We Die' or something like that. The title is too narrow; the scope of the book too large. So for me there was somewhat of a disconnect.

Nevertheless, there is a place to answer some of these questions and, for the most part, I think the author does very well answering them. I was very satisfied that the author made proper reference to the fact that heaven is not where we will spend 'eternity,' but I wish he had dwelt a lot more on this idea of the 'new heavens and the new earth' (see chapter 5; I noted that this conversation should have been in the first chapter, not the fifth). Genesis and Revelation provide very nice bookends to this remarkable story in the Bible about our creation, our fall, our redemption, and our ultimate reward. This, it seems to me, is a far more interesting discussion than whether or not there will be animals in 'heaven.'

Second, there were other times when the author's keen attention to Scripture's detail was riveting. For example, in chapter twenty-two when he was discussing the New Jerusalem, I was very happy that he noted the connection between the cube shaped Jerusalem and the inner room of the temple. At this point I think his exegesis was dead-on especially after he went on to note that it is heaven that comes down to earth and not the other way around. On the other hand, I found his subsequent thoughts about the New Jerusalem having vertical levels and floors to be utterly ridiculous (p 68). Why talk about new heavens and new earth if we are going to live in a cube with floors with a mere acre of land?

Third, in chapter 35 I found his discussion of whether or not we can trust the testimony of those who claim to have died and gone to heaven and come back to earth with a story to tell compelling. His key: "Jesus himself suffered death and was raised to tell about it. Shouldn't his testimony be worthy of our trust?" Amen. He's right and maybe that's what needs to be understood most about this book. There's a lot of nonsense (endless creation of computer code, new musical instruments being created continuously), some sketchy (typically Calvinist) theology, and some silly questions (likely designed to get the book to 50 Questions) but throughout the book the author does manage to stay on point by showing us Jesus. And here we are in complete agreement.

So, then, I didn't enjoy the book nearly as much as I had hoped to; nevertheless, it is a quick, easy read, the author is fairly consistent with this theology, and, despite my questions about some of his exegesis and application, he does fill the book with a lot Scripture (I personally believe there simply needs to be more context around those references and a little more care paid to how some references are 'used' to make a point) and this, too, is a good thing.

PT Forsyth wrote, "The Bible is not a sketch-book of past things nor a picture-book of the last things. It has been especially discredited by treating its imaginative symbols of the future as if they were specifications or working plans attached to God's new covenant and contract with man" (PT Forsyth, The Justification of God, 197). Indeed, we must be careful when sketching our own ideas about things the Bible is only taking a passing, if not indifferent, notice of.

2/5 stars.

Friends,

It is now post-Christmas 2007. The mail was back up today and I received my Dec 26-January 26 edition of the Family Christian Stores catalog. I do appreciate the inclusion of generous coupons each month; I detest the selection of ‘Christian’ products they hawk for profit.

I love to read. I have written here before about the nature of my reading habits and I try to include any updates on books that I find particularly helpful or meaningful. So when I opened my newest edition of the catalog, I have to say, I was terribly disappointed but not terribly surprised. Here is a selection of the titles being offered in the newest edition sans authors’ names (in order to prevent any unnecessary advertising):

  • Conflict Free Living (is such a thing possible if one claims to follow the Jesus who said he came bearing a sword? Matthew 10:34-39.)
  • What the Bible Says about Living Healthy (uh, does the Bible say anything about living healthy? I always thought the Bible was God’s revelation to man about such (evidently unimportant things) as sin, salvation, and Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1:1-4. 2 Timothy 3:16-17.)
  • Self Talk, Soul Talk (I’m speechless. Really. Maybe this is why we only need Ten-Second prayer tutorials.)
  • Red Letter Christians (Despite the author’s undoubtedly good intentions, Christians are not called to live simply ‘by the red letters.’ We are called to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Matthew 4:4. The devil too was fond of quoting only portions of Scripture.)
  • Do I Know God? (I sincerely doubt that any book will do it if the Bible cannot. I don’t care whose grandchild you are.)
  • 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want. (The Dr. author of this book has a flashy smile and nice cuff-links. I don’t imagine for a minute he has any biblical theology. I thought Scripture said that God was remaking us into the image of Christ. That he determines the life we should want. Colossians 3:85-10; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.)
  • Destined to Reign. (“The Secret to effortless success, wholeness and victorious living.” All you need to know.)
  • Become a Better You.(Joel Osteen. ‘Nuff said.)
  • Detox Your Spiritual Life in 40 Days. (Only 40 more days? Really?)
  • Church is a Team Sport. (Whatever.)
  • The Ten Second Prayer Principle. (Nice. Maybe it’s because we are spending too much time talking to ourselves that we only have ten-seconds to pray.)
  • The Elephant in the Room. (“Sharing the secrets for pursuing real Financial success.” The Son of Man had not place to lay his head.)

My new catalog is now in the garbage. Sadly, this is the sort of garbage that Christians are reading. How do I know? Because people are writing it, publishing it, and selling it. This means there must be a market for it. I didn’t see one single theology book in the entire catalog. Not one commentary. Not one classic book of Christian devotion. Nothing. Plenty of Veggie Tales and figurines. Plenty of other crap. Not much worth the church’s time.

And sadly these are the type of disciples that the world is meeting every day too. These are the types of disciples that are living in churches and firing preachers who are not ‘feeding’ them. “I just don’t don’t get anything out of his sermons,” they say.

Sadly, this is the sort of drivel that is being pawned off as good literature, ‘Christian reading,’ and time well-spent. What really happened to the discipline of reading? Let me conclude with these titles:

  • Never Say Diet
  • Empowering Your Health
  • Raising Fit Kids in a Fat World
  • Don’t Bet Against Me
  • Dangerous Surrender
  • Living Well
  • Perfect Weight
  • A New Kind of Conservative
  • Get Out of that Pit

Wow. That is deep, deep stuff. Like I heard someone else say, “The modern church is ten-miles wide, and a half an inch deep.” This is truly pathetic, mind-boggling. I cannot believe FCS is not embarrassed to publish this catalog. Will someone please publish a book worth reading already?

jerry