I'm frequently asked what I've been reading lately and what books might be worth curling up with by the fireplace. As I manage my mental health through the trials of winter drizzle, seven books came to the fore. Some made my heart warm, others made my blood boil, all of them made me think and feel in important ways. The following are my very brief reflections (and aha! moments) on:
Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI
The Shack by William Young
The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald
God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
God at War by Gregory Boyd
The God of Intimacy and Action by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling
Covenant of Peace by Willard Swartley
He sets up the book in this way: "The great question that will be with us throughout this entire book: What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God. He brought us God ... and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that human beings have to take in this world. Jesus brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love."
The book was so full of riches and revelation concerning Jesus that I found myself savoring its truths and needing to share them. For example, the book starts out with a powerful call to prophets, defining the true prophetic ministry as arising from face-to-face communion with God (Deut. 18:15, 34:10). Those who prophesy apart from intimate conversation are regarded as false prophets and soothsayers. But along comes Jesus: "What was tre of Moses only in fragmentary from has now been fully realized in the person of Jesus: He lives before the face of God, not just as a friend, but as a Son; he lives in the most intimate unity with the Father." The very essence of Christ's sonship is found in "face-to-face dialogue--from the vision of one who rests close to the Father's heart."
So it is with the disciple of Christ. Our sense of being sons and daughters of God depends on such tender fellowship. "The disciple who walks with Jesus is thus caught up with him into communion with God." The true prophet is one that speaks, not primarily from their gifting, but from their friendship with God.
The rest of the book proceeds to examine Christ's ministry and message in profound ways. The Pope's understanding of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5) marries the christological and the practical in a way I've not seen before. This passage was worth the whole read:
The disciple is bound to the mystery of Christ. His life is immersed in communion with Christ: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). The Beatitudes are the transposition of Cross and Resurrection into discipleship. But they apply to the disciple because they were first paradigmatically lived by Christ himself...
the Beatitudes present a sort of veiled biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure. He who has no place to lay his head is truly poor; he who can say, "Come to me ... for I am meek and lowly of heart" is truly meek; his is the one who is pure of heart and so unceasingly beholds God. He is the peacemaker, he is the one who suffers for God's sake. The Beatitudes display the mystery of Christ himself, and they call us into communion with him. But precisely because of their hidden Christological character, the Beatitudes are also a roadmap for the Church, which recognizes in them the model of what she herself should be. (74)
That's a taste of what's in store. I'm convinced that those who want to know the Christ of the Gospels more deeply will benefit from Benedict's quest. It may also prove to help us know the real from the counterfeit in this age so full of false images of Christ.
The Shack by William P. Young is a brilliant bit of fiction about one man's weekend with God in the shack where his family had experienced their deepest tragedy four years earlier. The Shack unabashedly confronts such difficult questions as, "Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?"
As the main character, Mack Philips, wrestles through these matters with God, we're surprised by both the honesty or the questions, the integrity of the answers (no platitudes here) and most of all, with a vision of God that is precious beyond our expectations. Over recent years, I've strongly felt that God is not quite who I've been told he was... not "Christlike" enough in many cases. The God of The Shack resonates deeply, and not in some saccharine-coated fluffy way. Philips meets the Trinity of Christian tradition, albeit in ways that explode out of the rather small boxes that I've packaged him in. To put it another way, when I want to share what I think God is REALLY like, I'm not afraid to say, "Read the Shack. That's God as I'm getting to know him." When I've given the book to unchurched folks, my favorite follow-up question is, "What if God is really like that?" Their answer: "Then I'd follow him." Nice.
One quotable tidbit for you:
"Does that mean," asked Mack, "that all roads will lead to you?"
"Not at all," smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you."
Please get this book and consider sending it down one of those roads!
1. Can an orthodox Christian, committed to the historic faith of the Church and the authority of the Bible, be a universalist?
2. Is it possible to believe that salvation is found only by grace, through faith in Christ, and yet to maintain that in the end all people will be saved?
I picked up this book because, like so many these days, I struggle with the notion that a God of love, however just, would or could supernaturally keep someone in the conscious torment of a literal lake of fire for all eternity simply because they came to the wrong conclusions about Jesus (as best they understood him) in one's brief lifetime on earth. By Scriptural standards, it seems impossible that such a God could be loving OR just. How do we deal with this version of things? And if we can't assent to such a vision of the afterlife, are we no longer evangelicals?
MacDonald may not convince you of his brand of universalism, but he did convince me, by his commitment to a careful, open and faithful reading of the Bible, that he IS still an evangelical. This was reminiscent of the ways in which Gregory of Nyssa modeled Orthodox universalism and John Stott showed us evangelical annihilationism.
The advantage that MacDonald has over other universalists (biblically speaking) is that he takes the hell passages very seriously. To him, hell is a real state and those who reject Christ experience it. However, through his exegesis of Col. 1, 1 Cor. 15, Phil. 2 and Eph. 1, MacDonald argues that these promises of ultimate redemption imply that in the end, hell has an exit. For example, he calls us to take these verses at face value:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:15-20 NIV)
What if, in the end, God will be All IN ALL? What if every knee really will bow and confess Christ as Lord (whether in heaven, earth or under the earth)? What if it's all heading to the summing up of all things in Christ? What if we were to stop qualifying these statements of final reconciliation? It is possible if we translate the texts that preach "everlasting punishment" more literally as "to-the-end-of-the-age correction" (restorative judgment consistent with the launderer's soap and refiner's fire of Malachi).
But what really fascinated me was the author's study of the book of Revelation. I won't play it all out, but let me encourage you to check out the following data carefully:
1. In Revelation, "the nations" and their kings are continually regarded as enemies of God under God's judgment. The "Bride" are those who have come out of the nations. The nations are repeatedly destroyed--sometimes in battle, sometimes devoured by beasts, several times thrown in the lake of fire. I.e. The nations are wicked and their destiny is hell.
2. In the New Jerusalem, AFTER the final judgment, AFTER the fate of the nations is sealed, AFTER they are thrown into hell, the Bride comes down from heaven and is established as the New Jerusalem on Mount Zion.
3. But look outside the city! There they are again... those who are already assigned to the lake of fire: dogs, sorcerers, sexually immoral, murderers, idolators, etc. (Rev. 22:15) Lo and behold, it's the nations that have been excluded from the city.
4. Wait! It gets better! First, inside the city, what do we find? Rev. 22:2 - A tree of life with leaves for the healing of the NATIONS! And second, in 21:24, look! Who is this walking in the light of God and bringing their glory into the city? The NATIONS and their KINGS! Third, what about the gates of the city? (21:25) "On no day are they ever shut!" Why not? Because the Spirit and the Bride are standing at the gates, ever calling to those outside the city (22:17), "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life!"
To sum up, a thorough and evangelical read of the final chapters of the Bible find us in the New Heavens and the New Earth AFTER the day of judgment. And what is going on? The gates are still open and the invitation is still given and the nations are still coming into the light, into healing and into worship! What if that were true? And what if it were true UNTIL God is "all in all" and "every knee will bow"? I honestly don't know if MacDonald is right, but I'm pretty sure John was. I feel hopeful. And strangely motivated.
God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens is quite another matter. I felt compelled to pick up this book by the noted atheist who purports to show us "How Religion Poisons Everything." For me, it was an important exercise in listening carefully to the real objections of a thoughtful opponent without getting defensive. The New Yorker calls him "an intellectual willing to show his teeth for the cause of righteousness." That's being a little too generous--his use of name-calling and some sloppy research blunted his canines considerably. A few good religious and scientific proofreaders would have strengthened his case. Still, this was the right book for the job.
As I picked up the book, I asked God, "Will reading this just poison me?" (I'm more prone to cynicism than defensiveness). I sensed, "No, this book is like salt water. You can't live on salt water. If you tried, it would kill you. But sometimes we need to drink salt water to induce vomiting in order to purge poisons that are already there. You still have enough religion in you to warrant such a purge." So be it.
True to form, Hitchens was ruthless, mostly in good ways. He asks some very tough questions; yes, questions with teeth:
"How much vanity must be concealed--not too effectively at that--in order to pretend that one is the personal object of a divine plan? How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one's own sin? How many needless assumptions must be made, and how much contortion is required, to receive every new insight of science and manipulate it so as to 'fit' with the revealed words of ancient man-made deities? ... God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization." (8)
See what I mean? Teeth. But it's my conviction that we do no service to either the atheist or ourselves by ignoring or reacting in knee-jerk fashion to Hitchens' onslaught. Unlike many Christians, he sees no need to ignore or justify those Scriptures which we find difficult or embarrassing. He throws in our faces those OT ordinances commanding retributive amputations, legalized rape and wholesale genocide. But more than that, he confronts MY OWN faith. In Hitchens, to some degree I hear God challenging me:
Brad, how much of your faith is man-made? (and when is that okay?) How much of your faith is purely inherited? (and when is that NOT okay)? How much is your shame and self-hatred the product of bad religion? How easily can your faith and hope be swept away by life?
It got me (and others) asking the apostle Peter's old question: What is the reason for the hope that is within you? And you know, I had answers. And all of them were stories. When the Hitchens storm passed over, my faith was leaner and stronger, because I speak of that which and whom I know. It's a cleaner faith now, stripped of some toxic accretions. I've seen too much to be swept away by a somewhat bitter journalist's apparently narrow experience of life (his marvelous travels notwithstanding). But I'm sure thankful to Hitchens for sticking his finger down my throat. I feel much better.
I'm afraid I've run out of steam for now. I hope to say more about these books in coming days, but for now, I commend the following to you as well worth studying:
God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict
by Gregory A. Boyd
Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics by Willard M. Swartley
The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism and Justice by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling